Friday, September 12, 2014


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

1 comment:

John L. Murphy / "FionnchĂș" said...

To add to your thoughtful reflections as Days of Awe loom, that play we saw (the theater seemed, speaking of domesticity, dwarfed by many Westside living rooms) reminded me how we may pass over or plunge under life-sustaining water after decades of deserts and years of mirages. The origin of the term "ivrit" comes from border-crosser, a marginalized group. So, even if no "real" exodus happened way back, the sense of exile, of longing-- and perhaps once those yearnings are satisfied, of staying put and living large--may be deep urges.

Even in safety, that diaspora symbol of the suitcase always packed remains. Without a place to call home, can one thousands of years on now claim one's ancestral homeland, or will that too soon give way to a flight from honey pots to desperation for manna? On a personal level, the unrest many seem to be plagued by lately all around us has caused me more reflection, hastened by aging, continued contraction of our economy, the safety nets, and mutual aid we were raised to expect, and a less stable sense of the future than that which previous generations (well, maybe just one at half-best on my side of the family tree) had. As in my teaching, where I find myself in Comparative Religion class feeling like an astronomer teaching astrology, I keep listening to how those around us in everyday life seek out faith or let go of it; they come back to it or they find another or make their own blend. This process turns for me more and more intriguing, all around. It also makes me muse about the power of ancestral ties, and the determination of individuals to strike out on their own.

About this search, one may, as you concur, witness this quest with detachment as we get older. I too realize how so much of the detritus, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, physically that we carry around will not outlast us, let alone all of what we have accumulated in a heap (if not a manse). Sages have sharpened this obvious point better, and poets and songwriters create wonder from this truism, but as with many lessons teachers, parents, partners, and preachers tell us, it may take decades for us to learn for ourselves the truth of the matter (or lack of matter and more the spirit of it!) for ourselves. For now, I humbly give thanks for the fidelity and love which you and our sons and our trusted friends continue to generate. I hope I can return the same gift. In that conviviality, may we strive to stay semi-sane, while we wander inside our minds and, in adventure, outside them as we pursue what we are called to do and what we want to do. Who knows what nomads find as they venture forth, long after Abraham?

Apropos if only due to the desert, about that theme of Amazon workers and retired trailer park wanderers, here is a link not to the full article in Harper's August '14 The End of Retirement but, still, the comments reveal their own story. Let's look forward to writing a happy chapter for the next part of our joint narrative and family saga.

No smoker of Camels, I admit I always liked the image if not the intimacy of camels, from very afar, and the word "dromedary" remains a favorite, even if it has but one hump. xxx me Shabbat Shalom, too. P.S. Fittingly if confusingly to me, I see the born-Jewish Katey Sagal playing Gemma Teller (who mentions sotto voce early on SoA her own Russian Jewish roots) Morrow habitually kneeling before candles (real, not electric pushbutton) on a prie-dieu on her many visits (given the mayhem weekly inflicted) to the hospital chapel. So, I remain confused about her own MoT status, but I guess it's embedded to further anger Henry Rollins' character and the Aryan gang, whose leader is played by another MoT, Adam Arkin. I find such casting intriguing, wondering if this adds to the "fun" such actors have as outlaws, their Hollywood upbringings in show-biz aside. That may be fodder for more ruminations to come, a-blogging.