Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Stories Of My People (You Don't Have To Believe Them To Love Them)

My deadline for the second book in my erotic fiction Just One Night trilogy is days away and I'm not done. Therefore when my son came to me the day before Yom Kippur to tell me that he wanted to go to High Holiday Services I had mixed feelings. A big part of me that wanted to skip them this year. But my son's 13, this is the first year he can fast and when he looked at me, when he implored me to take him, I recognized myself in him...myself at 13.

My feelings about God have always been sort of in line with Spinoza's God. To quote Einstein:  

We followers of Spinoza see our God in the wonderful order and lawfulness of all that exists and in its soul as it reveals itself to man and animal. It is a different question whether belief in a personal God should be contested. 

This God that Einstein is talking about isn't a God that has been defined by Judaism or any other organized religion and yet they've characterize my feelings about God for pretty much my whole life.

But when I reached my teen years I became absolutely drawn to Judaism. For me it was a link to my heritage, a virtually unknown part of my identity. I was born a black, Jewish girl. Every time I look in the mirror I feel the connection to my African American heritage. I feel it when certain members of the black community assume an almost instant air of camaraderie upon meeting me, I'm reminded of it when people ask about my nationality and I feel it when I'm exposed to subtle (or overt) racism.

But how does one feel that connection with their Jewish heritage? For some people that's easy. My boyfriend's an Israeli born atheist.  His father fought in the Six Day War. His great-great-great (add a few more greats in there) grandfather is considered to be the father of the Kabbalah. With that kind of family you can probably feel All-Jewish-All-The-Time without ever lighting a single Hanukkah candle. But it's not that easy for me. No one in my family was religious and no one is going to look at me or my son and immediately think, "I bet that person's Jewish." They might not be shocked when they find out we are but they won't assume it upon meeting us. In a society that is defined by assimilation most Jews of my generation don't live in Jewish neighborhoods. Our childhoods are not filled with lox and bagels or latkes or if they are, well those things have been claimed by the general public anyway. Latkes are now potato pancakes that people of all faiths buy at Trader Joe's all the time...along with the bagels and lox schmear they'll be eating after their daughter's Christening. What is there in our society that is uniquely and exclusively Jewish? What makes us unique?

Once you get to college or enter your adult years you can finds groups like Hillel or Hadassah to be the answer to those questions, but as a kid there's really only the synagogue and the activities they sponsor. If you're religious the value of the Torah and the Jewish Bible are obvious but if you're not they're still very valuable. After all, we all know the myths of the Greeks, we've heard of the myths of the Ancient Egyptians, we know the stories of Christianity and Islam...but what about the Jews? What are the myths of our people? We've heard something about some dude parting the red sea but really, what was that all about? Because even if you don't believe they happened the reality is that the lessons from these stories formed the basis for our entire culture and code of conduct for centuries. If we're going to understand our history we need to understand those stories. Plus, I'm a writer, stories are very important to me.  We should know the prayers of our ancestors because those are their hopes and dreams, their beliefs and aspirations. Their aspirations for us, their descendants. 

While I was in college I met a woman at a Hillel event. She sang a Hebrew song, a kind of prayer I suppose. I recognized it and started singing along. She stopped and smiled before saying, "We grew up half a world apart and yet we know the same songs. We're family."And yes, we probably knew the same Nirvana songs too but that's one culture sharing their music with another. This was us sharing the same culture, and therefore the same music. 

When I started going to temple as a teen I heard the rabbi rephrase, in almost poetic terms, the values and lessons my mother had tried to teach to me. I had never thought of these values or lessons being particularly Jewish when they came from the mouth of my secular mother. But when the Rabbi started talking about social justice, forgiveness of yourself and of others, making amends when we do wrong, helping the community, helping others to help themselves, when he started talking about the Jewish definition of sin which basically amounts to letting your talents go to waste, not doing your best, not giving your endeavors your all...when the Rabbi spoke of these things I understood the roots of my mother's morality. I realized that we had been living a Jewish life even when I was sure we weren't. 

So yeah, I understood why I had to stop writing sex scenes for a day and take my son to High Holiday services. And when I took him and again listened to the Rabbi speak, I found myself falling into a somewhat meditative state.  Through his sermon I was reminded of the value of determination and of sharing our success with others. I was reminded that it's been months since I've volunteered for Meals On Wheels or with reading programs for inner city children. I was reminded of why that's important and why I should try not to be so self-righteous about my political philosophies that I refuse to listen to opposing opinions because debates are about listening and responding to those who disagree with us, not preaching to the choir and drowning everybody else out. I was reminded of the value of the religion of my people and, for me, it's relatively insignificant that I don't believe in all of its dictates or choose to practice all the rituals all the time.

I don't know if I'll ever believe in the God as he is defined within the Torah, I don't think I'll ever believe in the stories from the bible, but I appreciate the lessons they teach and I deeply appreciate what they tell me about the history of my people.  I'm so glad I know the same songs as other Jews half a world away.

I'm glad my son made me go to temple.


Leslie Langtry said...

Kyra - elegantly said. I'm not religious - but I admire your faith.

kyradavis said...

Thank you. Oddly enough I don't really consider myself religious either. Like I said, I don't believe in a personal God. But I have so much respect for the religion of my people and the gifts of religion in general (I mean how can you look at the works of Michael Angelo and not appreciate the beauty religion has inspired) that I rejoice in occasionally immersing myself in it.