Thursday, May 20, 2010

Shavuot 2010: Shalom, Salaam, Peace

Sig Other’s hold music is broken.  Whenever I call his office and am placed on hold I hear the same song.  In a loop.  I can be on hold for two seconds or two minutes and its always the same: “Shalom Salaam Peace” by HaDag Nahash, Sig Other’s favorite Israeli rap group.  I like hearing that song.  I listen to it and hear Sig Other singing in the car.  I listen to it and think of Sig Other in the hot Israeli sun sweating as we walk through the Old City looking for the perfect falafel.  And I listen to it and think of the deep inexplicable connection I felt with Sig Other from the moment I met him – as though we knew each other our whole lives and shared a deep history that few relate to.  The shared history is that of European Jewry – the memory of which we both fear will be lost when our generation is no longer around to tell the stories of our parents and grandparents.  This is the history of old world Jews who set the table with fine silver for breakfast, whose forefathers argued Torah for hours on end and whose futures were written in flesh in places like Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and Buchenwald. 

Lately there has been a lot of talk of Israel in my house – talk of Israel and talk of the Jews.  We talk of the particular and the universal – do we focus our tzedakah on the Jews or do we focus on the world?  What does it mean to stand by Israel?  Do we support Israel right or wrong or Israel only with a two-state solution?  Do we support Israel at all?  What does Zionism mean?  Modern Zionism? And where do we fit into all of this?  These are passionate discussions.  No conversation about Israel or Judaism is had in which the philosophical is not tinged with the wildly emotional.  Emotional topics.  Emotional times.   No political issue can evoke so much passion as that hinged on religion.  Consider the state of Israel.  Consider the issue of abortion.  If you can name two more polarizing issues – two issues that inspire more passion, wrath, contempt, ire or volume – I would love to know what they are.  What do the issues have in common?  GOD!  Where does God enter?  Where do we leave God at the door?  And what does any of this have to do with being a Jew in 2010?

To begin to answer this question, I have to dig into the past.  And I must begin the most recent past – my own.  In this past, the path of least resistance was laid out for me by parents who provided limited exposure to Jews and Judaism.   My father’s business led us from one small conservative town to the next.  Bakersfield to Edmond, Oklahoma and finally to a suburb in Northern California which, while seemingly in the heart of the liberal Bay Area, still managed to be a bastion of Reagan-backing Bible thumpers.  From one city to the next, we were always the only horn-headed, big-nosed, curly-haired devils for miles around.  The problem is we had neither curly hair nor big noses nor horns growing out of our heads.  We were just the weird neighbors down the street.  And we were probably considered weird more for our political views and self-isolation than for our religion, which was hidden from view both in practice and in name. 

“Harris” is not a typically Jewish last name.  It is, of course, a name adopted at Ellis Island – swapped out for something more Polish and unpronounceable.  The point is not whether my paternal great-grandparents had a desire to deny their religious or cultural roots.  The point is not whether they wanted to blend.  The point is that they left a generation of children undefined by name or history.  We cannot point back to generation upon generation of Harrises who have left their mark on American or even Eastern European society.  We cannot sketch a family tree with branches of well-known ancestors who left namesakes to carry on their legacy.  We begin and we end in some ways as immigrants – people determined to marry a cultural past to a bright shiny future – we bear the burden of those whose forefathers wanted to be unfettered by religious history and yet left a legacy that must be honored.

Here’s the problem: Dead Father was an atheist – and a strict one at that.  Mom is agnostic although she identifies as Jewish but also bristles at religious conformity.  And I grew up in a neighborhood of ardent Catholics, Mormons and born-agains.  “You don’t look Jewish” was a phrase heard often (mostly on Monday mornings when I gave to my standard “I’m Jewish” answer to the question “why didn’t we see you in church on Sunday?”).  So I grew up identifying as a Jew but I knew very little about actually being a Jew.  I didn’t learn to read Torah or speak Hebrew.  I knew little about holidays but for what kind of food was served on Passover (my favorite holiday) and how to hum the tune to Mo’az Tzur on Chanukah. 

So if the first part of my life was spent surrounded by non-Jews, it stands to reason that I would find myself utterly bewildered to be in the second part of my life surrounded by mostly Jews.  How did this happen?  How did I find myself at Shabbat services surrounded by davening, singing Jews?  How did I find myself with several rabbis in my rolodex, a closet full of menorahs and haggadahs and a shofar any temple would envy?  How did I find myself on the board of a temple I call my own?

Mostly my new Judaism (which is an odd phrase given my ambivalence about the whole God issue) leaves me frustrated and angry that I spent so many years with so little knowledge.  I mourn the education I don’t have, the stories I don’t know, the hours not spent studying.  Mostly I think its sad that I didn't know the meaning of Shavuot until a year ago.  Shavuos was a punchline in a joke, not a day to be honored.  I don’t go to shul to look for God.  I don’t expect to find her there.  Or anywhere really.  I go to shul to look for peace, I go to shul to learn the history of the Jewish people, to be inspired by song, by a sermon, by those around me who close their eyes and sing like they really mean it.  And I go to shul to keep hold of a tradition that skipped a generation (or maybe even two) but that feels somehow like home.  


shayma said...

these issues are so sensitive- they are so polarised, as you do point out- your post was eloquent and articulate as always, and i thoroughly enjoyed reading it. x shayma

chris day said...

Reading this excellent post led me to think of my own non-religious upbringing. I was a WASP surrounded by Jews in downtown New York. All my buddies were Jewish as were most of my girlfriends and, later in life, my step mother and half sister. Watching my 10th generation Mayflower father become a serious scholar of Jewish history and the Torah in preparation for my sister's Bat Mitzvah taught me that its never too late to start that education, just as it it's never too late to experience the warm embrace of the Jewish faith, even for an atheist such as myself. Your new pursuit in adulthood is a beautiful thing, and inspiring...