My Thoughts When You Quit Observant Judaism

Maybe you’re right.

If you’re right, why do I stay? Joining you would be moral.

You’re not right; you can’t be. All of a sudden, a profound personal philosophy? Yesterday you were chugging the power hour.

Oh, you quote professors now.

Did you specifically learn new Torah sources to reject them? What books have you been reading? I must read them. I must not read them.

Epissedoffmology.

How can you do this to me? You call me blind to everything you see.

Am I supposed to just sit here while you mock what’s most important to me? I’ll wipe that self-righteous grin off your faces.

I can convince you to stay.

I can martial arguments I find convincing. I will put them forward in my most reasonable voice. My tone says, “You’re hurting me.”

At least you’re now following the authentic Judaism of the Talmudic sages to the letter, unhindered by the reforms of Moses.

If it’s all just a choice, choose to be with me.

I love you and everything, but stop pretending this changes nothing.

There are three of us now, you, me, and the Torah, and you cannot speak without sounding jealous, but I remember when the Torah was our love-letter, not my mistress.

I choose Torah over you? Who is this “you” and when was it born?

I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

I can’t convince you of anything.

Faith is all I have, and I cannot give it to you. Before, you saw that as wealth. Now, you think I’m poor. I have not changed.

Retreat, retreat. To the small keep, inside.

I can roll my eyes as high as you.

We can still be friends. If we can’t still be friends, you’ll say it’s my fault.

You say you’re “just asking questions” but they all run in one direction.

Well, this hurts.

Maybe I don’t get it because I wasn’t raised religious.

You’re so powerfully authentic, to question. Thank you for joining the club. Thank you for questioning every day, for struggling, for plumbing ever-deeper into what belongs to you. Oh, you’ve left.

I liked you better as I imagined you, sitting before the feat of our shared sages, appreciating the same light, before you opened your mouth and leaped from the tapestry demanding that you, too, were to be encountered.

Repent before me.

Why am I not leaving?

Maybe I’m brainwashed.

I don’t think I’m brainwashed.

You say I’m full of wishful thinking.

I don’t think so.

Don’t you see it’s personal for me?

Why is it all so personal? I need it to be. I hate that it is.

It’s all just labels. We’re really the same, maybe? I hope it doesn’t talk about souls anywhere in Judaism.

I can see in your eyes you’re ready for the part of the movie where we realize loving each other is more important than our intransigent ideological commitments. I’m not ready. I hate those movies.

I probably sin more than you do, but for me it’s unofficial.

You probably care more about Judaism than I do.

You probably have a deeper relationship with G-d than I do. The screenwriters were always on your side.

It’s all just group identity, and you didn’t care to stay in my group. What now? Shall I impale you upon a spear?

I can’t wait for you to abandon the restrictive social codes of religious society so you can acquire better restrictive social codes you apply to all my actions. When did I ever judge you, by the way?

I have never encountered more restrictive rules in my life than in trying to navigate a conversation with you since the fall.

Perhaps I’m your heretic.

I’m sorry. I’m not at fault here. Just thoughts.

You make me feel every time I mention Judaism I’m an evangelist. I hope you’re fooled by my smile/grimace when you bring up psychology.

How can we be having a genuinely angry argument over Artificial Intelligence? The joke is obvious.

You didn’t stick around long enough to observe the strange unfolding of the blossoms from bitter and rejected seeds.

You can’t be fixed. Judaism can’t be fixed for you. Fixing them is breaking them. And you’re meant to be an end, not a means.

You can bring the horse to water but you can’t make him read a book without a million catty comments.

Agony! Can we not step into the past, wrap it around ourselves, and settle among its answers? Religion comes between us? What we imagine comes between us. The future comes between us.

Maybe I don’t get it because I never did hallucinogens.

You tie it to who you are, lay down before me, and dare me to tread on you, but you crouch behind objectivity like a shield. The day is young, but, before sunset, you’ll pick one.

I don’t want to think I’m better than you, but if you dare me…

Even the old songs wither in your mouth. Not because you intend it. Because I can’t slip my mind, in order to find you, past the ironic remove at which you’ve set yourself.

You seem not to like it when I take your choice too seriously.

Why are you still living in this neighborhood?

You don’t want me to define you even by the definitions you provide. You want to float unmoored in pure self-definition. You want to be worshipped, not evaluated.

I know the way is true. I still don’t doubt it’s true. Yet we also stand apart, and so I pause. Must it last forever?

Fine, don’t stay for the experience. Stay for the struggle with the experience. Fine, stay for the struggle with the struggle. Stay for the struggle with the struggle with the –

Am I supposed to pretend I don’t want you to be observant?

I disagree but can’t argue.

Maybe I don’t get it because I’m not handsome enough.

There is some ending to this story where you come over to my side, right?

I can step back and see how we’re united in our opposition. I can step back further and see how that’s not good enough. Stop me when I hit a wall, if you still believe in those.

G-d has made it in such a way that it matters a lot that you’re doing this together with me.

Why can’t we be together?

Why don’t I leave?

Maybe you’re right.

But I won’t.

What do you know about being religious that I don’t?

At least you can go to those deep rebel farbrengens without being sniffed out as a fascinated impostor.

I’m insulted.

What about my worship of G-d was so fake and so horrible it couldn’t inspire you to stay?

You’re going to swear a lot now to prove how real you are, aren’t you?

At least you made a choice.

Infinite questions, no acceptable answers.

Let’s play the game where we guess which book fuels today’s rebellion.

Almost anything is forgivable, except that you’re more forgiving than me.

I hope it changes nothing.

In the end, perhaps we’re all in the cradle or the grave.

You say my whole life is built upon a mistake you made in your teens.

Make me hate you, then explain how it’d all be so much more peaceful if no one believed in anything.

The one who gets angry first loses.

Are you going to be a good person now? Weird. I thought you were a good person from the day we met.

I’m sorry.

It’s a mitzvah to love you, to rebuke you, to draw you closer. If I don’t do any of these things, and let the relationship atrophy, perhaps finally, finally, we would be alike.

I hold out secret hope that I’ll stumble over the key to winning you over. You hold out the same hope. This is how we love each other now.

Maybe I care about these things more than I love you. Perhaps it was a conditional love. Perhaps it was what we had in common that kept me from your depths. Perhaps this is our long-short road.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

A Night In Morristown

A story from yeshiva, based on true events.

They are singing though they hate to sing and listening though they question respect. Not all of them; the library welcomes all sorts tonight, the kind and the quiet, the studious and the odious, drawn forth from the dorm where they have been resting, chatting, drinking, drawn forth for the spectacle. Farbrengen!

No, they vary. But some of them, the only ones I really notice (their transgressions fill my ledgers) are as statues come to life and for no good reason. Most of the time they are cold rock, closed to the world, denying its qualities. “Rabbi so-and-so (whom I have never met) scrabbles for power in his distant city in the most amusing wormlike way.” “Singing means nothing.” “It’s all just externalities, that’s all it is!” Usually I smirk and bear it because I know (though I can’t yet put it to words) that by rejecting anything but their own high standards they are rejecting their own humanity and that one day I’ll grasp their inferiority, and if that’s not faith, I don’t know what is. So I don’t mind them so much.

But tonight, in the library, the chairs pressing all around, table set in plastic austerity and dotted with oily salads, the holy books of responsible students, and one warm bottle of Smirnoff, something inside me gives way and my contempt for them rises to my nostrils. Here they sit, acting as if they respect a man for more than his participation in the correct schedule, as if the music moves them even though it’s pointless, far beneath blood or purity.

The Rabbi says “L’chaim,” strokes his brown beard, tells a story. I’ve heard it before, and if I’ve heard it, so have they, a thousand times. I’m some confused can-kicker from Atlanta who fell into a shred of wisdom by accident; they were swaddled in it and fed by it; this story is to them their whole family back to Adam, an artifact torn from the Siberian snow, still frozen. The story means what their father said it means, what their grandfather said it means, what Moses (“My mother’s father’s ancestor, head shliach to the Sinai, a sweet guy but a real mamzer in politics”) said it means. We do not need to add our thoughts. We are here to participate in it and transmit it. But I do have my own thoughts.

I can’t help it; I’m trying to quit; I see an inherent parallel to a sicha I learned once, though it raises certain questions, and I make a mental note to learn that talk again though I have a bad habit of losing heart these days because most people don’t know enough to relate to my inferences and those who do turn back to stone when the clock strikes midnight and the farbrengen ends and the license for sincere self-expression is revoked.

I wonder whether I might obtain such a license one day, but saying you want one is the first step to never being taken seriously again and besides, I am not a descendant of the shliach to the Sinai. Whatever. We all know those licenses censor as much as they permit and there’s a reason these farbrengens mostly sound the same. So I leave.

It’s the beginning of Winter and the Jersey air greets me like a puppy and the bottom of the stairwell. It tells me it’s been wandering since I saw it last; while I was breathing garlic and body heat it had blown down from Canada, free of worry or regret, and is now on its way to the city. The stars glimmer in their eternal sublime silence, their agonizing beauty. They are content to inspire man, to be painted and rhapsodized in poetry, but they do not condescend to help us when our mouth tastes like onion and tomato and we look to the deer stalking across the dark baseball field with a strange, pagan envy.

I roll the sleeves of my white shirt down and sit on a bench. My yeshiva looms around me. It was once a monastery up on this wooded hill and it is not hard to imagine a student walking his luggage down the length of the parking lot, expelled, shaking his fist at the buildings’ soaring mass with a visigoth’s contempt, his heart brimming with the barbaric pride in never having erected a single pillar because all excellence is oppressive and civilization is a siege tower against the soul’s embankments. It smolders within me, the hint of this resentment; it warms my heart. I want to pull down the damned building and what it symbolizes brick by brick until my arrogant detractors tumble into the field with me and I will show them just how human they are –

Somewhere nearby, water hits the bricks of the courtyard with the velocity granted by a long fall. It sounds almost like the splashes you sometimes hear mid morning when the bochrim on the third floor, late for class and too lazy to find a sink, empty their bedside basins out a window with a charm that may or may not violate the Code of Jewish Law. But this is a more continuous pouring, more focused, almost as if – there! A body stands silhouetted in a high window, hands holding onto its inner edge as he urinates with aplomb into empty space. Behind him, I can hear laughter and singing. I make the calculation. The window belongs to a classroom near the study hall. My curiosity is piqued.

I roll up my sleeves, give the night a last, longing look (the deer are long-gone) and walk inside.

There are different degrees to which Judaism demands we violate the space between us. I have worked through long witching hours at the Western Wall, alone in a vast plaza; I have been there are the bustling pilgrimage festivals. I have felt the pressure, the smothering heat before the gravestone at Meron. But none of these are quite the same as the Farbrengen With Limited Room. One cannot compare the standing/stumbling of crowded prayer to this seated insularity, food and drink passed and spilled hand-to-hand, the table supporting the inside of it and the tension of love or mere attention crackling in the ether. The classroom excretes cigarette smoke through the still-open window and I breathe others’ hot vodka-tainted breath.

The one who peed upon the world has already retaken his seat to keep his mysteries forever. He could be anyone present, for arrayed before me is a proper thieves’ farbrengen, the scoundrels’ council of the Yeshiva. In the thick of it sit the clean-shaven chain smokers, the lower-grade scalawags who spend half the week begging for Shabbos leave and the other half resenting the declination, the wilder Frenchmen, the ideological philosopher dissidents, the cross-bearing floaters too delinquent to succeed at anything except keeping their parents blissfully ignorant.

They’re not mine, these wilds. I’m sure, as I stand in the doorway, that thinking they might see me as some sort of rat is making them see me as some sort of rat, but they are hardly paying attention. Berel is speaking and it’s his words that prevent me from closing the door and dashing off. “I want to be good,” he says.

It strikes at a flint deep inside and for just a moment I feel as if I shine. Here, the men are made of flesh. Here, none will ever own a license, barring some transformative experience that will allow them, in their middle-age, to say “In a past life.” Perhaps this chaos is mine. Perhaps it is the true order.

“Just do one thing,” Arraleh suggests. “Don’t go too fast.” Berel nods heavily; they are equally in their cups.

I don’t sit because I have never smoked and I still want to be excellent, maybe. I’ve spent too much time thinking to take these late words on their faces, and I wish to get up on the table and ask – if you want to so badly, then why don’t you? Are you an honest thief doing wrong and respecting right or are you crying over your vodka to stay the same because the wages of crime are so great?

I take my own bribes, but I take them in private. I can’t give up being true for being good. The world is too big to be merely a cancer on my self-justification; the stars are not my friends; the path from rebellion down to nothingness is well-worn and turns love to loathing…

I, of the first person, am not unforgiving stone, not an angel, not an animal.

In the morning, the classroom will be a desolation of stale smells and damaged property, and the library will bear the dutiful repeating of the Rabbi’s words.

I choose my bed.

The stars watch on as I carry my sore head up three flights to my waiting Wal-Mart sheets. My roommate the saint sits under his bedside lamp, studying as always. He will go on to greatness, we all know.

As for me, the month of Kislev is coming, and the snow. As I fall asleep, I remember a promise from years ago that somewhere here in yeshiva the living G-d bides his time, a new coat in his hand, waiting to bring me in from the cold.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

All That Matters

All that matters is we should be together.

But this, we cannot be.

You are over there, and I am over here.

These words do not approach giving you who I am. And, when it comes to everything that is important…words fail.

So:

When we sit in the dead of night and listen to F♯A♯∞ with near-religious reverence, or take in the kids tobogganing down Central Park hills, or even look each other in our red eyes,

I do not know what you see.

I do not know what you see.

I tell you that the Hopper painting is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, that the light in that frail building’s crooked arm is the soul Adam bore out of Eden against the looming dark.

But you don’t understand what I mean.

You protest that we see the same picture. But that’s wrong. The picture is there for sure. There’s only one picture. The picture I can know, a little bit. And so can you.

But you cannot know what it is to be me, looking at Edward Hopper’s painting.

And I cannot know what it is to be you, doing the same.

And no matter how much they’ve tried, or how many words they’ve spilled, or how much they’ve insisted that I am one with them,

I have not believed them.

I am trapped outside of believing them.

Though the words make us feel less lonely, they are only the gossamer structs we’ve carved from the air, and they will melt away by morning, and I am I, and you are you

and I cannot know

if we have

ever

met.

I have not met you. And I have not met Hopper.

There is only one way to meet you, my beloved.

We each have to trust.

I have to trust that there is a someone behind those eyes

a someone like I am someone

and that their knowing

is my knowing

far, far beyond

what any poor word can hope to hold.

But how can I trust you?

How can I believe in you, when I can’t say why you should believe in me?

Maybe that’s what so many of us are waiting for.

Maybe I am standing at the station, baggage in my hand, waiting for a train unlisted on the schedule, whose arrival will be the end of me and the beginning of us.

Maybe that’s the color of the uncoiling love that’s supposed to protect us like whispered cartel promises in young, desperate ears,

the love uncaused as Gd falling like a brick from the blue that we cannot search for but hope to find.

I am waiting to find it.

It is not, I imagine, the love we shape from the clay we breathe into. It is not either that wishful love, a colorful bird brightening the drab webs at the creases of our imaginations. After all, these are words in their own ways, images, bodies, and that which is incarnate is lost, lost, lost.

I am waiting to break free of these transistors and sail the black static between your stars.

No; we wait for the love that we cannot know until it is who we are, the love of being with another, it (beyond description) itself the one word in the dictionary of the infinite tongue, the bluntest language and the only true one, whose grammar we violate at the risk of nonexistence.

I am waiting to hear it spoken.

I am waiting.

I am waiting because there is nothing else to do.

I am waiting because I trust, for some reason, that there is more than I’ve so far found.

Until Gd unprevented draws our sparks together, I’ll just sit here and wonder why I am typing these words,

wondering: Do you believe in me?

Do you, too, wait on the teeming shores of your island unchartable resenting the extent of the sea?

Please, don’t answer.

I don’t know whether I can believe you.

 

Originally posted on Hevria.

My Short ‘Shrooms Story

Once upon a time, when I was younger and less wise, I spent a shabbos at a campus Chabad house in Manhattan. The rabbi seemed like a pretty cool guy, definitely on the wacky end of the spectrum, which is good I suppose.  Anyway, I’m doing what any good Chabad bocher would do at the shabbos meal Friday night, shmoozing with tons of college kids, being charming, and representing Judaism.

This one guy ends up across from me sometime near the soup course and he’s super intense, super curious about Judaism. Over the course of the meal, I basically tell him my whole life story, plus a whole Purim maamar about randomness, rationality, G-d’s love of the Jewish people, etc. He seems very interested, which is unusual and has ME very interested. He says the maamar is beautiful, which I think is beautiful.

It’s one of those conversations where the whole room is a murmuring blur, through the courses, through bentsching. It’s me and him, a back and forth. We retire to the sitting room, where for the first time he tells me that he was once in Yeshiva.

“But the Yeshiva really disappointed me.” Interesting.
“Yeah, all the Rabbis there preached humility but were really egotistical.” INTERESTING.
“I just wanted a focus on G-d, but all they were interested in was Talmud.” AHHHHHHHHHH!

“You know,” I told him, the voice of suave confidence, “you should really try a Chabad yeshiva some time. Chassidus is all about G-d.” At this point we have been speaking for about two hours, and I feel like I’m in one of those stories that only happens to other people where you wrap tefillin on the guy and now he lives in Jerusalem with a long white beard and twelve beautiful children.

Then he says, “I don’t really believe in Judaism.”

We speak for another hour. I do the apologetics thing which I would never do nowadays. He keeps shaking his head. It’s not like he has counterarguments. I can tell his mind is simply made up. But why? Was his yeshiva experience really that bad?

At long last, when I am tired and spent and my initial enthusiasm for this guy is waning, he looks around conspiratorially and says, “Have you ever heard of psychadelic mushrooms?”

So it turns out that the one guy I ever met that I thought I might be able to turn on to chassidus once realized on a mushroom trip that G-d does not exist but that Moses and Jesus were both tuned in to the eternal brotherhood of mankind, and that’s why he would never be religious.

Beaten by mushrooms.

I collapse sadly into my bed.

Epilogue

The next morning, the Rebbetzin, who is quite wonderful, a very nice person, comes up to me and says, “Wow! What did you say to him? He has never stayed here longer than half an hour before. You must have really had a good impact on him.”

fml

Again

I don’t even really like my job. It’s tedious and annoying. I live and work in a Jewish academy in the middle of nowhere (it used to be a monastery), and my job is to record exactly who is in the study hall when learning is in session. The students range from seventeen to twenty and from immature to not-quite-mature.

So why am I in so much pain, leaving?

Life itself is the greatest of all pleasures. While it’s unchallenged, we don’t even realize we enjoy it. But try to take someone’s life away…

 

They’re sitting at a picnic table near the parking lot, this afternoon. One guy’s a free spirit, so free he resents the concept of punctuality and punctuality’s patron saint (at least in northern New Jersey), me. Another is quiet; we’ve probably shared three scattered words since the year began. One is studious, a perfect student, never late, too perfect for antics. There’s a guy who’s just “one of the guys,” the guys I was never part of.

I never disliked them, or liked them either. They were simply the faces (so many faces) who’d pass by in the hall, who’d eat in the lunch room, who’d play Frisbee or soccer during lunch breaks. We’d complain together constantly – there was a lot to complain about. Terrible school, badly run. The food – isn’t. Can you believe who’s in trouble? And for what? Why can’t they see what the problem actually is? We can’t wait to just get out of here…

I sit watching these guys at the table and, out of nowhere, I feel it. It’s the end of a good novel or TV show. It’s the open lockers and papers everywhere on a summer afternoon in high school. It’s the buses lined up faithfully on the last day of camp. And today, it’s the luggage rolling down the passage outside my room and the loaned books returned to my shelf by people who I realize I love, not because of anything they did but because they were there for a time, a part of my life, another long day washed under the bridge.

It’s not even the end of the year; they’re leaving for the holiday of Shavuos, the day we received G-d’s Torah on Mount Sinai. But after that it’s just two weeks, and then no matter what I do or where I go, it will be after, beyond, the rest.

I will not return to my home of three years. I’m not truly happy here, not anymore. I can accomplish things elsewhere and I need change and there’s a whole life to live outside these four walls, but this afternoon, when they were on those benches, I wanted to keep Shavuos in place and cling to this mediocrity with iron fingers, because it’s my mediocrity and I live here and not again, not again, not again. Not the parting, the endless beyond, the unbearable future without them and these hallways painted hospital white and the deer in the woods and late night 7-11 runs and the guy at the gas station whose stomach hangs out of his T-shirt and the boiled eggs and my mail in the back office and the long winters. Why must I do this again? Why do I have to taste the warming wind, watch these rooms drain of people, blood from a limb, and then gather my things and move once more?

I sometimes think that G-d is the pack you put on your shoulders as you must, again, walk down the road.

 

Van from my phone; Van Gogh from Wikipedia.

The Earth Is Not A Cold, Dead Place

There was a Russian guy I knew in Tel Aviv who clearly lived with pain and depression. He hated everyone and everything, but not all on the same day. We got along. I once asked him if, when he went to sleep, he looked forward to the fresh start of the morning, whether he felt the potential of the new day when he woke up. He rolled his eyes and said, “What am I, twelve?” If I gave in to my own gnawing feelings of despair, I would’ve said fourteen, since G-d split my life open with an ice pick when I was fifteen.

Okay, there’s no way you’re not going to think that’s melodramatic after you hear the story. I wasn’t raped or abused, G-d forbid; I didn’t try to kill myself; I wasn’t forced to listen to Nickelback on infinite repeat. I just went to a party. Not even a real party; a nice-Jewish-kids-from-the-suburbs-try-to-party party.

That’s all.

It was a Saturday night in September of sophomore year. I remember because before my parents drove me there I showered and changed out of my Shabbos clothes into what I considered social clothes. It probably involved a T-Shirt and jeans. What did I know? I hadn’t been to a high school bash before, but my time had come; a guy in our class lived in a big house, and his folks were out of town for the weekend. I looked forward to it.

There was less Xbox than I expected.

I waved my parents off and went around the back entrance. Oh. Dude from school was hanging out in the Jacuzzi with some girls. Nice guy. Still like him to this day. Welcomed me and told me everyone was in the basement.

Through a beautiful, dramatic living room and down to the bottom. It was busy. A bunch of people were playing pool. Some were smoking hookah. On a side table, someone set up an electronic pocket scale exactly like the one my father uses to weigh gunpowder. Boys and girls cavorted (pardon my French) in the bedrooms. There was alcohol everywhere replenished from a bona fide wine cellar (never saw one of those before). It wasn’t really my thing. Or at least, I wasn’t interested in finding out if it was. Now, my father offered me beer and whiskey all the time and I had definitely noticed these girl things before. None of this should have been any kind of shock. Nevertheless… I retreated into myself, struck dumb. I sat on the side, fended off offers of fun & substances, and waited ‘till the morning for it to end.

It still hasn’t.

The sun came up and I went to school on Monday and after a week the head cold from sleeping for a couple of hours under an air vent in the home theater burned away, but I was different forever. From something I doubt ninety-five percent of the attendees remembered two months later.

Now, by the time you’re fifteen, you already know that you’re screwed up. Some of us know it when we’re very little, but the teen years really ram it in everyone’s face. More and more of your waking hours are occupied by Screw-up; the kid you once were has to fight an uphill battle for every moment of your attention. I knew of my own daily struggle with Screw-up, and since I was a smarty pants in Honors Algebra I made the connection and assumed everyone had their own issues, even though we didn’t speak of the issues, we didn’t live the issues, and we didn’t campaign for acceptance of our issues. Our school was a happy place of music, learning and sunshine (who am I kidding? It was a hippie commune with textbooks. We didn’t even have a building) in a non-ironic, non-creepy way.

Why didn’t anyone release or even talk about the Screw-up at school? It’s possible they did, and I just didn’t notice. I was several years and dozens of disillusions away from beginning to notice other people’s issues, and to this day I have friends who were raised by Chassidic wolves with iced vodka for blood that noticed Screw-up better when they played with their Aleph-Beis blocks than I do now. The subtle web of damaged human contact in which I bathe leaps out at me like the ninja in this picture:

shluchim

I know for a fact, however, that my parents rarely released their Screw-ups, and from my early dealings with my own S.U., I grasped how difficult this was. I tried to live up to them. They were subtle, they were dignified (especially my mother, may she be well and not get too upset over anything I write), and I expected the same of everyone else.

That night, in my eyes, everyone’s worth took a dive.

Since that night, in some small way, people are animals.

You know what it’s like? Stand in front of a mirror, make sure no one’s around, and take the pointer and middle finger of each hand and insert them into your mouth (I’m going somewhere with this). Pull back and sideways at your mouth’s four corners so you reveal a good amount of tooth and gum. See how creepy that is? Aren’t your hyper aware of your skull right now? We love the sight of our own faces, normally. But that’s because we think of ourselves as ourselves, not as animated meat sacks. Like everything from umbrellas to ultrabooks, the sign of good craftsmanship is the sublimation of the atoms and the molecules and the wood and the plastic into something higher. Look just a little too much at the meat and it’s unsettling. The composite disintegrate into parts, matter disengages from form, we become aware of our bodies, and we don’t like it. I certainly didn’t like it that September night in sophomore year.

I want to go back. I want to be fourteen, when I was worried about my sanity but not about the world’s. I want days that end as optimistic and as integrated as they start. I want to greet the stars not with weariness and melancholy but with the wonder I felt as I gazed at the celestial and mortal glowings on the drives to grandma’s house and didn’t understand how the moon followed us home.

Most nights, I think it’s impossible, and sleep to forget.

When I don’t, it’s because an old Jew in Brooklyn who spoke English with an accent said that this world is not a jungle. This world is a garden, he said and says. He, whose sainted father wrote kabbalistic teachings that strike the mind like orchard-scented thunderbolts but died young surrounded by loincloth-wearing savages for insisting on Kosher matzah for his congregants. He, whose father-in-law had to send teenaged yeshiva students to their deaths to teach Jewish children about Moses. He, who from childhood struggled to understand how in Messianic times we will thank G-d for the tribulations of this longest exile, its inquisitions and its pogroms and its bookend holocausts.

He insisted and insists that the world is G-d’s garden.

Why do I believe him, when I do?

At fourteen I had high hopes for the world even though I’d met my own potential for ugliness, and I would have needed only the G-dliness within to right the sinking ship of my thought, words, and deeds. At fifteen, my eyes opened to a flawed reality, and I needed to hear a brave voice. I needed to hear that there was more at issue here than my feelings. I needed to hear someone deny, truth to power, that prayer was here to make us feel better about the messed up world and that the highest human achievement existed in the context of that mess. I needed someone to deny that everything good is only a metaphor for something evil. I needed to hear someone say that G-d is real, the most real, and that He runs the world, that it’s not a jungle and that so help us, warts and all, we will say it’s beautiful and we won’t be lying.

If I can trust that after plunging through layer upon layer of disillusionment and fear I will hit upon the solid ground of his conviction instead of some naïve dream, I’ll escape this place.

I really should call that Russian guy.

 

Featured image from Flickr. CC BY 2.0. Post title shamelessly stolen from an Explosions in the Sky album which you should listen to while you stargaze.

From a Dream, Shabbos Night, 18 January, 2014

Rude, I think, as the guy next to me physically claims two-thirds of the bench, leaving me to squeeze my wide frame into one corner and struggle not to fall off or elbow the jerk in the face as I pull my oxfords on, right, then left, and lace them, left, right. My mother and I are sitting back-to-back on one of those wide benches they have in JFK so there’s plenty of room for everyone to sit and put their shoes on after passing through security, but the geniuses at the planning department didn’t account for this gigantic specimen of a Southern father trying and failing to get his kids to quiet down as he buckles his boots, three rugrats orbiting him as if caught in his gravity field.

“Where do these people come from?” I ask my mother as we stride through the Terminal, searching for our gate, which is inevitably as far away from the security checkpoint as possible. Wherever one my access through the first thirty gates, neither we nor anyone we know have ever gone there.

“Just forget about it,” she says up at me. We make quite a pair. I’m 6’5″, she’s 5’6″;  in public, a suit jacket and a broad-brimmed fedora expand my silhouette to downright threatening dimensions, while her sweater and small purse somehow make her seem even smaller. I can be surly, especially when travelling and overwhelmed by crowds and loud noises; she’s quiet but a master of politeness, even friendliness, at least until we start getting the bureaucratic fake-smile-accompanying-bad-news stuff, in which case she introduces her wrath (which I know well) to new audiences. She walks at a quick pace, occasionally slipping through gaps in the foot traffic that would become tackle-takedowns if I attempted them; I have to swing wide for open waters and join her afterward.

We’re running late, and she’s secretly irritated about it. I’m always tardy, and she never is. I have tried to explain to her the joy of being late, the way in which G-d is open to those who themselves are open, and she always raises an eyebrow and tells me to save it for the other Rabbis. So when I went to sleep last night I wholly intended to submit to my mother’s preference: 5:30 reveille, 6:30 on the road, 7:00 at the airport, 8:30 flight. Due to the laws of physics pertaining only to alarm clocks we woke at 6:30 and now it’s 8:15 and I’m dodging one of those indoor cars they use to shuttle the elderly and the infirm around the terminal as my mother points at the square sign announcing Gate 2 as if it were the very stamp of imminent redemption. They’re already boarding, but the line is long, and we have never met anyone who is a medallion member or sits in zones one through seven; they must all fly to Walla Walla or something from those first thirty gates.

I need to use the restroom and I leave my heavy sandwich-laden backpack with my mother as I scramble back up the terminal. The sweat band of my hat is damp with nervous perspiration and I’m overheating in my four layers. I should have left my jacket with mom as well. The bathroom is closed for maintenance. Wonderful. I have no idea where to find another one until a kind elderly woman notes my distress and directs me to Sam’s Shoes, a large establishment right across the wide terminal hallway that has a restroom on premises. I make for the store, eyeing its dusty window display with anxiety. The interior is no better. It is a shoe store from a different country and a different age, recently deserted. Haphazard stacks of shoeboxes clutter the leather air. A counter messy with laces and rags sits in one corner next to a polishing chair whose back reaches the low ceiling. A door in the rear wall is labeled with the male and female bathroom symbols and I feel like a lummox as I drag through the skewed racks, nearly knocking something over at every corner.

Inching around the last bend, I almost walk straight into him. He is bent over, heaving boxes into place under a display of ghastly beige leather slip-ons festooned with maroon buckles. He wears a flannel shirt, sleeves rolled up to the elbow, and his aged, pockmarked face and bloodshot eyes are framed by mutton chops and a feathery moustache, both greying. A worn flat cap tops his head. He stares at me, unmoving, and I get the absurd sense that I am for some reason unwelcome in his store. I move with all my grace to slip past him and the heel of my shoe nips his. “Sorry,” I mutter and open the door to the ancient bathroom whose light is turned on by (Lord help us) pulling a chain. Once I’m done I wash my hands and pull the door closed behind me. I say the words of the Asher Yatzar, all thoughts of my creator driven from my head by the words “New York” and “Singapore” clattering out of the airport P.A. The man is not where he was before and I glance up to find him by the counter. I nod in the friendly but reserved way known to all introverts and begin picking my way toward the store’s exit which I can detect by a slight waft of air and a few rays of white light that manage to diffract around a tower of wafer-soled fashionable sell-out Steve Maddens.

I feel someone stepping on the heel of my shoe. I jump, turn around, and find him staring me straight in the eye, unflinching. I am afraid. I turn back to the exit and begin walking faster, and I feel another tug at my heel. I am almost at the exit as he steps on me again and this time pulls my shoe clean off as I hop into the foot traffic of the terminal, glad to be among people once more. My shoe comes skidding across the white tile, kicked by the stumpy man, hands akimbo, indignation on his face. A name tag at his chest reads “Sam.” I stick my foot in my shoe and my face in his face. I can feel myself towering over him impressively and my expression reads “what in the world is wrong with you.” He shoves me in the chest with both hands. He is surprisingly strong. I lose my balance and step back. The woman’s voice on the P.A. sounds impatient as she announces final boarding for my flight. I can’t imagine what my mother is doing.

“You stepped on me,” Sam says. His eyes don’t leave mine for a second. He is unbearably ugly.

“I said I was sorry,” I say, and it somehow sounds lame, even to me.

“No, now you are sorry,” he says, but he doesn’t smile. He is not saying it as I would, with self-effacement and humor, a gesture of goodwill. He is pleased by my discomfort. I can’t handle it and turn to go, but he grabs my forearm with an iron grip and pulls me down close to his face. I smell garlic on his breath. I ball my fist. He smiles with horrible, ruined teeth and lets me go. He looks up at me, chin sticking out, full of pride. I am suddenly certain, for some reason, that he is Jewish. An inescapable urge to embrace him sweeps over me, but he is already stepping away. He shakes his head, as if I will never understand, and he returns to his store.

My mother ushers me onboard, embarrassed to have held up the flight. I fall into my seat in a daze. It is for some reason unbearable to adjust the air conditioning nozzle, or to slip my book into the seat-back pocket in front of me, or to hear the safety demonstration. I put in earplugs and close my eyes.

I think of him for thirty thousand feet, and beyond.

Featured Image from Flickr