For the first time in twenty five years we are not synagogue members. I have never recovered from a couple of stints as temple board member which was sort of like the Wizard of Oz curtain swept open to reveal mere mortality. I have always had a sense of the ineffable but my family was of the “eat or be eaten” school. This “me first” ethos was an agenda item, when in my twenties, I began to try to “undo” my childhood. When we started attending temple regularly it felt like I was making real progress, and to a great extent I was. Perhaps my childhood would have been easier if I had been raised in the bosom of a proud community. Initially the comradeship and sense of higher purpose I got from the synagogue provided great sustenance.
When Joe College was born I was blown away and my wonder proved that there existed that which most people refer to as “God.” We attended temple just about weekly for a number of years. I gave my kids something that perhaps my own childhood was lacking. But my efforts to support the community exposed me to pettiness and politics that distracted me from the raison d'etre. After the Bar Mitzvah hoopla the kids had to be dragged to temple. Both, away at college, interestingly, have a disproportionate number of Jewish friends and quite to my astonishment, attend Jewish functions at their schools.
My attendance is limited to an occasional Shabbat and the high holidays. Our tiny shul is blessed with a charismatic woman rabbi, who embellishes the bimah like a dancer--her former avocation. Her sermons are among the most eloquent and accessible I have ever heard. Even the kids like them. The rabbi accepts a position at another temple. I discover, after the fact, that this is due to a small salary increase that I feel our congregation could have matched had we been notified.
Last year I volunteer on Rosh Hashanah and am seated at the entrance of the temple making sure that everyone admitted is paid up. I accept that a small temple is extremely dependent on high holiday monies. But several temple board members man the station with me and details about members' personal finances and contributions are discussed quite freely. I slip in to hear the sermons from the replacement rabbi, also a young woman. In fairness, she might have warmed up by Yom Kippur. I didn't attend. The biggest guns come out for Yom Kippur, but I find the Rosh Hashanah sermon disjointed and lacking gravitas. It's not like I attend regularly when the cool rabbi is conducting services but this year, I've got no gumption to go at all, even for the Days of Awe and the start of the new Jewish year.
I partially rationalize my not springing for temple membership with the usual leftie organized religion cant. The anniversary of 9/11. The guilt by association members of my tribe endure as the result of Israeli politics. The mean-spiritedness of the Christian right in this country. Et al. Religion itself isn't ruining the world but so much of what ails the planet foments from extremism. Is it possible, without obliterating organized religion entirely, to keep in check adherents who may drift towards a perverted extreme? At least I won't be at risk this year.
Still, having been a student and a Jew, autumn to me always feels like the start of a new year. Summer is over and it's time to pull yourself together. Despite the mess and clamor of kids in the house all summer, I have a bad relapse of empty nest malaise. Our marriage is different now. We cannot simply pick up where we left off twenty two years ago before we were parents. With our gray hair and battle scars we see now how for years the kids suck up so much of our attention that our personal struggles are overshadowed or sublimated. Now we are less distracted and more in each others faces with our angst and our burdens. We have no more excuses not take that stab at accomplishments to supplement our parenthood. We have turned our fears of what could be life's last ultimatum on each other and let it smolder.
We could step out in front of the proverbial bus tomorrow but the underwriter of our life insurance policies is banking on thirty or so more years for us. With each year though the odds get smaller that we will reach the statistical mean. And that our bodies will remain enough intact to insure that what is predicted for us is worth enduring. For me and Himself there is the gnawing question of whether we should take one last charge at our vocational heart's desire or whether it is better to take advantage of our ambulatory state and not put a lot of effort into to things that have historically beaten us down.This question is what's gnawing at us and not the rudiments of our ancient marriage.
Baby boomers giving up roots is getting buzz. Some are Dickensian tales of Walmart World A trailer in the parking lot and seasonal minimum wage heavy labor. Other portraits are more sanguine. There are people who sell it all and travel the world via couch surfing or organic gardening. When we go visit our friend in prison we always look at the catalogs of prison approved products. Inmates are issued bedding, towels, a uniform, and the most rudimentary of sundry items. A package of no more than 30 lbs. can be ordered four times a year. Otherwise a few items are available from the prison canteen. The storage of possessions is cunningly compact. I think that the transition from this to a world of so very many things must be jarring. Still, I mull at stripping down to two suitcases and a few devices.
Joe College graduates in May and it stresses him to think about his future. How about being 57 and faced with what bodes to be my last chance for re-invention? Opportunities to balance out my failures shrink in number. How long can I bank on being physically able? When should I scale down and how far down should I go? As my stamina dwindles how should I allocate my energy?
For the most part, the high holidays are a communal affair and I am in self-centered existential crisis mode. The period of atonement is devoted to misdeeds of the community. We pray that we, all of us together will be absolved and live collectively in God's image, name etched for another year in the Book of Life. I am watching the Sons of Anarchy for the second time with Himself because there is some Irish content which might be a good subject for a paper although on the second viewing I fear a dearth of material and that Himself will fly into a rage at me for subjecting him to seven seasons. Anyway, sometimes members of the Original Redwood Charter of the club get pissed off about something and split off from the founding branch to become Nomads. They always end up going back to the fold though. I guess I'm a Nomad Jew and just don't have the steam right now for collective atonement but I'll always belong to the club.
Illustration: Camel by Julian Trevelyan