Saturday, October 3, 2009

In a Beginning

In a beginning
It is a new year and we have celebrated the birthday of the world. I like being outdoors but prefer to experience it with nothing more taxing than a meandering stroll on smooth flat ground. I know I should be concerned about the physical environment but when the gung ho recycling guy is not in the office I am relieved that we can use paper plates at lunch. And that we don’t have to use MY water to wash them.

At home I have been pretty well trained because Himself, knowing how laissez faire I am, scrutinizes the trash can and it is easier I guess to deposit recyclables in the bin on the porch than endure his wrath. I am aware of the moral imperative to heal the planet but for some reason I do not fathom, I simply cannot muster genuine enthusiasm for committing to fulfil this in practice. Furthermore, and I know it dumbs me down, I couldn’t care less about science except when it pertains to medical maladies that could possibly afflict me. I cannot commit any sustained concentration to science or nature shows and while I like cats and dogs and sometimes if there is a bird I will look at it, generally, I don’t really care about animals. I particularly dislike rodents and sure, the other species are entitled to survive but I have no particular desire to see or commune among them.


I have always loved dogs and I was chastised in some sort of college organized confrontational therapy session for keeping my dog with me (Gladys-a toy poodle) all the time to cushion me from what was referred to as my terror at honest human interaction. Until recently, I had never encountered a dog I could not find some quality in. I even held affection for Sonny, the high strung toy poodle of my childhood who would nip me and draw blood, for which my mother would slap me on account of making him nervous. Rover now goes most places with me. A couple of excellent dogs preceded him. A long time researcher at the office is baby sitting his daughter's Chihuahua while she serves the army in Kuwait. The dog gets extraordinary care and attention in her absence, a tribute. It is called “Little Bit.” I have never found the breed to be the least bit attractive, but even as Chihuahuas go, this one is particularly ugly with vacant bulging eyes and spindly legs like small fryer wing bones. Sometimes, when home on the couch I see rats scurrying over the phone wires through the grapefruit tree and they are more appealing than Little Bit. Usually homely dogs compensate with sweet, obsequious dispositions but this one is vicious and spiteful. She befouls the bed in the shrine which my late father’s office seems to have become.

When 75 lb. Rover approaches, she lunges and snarls and leaps to bite him. He is a good boy and does nothing to retaliate but looks at me imploringly and stricken that I have allowed in his office such an unfriendly hideous beast. I graciously drag the animal along on Rover’s walk but I am embarrassed to appear in public with the thing that everyone, when its custodian is out of earshot, refers to as “Little Bitch.” She has a pink collar with matching leash and pink plastic poop bag reticule. She yaps furiously at every cat, dog, human and sometimes at seemingly nothing. Rover could permanently dispatch the thing in less than a second. And as much as I would like to support our troops, I wouldn’t be heartbroken if he did. I admire his restraint.

As much as I like dogs and cats (exception noted above), I don’t go out of my way to read about them. The list of topics I will not read about is much longer than the list of topics that I might. I call Himself a freak due to the expansiveness of his reading and writing. I also refer to the Dalai Lama as a freak and compare him to the Dionne Quintuplets, but more about that later. I lack my beloved’s intellectual rigorousness and my interests are idiosyncratic and shallowly narrow. And narrowly shallow. I am fascinated by India, Africa and China but I will add, to this confession of intellectual sloth, that I read practically nothing pertaining to the Middle East, including my homeland. I have trouble remembering if we are fighting in Iran or Iraq. I spend several hours a week, under the aegis of a Jewish service agency, writing letters of comfort to Jewish convicts but the Jewish content of these letters is sparse.

I read headlines, but seldom whole articles, about Israel. I do intend to travel there one day and no, I am not qualified to form opinions until I have experienced the tiny sliver surrounded by nations whose faithful pray for its annihilation. An Iranian diplomat speaks in response to accusations about their development of nuclear weapons and cites “the Zionist threat.” There are approximately 13 million Jews in the world to threaten 1.5 BILLION Muslims. Stuff like this makes me feel very Jewish, but the headlines from periodicals of left, right and centrist persuasions regarding the settlement program, the treatment of the Palestinians and the chasm that apparently exists between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews within the nation of Israel, cause me to read no further.

Spuds is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and I want him to be proud of this commitment to the covenant. But I struggle with my own. I am proud of Jewish accomplishments and I feel an elevating connectedness when I remember all the Jews who have changed the world for the better. Unfortunately, thinking about scoundrels like Sheldon Adelson and Bernie Madoff and the abuse heaped on human beings in name of kosher slaughter in Iowa makes me squirm.

We attend Yom Kippur services at our little temple. Up until very recently the regular and High Holiday prayer books used there were published in 1937. For nearly eighteen years we have been using a prayer book that predated the Holocaust and the creation of Israel. This year, new High Holiday prayer books have been donated and it is cool that God is not referred to as “he.” I couldn’t help being distracted by, despite the modernity of the crisp new siddur, the repeated imprecations for God to smite our foe. Christian prayers are more likely to be for Christian light to open the eyes and hearts of those who would seek to do us ill. Christianity is for everyone but with the small exception of those, who seek themselves, with little encouragement (except perhaps by future in-laws) to convert, Jews are created in blood. This, exacerbated by centuries of atrocities inflicted on the Jewish people makes for the complicated onus of having no choice in the matter.

I think many Jews ricochet between pride and self hatred and this duality manifests itself in a distinctive pugnacity. The scant 13 million of us navigate the world of billions of non-Jews and are regarded with a mixture of respect, suspicion and resentment. Still, even though we are dissed, I was really put off by all the smiting and yearn for liturgy more focused on mercy and forgiveness. I also pray for righteous Jewish acts to counter Jewish financial malfeasance which has been the focus of so much press lately. Maybe with this we will be perceived as less of a threat.

The main character of the lugubrious and aptly named HBO comedy Bored to Death, is asked by an Israeli mover if he is one of those New York self hating Jews. Although not even made aware of his mother’s Judaism until a teen, Bill Maher, to me is the quintessential self hating Jew. He is even receiving an award by Richard Dawkins’s Atheist Alliance. His film Religulous was a shallow, mean-spirited jab at organized religion that sought out the most extreme crackpot elements from a number of faiths to build the case that all believers are dumbfucks. His simplistic cheap shot dismissal of religion rankles but recently an ill informed nasty rant about obesity upped the ante of my ire at him. Maher, recently on his RealTime series:

President Arugula is not gonna tell Americans they're fat and lazy. No sin tax on food on Obama's watch. And at a time when it's important to set new standards for personal responsibility, he appointed a surgeon general, who is, I'm sorry, kind of fat. Certainly too heavy to be a surgeon general, it's a role model thing.

Fat and junk food are as high on Maher’s list of evil forces in the universe as faith. The evidence is clear though that obesity is not caused by a lack of self control or deficiency of personal character. There are many healthy fat people who do not consume junk food and there are many malnourished thin people who do. I would be in favor of taxing foods that have no nutritional value but all evidence suggests that this will not, er, tip the scales on obesity statistics. I don’t think the vitriol Maher spews at religion will be of any consequence to the faithful, but to encourage discrimination and the promulgation of disproved mythology about the overweight is far from harmless.

Buying into society’s messed up notions about weight, I have been drinking only protein shakes for two weeks and decide that the break the fast potluck at the temple at the end of Yom Kippur will be as good a time as any to break my own. I make an industrial sized potato kugel with tons of onions and an amount of butter that I blush to recall in the face of having railed recently at prejudice against the overweight.
I am distracted by the thought of eating it all day.


At the end of Yom Kippur a congregant leads a Sephardic closing service in Spanish , begging God in simple declarative song and prayer to hear our prayers. The temple is jammed. The shul has struggled for survival for decades in a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, but since an article in Los Angeles Magazine and some tireless, well organized outreach, suddenly it’s hip and crammed to the gills with young families. We have attended the temple for 18 years. Early in our membership we attempted, when approached by a group of neighbors, to begin a children’s program with a number of local families. For a few months there were family services and kids running through the shul and climbing on the bimah but the old members were rigid and doctrinaire and after some ugly, contentious meetings, all of the young families, except us, broke away.

The shofar is blown to mark the official beginning of the New Year and the metaphorical closing of the gates. Havdalah, the end of the end and the beginning of the beginning, follows. The temple is bathed in the light of three huge braided candles. The memorial boards shimmer with the names, birth and death dates of the old congregants who, paranoid and pugnacious, drove away the group of young families over a decade ago. The candles are doused in wine and there is a moment of darkness before the lights come on. By the time we get to the buffet table, the kugel is gone. I take the kids for tacos, ok, but not kugel.

While my allegiance to Jewish foods is sure and strong, it is easy to be conflicted when it seems we are not being advanced by rubbing the world’s face in the injustices our people have suffered. Yet, soundbites pertaining to the Zionist threat air on our morning commute. We are Jews and I will never in my life claim otherwise, but this has become a loaded thing for me and poses an obstacle to fully immersing myself in Jewish worship. Himself wrote a very thoughtful piece about Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk who embarked on the exploration of Zen Buddhism and the Dalai Lama and the paradoxical public life of the contemplative.
"Merton, Buddhism, Tolkien & Second Languages" I wonder if Merton, like the young people who were driven out of our temple for audaciously questioning the way things are done because we’ve always done them that way, was discouraged by his Trappist order for embarking to enrich his personal spiritual experience and explore a different path.

The Dalai Lama makes me sad, not just because he is a ruler in exile but because he was he was determined to be a physical manifestation of God and plucked from his family’s mountain farm at the age of 2. The Judeo-Christian thing is that we are pretty much bad but if we, despite our postlapsarian taint, struggle down the righteous road, the Messiah will embrace us at journey’s end. Tibetan Buddhists start with the precept that we are good and for this, God’s emanation, in the form of the Dalai Lama is here on earth, right now. The challenge then is not to confront and wrestle with the evil that besmirched us all when Adam bit into the apple but to nurture our natural goodness, as evidenced by a God who blesses us with a human incarnation. Still, I suspect it may be a bummer for the Dalai Lama.

It is hard for me to understand any kind of spirituality that doesn’t spring from the seeking of it and I wonder how being regarded as God since the time of your earliest memory would color one’s personal spiritual process. I have always admired religious denominations that recognize the righteousness of the choosing, and don’t confer full membership until adulthood. The Dalai Lama is a beacon and a comfort to people of many faiths but I wonder how it is to be thrust into this role without ever being afforded the choice. Our bloodlines, like the omens and portents that led to a Tibetian baby on a remote mountain, determine what we are. Our DNA can be traced back to the 12 tribes, Jewish indelibly, whether we opt in or out of religious observance. I am compelled by the thought of a baby being snatched from his mother and permanently denied the possibility of opting out and deprived the blinding light of epiphany that pressages opting in.

My beloved and I pillow talk until two a.m. about faith and God, fortifying ourselves for the journey, whispering in the dark, arriving at no conclusions. I am shallow and it is the great blessing of my life that he takes me seriously and that he loves me. I worry about the Dalai Lama and how much guff the church gave Thomas Merton for his fascination with Buddhism. I am a Jew but sometimes it is hard to pray as one. I read my horoscope in two different places first thing every morning. A recent prediction is that I would finally be able to prove my love to someone skeptical. I chew that around to conclude that while I may not win a prize for being a custodian of the planet, the people who I love know with certainly that I love them. Horoscopes are bullshit except maybe to show me that while the journey is infinite, I am, we are, on a good road. Shabbat Shalom.

1 comment:

FionnchĂș said...

You keep getting better at integrating disparate threads in your entries into a lovely tapestry. And that's from a skeptic. If also your most faithful critic-reader.

Forgive another pedantic aside. Similar to Catholicism, Buddhism in its more multipopulated manifestations skirts polytheism in practice if not theory. The Dalai Lama tells us he's not "God," for the dharma denies an ultimate deity; Catholics differentiate between worshipping God and venerating Mary and the saints. Of course, in both situations in the real world for weaker devotees, the dogma's blurry. Most of us demand patrons and magical guides along our path.

Tibetans do regard HH DL XIV as we discussed as a sort of totemic messiah-helper mascot, reborn for fourteen lives so far to assist the Snow Lion's realm and its put-upon people towards their own liberation, spiritually if no longer it seems politically. Along with his physical self, he also carries a supernatural presence-- akin to that designated messiah in Roman Palestine. The DL's regarded by others (not sure what he thinks-- contrary to Jesus who proclaimed and transfigured Himself) as an (note the article) incarnation of Avalokitishvera, the buddha-emanation of compassion.

This may well make anybody freakish, growing up with this notion to live up to, this mantle placed upon a little tot. For Buddhists, a buddha (enlightened one) may choose returning to earth as a human guide with divine direction (not sure of the metaphysics here, but if a Christian can handle the concept of the Trinity...). This reincarnation is intentional, rather than karmic, to help others attain their own realization of the freedom that lies within-- rather than entering nirvana after one finds enlightenment. This altruism, for the buddha does not "need" to do this, already having roughly been what Christians might call "saved," displays generosity and merit.

It's a touching idea to me, that the buddha-figure chooses to go through this life over and over again, in the difficult role the DL has certainly now, rather than to let the flesh and blood go poof once and for all into incorporeal bliss. It makes the DL to me more recognizably one of us than a Son of God who takes on human form but once before gratefully ascending. The DL often a better sense of humor than JC too, if hobbled in both cases by translation. xxx me