This is the first in a series of journal entries corresponding to the weeks of an Introduction to Judaism class I’m taking through the Union of Reform Judaism. Each week we are given a topic and asked to journal about that topic. What follows is one such journal entry, possibly redacted to protect the innocent, guilty, or potentially embarrassed (which would be mostly me.)
A door opens, a door closes. Looking back behind me I see the expanse of forty-three years. If not an entire half-life, then nearly so. I see my parents back there, at the beginning. I like to think that they did the best they could with the religious raw materials they themselves were given. I was baptized as an infant, raised a mainline Protestant. At times, strains of stringent Calvinism trickled down from my mother’s side. At others a sort of silence cloaked my father. I was confirmed in the Lutheran church at 12 or 13 by a dour if harmless pastor. I went to a Lutheran College.
In my teens and twenties there were many aspects of Christianity that I loved. The ritual, the community, the sacramental and justice-seeking aspects of Liturgical Christianity. And also the idea of the communion of the saints — the universal sibling-hood of all people. And the meal — how I loved the communal meal. (Christianity’s founding seder.)
But other aspects where highly problematic. Exclusivism in all of its forms desecrated the very idea of an inclusive table by drawing eschatological distinctions between the baptized and un-baptized. Growing up as I did in a multicultural world, with friends from all parts of creation and of all faiths, I found this idea of exclusion to be intolerable. In addition, there was a certain amount of personal trauma in play. The 1980s and 90s were not a safe time for a young gay boy to grow up even in liberal Christian circles, and to some extent I still bear the scars of the terrible isolation of that. But even more crucially, the realization that even my lefty-religious community — the one I grew up in embraced — that even this flavor of Christianity was predicated on a series of taboos and thought patterns that I could simply not accept as normative.
I found temporary company in Christian writers and thinkers like John Shelby Spong and Elaine Pagels and many patient and engaging friends who are Christians. I cheered when my brother began his seminary studies. I love and admire so many many Christians. But in the end — I found the struggle to belong with them to be simply too difficult to continue. Christianity became the minefield in my own backyard — a house I grew up in that was becoming uninhabitable.
I’ve had a lifelong difficulty with the idea of the supernatural — in particular whether anything supernatural can be said to exist or occur, and what the correct religious response to the question should be. In the case of all but the very most heretical Christians, the respective responses to these questions seemed to be “yes of course the supernatural exists, and indeed it must” and “we should not talk about it not existing” This did not work for me. I wanted to talk about it — to struggle openly with it. And I didn’t want to be treated as a second-class citizen because of my struggle.
Relatedly, there was the matter of the central miracle of the faith. I questioned it, and from an early age. I recall frighening the old German pastor as a twelve year old with my heretical questions on the subject during confirmation class. It wasn’t just a question of whether the resurrection was historical (it was clearly not) but indeed whether we should even tolerate the continuance of the idea that it was. The whole thing seemed to me at best a fantasy designed to soothe those who needed soothing, and at worst a triumphalist, mind-bending myth that detracted from the central ministry of whoever Jesus had been, which always seemed to have been a personality dedicated to the elevation of the poor and oppressed. Over time, I found that the creeds became more and more unsayable. Like many, I essentially failed to connect to the church as an adult, except for the short time in my late twenties when I lived in a leftist ecumenical community in the Cascade mountains. But it was a last gasp. Even there, I feared I was becoming known as someone who compromised the faith of others with “all my questions.” But the fear quickly melted into detachment and sadness. By the beginning of my 30s, I was done — a Christian by heritage, but no longer my practice or inclination.
I wandered, unsure of many things, including whether my faith lost me, I misplaced it, or if it ever existed in the first place. In my twenties, the energy of the slowly dissolving bond between me and my faith-of-origin propelled me on various quests of religious discovery. I went to India at the age of twenty-four and lived in both Hindu ashrams and a Benedictine monastery. I sat with the local Quakers, waiting for God and admiring their fervor (which I lacked.) But as I aged, I also mellowed, and the story of the last 10-11 years has been one of a kind of melencholy acceptance of the idea that I lack any kind of religious affiliation. I began to see myself as a child who had been born in the wrong house. I’ve always been able to peer into other windows, to imagine what it must feel like to belong to a tradition that fits me better. But at the same time, the actual seeking out of another religious home began to feel like the struggle of a younger person. Still, I never quite lost my affinity and hunger for community, practice and ritual that only religion can provide.
I’ve long identified as a someone who is constitutionally far more inclined toward religion than spirituality. Give me some justice to do — a ritual to bind me to others — a meal to share. That stuff I can handle. That stuff feeds me. My quarrel has always been with the ineffable — not the practical. And so I learned to rather proudly wear my “religious not spiritual” label as a kind of honorific … except of course that I lacked a religion. This occasionally raised eyebrows — for example when I’d regale a friend at a party with all of this when in a partiuclarly contrarian sort of mood. (You can tell I go to very exciting parties.) But I meant it, and I always longed for someone to say “hey you know what, I feel exactly the same way. I get that. I know what you mean.”
In truth, few ever did. Except …
My Jewish friends and colleagues, who over the past decade have become somewhat mysteriously numerous, seemed to know more or less what I was talking about. To many of them the difference between one’s level of observance and one’s personal philosophy or cosmology was not a strange or unnatural distinction. Nor was it outlandish that I would find myself in struggle or dialog with tradition, the supernatural, G-d — with any of it. Quite the contrary, these were normal and laudable things with which to struggle. Israel, after all, may mean to struggle with God.
I remember clearly a winter day in 2010. I found myself in Tokyo, Japan, visiting my brother and his family who were living there at the time. A somewhat-distant friend of mine named E. was also there visiting his Japanese in-laws with his wife. We spent the day walking around central Tokyo together, two tall white guys talking about all manner of things, from the personal to the political and religious. E’s heavy cultural Jewishness stood out for me in stark relief against the backdrop of futuristic neon that is urban Japan. I think it was somewhere in the course of that day that I first fully realized how comfortable, how safe, how challenged, how at home I felt with his patterns of speech, his way of batting an idea around, his constant state of almost sacred exasperation and engagement with the world. THAT’S ME. I kept thinking that day. THAT’S HOW I THINK. On the long train ride home that day I thought about a growing number of other important relationships I’d begun to develop in my life — two generous and inspiring jewish mentors. An observant co-worker. Friends. Teammates.
I still felt like a child born in the wrong house. There was still a minefield in the backyard. But at least now there was another household on the block to which I could have imagined being born. But throughout most of my 30s, my religious fatigue won out, and so despite many moments of introspection — on the train in Japan and elsewhere — I let the matter lie and focused on other areas of my life: relationship, career, social justice, sports, community. I admired the house of my Jewish friends, but only from afar.
Carl Jung used the term synchronicity to describe the simultaneous occurrence of events that appear significantly related but have no discernible causal connection. On the rare occasions that this particular phenomenon has appeared in my life, it’s generally been the harbinger of great change — leaving the home of my parents, for example, or coming out as a gay man, or ending a relationship. Looking back, all of these transitions were preceded by “coincidences” of one sort or another. Something of the sort seems to be afoot with me now. In particular, my current religious path seems to be coalescing around the synchronistic relationship between two themes in my life. One — my decade of growing affinity for Judaism and the Jewish people in my life — I have already mentioned. The other is perhaps something more sudden, more unexpected and close.
A year or so ago, on a lark, I decided to take one of those home genetic tests. And — wouldn’t you know — the test revealed that I had a significant amount of Ashkenazic DNA — enough that I would have had to have had a grandparent or great grandparent who was an Eastern European Jew.
I called my parents immediately. What’s the deal? No one had told me about this! It turns out that no one had told them either — they were both surprised. I took a second DNA test — same result (in fact, I was even more Jewish according to the second test.)
I’ll save the details of my various forms of online genetic research and family testing for some other post, and instead skip right to the results of my searching. It turns out that my father’s ancestors on his dad’s side were Litvak Jews from the city of Telz in present-day Lithuania. Like many others, they fled Europe in the early 1900s via England to avoid (we assume) various sorts of persecution. My twice-great grandfather Jacob, like his own father, was a maker and seller of furniture — a profession that persists to this day down to my uncle. So the family business survived all of those years. The family religion, at least in the case of our branch, did not. My paternal grandfather decided to end all traces of the family’s Jewishness, and of his own Orthodox heritage. He had my father raised as a Presbyterian and told him almost nothing of his own father, who had died when my grandfather was fifteen. And that … was that.
Except that it wasn’t.
Over the course of the past year I’ve realized how explanatory this new knowledge was about my father and his background. I’ve looked back at my dad’s family — through personal memory, family stories and genealogical research (thanks Mormons!) — and seen a long line of men who are good at running and turning away, and not so good at preserving, passing down and serving as guides. My dad’s people are excellent travelers — eager to set out on journeys, and comfortable with the idea of not knowing exactly where the road will lead. They’re less skilled at allowing and inviting others to follow, or allowing the journey to be ruled by a sense of continuity and justice rather than a desire to escape, or reject the ways and values of the parent. Theirs is a story of changed names, cities, religions, professions and philosophies — changes that come on a generation-by-generation basis.
But more important than any of these familial discoveries is the deep knowledge that our newly-revealed Jewish past has somehow set fire to my previously rather cool interest in Judaism. I find myself asking new questions: what if in some sense I hadn’t been born in the wrong house after all? What if my restlessness, my struggle, my disconnection — what if all of this was in service of something greater? What if there is in some sense a reason why I’ve been comfortable around Jews and Jewishness?
Like the notion of the supernatural, I have a great deal of difficulty with the idea of destiny. Synchronicity, on the other hand, I can handle. This is because Jung’s idea requires not only coincidence, but the imposition (consciously or otherwise) of a personal narrative. Destiny is both arbitrary and imposed from the outside. Synchronicity, on the other hand, is an act of creation.
Occasionally the fact of my dad’s partial Jewishness strikes me as nothing too much more than an interesting bit of trivia about the past. But much more often it strikes me as important, as liberating, as explanatory, as potentially life-altering. It gives me permission — though I know that I don’t really need it — to listen with new ears to the examples and voices of my Jewish friends and influences. And I’ve come to believe that this change in hearing is what’s really important here, rather than anything to do with DNA or family trees. Something within me is taking stock of and passing a kind of judgement on the facts of my life, my history, my family. And it is saying: pay attention! don’t look away! Don’t run away! There is something extraordinary here and you have to see it!
When Moses saw the bush on fire, the most remarkable thing wasn’t the fire itself, but the fact that the bush wasn’t consumed. Being the skeptic that I am, I feel like I need to point out that bushes are always consumed when on fire — of this we can be pretty sure. But ideas? Intuitions? Desires? Stories? What happens when synchronicity comes along and torches one of those?
How would I describe my religious life right now? Transitional? Pivotal? About the be born? I’m no Moses … that’s for sure. But I feel like I might know what it’s like to see something on fire in the distance and realize that whatever it is is coming from both within and without at the same time. And so my religious life right now consists of not only listening but walking — both outward and inward at the same time. Inward to my own makeup, my own way of thinking my own intuition. Outward to my family, to the beginnings of the mitzvoth, and through the doors of a Synagogue. And whatever it is I’m approaching from these two directions — whatever it that I see way over there, burning in the distance — feels holy to me. And so all I can do right now is look around at everyone in my life: at my dad, my grandfather, my great-grandfather, my brothers, my mother, my mentors, my Jewish and non-Jewish posse of friends and colleagues, my husband, my community, my people … all I can do is look around at all of them at once and say, I’m no Moses, but …. here I am.