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Reconstructing Judaism

 

My synagogue belongs to a small branch of Judaism called Reconstructionism. I think there are something like a hundred Reconstructionist congregations, and three hundred and fifty Reconstructionist rabbis, in North America, so it is a small, but not invisible movement. I’ve never quite considered myself a Reconstructionist Jew, though, the way some people identify as Modern Orthodox or Reform or Conservative. I’ve only belonged to this synagogue for six years now, so it’s more that I like my congregation in particular. I still just consider myself Jewish, without a specifier.

I like that the Reconstructionists emphasize that we can make our own choices, about what to believe and how to practice, instead of having to go to the rabbi for his or her dictum. I like that the Reconstructionist movement ordained one of the first female rabbis (way back when), and celebrated the first official bat mitzvah (even further back), two things that are now common place in liberal Judaism. But I get overwhelmed by the social activism, or Tikun Olam, that is emphasized daily at my synagogue. It’s hard to watch eighty year olds go on protest march after protest march and retain any sense of self-respect when I say that I can’t go, or don’t even want to.

I was not educated by Reconstructionists as a child. I went to a Conservative day school and sleep away camp, and then to a Modern Orthodox junior high and high school. Pressure came from every direction, to fit in, rather than to choose for myself or think for myself. And it took a long time for me to find a synagogue, as an adult, where I felt comfortable just as myself. I like that I can choose to get involved in the things that fit me, like Friday night services and discussions, and avoid the things that don’t fit me, like committees, or getting on a bus to Albany to try to convince politicians to change laws. And really, until they accept dogs on these marches and trips, why would Cricket ever let me go without her?

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“Don’t leave me!”

My graduate program in social work has a (very) activist bent as well, so I get a lot of pressure from certain teachers to pursue societal change, rather than to focus on individual people and hearing their stories (which is my favorite part of social work). The fact is, I don’t want to convince people of things; I want to know them, and I want them to know me. And if that changes something for each of us, so much the better.

All of this came up recently because a couple of speakers from the Reconstructionist movement came to speak to my congregation on a Friday night. I was hoping for some wisdom and inspiration, but instead they talked about branding, and the need for more resources from us (money and time, two things I don’t have). It was exhausting, and alienating, and I had to work very hard not to walk out. Cricket would have been barking her head off if she’d been invited to the service, which may explain why she, and her doggy cohort, was not invited.

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“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Mommy. I’m a good girl.”

For legal reasons that I still don’t understand, the leadership of the Reconstructionist movement had to change its official name this year, and they came up with Reconstructing Judaism. One of the speakers told us, defensively (because they’ve heard a lot of pushback), that it’s a great name because it’s a verb and implies action. And I felt like she was saying that being a Reconstructionist is an activity rather than an identity.

We are Jew-ing instead of Jewish.

But, what if I’m not up to Jew-ing one day? What if I’m tired and need a nap, does that mean I lose my identity? I don’t want to be told that my belonging to a community depends on the activities other people want me to do; that’s the same kind of rigidity I experienced growing up with Orthodoxy, just with a new set of rituals.

So maybe I will just remain a Jew, without a specifier. The fact is, I don’t mind doing the daily work of reconstructing my own version of Judaism, at my own pace, and based on my own feelings and beliefs. I just don’t want to be told that we all want, and think, and do, the same things; or that we should, if we want to belong. That’s not reconstructing Judaism, that’s reconstructing me to fit into Judaism. And I’m not okay with that.

Cricket thinks it’s ridiculous too. No one tells Cricket who to be.

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“No one tells me what to do, Mommy. No one.”

The Clumsy Bird

 

A few years ago, I started working on a children’s story about a clumsy bird, but I couldn’t figure out how to finish it. I knew who the main character was: if there was a tree or a power line or a roof in her way, Lola would smack into it. Her mom took her to every doctor she could find and the bird doctors did every possible test on Lola. They diagnosed her with bad eyesight, then partial deafness, attention deficit disorder, maybe a neurological movement disorder of unspecified origin, or bird seed intolerance, but nothing seemed to stick.

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This is what I think Lola looks like

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This is what Lola thinks she looks like

The last doctor Lola went to was a specialist in flying disorders. He squeezed Lola’s feet, and rotated her wings and had her fly to and from his medical nest twenty times. And then he stared into her eyes, with his wormy breath going up her nose, and said, “You’re fine, go away.”

The flight back home was long and Lola’s Mom had to tie a rope between them to avoid an accident along the way.

Of course Lola had an older brother, who was embarrassed to be seen with her. And mean girls in her flying class (aka gym), who made fun of her for her awkward flying technique and tendency to fall out of the sky.

There was a boy bird in Lola’s class who was taunted for being “as blind as a human,” because he couldn’t see where he was going as well as everyone else could. Lola was nice to him, thinking they were in the same situation and could offer each other support, but he resented her sympathy. He called her clumsy, and taunted her along with the rest of the class, just to feel like at least he wasn’t as low down on the social ladder as she was.

I kept looking for ways for Lola to save herself. She was an inventor, by necessity, and created parachutes and nets and trampolines out of whatever she could find in the garbage. She spent months in physical therapy with the seagull at the beach, who was a little too hard core. He made her stand on pebbles to stretch the webbing in her feet, and wrap her wings around the trunk of a tree, and then he’d drop her into freezing cold water to shock her brain, but nothing changed. And then she was sent to the wise goose, who worked at the median of the main road. He spoke in riddles, while walking in constantly changing patterns to help retrain her brain. It didn’t work, but at least with the goose Lola felt less self-conscious, if only because he wasn’t like anyone in her own community, and he didn’t laugh at her for being different.

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This bird is one hard core trainer

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“Are you saying I’m fat?”

But what I really wanted was for there to be something in the bird world that would work better than in the human world. I wanted the elders of her community to come up with a non-stigmatizing way to help the disabled birds who lived amongst them. I imagined bird community conferences, with the elders sitting in the sacred tree, and the younger birds left to line up on the telephone wires, but I couldn’t figure out how to make the birds creative and compassionate enough to make the clumsy bird feel welcome.

I have this block against writing better endings for my characters than I have experienced for myself. It feels like lying in a way that fiction doesn’t usually feel like lying, to me. But I want better for Lola than to have to be in it alone, hitting up against walls that shouldn’t be there. I just don’t know how to get that for her.

 

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“You can do it, Mommy. I believe in you.”

 

 

 

A Prayer for Healing

 

I have been very anxious lately, about the start of my social work internship and my research class, both of which I’ve been dreading since before I applied to graduate school. I haven’t found much that helps with the anxiety. Anti-anxiety meds like Xanax and Valium just wipe me out, meditation makes me more anxious, exercise is good, but leaves me exhausted. I’ve gotten better at asking for help from the people around me, but there’s just so much they can do. When you have no control, what can you do but pray?

Part of me really does believe that prayers sent out to God do reach some energy in the universe. It’s an imperfect system, like tweeting out to the world at large and hoping that the right person, who may not even be on twitter, hears you. But there’s a chance, and it’s better than not sending the message at all. I don’t believe that God puts my request on a list and then decides whether or not I deserve the help I want. I believe that somehow my message ping pongs around the universe, and if I’m lucky, it snowballs and connects with other energies and comes back to me in some form, hopefully something helpful.

I pray for my dogs all the time. I used to pray for Cricket to find comfort and calm. I would put my prayers into her scratching sessions, hoping that the practical behaviors I could do for her would be transformed into something more. And I am always praying for Butterfly – that she will have a good life, that her heart will last a bit longer – and I believe that my prayers work for her. Butterfly is a very good vessel for prayer, because she absorbs energy into her body and spirit without much of a defense system, whereas Cricket is more circumspect and “rational.” It is harder for Cricket to hear the prayers said for her, and to absorb the love sent her way, because there is so much interference – so much static in her system. But she still needs the good energy to be sent her way, even if only one prayer out of a thousand gets through her tough hide.

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“Do prayers come with chicken treats?”

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“I refuse to be healed. Deal with it.”

The cantor at my synagogue was ill this summer (don’t worry, he’s better now) and had to take months off from work. He spent a great deal of time alone, but, he said, because of all of the people in the congregation who reached out to him, and all of the people he knew were thinking of him and praying for him, he never felt like he was alone. This is what prayer can do. Just knowing that someone is praying for you on a regular basis can be healing, and make you feel cared for and safe.

And reaching out to God ourselves can make us feel less alone, even when we are physically alone. It reminds us of the human beings who wrote the prayers, of the people who taught us those prayers, of the times we have prayed together, and of all of the people who may be saying those same prayers at the same time all around the world. There’s a humility to prayer, a recognition that we can’t solve everything on our own, and are not expected to. Reminding ourselves of that on a regular basis can be healing in itself.

I think dogs pray too. First they ask directly for what they want: a walk, a treat, attention. But when the request is denied, or when they are left alone – when they feel powerless – I think they must pray the way we do. Like Butterfly picking up one of my socks when I was a way at the hospital, and carrying it in her mouth. The sock could be seen as a transitional object, as a way for her to hold onto me and feel close to me – or it could be seen as a prayer, that she would soon see me again.

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“Where’s Mommy?”

Cricket talks to God all the time with her barking. She isn’t so much telling me, or Mom, that danger is at the door, she is calling on God to protect her family. And most of the time, God seems to come through for her, so, it works!

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“Of course God listens to me. I am Cricket, and I am always right.”

Music is the best delivery system for prayer, because it reaches our hearts so much more quickly than words alone. It works especially well when we pray in groups, because it brings all of those heartbeats into the same rhythm, the same space, so that not only can you hear the words being spoken to you, you can feel everyone in the room coming together.

Ever since the cantor’s illness this summer, and the string of national and international disasters that have been overwhelming everyone, my synagogue has returned to the practice of singing a healing prayer at the end of Friday night services. People have found great comfort in singing it together, and saying the names of loved ones in need of healing, out loud or silently. I want it to work for me, but it doesn’t. Maybe the problem is that I don’t believe that my anxiety is worthy of a healing prayer, or maybe my hide is just as tough as Cricket’s and it will take a lot more prayer to get through. We are related, after all.

 

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“Is that supposed to be a compliment?”

The Search For Meaning

 

At my synagogue, and in the liberal Jewish community at large, there’s been discussion lately about the search for meaning: that the previous generations came to religion for peoplehood and community, and the current generation is looking for meaning. But I don’t know what they mean by “meaning.” Alternately they use words like “spirituality” and “purpose.”

During my latest social work class, I read an article (Wong and Vinsky, 2009) about the use of the phrase spiritual-but-not-religious in social work. Its authors argue that the word spiritual, as we use it, reflects a Euro-Christian, largely Protestant mindset, just stripped of the trappings of religion. The authors of the article come from Buddhist and Jewish backgrounds, and both see spirituality, as they’ve experienced it, as based in the history and community they come from. They feel that when you try to divide spirituality from that history, it loses a lot of its power.

We want to believe that finding meaning in life is an intellectual pursuit, and a solitary pursuit, but usually we are searching because something has been missing from our relationships.

My journey to find meaning in life has been pretty literal. I needed to go through every event and person in my entire life, and find out what the hell happened. Was this person really as mean as I thought, or was I exaggerating? Was I a melodramatic kid, or was my life actually as dramatic as I thought it was? I had to work at organizing and parsing my life, so that the chaos I experienced the first time around could come into focus. I looked for paradigms and frameworks and theories, to help make all of those relationships become clear.

David Brooks recently wrote an article in the New York Times, arguing for the value of covenantal relationships among communities, and societies. With all of the globalization technology has brought, he says, many people have lost the social bonds they used to live by. People live more fragmented and isolated lives than they used to. The idea of a covenantal relationship is that it’s not a choice you make each day, it’s a choice you try to live up to each day. Brooks talks about a social fabric, which resonates for me, because my mom is a quilter, taking scraps from everywhere and sewing them together to make something new, and whole.

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Butterfly is working on a new design.

In a world where we have Tinder, and swipe-left-if-you-like-the-looks-of-him, we forget that relationships are about time and effort. It’s not that you should stick with a synagogue or religion or marriage that is wrong for you, or hurts you. It’s that you should make sure you’re not giving up on a good thing too quickly, or because it requires more input from you to keep working.

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Relationships take work? Or more treats, at the very least.

When both of the rabbis at my synagogue went to Israel for a conference two summers ago, just as the Gaza war began, many of us were holding our breath, wishing they would have stayed home. The conference was a way to give Liberal American rabbis a sense of the current tensions within Israel, between men and women, between ultra-orthodox and liberal, between Arab Israeli and Jewish Israel, and between Israeli and Palestinian. As soon as our rabbis returned, even though it was a Friday night in the middle of the summer, when we usually get twenty people at services at most, the room was filled to bursting with emotions and hugs and delayed fear – and we made meaning together. We brought our offerings into the soup of community and each took home what we could use.

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Where’s MY soup?”

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“I like soup.”

For dogs, meaning comes from their relationships too. They are dependent on their people for food and walks, yes, but it’s more than that. They depend on us for attention and structure and the basic feeling that they matter. We humans like to think of ourselves as independent, and able to take care of ourselves, but it’s a sham. Just ask Cricket. She can have a warm place to sleep, plenty of food, and frequent trips outside, but if Grandma isn’t with her, she becomes deeply unhappy. She can pull herself up to mildly unhappy, by spending extra time with me, leaning against me on the couch, following me from room to room. An outsider might even think she was fine, but that’s because they’ve never seen the absolute joy she can feel when Grandma returns, or the peace on her face when she can fall asleep on Grandma’s lap.

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“Grandma!”

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“You’re home!!!!”

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All better.

Brooks, D. (April 5th 2016). How Covenants Make Us, New York Times, Op. Ed., A27.

 

Wong, Y. & Vinsky, J. (2009) Speaking From the Margins: A Critical Reflection on the            ‘Spiritual-but-not-religious’ discourse in social work, British Journal of Social

            Work, 39, 1343-1359.

 

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