All you real Jews out there, you tell me. Is my mezuzah on right?
[Note: When I first posted this I said “menorah” in a few cases where I meant “mezuzah.” Having been alerted to this embarrassing oversight, I have hereby fixed it.]
I think I celebrate Christmas. Maybe it’s because I’m married to a woman of Catholic background. But it goes further back than that.
During college I dropped acid and read the gospels. To this day I regard as valid what happened to me sitting cross-legged on that bed in a student apartment on W. 119th St. in Manhattan. Ever since then I have returned to what I learned by rereading these stories, particularly Matthew, to freshen something that blossomed within me.
One of the profound moments in the six-part video series that aired during the eighties on PBS, entitled The Power of Myth, was when Joseph Campbell tells his ingenuous interviewer, Bill Moyers, what the virgin birth really means.
“Have you risen above your animal nature and been reborn as a human incarnation?” As I recall, this beautiful scholar created linkages to the Holy Grail myth and to the heart chakra in Eastern spirituality and particularly Kundalini yoga.
At one time I was this close to becoming a goy. I rather enjoyed going with my wife to Unity Church here in Prescott, largely because of a lovely man, Rev. Catlin, who was funny and wise. When he left the pulpit here, I didn’t want to go anymore.
But at one point I had sat in Unity during Christmas Eve with a candle on my lap singing “Silent Night” with the congregation. Before Catlin left, I formed a bit of a friendship with him, even imposing on him once in his office, subjecting him to some verbal blur about me reconciling my liking it here with my “being Jewish.” A torrent of hand-wringing esoteric bullshit. I do remember what he said. That it didn’t matter. I could carry around everything. In his place, no one belief system needed to be so literalistic as to block out any other. Here, humanism was the ultimate practice, giving and sharing and making the world a better place by practicing love.
After Catlin left and I didn’t go anywhere, but returned to my profane rhythms and self-indulgences, I got on a guilt trip. Or maybe a better way to put it was that something seized me that was ancient and tribal and Jewish and made me decide that I should at least give Judaism a chance. I’d had no formal training as a boy, never went to Hebrew school, never “had a bar mitzvah.” I wandered into Temple B’rith Shalom, where another bracingly likable chap, Rabbi Berkowitz, took me in, gave me a primer on the Hebrew letters, got me singing the prayers over wine (grape juice to this guy) and bread, and even conscripted me into a choir largely populated by very old people, mostly women. I felt some kind of identity with something larger than myself but couldn’t let go of other spiritual beliefs I’d found compelling.
I don’t go to the temple much anymore. I don’t go anywhere.
I am lighting menorah candles every night and saying the brucha taught me by my father – out of superstition? My prayer may not even be right. Last night I forgot to light the three candles off the shammes (“shammash” in Hebrew), a ritualistic blunder. My Judaism, insofar as I practice it, is not by the book. The mezuzah nailed onto my office door jamb might be on the wrong side though I think it’s tilted correctly. At any rate I never paid some Judaic hucksters any 35 bucks for a rabbinical script in miniature that’s supposed to be shoved into your mezuzah to make it officially holy. I sent a few bucks to the temple in a moment of fervency after High Holy Days.
I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not a religious man at all. Excuse the cliché, but I am spiritual without being religious. I have a spiritual life but do not belong to any club with rules and systems. I think the main thing that got me out of the choir was not just that I was kicked out of the spotlight along with some other guys in favor of some diva, but that I was subjected to pro-Trump crowings from what I gathered, with some shock, were a bunch of benighted Republicans. One rabbi after another had assumed the bimah since my mentor had left, all women. The rabbinate is undergoing the same transformation as the barbering industy; more and more women are getting into it. I missed Berkowitz.
Barb’s dicey relationship with the church is somewhat the same. She regularly sits in the adoration room to guard the host at Sacred Heart, and sometimes goes to confession and to Mass, and fingers rosary beads. But when she hears all these church ladies spew poisonously intolerant political beliefs, particularly about abortion, she will tell me she does not like the place and steers clear.
“Don’t let those old biddies drive you away,” I’ve said. “That’s your church. That’s your God.”
Funny for a profane old goofball like me to say such a thing. But I do. When she goes off to do her Eucharistic adoration in that serene meditation room, the nominal Jew frying bacon calls after her, “Say hi to God for me.”
I find religion fascinating though I stand outside of it. When I stood at the bedside of my old dear friend Mike, who died in hospice care in Tucson a few weeks ago, one of the visitors was a leftist ex-Methodist minister who’d quit the church to become a high school math teacher. I engaged him in conversation about his days as a symbol of “the faith,” and told him about my little “Jewish adventure.” He said it seemed to him people go to these houses of worship largely for the social life they provide. I got the feeling he didn’t have much use for religion anymore.
Today I think I’ll read the Sermon on the Mount again. And pray for a nation to find its soul.