Passing over and wandering on

exodus

It’s hard to even know where to begin. My fingers want to fly over the keyboard and write about the freedom to wander and then I also want to tell you about the Seder plate, and the amazing chicken liver I had a few years ago at a dear friend’s house (shout out to Staci!). Like the Jews wandering in the desert, we’ll just take a step forward and see where the journey takes us.

It’s not likely necessary to reiterate the story of Passover. If you have ever seen the epic Ten Commandments film (conveniently broadcast during Holy Week/Passover each year) starring Charlton Heston and Lily Munster (you may also know her as Yvonne De Carlo), then you know the story. If you haven’t seen the film, then what the heck is wrong with you? Sigh… in that case, here is the fastest retelling ever:

Baby Moses is Jewish. The Pharaoh (Egyptian ruler) issues a decree that all male Hebrew children should be drowned because the number of Hebrews was becoming dangerously high. He feared they may revolt or ally with his enemies. Baby Moses’ mother tries to save her child’s life by floating him down the Nile in a basket (hence the Moses baskets that new Moms favor these days, however I don’t think his original cost $185 from Plum & Sparrow, shipping extra). The basket and the babe are recovered from the river by the Pharaoh’s daughter and Moses is adopted and raised in the palace with the royal family. Fortuitous river currents, right? Moses later kills an Egyptian master for beating a slave, discovers his Jewish heritage and begins to seriously rebel against the tradition of Egyptian slavery of the Jews. He flees Egypt. While he is on Mt. Horeb or Mt. Sinai (the Bible cites both) which is IN THE DESERT BY THE WAY, he encounters God as a burning bush and is commanded to return to Egypt to deliver God’s people out of slavery. Moses and the Pharaoh battle this out. God, via Moses, afflicts the Egyptians with Ten Plagues and eventually, after the horrible tenth plague, Pharaoh lets the people go. The tenth plague is when God sends the angel of death to the first born son of each family. If there is lamb’s blood over your door, the angel of death will pass over. Boom – we have Passover. The Jewish people quickly fled Egypt, their bread not even having time to rise (lotsa matzoh). God, through Moses, parts the Red Sea so the Hebrews can make a fast escape. They then wander in the desert for forty years before entering the Promised Land. Moses and his brother Aaron are not able to enter because, as you may recall, they hit a rock with a stick, somewhat embellishing on the Lord’s instructions, and lost their right to proceed with the people.

Phew! There is a lot to unpack here, but we will try not to wander around this topic for forty years. Passover celebrations come from this story as does Sukkot. Christians see foreshadowing or prophecy for Jesus, who is the Lamb of God, delivering Christians from death. The desert features prominently, in a line of succession from Abraham through Moses and right through to Jesus. Man and God, alone, seeking each other in desolation. If you are Muslim, you follow that line of succession to Mohammad. And as much as we think Mohammad is the most important name in Islam, interestingly the Koran mentions Moses more than any other person. Clearly, this is a seminal story in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheistic tradition. But let’s get back to the chicken liver, I mean Passover…

The Jewish Passover celebration does more than celebrate this story; it virtually reenacts it during the Seder meal. (Seder means order or sequence in Hebrew.) Using the Haggadah, a sort of guidebook and script for the Seder, Jewish people relive their journey to freedom. All aspects of the Seder plate harken back to the slavery, escape and freedom of the Jews. The ritual plate includes:

  • matzoh – there are three pieces that are symbolic of the Kohen (priests), Levites, and Israelites
  • roasted bone – represents the lamb that was sacrificed to smear the blood over the doorways
  • egg – this was a food that was offered as a Temple sacrifice during festivals. There are other layers of meaning for the egg. For example, the Aramaic word for egg is bey’a, which also means “pray”.  Some also think the egg embodies the hope and renewal of the Jewish people.
  • bitter herbs – for the bitterness of slavery
  • charoset  – this is a mixture of apples, pears, nuts, wine, etc (recipes vary) that is a reminder of the mortar that the slaves used to build for the Egyptians
  • parsley – the meaning of this gets into Hebrew language and some numerology which is way beyond my ability to synthesize and explain, but it is dipped in saltwater and eaten to remember the tears of the slaves

The experiences of slavery are embedded in the very meal itself  — they are felt, tasted, pondered and endured. A traditional Passover meal also consists of other foods that are enjoyed by the family. For example, an Ashkenazi (Eastern European Jewish tradition) Passover meal may include matzoh ball soup, the aforementioned delicious chicken liver, brisket, potatoes, and other vegetables. Matzoh is eaten rather than bread and nothing leavened is consumed. There are a surprising number of delicious unleavened deserts, by the way. Here’s a great one. Sephardic (Iberian/Spanish descent) Jews may enjoy a meal that has more Spanish and Middle Eastern influence. Also, Sephardic charoset often is made of dates or raisins rather than apples thereby reflecting traditional regional ingredients.

Now you might think that Passover is all about the food. I can’t imagine how I left that impression, but then again it’s me doing the writing here. Like almost every other holiday in every religious and cultural tradition, the food is front but it is slightly off center because right in the center is the meaning of the celebration. The meaning of Passover is summed up in a word: freedom.  But here’s the thing… I don’t know that the people found freedom at the end of their journey. We know Moses and Aaron don’t enter the Holy Land and there is a lesson of humility in that, but the real lesson in freedom is the journey itself. For forty years they wandered in the desert. Forty long, dry, hot years. Forty years they wandered and pondered and lived and loved. It was for forty years. How long was that again? Forty years. People were born, lived and died on this journey. I am surely belaboring the point, but I think it is so important. While enslaved, there was no freedom to wander — no one could choose where to go physically or mentally. One’s existence was all in all, just put another brick in the pyramid wall. Alas! While wandering in the desert, there was blessed freedom. Moses was free to find God, the people found themselves, they learned how to be free and how to choose, and they ultimately chose God. The overarching lesson of Passover, for me, is not about reaching the Holy Land but about the freedom to wander and to choose. The Jewish people, who have no clear vision of or dogma about the afterlife, make the most of their life here and now and they choose the journey over focusing only on the destination. Here’s some actual footage * of the exodus.

Several years ago, we had the very good fortune to participate in a Seder with the best friends life could allow to walk beside you. These are old college friends who have known our troubles, held our hands in the bad times and rejoice freely with us in the good times. They know about all of our secrets from “the Stony Brook years”, my Rachel haircut in the ’90’s, Kumar’s fondness for gin and tonic, and they still love us. Go figure? Good peeps. Anyway, we were seated at their dining table and listening to them, their daughter, our kids, Nadine’s parents and extended family and friends, my Hindu husband and little ol’ always-at-a-loss-for-words me talk about the meaning of freedom. We were beautifully led in thoughtful discussion by Daniel. That night, the Passover celebration wandered into my consciousness and continues to walk around in my brain ever since. What a freeing journey that night was. And did I mention the food? Oy and vey!

Not sure where we are wandering next. Perhaps Islam. I’ve been receiving some great private feedback. If there is something you want me to write about let me know either in public comments or via a private message. Thanks for reading, and please know that I am always listening for your voice out here in the desert. Shalom, salaam, shanti and peace.

* Nina Paley’s work is not reverent. She challenges ideas and traditionally held beliefs. As always, I do not intend to offend the devout and do my best to avoid it, but I do think she captures some good things here and I love her use of Free to be You and Me. Her work is without copyright and can be shared freely.

Time for the Jewish Mardi Gras! No, really, it is.

Laissez les bons temps rouler! Let’s shake things up and make this blog just a bit more fun. And, seriously, what could possibly lighten things up more than a Mardi Gras with Jews? I know, you are thinking, “Slap my dreidle and call me Bubbala! Kathy done lost her meshuggener mind!” But, really, there is such a thing. Kind of. You’ll see. As promised in the previous installment, it’s Jewish holiday time.

Learning about holidays and holy days is a fun way to gain both theological and cultural insight into a faith. It is the proverbial spoonful of sugar. We all know a little bit about some of the Jewish festivals (unless you are Jewish, and then you know a lot more than me; in that case, send me your favorite potato latke recipes). But, for my goyische readers, here is a primer so you can finally understand why the heck the kids in the Northeast of the US get the day off for Yom Kippur. So, hold on to your yarmulke cause it’s time to party! And atone. And build a hut. And light a candle. And drink!

Rosh Hashanah

This one seems pretty straightforward. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year. There you go. Done. But, wait! There’s more! Rosh Hashanah does indeed mark the beginning of the Jewish calendar and it is heralded by the blowing of the shofar. The shofar is a trumpet made from a ram’s horn. As impressive and ancient as the ram’s horn may sound, it is significant in and of itself. It was a ram whose horns were caught in a thicket and alerted Abraham that he had a reprieve from sacrificing his son. (Abraham keeps cropping up, doesn’t he?) The ram’s horn is the symbol of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his long awaited child for God and also that God was merciful and accepted the ram instead. With the blowing of the ram’s horn, Jews are reminded of their first patriarch and his obedience. They begin the New Year with a reenactment of the beginning of their history.

In addition to blowing the shofar, Rosh Hashanah observances typically involve eating sweet foods, such as honey, to symbolize a sweet new year.  Often the commemoration of the new year features challah (sweet yeast bread) dipped in honey. Delish! The typical Sabbath challah is simply braided whereas the special shapes created for Rosh Hashanah are celebratory. The challah prepared for Rosh Hashanah by the Ashkenazi (Jews of Eastern European heritage) community may have some honey in the dough and could be studded with raisins. Some shape their New Year challah into a spiral to indicate a new beginning or to resemble a crown (God’s royalty). Sephardic Jews (Jews of Iberian peninsula/Spanish heritage) might shape their bread into animals, keys or other symbolic shapes. And now I want some bread.

Rosh Hashanah ushers in a new year, but it also marks the beginning of something else: the High Holy Days or the Days of Awe. The ten days stretching from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur mark a time of atonement and repentance for the Jewish people. Rosh Hashanah is a celebration and is also the beginning of a more solemn and introspective time, akin to Lent for Christians. It is said that there are three judgments rendered on Rosh Hashanah: 1) the righteous are inscribed in the Book of Life 2) the evil are recorded in the Book of Death and 3) the remainder have judgment postponed until Yom Kippur. Since so few of us are all good or all bad, during the ten day period the practitioner has an opportunity to atone and secure a fair judgment by Yom Kippur. One might ask for forgiveness for transgressions from family, friends and neighbors in the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During this time, you may hear people say to each other “May you be inscribed in the Book of Life”, thereby wishing a good outcome to each other. Now let’s have a little musical interlude! Please enjoy the a capella madness of the Maccabeats singing Book of Good Life. Fun stuff!

Yom Kippur

Let me start by giving you a pro tip: don’t wish someone a “Happy Yom Kippur!” Lots of non-Jews have made this mistake so you are not alone, but you will likely rethink that greeting now. If you are Christian, you can think of Yom Kippur as a day of solemnity, in tone it is more like Good Friday than Easter. The ten days of self examination that began with Rosh Hashanah conclude with Yom Kippur. Different interpretations of Judaism may commemorate this day in varying degrees of strict interpretation, but for all Jews it is the final day of atonement that seals one’s fate. It is your last chance to set things right and have your name written in the Book of Life.

As in other faiths, fasting helps one atone for sins and is an important part of Yom Kippur observances. If you say to your Jewish friend “have an easy fast”, it would probably be appreciated (and it would be waaaaaaay better than saying “Happy Yom Kippur!”). This is a 25 hour fast from sunset until sundown the next day. The penitent abstains from all food and drink, including water. (The sick, elderly, expectant mothers and the very young are exempt.) Many Ashkenazi Jews will wear white clothing, symbolizing a funeral shroud as a reminder of our mortality. Temple attendance is especially important on Yom Kippur. A Yom Kippur practice that is especially moving for me is the special Yom Kippur prayer that is said standing. There is a silent recitation of sins accompanied by a light knock on the chest near the heart for each sin committed. This is one of those crossover moments that highlights similarities rather than differences. It should be familiar to Catholics who may recall saying “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa” which means “through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault” while striking their own chest three times during the Mass. Both faith practices remind with words and physical touch that our sinfulness, our errors in judgement and deed, come from deeply within our selves, near the heart.  Yom Kippur ends in the way the Days of Awe began, with the blowing of the shofar.

Sukkot

You haven’t heard of Sukkot? What, have you been living in a hut or something? Okay, you are excused because most non-Jews haven’t heard of Sukkot. But what is all this about huts? You get to build one in the backyard for Sukkot! Sukkot commemorates the 40 years of wandering in the desert when the Jewish people lived in temporary shelters, aka huts. For Sukkot, observant families will build a temporary shelter and then enjoy meals and celebrate the holiday within the rustic shelter for a week. The holiday also features the four “species” of citron, palm, myrtle and willow branches that form the “the lulav” when gathered together. The lulav is waved in the four directions (North, South, East, West) while reciting lines from the Torah. The lulav indicates another origin of Sukkot; it is also a harvest festival when God is thanked for his bounty.

A thoughtful practice during Sukkot is the reading of Kohelet. For those who don’t speak Hebrew (and really, who doesn’t?), Kohelet is the Book of Ecclesiastes. You are perhaps thinking, “Well, isn’t that nice. What is Ecclesiastes again?” Here’s a reminder.  (Now that was groovy!) Ecclesiastes is one of the books of Wisdom in the Jewish tradition; it is philosophical and theologically challenging. Sukkot is a time of celebration of the harvest, but it is also a time for contemplation of life and its meaning. Forty years of wandering in the desert could very well lead you into some deep thought about God’s plan for his people and your very own self. So, it’s not just about a time to sow and a time to reap, it is truly a meditation that there is a time to every purpose under heaven, even if you don’t know what that purpose may be. Consider this passage:

Just as you do not know how the life breath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman, so you cannot foresee the actions of God, who causes all things to happen. Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed

Ecclesiastes (and Sukkot) tell us to live now. We don’t know the future, we cannot predict God’s actions, we don’t know whether we will succeed in our efforts or not. But, despite all of the unknowing, we must still act, we must still live. How very Jewish to live in the now. It must be especially lovely to commemorate that in a hut, with your family, in thanks for your bounty. Wave that lulav and turn, turn, turn!

Simchat Torah

Goyische kids are not getting the day off for this one and it is possible that you’ve never even heard of Simchat Torah. But, I really wanted to share just a few lines with you on the topic because it is a festival that gives us a glimpse into the heart of Judaism: the Torah.

A little background….If you hear someone talk about the Jewish Bible, they are referring to the Tanakh, which is roughly analogous to the Old Testament for Christians. (Please note, however, that there are differences.) The Tanakh itself is divided into three parts: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Wisdom). Take a look at those words for a moment… Torah, Nevi-im, and Ketuvim. I took extra time to bold those letters. Look at them again. Bingo! You are just like Dan Brown in your religious sleuthing.

The first part of the Tanakh is the Torah and that is a familiar word to many of us who are not Jewish. You likely already know that the Torah bears a remarkable similarity, nearly exact, to the first five books in the Old Testament scripture tradition of Christians. The Torah is quite similar to what Christians call the Pentateuch (penta = five in Greek). The Torah and the Pentateuch are the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. For Jews, this is where the law is found. We could go on and on for a very long time about Jewish holy books, but it suffices to say there is a lot more to Jewish scripture than the Torah and even the Tanakh. For example, there is the Talmud as well. The Talmud contains a written record of the ancient Jewish oral tradition about the law and then further commentary and interpretation of the law (Torah). It is kind of like commentary, and then commentary on the commentary, elucidating every aspect of a precisely led Jewish life. Orthodox Jewish people study the Talmud in great detail. Um, where am I going with all of this….

Back to the Torah. The Torah is the heart. It is the heart of the faith and it is the heart of the temple. It is the heart of the people of the temple. The word, this law, resides in the ark in the temple. The Torah is read throughout the year and when the cycle of reading begins again, it is Simchat Torah, the time to begin the cycle of reading again. This is a joyous celebration when the ark is opened and the Torah scrolls are paraded through the temple, the people singing, dancing and rejoicing. I often come back to the point of Judaism being a faith that is celebrated in the moment, and Simchat Torah is a joyful demonstration of that. When the very heart of the faith, the law, is revealed to the people, they erupt in celebration that they will once again hear God’s words. Simchat Torah is not a holiday that is well known amongst non-Jews, but like the Torah, it is a beat from the heart of Jewish life.

Hanukkah

Here in the US, it really seems as though Hanukkah is the most super special and extra important of Jewish holidays because of the gift giving. Thank you, rampant consumerism! Gift giving is a more recent addition to the celebration. Hanukkah is a historic commemoration, a lesson in faith, a lesson in charity, and a testament to a people keeping their culture and language alive.

Hanukkah is the festival of lights when an additional candle on the menorah (like a candelabrum) is lit on each of eight nights. The candles are lit by the ninth candle which is called the shamash. The candles memorialize the miracle of the oil in the Temple. In the second century BCE, Greeks were ruling the Holy Land and were trying to force the Jews to accept Greek culture and beliefs. A small army led by Judah Maccabee defeated the Greeks (against mind boggling odds) and took back the Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life, culture and faith. When they lit the temple’s candelabrum, there was only enough oil to keep it lit for one day. Miraculously, the oil stayed lit for eight days. Big deal, you might say. Why not just buy some more oil? Things in the Bible are never that easy. This was not a simple matter of running to the local merchant and purchasing another bottle of Wesson. This oil was special. The oil for the Temple must be ritually prepared and of special purity. It took eight days to prepare the oil that was fit for burning in the Temple. God provided this miracle to give his people the time they needed to properly provision the Temple.

Here’s some interesting information to impress your friends next December. The story of the defeat of the Greeks (1 Maccabee and 2 Maccabee) and the miracle of the oil is not in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), but it it is contained in the Catholic Old Testament. (During the Reformation, the Protestant movement removed some of the books of the Old Testament from the Catholic canon for the Protestant Bible). The celebration of Hanukkah is also referred to (kind of in passing) in the New Testament in John 10:22. I love that this factoid shows how our histories are intertwined and intermingled, from the time of Abraham, through the story of Hanukkah, and until today. If we would only look straight at our shared history, perhaps we would be less quick to look askance at each other. But, this begs the question, if Hanukkah doesn’t appear in the Tanakh, how is it a Jewish festival? The story of Judah Maccabee is not canonical, but it is in the Jewish tradition and is discussed in detail in the Talmud (remember, that is the commentary and the commentary on the commentary about how to live as a Jew).

Besides lighting candles, the miracle of the oil is celebrated with fried foods like potato latkes. Children are taught about charity through gifts of Hanukkah gelt, which are gold foil covered chocolate coins. A miracle, fried food and chocolate? What is not to love about this holiday? But wait, there’s more! There’s a game! You’ve likely heard the dreidl song and know that someone made it out of clay. There are several theories on the history of dreidl, and maybe it really is just a derivation of a dice game played by the Irish or English, but it may have also been a way to keep the Hebrew language alive and accessible to children in times where studying Hebrew was particularly dangerous. Regardless of origin, the letters on the dreidl stand for “a great miracle happened here”. Hanukkah may not be the most theologically significant of Jewish holidays, but its messages of charity, faith, and the importance of cultural tradition add to all of our lives and incidentally my waistline. Now go eat a sufganya (a fried jelly doughnut), because they are a Hanukkah tradition, too. This is really the kind of celebration I can endorse, especially since Matisyahu made this weird video that eventually turns into a good song.

Purim

And now, what you all have been waiting for. It’s the Jewish Mardi Gras! Like many exciting stories, the story of Purim starts with an evil plan hatched by a terrible politician and there is a beautiful girl who saves the day. (This is some real Game of Thrones stuff.) In ancient Persia, there was a King named Ahaseurus.  He had his queen executed because she was perhaps too feisty and then he held a beauty contest to find a new wife (nice guy, right?). A Jewish girl named Esther (who kept her Jewish identity under wraps) won the beauty contest and stole his heart. She is the beautiful girl in our story, and like most women she should not be underestimated. Around the same time, Ahaseurus had appointed Haman, one of the great anti-Semites of history (and that’s really saying something), to be his Hand of the King. Sorry, I meant prime minister. However, I do think Haman really would have given Tywin Lannister a run for his money in an evil contest.

Haman hatched a plan to rid the Persian empire of those pesky Jews because they just weren’t subservient enough. The Jewish people in Persia were led by Mordechai, who happened to be the cousin of… wait for it… Queen Esther. Haman ordered the execution of all Jews on the 13th of Adar, a date chosen by a lottery devised by Haman. By the way, the word Purim means lottery. While Mordechai urged his people to fast and pray for salvation from this impending slaughter, he also asked his cousin the Queen to use her own, um, methods. She had become the beloved of the King and she took the great chance of revealing her Jewish identity to him as well as informing him of Haman’s plot. Remember that he killed his last wife, so this was a huge risk for her. Her gamble paid off and the King ordered that Haman and all of his sons be hung on the gallows that were prepared for the Jews.

Purim celebrations are an especially fun time when the Book of Esther is read aloud. Like the story of Judah Maccabee, the Book of Esther is not actually in the Jewish Bible but is still considered very important in the tradition. When the name Haman is said, the people make noise, they boo and hiss and use noisemakers to drown out his evil name. The Talmud recommends that men drink until they cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai”. Some communities will hold parades or beauty contests where little girls dress as Queen Esther. This whole Mardi Gras comparison is starting to make sense, right? Costumes, drinking, rowdiness, a religious justification for partying your butt off…. Queen Esther is an awesome heroine! Take that, Khaleesi. Since it’s Mardi Gra-ish, we really need some music here.

Passover

Every blog post must come to an end and we have reached it. But, but, but… there is still another holiday and it’s a big one! This right here is my cliffhanger. We’ll talk about Passover next time. It deserves it’s own post because of its significance and because it’s my bloggy and I’ll stop here if I want to. If that is not enough of a tease, we’ll probably mention Charlton Heston, too.

What the small print giveth the Lord reserves the right to taketh away.

This recent flurry of blogging was spurred by my anger at an incident where cruelly captioned photos of a Sikh man were passed around on Snap-o-gram (whatever) because he is “other”. (Around the World in 150 Pages) The young man who was taking photos and writing the awful captions thought the Sikh in the turban was Muslim (News flash! Sikhs are not Muslims! Turbans don’t equal terror! I love exclamation points when I am worked up!). Despite his on-the-fly extreme vetting and decision that a Sikh man is an ISIS member, the young man in question only really succeeded in exposing himself as a bigot.

However, even righteous indignation fueled inspiration (there’s a mouthful) can peter out. How do we move onward in our pilgrimage from the last post’s thoughts on Abraham (Call me Ishmael. And you can call me Isaac. ) to musings on Judaism? I am not Jewish (though I have some Jewish ancestry) and really feel a bit uncomfortable writing about something so important and personal as religious identity with so little authority. And then I heard about Tanya Gersh. Ms. Gersh is a realtor in Montana. A murky and likely non-existent real estate dispute has resulted in her and her family being terrorized by neo-Nazi, white nationalist Internet trolls. A troll in a storybook is “a mythical, cave-dwelling being depicted in folklore as either a giant or a dwarf, typically having a very ugly appearance”. Today’s internet trolls are even uglier, not mythical, and all too real. Maybe they live in caves — that I don’t know. These trolls  have sent some heinous stuff  to the Gersh family. For example, Ms. Gersh was hounded with tweets about the “Jew agenda”, she was sent photoshopped images of her and her young son at the gates of Auschwitz, and there were messages like “”Hickory dickory dock, the kike ran up the clock. The clock struck three and Internet Nazis trolls gassed the rest of them.” Here’s the complete story if you want the details:

CNN Story on the Gersh family

The Gersh family are not alone these days. There has been an 86% spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the US so far this year (Anti-Defamation League). I may not know all there is to know about Judaism, but I care enough about this rise in anti-Semitism to know that I won’t be silent.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

                      Rev. Martin Niemoller

Rev. Niemoller, who spent seven years in a concentration camp, knew how important it is to speak for each other. So today let’s speak of Judaism for Ms. Gersh, for my Jewish friends, for my ancestors, and for all of the other 14.4 million Jewish people in the world who I don’t know.

What does it mean to be a Jew? For many, it means you have a contract with God. There are some pretty specific terms in that agreement. These terms tell you what to eat (kosher laws), what to wear, how to settle disputes, what respect should be accorded to elders and neighbors and spouses, and even how to cut your hair. Yup, Leviticus 19:27 is an actual directive that describes the peyos (side curls) and beards required of Orthodox men. It’s not a fashion statement or nostalgia for a time long passed. It’s a law. It may seem strange to us today in the world of pink hair and man buns, but there is a point to this and to all of the laws. This grooming law makes God’s Chosen People distinguishable from those around them. God’s people are to stand out in a crowd. Kosher rules have a practical purpose. They can keep your diet hygienic (eating pork could be pretty risky in the past). Family relations have rules to ensure understanding between all parties. There’s even a detailed practice for determining if your wife is coveting your neighbor’s, ahem,  assets. The rabbi scoops up some dust from the Tabernacle floor, mixes it with water, your wife drinks it down and you wait for the result. Stomachache = she’s a veritable vixen. No stomachache = you’ve got a loyal lady.

But, why? Why does a religious Jewish person strive to live by these rules? Because the contract tells him so. The Bible tells us about that early contract where Abraham obeys, he leaves his home, he trusts, and God fulfills his contract obligations with innumerable starry descendants. Moses made an agreement, too. Do what I ask of you, Moses, have faith, and I will lead your people out of slavery. Pharaoh gets his comeuppance, the Red Sea parts and off we march into the desert. As Charlton Heston taught us in the last scenes of arguably his most memorable film, there are consequences for breaking agreements. Moses did not make it into the Promised Land. He was so close, and yet so far. Why did he get left behind in the desert? Because he violated the small print, and the Lord taketh away. 

Moses and Aaron were supposed to gather the people, stand before a rock with Aaron’s staff in hand, and call forth water. They did it, but they did something else, too. Uh oh. They added a flourish and struck the rock with Aaron’s stick. The water did pour forth out of the rock, but they paid a price for their violation. Neither Moses or Aaron were admitted to the Promised Land. Handsome Charlton Heston, with a flowing white beard and his robe ruffling in the breeze, gazes down upon the Chosen People making their way to the River Jordan at the end of the Ten Commandments. He accepts his fate. Sweeping music and fade to black….

Jeepers. That’s kind of a downer. Moses went through all kinds of heck to deliver those folks and he doesn’t make it into the Promised Land? Harsh. But, you see, that’s how the Torah God does it. Contractual obligation, to the letter of the law, must be observed. Justice is then meted out, fair and square. You might be wondering what in blazes did Moses do wrong? Moses’ infraction was tapping that stick on the rock. It wasn’t really the strike that did it — it was the bit of hubris. Moses let linger the impression that the power to bring forth water was his, and not the Lord’s. The Lord giveth, but if you don’t follow the rules, you know how this saying ends.

Some believe that to live a fully compliant Jewish life is to live according to the 613 laws of the Torah (Rabbinic tradition says there really are that many). Of course we all also know Jewish people who do not live strictly according to the Torah. There are rich variations of Jewish life and many faithful Jews who do not practice their faith “to the letter” but rather do so “in the spirit”. No matter whether strictly observant or living in the tradition and spirit of Judaism, to me, this is a faith that primarily focuses on the here-and-now. It is a faith where you can touch-and-feel your place in history, where you are called to live fully on Earth and as part of your community. The idea of living in the here and now seems really essential in understanding Judaism.

In addition to the emphasis on the law, there’s another clue to the “be here now” vibe in Judaism. Here’s a tidbit of Jewish dogma about the afterlife to impress your friends: there is no Jewish dogma about the afterlife. Say what? It seems every other religion focuses on the hereafter, and what you do here and now is almost solely for the purpose of a comfortable placement in the Great Beyond. Heaven or hell, reincarnation, transmigration of the soul, perhaps a stint in purgatory or a stop in the Bardo —  everything done on Earth is an offering for some future existence, and hopefully a pleasant one at that. In contrast to other faiths, if you are Jewish, there is no definitive teaching that promises an afterlife. You may believe that there is a heaven waiting for you, perhaps you will be reincarnated, or maybe you will enter an eternal sleep. You can believe what you want because the Torah doesn’t really say much about the afterlife. What a fascinating departure from the other major religions — live for today, love God today, love the people around you right now, accept the honor of being the Chosen People, and live this life, this day, this very moment in its fullest manner. Judaism found its beginnings in the desert, gets its framework from a contract with God and embraces celebrating and experiencing humanity right here and now.

One can argue that Jews do live in a state of waiting for something. That waiting is here on Earth in a state of hope for the coming of the Messiah. The Jewish messiah (or mashiach) is a leader, but he is not a spiritual savior in the Christian sense. He will be of place and time, he will be a leader in a social and political sense as a successor to King David. He is to gather the exiles, restore the Temple and rebuild Jerusalem. Interestingly, the messiah is not explicitly mentioned in the Torah but the anticipation is nonetheless deeply ingrained. So, even if Jews are waiting for the messiah, they still live here and now because their messiah will usher in an earthly restoration, not one in the hereafter.

As an outside observer, I see a beautiful tapestry of Jewish life. The Orthodox adhere to all of the 613 laws of the Torah and spend much of their time devoted to the study of the law and ensuring that they live as God has decreed. The Hasidic Jews follow all of these same laws but they also add a mystical dimension to their practice where they seek a palpable connection to God. The Conservative Jews maintain a strong Jewish cultural identity and community; they are the stalwarts of preserving their traditions and adhering to many of the laws found in the Torah while simultaneously living in the secular world. Reform Jews embrace their traditions, their identity, and the lessons of their faith while acknowledging the evolving world around them. Reform Judaism is often a strong voice for social justice for all peoples. Secular Jews celebrate their culture and history and identify as part of a greater community; they are definitively and proudly Jewish though they do not consider themselves “religious”. All Jewish people, regardless of practice, share a very important commonality: even if the world metes out persecution like Ms. Gersh is now experiencing, even though it may try its hardest to exterminate them, the Jewish people have an agreement with God, and a contract is something you can rely upon.

Yowza, this was some heavy stuff. I’m wiped out. Next time, let’s lighten up and find out about those Jewish holidays. Here’s a little preview…. Rosh Hashanah is fun, but Purim is where the party is at. Queen Esther is up in the house!
*My first post about religion had a disclaimer, but a reminder is always useful. I am not an expert; I am an observer and these are my thoughts. After all, that’s what blogging is all about. Please comment publicly or privately if I am factually wrong or if you want to share your thoughts. Comments are always welcome; kindness is always appreciated.

 

 

Call me Ishmael. And you can call me Isaac.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(Uffizi)

Welcome to the desert. Hot, dry, barren, scorpions scuttling and shades of beige. It is seemingly not the most inspirational of landscapes. This is where the monotheism of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are born. Many of us in “the West” seem to forget that our spiritual roots and patrimony come from the desert. Wait, what? You mean all of that Bible stuff didn’t happen in an Italian Renaissance painting? As if! Lush landscapes, plump people, and rich flowing garments are pretty appealing but it seems hard, thirsty, rocky environments propel men toward transformation. We see this in all three of the major monotheistic traditions. And now here is the quickest reverse chronology of a few men in the desert. Each one, both inspired and tormented by the harsh surroundings and his own inner struggle, reached out to the One, and was answered.

  • Islamic tradition says that somewhere around 610 A.D., Muhammad was in a cave near Mecca when he received the first revelations of the Koran from the messenger angel, Jibreel. By the way, Jibreel might sound familiar because he is also known as Gabriel, the messenger angel familiar to both Jews and Christians. Interesting, right? Muhammad would retreat to this cave regularly to pray, to meditate and to contemplate. He had a busy trading business, a wife who was no shrinking violet and a tent full of kids. What man wouldn’t need to get away? We haven’t even mentioned the social and civil unrest he was dealing with. Through Jibreel, Allah speaks to him and Muhammad comes home transformed.
  • Jesus was in the desert for forty days and forty nights after his baptism by John. He was tempted by the devil. Forty long days, and it’s doubtless that those were even longer nights. Scarce water, locusts for food, facing choices about power and worldly riches, struggling with his human and divine natures, battling evil. His mind, soul and heart are tried. He endures, he decides, he rejects what is laid at his feet and he accepts his path both willingly and knowingly. Whether literal or metaphorical in one’s reading of the Bible, there is no controversy that Jesus returns transformed.
  • Abraham was a man of the desert when he was called to leave his home, trust in the one God, have faith that he would have a son, and learn some serious lessons in hospitality and obedience that we still talk about today. He had already lived a long life by the time we meet him in the desert and it was only going to become more eventful. His wife, Sarah, like the landscape, is also barren. In the emptiness and desolation, promises are fulfilled and Abraham is transformed.

That all of this takes place in the dessert seems profound to me; it can’t just be a geographical coincidence. We find ourselves when we are stretched, tormented, stressed and pushed to our limits. Inner reserves are summoned and strength of character is revealed under the harshest of circumstances. But when deprivation of the body, mind and soul force man beyond those limits, when his reserves are depleted and character no longer suffices, in desperation one may reach out to the divine, to that which is greater than the “I”. He empties his self and stretches out to God and for some, God answers. Abraham was answered, and he listened, changing all of human history. That is a pretty bold statement, but I think we can really back it up.

Abraham’s situation, in a convenient short wrap-up where I am clearly taking liberties for the sake of brevity, is that he was childless. Sarah, his wife, had not yet delivered them a child. That is a heartbreak as anyone who wants a child and does not have one well knows. In an ancient society where one is valued for and whose very survival depends on their progeny, it is all important. I hesitate to paraphrase God, and do not mean to be flippant, but, the basics of the story are that God told Abraham that he should leave his home and in return, God would make of him a great nation. To be more precise, He will “make his descendants as numerous as the stars”. What a beautiful, poetic phrase. Here is where we back up the idea that Abraham is one of the most profound figures in human history. I mean, he is a REALLY BIG DEAL because God kept his promise and as mentioned in passing the last time we chatted, 55% of the world’s population today sees Abraham as their spiritual predecessor. Given all the people who have lived, loved and shone in between, that is indeed a starry, beautiful night. Mind = blown.

In order to keep that world altering promise, Abraham needed a son. Sarah, wife of Abraham, eventually delivered a son and that boy was named Isaac. The promise was fulfilled. Yay! In his long life Abraham also learned some pretty important lessons on obedience, hospitality and welcoming strangers as well as this lesson in faith and trust. These are all lessons valued in Judaism, Christianity and Islam to this very day — again, Abraham is a BIG DEAL. But, let’s back up a bit because for the moment, we are focusing on his progeny.

You see, things are never simple or easy. Your life is full of tests and has challenges, so why wouldn’t Sarah’s face the same things? Perhaps people who lived thousands of years ago have more in common with us than we would like to think. The human condition has not changed. In summary: Life. Is. Hard. Before Isaac comes on the scene, Sarah has a major crisis of faith and she doubts if she will ever have a child. She decides to take matters into her own hands and puts another woman into Abraham’s hands, or rather his bed. Sarah gives her Egyptian slave named Hagar to Abraham and tells him to, um, well, you know. So he does. This seems so very strange to us; women don’t usually ask their husbands to lie with another woman and, well, you know. However, it was a different time with very different mores. Hagar was a slave and that meant Hagar was Sarah’s property — lock, stock and womb. If Hagar has a child, that child could be claimed by Sarah.  Boom! Progeny problem solved.

As you may have figured out by now, two women, one man and a maybe a baby in a tent in the desert turned out to be less than idyllic. Predictably, Sarah and Hagar were locked in battle, Sarah complains that this is all Abraham’s fault (huh?) and Abraham says, “Do what you want because she is your slave.” It was probably pretty ugly. I know it would be if that were going on in my tent. I don’t even like another women in my kitchen nevermind doing you know what with my you know who. Hagar is expelled from the tent and she flees to the desert (we’re back in the desert again!). There she is met by an angel. The angel tells her to return home, her descendants will be many, and she will in fact bear Abraham a son. She should name the boy Ishmael. Oh, and by the way, he’s gonna be a handful. In fact, the angel tells her that Ishmael will “be a wild donkey of a man” and will “live in hostility toward all his brothers”. Uh oh – that is ominous. As promised, Ishmael is born. Sarah later conceives and gives birth to Isaac. Abraham’s desert desolation and obedience to God is rewarded with two sons, and their innumerable, starry descendants, which might even include you.

A lot of this is familiar to you if you are Jewish or Christian. Some of you may be able to quote vast passages from Genesis by heart (I can’t. I was raised Catholic, so, yeah.). Isaac and Ishmael are probably not new figures to you. But, here is where it gets kind of interesting. If you are Muslim, the story follows very similarly. Hagar is an even more sympathetic figure and Ishmael looms larger. According to Islamic tradition, Ishmael is the ancestor of the prophet Muhammad and a prophet in his own right. Ishmael is a very real, actual and physical link in the familial chain of succession that extends from Abraham to Muhammad. If you believe that Islam descends from Ishmael and Judaism and Christianity follow a line from Isaac, that kind of makes the Judeo-Christian faiths and the Islamic faiths into step-brothers. Whoa. Let that sink in for a minute. And now extrapolate a bit…. that’s quite a family squabble we see in the news everyday.

Wait! There is more! If that weren’t enough food for thought about how very closely Judaism, Christianity and Islam may be related in the very hearts and minds of adherents, we need to talk about the sacrifice on the stone that was so brilliantly painted by Caravaggio up above. (Fun fact: It is not a certainty that Caravaggio painted “Sacrifice of Isaac”.  Art historians believe it may have been painted by one of his proteges. There are certainly a lot of mights, maybe and who knows in history, right?) Anyway, back to the boy on the stone. That’s Isaac, right? Sure it is! For some of us. But if you are Muslim, it could very well be Ishmael. And just to make this all murkier, not all Muslims would claim it to be Ishmael. The point here is that one of the most powerful lessons on obedience to God (complying with God’s request to slay your own child is extreme obedience in any one’s book, be it Bible or otherwise) that can be found in any religious tradition may have featured Isaac or Ishmael on the stone, depending on what you believe. This is a seminal story for all three traditions. Obedience is one of the first lessons of all three traditions. It does not get any more elemental than this. One of these boys is a central figure in this lesson, the potential sacrifice. Please note that I am not taking a stand here or stating a fact as to who was on the stone. That’s up to you — I won’t tell you what to believe. You can absolutely yell at the computer and say, “What the heck, girl? That is Isaac <alternatively insert Ishmael here>! What kind of malarkey and blasphemy are you spewing?” Go ahead and yell — I can’t hear you anyway. Ha! Again, my point is that one of the crucial stories about arguably one of the most important figures in human history is deeply meaningful and instructive yet still divisive amongst Jews, Christians, and Muslim. We all take away the lesson of obedience, but we argue about the central figures from whom we learned it. Like one big, not so happy, step family, we are still fighting over who nearly did what to whom and why and where and what it means today. Fortunately, we all agree that no son was slain on the stone and God was merciful to his faithful servant, Abraham. Now there is a nice glimmer of agreement and hope. I love finding that silver lining.

If any of this interests you further, Bruce Feiler wrote a fantastic book titled Abraham. Feiler travels throughout the Holy Land and investigates the life of Abraham. He interviews archaeologists, theologians, priests, rabbis and imams. He talks to scholars and believers alike. He undertook his journalistic investigation (he is a journalist by trade) after September 11. He wanted to find our common roots, though the branches have long grown apart.  In it, he summarizes the life of Abraham thus:

“He has no mother. He has no past. He has no personality. The man who will redefine the world appears suddenly, almost as an afterthought, with no trumpet fanfare, no fluttering doves… [Abram]…goes on to abandon his father at age seventy-five, leave his homeland, move to Canaan, travel to Egypt, father two sons change his name, cut off part of his penis, do the same for his teenager and newborn, exile his first son, attempt to kill his second, fight a world war, buy some land, bury his wife, father another family, and die at one hundred-seventy-five.”

Quite an eventful life by anyone’s measure. I wonder what Abraham thinks of his children, we who are as numerous as the stars, our Jewish, Christian and Muslim step siblings. Be kind to your brothers and sisters. Peace, my friends.

 

In the Beginning. (On second thought, that’s a bit much to live up to.)

In embarking on this exercise to explore the world’s religious practices from behind a keyboard, we’ll have to start with some disclaimers.  “All stock recommendations and comments are the opinion of the writer. Investors should be cautious about any and all stock recommendations and should consider the source of any advice…” Wait, that’s not quite the one we need here, except for the “consider the source” part. Maybe “Side effects are uncommon but may include headache, nausea, vomiting, death, sleepiness, dizziness…” No, that’s not exactly right either. The real disclaimer is that I am NOT an expert and you have been warned to consider the source. I have a measly little B.A. in Religious Studies and that was earned about 3,065,975 years ago from a mediocre university.  But, what I lack in credentials is maybe made up for in enthusiasm. I read books about religion for fun. (Party on, Wayne!) Five years of teaching high schoolers forced me to read, read, read and digest information and then regurgitate it (ew, gross) in a way that was relevant to their lives and occasionally amusing. Except for the quizzes. Those sucked. You won’t have any quizzes. You’re welcome. So, to recap, I WILL make mistakes. Please comment, react and correct me. Let’s not make this a one-way street, aight?

One more comment on the disclaimer… it is entirely possible that you, dear reader, will become sleepy. Sorry about that. The good news is I can pretty much guarantee that you won’t die from reading this stuff unless you are simultaneously driving your car and reading, and then all bets are off. It’s between you and God. Or Buddha. Or G-d. Or Allah. Krishna, perhaps. You choose. That is our most important ground rule here — I’m not going to tell you who is right, or who is wrong. Believe what you believe, comment as you please, and be respectful. The point here is not to convince, convert, coerce or cajole. Disagree with me on facts and show me where I am incorrect. But, please do not tell me that the so-and-so’s are wrong about this-or-that because the Book of Pooh to which you ascribe says so. Here, we are simply taking a trip together and talking about how folks around the world experience the divine — their books, their beliefs, their customs, their holidays and their own internal divisions. We are not here to judge because ultimately we answer to a higher authority (Hebrew National hot dogs commercial, anyone? Here it is, in case you forgot about it.)

Hebrew National Hot Dogs, circa 1975

Necessary legal paperwork now out of the way, let’s begin…

In the beginning, man decided he was not alone. He depended on the Earth, the Sky, the Water, the Air for his life. He thanked the unknown forces of the Universe, he thanked Mother Earth, he turned to all four directions in praise. Primitive religions are a fascinating topic. Indeed, ancient faiths like Hinduism and Judaism still very much feature and maintain close connections to the Earth and our dependence on the elements for survival. But, the major faiths in practice today (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism) are the ones that are having great geo-political impact. Whether you favor Fake News, Fox News, CNN, NPR, BBC, or Twitter for your world perspective (and for the love of Pete, please don’t rely on Facebook for your news), you cannot avoid these religions. A grounding in where they came from can perhaps help us understand where we are all collectively going.

Where does one jump in to this, or make that leap of faith, so to speak? There are different approaches to classifying faiths. We can look at things from a monotheistic (one God/deity) vs polytheistic (many Gods/deities) perspective. Or we can try to compare and contrast Eastern vs Western religions. These breakdowns don’t really work so well. For example, it is tempting to label Hinduism as a polytheistic religion.  On the face of it, it certainly looks that way. But digging deeper we find an underlying philosophy of one-ness. So, yeah, that’s not really going to work.

elephanta
Hey guys! Check this out! Is it the Many Faced God from Game of Thrones? No, it’s the Trimurti Shiva from the Elephanta caves in Bombay harbor. These faces represent the creative, protective and destructive/recreative powers of the Hindu god Shiva. That’s some heady stuff. (Get it? Three heads? Okay, okay.)

East/West comparisons also kind of fail because religion travels across all borders. We fly all over the place at the drop of a hat — for personal pleasure, for better opportunities, to satisfy wanderlust, to escape persecution, to escape war. Look around and you’ll find that there are plenty of Christians in the East (over 67 million in China) and a boatload of Buddhists in America (about 3-4 million; it’s a big boat). Islam has spread across the globe and is the fastest growing religion worldwide. According to Pew Research Center, it could very well eclipse the number of Christians worldwide by the middle of the 21st Century. Religion and man really know no borders. Rudyard Kipling seemed to be hinting at this when he wrote,

“Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet, Till Earth and Sky stand presently at God’s great Judgment Seat; But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth!”

So how do we start to tackle all of this? We start with Abraham. In my ever so humble opinion, Father Abraham (🎵 …had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham! Enjoy the flashback to camp.) is one of the most important figures in human history. This guy changed it all. Approximately 55% of the current world’s population (give or take a percent; numbers ain’t my thang) sees Abraham as their spiritual father. That is one heck of a family tree. We’re going to begin with his story and see where he takes us. Next time, I’ll meet you in the desert.

Around the world in 150 pages?

sikh plane

I have started and stopped so many blog posts. The problem with my writing is that it only seems to come from intensely personal places. The loss of my father started my fingers flying and then weight loss prompted me to expose my self in more than one way. (By the way, that has been holding steady, for those interested. I’m working on those pesky body dysmorphia issues at the moment. Who is that in the mirror? A horse of a different color, surely.) Short stories have been started and stopped. A novel idea has bounced around in the back of my brain and sprinkled a few pages. But, since the novel was not really very novel, those soggy pages are abandoned. I have even gone so far as to take a Creative Writing course at the local community college. I do love the course and have met interesting folks. A few of them have unique voices that jump off the page. I want them to write more, I want to hear them speak to me, and I find my own voice muted in comparison. It all just falls flat at the moment. But, perhaps, perchance, might and maybe and it could possibly just be, in its inexplicable way, divine inspiration has struck. (That’s going to turn out to be a pun, by the way.)

What has always moved and fascinated me was the multitude of ways that humans try to connect with each other, with “the other”, with the divine, and with their inner selves. These efforts broadly fall under the heading of “religion”. If you’ve known me for five minutes or met me on an airplane, if you sat next to me at Starbucks or sat across from me at a table for eight in a ballroom, you know I taught World Religions for five years. I know, I belabor it. You are all pretty sick of hearing about “When I was teaching….” or “One of my old students just…” But, those years were the most rewarding years of my life in terms of touching and interacting with humanity. So much was shared, learned and gained — by me. I hope my students got something along the way, too, but I was the greatest benefactor.

So, where is this all going? I am struggling as someone who wants to write. I am despairing in our current divisive political climate. My voice has been silenced in many ways but still seeks a way out. And I am left with no inspiration and have started to hate the pronoun “I”. And then I (there it is again) saw an article yesterday about a Sikh man who was unknowingly photographed and snapchatted (or Instagrammed, who the heck can keep up?) on a flight and the man who was taking his photos was captioning that he was afraid of the terrorist when the turbaned gentleman got up to use the bathroom, was relieved when this terrifying figure fell asleep, that he was “still alive!”, etc. Lightning from the blue! A blog about religions of the world. For laymen. You know, normal people like you and me. Something not intimidating, not full of esoteric and highly metaphysical and philosophical tangents, perhaps with personal anecdotes, approachable, factual and as judgment free as humanly possible. A Huston Smith for the commoners; a guidebook for our globalized world. My old course, in blog form, and without the constraints of Catholic doctrine and adolescent students.

So, that’s the idea. If I can stop one Sikh from being mistaken for a terrorist, stop one more Muslim from being persecuted for the beliefs and actions of a subset of his faith, stop one more woman outside a Charlotte Indian grocer from having a gun pointed at her while she is nursing her baby, explain what the heck karma really is, shine a little light in a darkening world, then that is a reason to write, and it is very personal indeed. Oh, and it is super fun to write about all of the Hindu gods and goddesses and the music of Matisyahu. Bal Shem Tov, anyone?

Fifth time is the charm

kolkata-preset5

My history with India goes back to 1988. A 19-going-on-20 year-old college student, I stepped off the plane, took my first sniff of that unmistakeable smell of India, and I was hooked. The smell is a hazy mixture of cooking fires, heat and humanity. It is not unpleasant, and every time I encounter it, I am overwhelmed with memories and filled with anticipation of what will happen next, because anything can happen. That first trip was four months of travel and discovery that taught me more about myself than I learned in researching my paper that was obnoxiously titled, “The Symbolic Manifestations of Shiva in India in Three Different Cities” or some such nonsense. Needless to say, it was not a groundbreaking work and Joseph Campbell had nothing to worry about. Since then, I have been back several times, and each trip has been a significant moment in my life.

On my first encounter with the subcontinent, I learned mostly about self-sufficiency. I could take care of myself, and that was a revelation. There was the lure of “the East” and that certainly had me in its grips. I did it all. As the British used to say, I “went native”. I wore anklets, bindis (the jeweled “dot” on the forehead), draped myself in shawls, participated in religious celebrations, gazed at the Taj, and had a few marriage proposals because I bear a striking resemblance to a green card. It was life changing for me but seems pretty standard stuff for kids of today. They all seem to study abroad now. But in 1988, this was heady (no drugs were involved, by the way. Midnight Run and all that.). Of course I picked up a bit of Hindi, discovered Indian food, and learned about cultures and religions.  There was some dysentery on a third class train. Now that’ll teach you something about how human kindness and a roll of toilet paper transcend all language barriers. Each challenging moment I met was outweighed a thousandfold by a magical one. There was the night of a million stars. One evening, while walking home from a $2 dinner in the town of Khajuraho, my fellow travelers and I stopped and looked up. Without light and sound pollution, on a clear night, the stars shone the way they have every night since the Big Bang. A bright multitude of pinpoints making us feel insignificant and essential, momentary and eternal. India has a way of making you feel that way if you get past the heat, the poverty, the dirt, the smell, the bureaucracy. Beyond the chaos, underlying the temporal, is the harmony. Khajuraho is known for ancient temples adorned with erotic carvings, symbolizing this harmony and the joining of opposites to create a whole. Those stars taught the same lesson that those ancient carvers and artisans tried to impart.

Trip #2 was life altering in another way. I got married. To a Hindu. In Kolkata. In a sari. What? This is not what the quintessential New England girl from a blue collar background planned to do, but life is quite a ride if you don’t fight it with good sense and practicality. There are more stories than I can recount (or anyone really wants to hear) about our wedding, so let’s leave it at this. For three days, I smiled, sweated, was adorned and bejeweled, cried a few times, was forced to eat bananas before sunup (gross), smeared with turmeric, bowed my forehead to the ground and touched the feet of countless elders, giggled at due to my size (funny now, humiliating when I was 26), threw rice on a fire, had my clothes tied to the man I would spend the rest of my life with (how’s that for some literal symbolism?), and did what I was told. It was the greatest privilege of my life. I couldn’t make sense of much of it then; it was a blur. But, I was welcomed and that was enough. Aside from the wedding, there was another moment from that trip that always makes us laugh. (No, not that. Get your minds out of the gutter, for heaven’s sake.) Kumar and I went to Darjeeling (of tea fame) for our really super long and relaxing two day honeymoon. The Himalayas were spectacular, my new husband spent a lot of time drinking tea while eating toast and watching cricket on TV (ah, married life), and there was a Tibetan Buddhist temple that still haunts my memories. It was a little unsettling in that temple, but not in a bad way. The moment that always jumps to the forefront was our Jeep ride. We were of extremely limited financial means and trying to save a few rupees, so instead of taking the hotel car down to the train station, we hopped into a Jeep that was a leftover from 1958 and held together with chicken wire and gum, with a couple of Tibetans. Seems like a sound decision. We flew down the steep hillside, holding on to the roll bars lest we fall out, tea plantations rolling down the mountain below us and monkeys gamboling above us, while the ancient Tibetan woman in the front seat worked her prayer beads (I credit her for preserving our lives). As we careened down, stopping occasionally for passing goats, I wondered, “When did my life became an episode of National Geographic Explorer?” I was grinning like a fool then and still am as I write this.

Fast forward to the year 2000 and we returned to India with our three-year-old daughter and dear friends, Daniel and Nadine. Now I was a bit of an expert (in my own mind) since this was my third foray to the East. Our daughter danced in the markets, we explored the Taj (trip #2 for me, so yeah, I knew it all), we shopped and ate (boy did we eat!), we grew ever closer to our friends because of the shared adventure, and India began to feel familiar. I saw her absurdity, which made me laugh more than it frustrated me. The predominant memory was being in a taxi with Dan and Nadine. The traffic was not moving at all. Have you been to Chinatown in NY during rush hour? The Kolkata traffic makes that seems like a minor nuisance and just a few cars. Our driver turned around and said three words with the biggest shit-eating grin on his face. (Sorry for the colorful expression, but there is no other way to convey it. Thanks to my Dad for teaching me so many useful phrases.) He exclaimed, “Jam. Total jam!” His joy at having foreigners in his cab, the increased fare that this delay would result in, and showing off his English skills, coupled with the absolute pointlessness of getting angry about that which you can do nothing, made it one of the more ridiculous car rides of my life. We still quote his “Total jam!” and it never ceases to amuse us because to embrace India is to embrace the absurd, and just go with it. Now there is a life lesson.

Like many of life’s significant moments, love, light and understanding come with pain and frustration. After years of infertility, ensuing treatments, heartbreak and acceptance, we travelled to India for my fourth time to take guardianship of our newly adopted son. (As an aside, go see Lion. Bring tissues.)  This was a make or break your marriage kind of trip. This was a make or break your body and spirit kind of trip. A broken arm, bureaucracy of epic proportions, the echo of the words of St. Mother Theresa who we met days after we married, malnutrition, chicken pox, heat and more heat, McDonald’s chicken sandwiches, and Rm 304 all figured prominently this time. But, surpassing all of those things, there was our son. And that’s all I have to say about that because it is getting hard to see the computer screen right now.

About thirteen years passed before we were ready to go back to India. Life happened, school and kids’ sports, jobs, procrastination, identity issues and plain old fear kept getting in our way. Kumar finally pushed me to commit, and we went to India, family of four, intrepid travelers, Kolkata or bust. If you saw the pictures on Facebook, you know it was a great trip. What you don’t know is that it was the greatest trip. Our kids are fantastic travelers. They are fearless, they are open, they eat and drink and travel about without complaint, they embrace unknown family, they question injustice, they appreciate their good fortune, they are empathetic and they are good. They are good. I have never wanted them to be anything else. Other kids can be the smartest, other kids can be the captain of the team, other kids can be “popular”, other kids can be victors. My kids are good and that is more than enough. We saw sights (back to the Taj again!) and enjoyed some spectacular hotels. We laughed, listened to Bollywood classics, slipped into the rhythm at my father-in-law’s home, drank tea by the gallons, and were mesmerized by the sights seen from the car window. India is never, ever boring. What I gained on this trip, other than admiration for my husband and kids, was a newfound love for Kolkata. The “Golden Triangle” is remarkable and riding an elephant is pretty crazy. But timeless Kolkata has my heart. Shopping in Hathi Bagan (Elephant Market) for clothing far surpassed the climate controlled comfort of the new Western style malls. Buying vegetables and fish daily at the market, watching the chicken you picked out being slaughtered and dressed, knowing where your food comes from, is something that the kids needed to see and we all needed to appreciate. Stopping off at the sweetshop to pick out a treat that you eat while walking home, sticky fingers and smiles, making sure to buy some flowers for the family prayer room and being greeted at the door with the jangle of keys and a warm smile from one of the household servants. It is the daily ebb and flow, eternal like those stars from my first trip to India, something you can count on, a feeling of belonging and somehow this foreigner is fitting in, that draws me back again and again. Book stalls on College Street, tea wallahs and clay cups, heat and dust, the call of hawkers and the glorious noise. Stray dogs wandering around and a cow passing by. Cacophonous, disastrous, beautiful and terrible Kolkata. The fifth time was the charm and my imagination runs wild with what the sixth time has in store. I’ll see you again in November, Mother India.