Sunday, April 5, 2015

Not in spite of, but right through

I recently told the story of how, when I was 8 or 9 years old, my feelings were hurt by a little girl in dance class who told me - in no uncertain terms - that it was not possible for me to be both Christian and Jewish.  At the time, I didn't understand how or why she thought this was just not possible, and I chalked her up to being some version of an 8-year-old intolerant asshole.  In my mind, there was no question: I was Christian and Jewish, dammit.  Me, and my life, and my worldview...I just thought they were big enough to be both.

And now at 29, when I go home for a Passover Seder and sit at a table with a traditional Seder plate and a cup of wine for Elijah as well as bunny candle holders and Easter egg tchotchkes adorning the centerpiece and the mantle, I think to myself, yes...yes 8-year-old me wasn't quite so far off.

Because I am both, you lineage trickles down through my veins to necessitate both the telling and witnessing of the Passover story, and the celebration of life and rebirth that is Easter and Ostara.  I grew up attempting to swallow Grandmother's overcooked peas for Easter and Bubby's gefilte fish for Passover.  I sat in pretty dresses and little white shoes at Grandmother's house before searching for Easter eggs, and also sat in pretty dresses and little white shoes at Bubby's house before searching for the afikomen.  I grew up knowing all the words to Jesus Loves Me, and joining in a rousing chorus of Dayenu with my 42 relatives.  My history of religion has always been yes, and...  Yes, I can recite the Four Questions in Hebrew, AND I can sit on the Easter Bunny's lap.  Yes, I can eat ham and Grandmother's lumpy mashed potatoes for Easter AND eat matzos and charoset and the god-awful liver pate for Passover.  Yes, I can say amen after my Grandfather thanks God for the good food before us for Easter dinner, AND I can take my turn stumbling over the names of Rabbi Akibah and Rabbi Eliezer in the Hagaddah.  Yes, and.  Yes, and.  Yes, and.

But now I am 29, and my chosen religion dictates as one of its 7 principles that part of my living tradition is to continually engage in a "free and responsible search for truth and meaning."  I'll be honest: the past several years, my response to the holidays this time of year has been much less "yes, and" and much more "nope."  Not feeling it.  Any of it.  I identify these days as an agnostic; I believe Jesus may have been just a cool, historical dude; and I have never found much meaning or cultural understanding in the Maxwell House Hagaddah with its obscure text, its repetition, and its nearly meaningless passages.  I find my meaning in my church community and in our flower communion and its celebration of beauty and spring and rebirth following winter.  This is where my "yes" is living these days.

And yet I found myself this year sitting at a table, in a pretty dress and nice heels, looking at little statues of bunnies holding colored eggs, eating gefilte fish and horseradish on matzos, dipping my finger into my wine and counting out the 10 plagues: Dom (blood).  Tzfardeyah (frogs).  Kinim (lice).  Arov (flies).  Dever (disease on livestock).  Sh'chin (boils).  Barad (hail).  Arbeh (locusts).  Choschech (darkness).  Makat Bechorot (slaying of the first-born). 

Honestly, as we kept reading, I was getting progressively more annoyed.  The whole story seemed to be saying: "...and then God (Blessed be He) did this other really horrible thing.  And then we suffered.  And then more horrible things were done to us, and God is good (Blessed be He).  And still we suffered, and we suffered, and we suffered...and we give thanks to God (Blessed be He)."

But, you know, I went with it.  It seemed important to family that I participate in this, and so I did.  However, after a good 30 minutes of reading, my sister got to a section where they listed all of the livestock that died of know the livestock, right?  The cows, and horses, and the asses...and my sister (blessed be she), said "asses" and busted up laughing so hard she couldn't pull herself together.  I, of course, joined her, because it was hilarious...and then there we were, two adults completely unable to get through the remainder of the Seder, tears running out of our eyes, because she read the word "asses." 

When it comes down to it, though, it wasn't really about the word asses.  It was about the fact that we were 30 minutes in, hadn't even gotten the matzos with the horseradish on it yet, and we were starving.  It was about the fact that this telling of the story meant nothing to me at 10 years old, and continues to mean nothing, as the version is so full of obscure language and meaningless passages that I can't follow what it is saying.  It's about the fact that this particular tradition just does not work for me, and it's hard for me to sit through.  It's about the fact that I don't want to believe in a God that caused all this shit to happen.  I don't want to believe in a God that killed all of the firstborn children.  I don't want to believe in a God to whom the Jews had to go with their "bloody and mutilated children" to remind Him of their suffering.  I don't want to believe in that God, and I certainly don't want to thank him.  I don't want to read about the ways I should devote my life to this God who has created and permitted such suffering, and the ways I, as a partly Jewish-by-heritage person, am supposed to live and offer my life and heart to God. 

Somewhere in the Seder, the text stated that a Jew defines himself by his capacity to be grateful.  Passover is a celebration of freedom -- which I can get behind - but I have a hard time believing in an all-powerful, loving, and merciful God who causes such intense suffering.  And I have an even harder time responding to that with repetitive words of gratitude. 

So I lost it during the Seder because my sister read the word asses, yes, but also because if I had to say one more "blessed be He," I was going to chug the rest of my glass of wine, throw my matzos to the dogs, and go out for pizza.  I was just done.

But then today is Easter, right?  If I am a partly Jewish-by-heritage person, I am also a partly Christian-by-heritage person, and I have a grandfather who is urging us to go to church and get right with God and "all be Christian together."  I was wished Happy Easter today by parking garage attendants and the man who made my coffee at Dunkin' Donuts.  I passed church after church celebrating the fact that "He is risen!," and there is something in me that has to recognize that this, too, is part of who I am.  This is, like it or not, part of my yes, and. 

This day -- this celebration of resurrection -- it's not so much unlike Passover as it may seem.  Easter is the day that God's only son, who was sacrificed on the cross, rose from the dead.  In short: this Easter day celebrates renewal, and rebirth, and life, much in the way that Passover celebrates the Jews surviving and leaving behind the oppression and suffering they faced. 

For some reason, as I was driving home this afternoon, all of these thoughts and all of these realizations just made me feel sad.  It didn't feel like yes, and.  It felt like nope.  It felt like participating in holidays that do not hold meaning for me.  It felt like I should find meaning in these traditions.  It felt like I should believe in a God that loves me, and that I should continue to love that God even if and when He causes great suffering.  It felt like I should be able to be grateful in spite of suffering.  For reasons that are complex and hard for me to sort out, the whole thing left me feeling unworthy and shameful.  It left me feeling broken, and it left me feeling less than whole.  As I drove home this afternoon, I was angry at myself for my seeming incapacity for gratitude, and my inability to believe in a god.  In the spring holiday department, I was officially giving myself a big, red F.

When I got home and sat down to write this, I first opened up Facebook...because every writer knows that Facebook is essential to the writing process.  I was greeted by the smiling faces of children and families who attend church with me, and the text above the pictures expressed gratitude and love for the community -- our community.  One status in particular brought tears to my eyes: writing about flower communion, a friend wrote, "the abundance of flowers (in spite of us forgetting to bring ours) was a bright reminder of how often my children and I are cared for in spite of our mistakes and faults. Well, not in spite of, but right through them - as if the mistakes and faults are insignificant."

And there it is: the resurrection.  The rebirth.  The way that I can come back from that shame-filled place of spring holiday failure.  The way that we all can come back from that place, no matter the way we got there, or how frequently we feel we visit Unworthyville and all her highways of shame, and guilt, and failure.  In that statement, I found it -- my meaning today, on this free and responsible search: this day is the day we celebrate our year-long process of being born, and reborn, as worthy.  This day is the day we celebrate and acknowledge that we -- each of us -- faces a terrible suffering, and we -- each of us -- is here to go in and side-by-side through that suffering.  We are here to resurrect one another from those ashes of despair.  To bring each other from the place of emptiness, and lack, and struggle through to the land of connection and worth.  We are here to forgive one another, and to love anyway -- "not in spite of, but right through" the mistakes, and faults, and failures.  Not in spite of, but right through. 

When I was a child, my "yes, and" consisted of "yes I am Christian, AND I am Jewish."  I don't want my "yes, and" to become a "nope."  I want my "yes, and" back, but I want it to be different.  So maybe today, this is where my free and responsible search has brought me: yes, I am figuring out what I believe, and I am worthy through that process.  Not in spite of, but right through. 

Yes, I laugh during Seders, and I am slow to forgive, and I am imperfect and sometimes fail, and I am worthy through that process.  Not in spite of, but right through.

Yes, I travel the highway to Unworthyville so often I have carved ruts in the road, and I am worthy through that process.  Not in spite of, but right through.

Yes, that is my journey out of Egypt, and my resurrection.  Yes, I have the community I need to take that journey, and I am part of that community for others.  Yes, I love you and am willing to stand with you in that emptiness, and struggle, and lack, and I am here to forgive, and embrace, and love you.

Not in spite of, but right through.

Not in spite of, but right through.

Not in spite of, but right through.  

1 comment:

  1. I was raised Jewish as well, but for me Judaism has always been my culture and not at all my religion. Jewish religious services were nothing but boredom and endurance. Oddly, though, the passover seder *did* have meaning for me. My father chose a Reconstructionist Hagaddah that deemphasized the prayers and the ceremony and instead told the story of Moses as an impetus to celebrate freedom and to be aware and mindful of those who were not yet free. It's kind of a shame that your Hagaddah led you in the opposite direction, because it was the way I most connected with being Jewish.