On Edith Pearlman

molly-antopolI imagine many of us can remember exactly where we were when we encountered a favorite book—when we felt our lives had been irrevocably changed by a story. I had just graduated college and was living in Jerusalem when I came upon Edith Pearlman’s first book, Vaquita and Other Stories, in a used bookstore on Yoel Solomon Street (the store unfortunately no longer exists). Later that day, sitting on the grass in Independence Park, I fell in love with her characters: passionate and courageous, self-aware and sometimes solitary. The stories oftentimes examined what it meant to live in the postwar diaspora, bringing us into the lives of people in settings as disparate as Jerusalem, Boston and Central America. The story I loved most was the title story, in which a Polish-Jewish doctor serves as minister of health under a dictatorship in an unnamed Latin American country. The year I read Vaquita was the year I first started writing—and over the next decade, while I worked away on my own stories, I consistently turned to Pearlman’s other collections for inspiration: How to FallLove Among the Greatsand published a few years ago, a gorgeous anthology of her selected works, Binocular Vision.

At this point in my life, I’ve only lived in the world as someone’s daughter (rather than someone’s mother) and many of the writers I’ve often felt the deepest kinship with—Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Cynthia Ozick, Natalia Ginzburg, to list a few—write so intimately and compassionately about motherhood. I feel this about Edith Pearlman in spades. I’ve never met Pearlman, but I’ve looked to her stories in the same way I might have turned to a beloved and trusted relative for advice. Many of the most important things I’ve learned about writing I gleaned from reading Pearlman: that some of the best, and most satisfying, story collections aren’t woven together by character or by a particular place, but by something as ephemeral as theme—displacement, heartbreak, the secrets we keep from the people closest to us. That stories can be as expansive, complicated and emotionally messy as real life—and that it is immensely satisfying to read about that messiness when it’s depicted through lean, precise prose; meaningful sentences that are poetically compressed. And most of all, that while stories remind us that life is filled with both hope and heartbreak, my task as a writer is to make sense of the most painful and complicated parts, controlling that pain through language and shaping it into a narrative, rather than letting it consume me.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on February 6, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

On Chaim Potok’s “The Chosen”

chosen-potokWhen I first read Chaim Potok’s The Chosen I wasn’t yet trying to be a writer myself, and was blissfully unaware of all things writing-related. Reading was, at that point in my life, a completely personal and haphazard experience: I stumbled upon Potok’s novel in my middle school library, simply because the cover spoke to me: a young, timid-looking man clutching a book, staring nervously at something outside the reader’s view. Even before I opened the book, I knew I’d identify with that boy. That day in the library, I fell in love with The Chosen: with the friendship between two boys, Reuven and Danny, both coming of age in 1940s Brooklyn against the backdrop of World War II, and the wrench that’s thrown into their relationship because of their wildly different approaches to observance. Potok’s world came alive to me, and the themes his characters grappled with—friendship, family and loyalty—have deeply resonated with me since.

More than anything, though, The Chosen stayed with me all these years because it was the first time I really experienced male relationships. For my earliest years it was just my mother and me, and it took me a long time to learn how to act around men. They felt like a foreign species that spoke a language I didn’t understand—not only older men, but the boys in my class: I always had a circle of close female friends, but I was at a loss as to how to communicate with the other gender. The Chosen helped me edge out of my shyness, simply because I cared about the fraught and complex friendship between Reuven and Danny with as much focus and intensity as I did my own relationships. Reading Potok’s novel was like having this unknowable thing—the psyche of a boy—cracked wide open, finally giving me the chance to peer inside.

Lately, a few people have commented on how “un-biographical” my story collection seems—that there are no stories about women my age, living in San Francisco—and have asked whether it was intentional that half the stories are narrated by men. And it was intentional. It was really important to me to write from the perspectives of both women and men, young and old, American, East European and Israeli. I wouldn’t let myself see the book as finished until I felt I’d written convincingly from all those points of view—in a collection that looks at how people are shaped by large historical moments, I knew I needed to explore those events from a variety of perspectives. I didn’t know it at the time, of course, but I see now it was The Chosen that led me to set that as a goal for myself: that writing should be an exercise in empathy, getting myself—and hopefully my readers—to care about people with experiences wildly different from our own.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on February 4, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Every Word Counts

Joshua Max FeldmanI began my first post with a Sarah Silverman joke, so let me start this one with a more traditional example of Jewish humor: Once upon a time in the Shtetl, a rabbi was in his study, pouring over the Talmud, when all of a sudden he noticed something he’d never seen before: A new word. Now, this rabbi had read the Talmud dozens of times, he practically knew the entire thing by heart, so for him to discover a new word was like a chemist tripping over a new element in the back yard. He ran out to tell his wife, dragged her in to look at the new word, and only when she brushed away the fly that had landed on the page did he realize what had happened.

I tell this joke not only for the opportunity to write, “Once upon a time in the Shtetl,” but also because the tale is emblematic of a prominent feature of Jewish thinking: The borderline manic attention to individual words. Jewish scholarship examines texts on the most granular level, with the belief that each phrase, each word—even, in Hebrew, the letters making up the words—contain multiple layers of meaning that, like light refracting through a prism, can be revealed through careful study. We are very much the People of the Book in that for thousands of years we’ve been reading the same books—the Five Books of Moses and the rest of the Hebrew Bible—over and over, wrestling with and arguing over and reinterpreting the finest nuances. You can draw a fairly clear line from the Mishneh Torah to contemporary debates over whether genetically modified food is kosher.

As a writer, I’m often asked about “my process.” As a Jewish writer who just completed a novel loosely based on a book of the Bible, I’m often asked about the role of my religion in my writing. I can answer both these questions by pointing to this tradition in Judaism of granting the highest esteem to each and every word. I’m an inheritor of this tradition, and it is fundamental to how I write. Simply put, when I write, I do my best to give every word the attention I believe it deserves. “God is in the details” is an old saying that both nicely sums up my aesthetic view and points back to the scholarly tradition that shaped it. For a writer, it’s in the details where the mystery and majesty of art can be found; for a Torah student, it’s in the details where the mystery and majesty of the divine can be found.

So how does this belief in the value of individual words play out in practice? Well, here are the first few sentences of my novel, The Book of Jonah:

Jonah knew the 59th Street subway station well enough that he did not have to look up from his iPhone as he made his way among its corridors and commuters to the track. He felt lucky as he came down the stairs to the platform to see a train just pulling in—he boarded without breaking his stride, took a seat by the door of the nearly empty car, went on typing. A crowd of people flooded in at the next station, but Jonah felt he’d had a long enough day that he need not give up his seat. But then an older woman—frumpy, blue-haired, with a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose—ended up standing directly before him, and Jonah decided to do the right thing and he stood.

I probably rewrote that paragraph dozens of times in the course of the two or three years I worked on the book. At various points, Jonah was looking at a Blackberry and not an iPhone; the name of the subway station was omitted, then specified, then moved from Union Square to up to 59th Street; a dash grew and was cut and then grew again between “empty car” and “went on typing.” The older woman in an early draft didn’t have “a grandmotherly sweet face and a tiny bell of a nose” but rather “a grandmotherly sweet button nose.”

I won’t get into the thinking behind these many changes, and I certainly won’t argue for the relative degrees of mystery and majesty the various drafts achieved. My point is that I write with the idea that even the slightest variations in a word or its punctuation can create ripples across the entire sentence, the entire paragraph—really, when you come right down to it, the entire book. The context, needless to say, is different, but like a yeshiva student, I try to respect the layers of every word.

Now, I should add that a lot of writers have this mindset, many of them non-Jews. But as I think about the connections between my religion and my work, this attitude toward words is one of the first things that comes to mind. I should also mention that there’s a real downside to writing this way: My writing process is a slow one, filled with constant reconsideration and reevaluation. Many times, I’ve felt like that rabbi in his study—believing I’ve stumbled onto something great, only to discover that I’ve been mistaken.

Like they say, God is in the details.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 31, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Why the Book of Jonah?

book-of-jonahWhen you write a novel called The Book of Jonah, when you base that book on the biblical Book of Jonah, one thing is for sure: People are going to ask you why you wrote a novel based on the Biblical Book of Jonah. Why not, say, Job? Or Daniel? Aren’t there some juicy parts of Kings? (Yes, there are.)

For the record, I think there are many stories in the Bible that could form the basis of a successful novel, or play, or poem, or what have you. To me, the Hebrew Bible is a nearly matchless compendium of human drama, portraying our mythic forebears with far more recognizable fallibility than we typically acknowledge.

But ever since I first encountered the Book of Jonah—probably as a third grader in Hebrew School—I’ve been especially intrigued by it, and the more I’ve returned to it, the more intrigued I’ve become. There is quality to text that defies easy interpretation—and I believe it is just this quality that makes it particularly well suited to our own times.

While the Book of Jonah is grouped among the Prophets, the text in fact contains only five words of prophecy. The bulk of the story chronicles a sort of on-going feud between Jonah, a most reluctant Biblical protagonist, and God: When God orders Jonah to “preach against” the distant city of Nineveh, he promptly flees in the opposite direction; when Jonah finally does acquiesce to God’s instructions, he does nothing but complain about the outcome. The story follows Jonah from one end of the ancient world to the other, with a sojourn in the belly of a “great fish” (not, in the original Hebrew, a whale) in between, and features characters as varied as kings and cattle, sailors, and worms. The story is rife with humor, satire, ironies, and ambiguities.

Tellingly, the book is also rife with questions: Every speaker in the book poses at least one, and often several. And just as most of these literal questions go unanswered, the Book of Jonah by implication raises far more questions than it answers. Why does Jonah flee from God’s commands? Why do the Ninevites repent so dramatically when Jonah finally delivers his prophecy? What are we meant to make of the strange analogy with which the book ends, in which God compares a dead bush and a city?

While the Bible is generally thought of as a font of certainties, the Book of Jonah stands out as tantalizingly equivocal.

Predictably, scholars and sages of many religious stripes have done their best over the centuries to fill in the book’s perceived blanks. Jonah has been characterized as heroically self-sacrificing or hypocritical and cruel; the story has been read in the context of ancient Judaic political concerns or as a prefiguration of the narrative of Jesus. More recent thinkers have argued the book should be treated as fable, or allegory, or parody, or parable.

To me, the reason these interpretations ultimately fail in their attempts to dispel the book’s central questions is the same reason the Book of Jonah has remained so compelling over the two-thousand-plus years since its composition: The Book of Jonah’s ambiguities, its gaps, its questions, are neither incidental nor resolvable. Rather, they are integral features of the work as a whole. Like unresolved chords in a symphony, the omissions are what give the book its power. This is a tale that embraces uncertainty, that acknowledges the unanswerable.

And this is precisely why I think the Book of Jonah is so relevant in our time. Like Jonah, we can’t escape a confrontation with the complexities of our world—be they moral, political, scientific, or spiritual. We are bombarded every day through a myriad of technologies with examples of injustice across the globe: sin going unpunished, virtue unrewarded. That many, Jew and Gentile alike, are unsatisfied with attempts to account for all this within a theological framework can be seen in the dwindling participation in religion generally.

The Book of Jonah offers the reassurance that perplexity at the world around us is not new, nor is it irreligious. It is, rather, a sometimes inevitable part of engagement with the world. Further, in Jonah’s troubled relationship with God, the story suggests that our relationship with the divine will always be characterized by some degree of incomprehension. The Book of Jonah does not present lessons to dispatch spiritual dilemmas. Rather, it affirms their essential mystery.

These are the qualities that drew me to this particular Biblical story—and these are the qualities I tried to bring out in reimagining it in our own, so frequently confounding age.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 30, 2014

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Woody Allen’s Jewish Soul

woody-allen-take-the-moneyLike Woody Allen, I can remember a childhood when being Jewish caused me a certain deep unease, partly because of the shadow caused by the Holocaust and partly because of the anti-Semitism of some public school teachers. My parents whispered when they spoke Yiddish and even when using the word “Jew.” As I write Allen’s biography, I continue to be astonished at how boldly Jewish he has been in his films from the start, even constantly invoking his feelings about the Holocaust. And perhaps that is why a younger Jewish generation, more removed from those anxieties and memories, takes this aspect of him so casually and even may regard it as just an aspect of his neurotic comic persona.

The reality is that this candor was—and continues to be—revolutionary, just as ground-breaking as Allen’s other writing and comedic gifts, which burst upon the scene in the 1960s and have remained as astoundingly fresh and revelatory today as they were then. (Allen had good company in Lennie Bruce, Nichols and May, Mort Sahl and Shelley Berman.) Allen’s work has deepened with the years, just as its Jewish content has continued to grow and unearth windows into his soul—but nowhere more so than in his most avowedly Jewish film, Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)in which his Orthodox Jewish past was treated (despite Allen’s religious skepticism) with a certain reverence and love. Sometimes that reverence is expressed with comedy, as with the compassionate but luckless subject of Broadway Danny Rose; but who can doubt not only the affectionate Jewish show-business ambiance of this heartfelt film but also the haunting words of simple wisdom that Danny ascribes to his Uncle Sid about how to conduct a moral life: “Acceptance, forgiveness, love.” (Words which are repeated twice, first by Danny/Woody and later by Tina/Mia.) A love for Israel has recently been expressed by Allen in his statement of support last October in the Jerusalem Post. Speaking of the double standard applied in the barrage of criticism of Israel, he said:

“I do feel there are many people that disguise their negative feelings toward Jews, disguise it as anti-Israel criticism, when in fact what they really mean is that they don’t like Jews.” Continue reading

Posted on January 29, 2014

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The Jewish Hall of Fame

Joshua Max FeldmanI once heard Sarah Silverman tell a joke about the pride Jews inevitably take in the accomplishments of other Jews. To paraphrase, she said there are even Jews out there who will state, with nodding satisfaction, “You know the Son of Sam killer? A Jew!”

It does seem that for us Jews, every accomplishment casts a glow of achievement on the community as a whole. Albert Einstein didn’t revolutionize our understanding of the mechanics of the universe—we did! Maybe it’s because there simply aren’t many Jews out there—just under 14 million globally, as compared to, say, 1.2 billion Catholics—and every triumph strikes us as a feat of chutzpah over demographic gravity. Or maybe it’s because Jewish history is pocked with so many attempts to terminate Jewish history, every Nobel Prize or even Golden Globe stands as an affirmation that not only are we still here, but, hey look!, we’re thriving. I can’t fully explain the phenomenon, but I certainly share in it. And I believe it’s one of those particularly Jewish traits that cuts across all flavors of Jewish identity. When a Jewish child wins a spelling bee, it’s like every Jew from Boca to Crown Heights to Beijing wants to both give the kid a hug and brag about what great spellers the Jews are.

I touched on this collective pride in individual achievement in my novel, The Book of Jonah, in describing the protagonist’s outlook on his own Judaism. The Jonah of my book, an ambitious young lawyer who is suddenly beset by inexplicable visions, never goes to synagogue and has only the vaguest ideas about God. Not atypically, though, he still thinks of himself as fully Jewish: “He liked the community of Judaism: the instant bond he felt toward any -berg, -man, or -stein he encountered—the connection he could claim to the familiar litany of distinguished Jews*.”

The familiar litany of distinguished Jews is what I want to try to catalogue in this post: the go-to list of folks that Jews most often name when they’re blowing the shofar of Jewish accomplishment. These names get tossed around so often in synagogue and at BBYO regional events, there really ought to be a Passover song for them—maybe to the tune of Chad Gadya. I can’t offer that, but I can at least compile their names. Think of this as one’s man’s effort to chisel out the Jewish Mount Rushmore.

(One caveat: I chose to limit myself to Jews who made their mark in the 20th century or later. I did this, first, because the names I most often hear fall into this category, but more so that so that I wouldn’t get angry Tweets from rabbis for including the Rambam but not the Ran or something.)

Albert Einstein: The undisputed champion of the world of Jewish pride. I mean, he’s popularly regarded as the smartest man who ever lived: That’s going to win you some acclaim in the tribe.

Sigmund Freud: The father of psychoanalysis. You really can’t overstate the impact Freud has had on the way we think—and if you disagree, I think you have daddy issues, and ought to be in therapy.

Golda Meir: Before there was Hillary, before there was Margaret, there was Golda, one of the first democratically elected female heads of state, and further proof that yes, your grandmother could if given the opportunity win a war.

Sandy Koufax: In the galaxy of Jewish athletes, Sandy Koufax is the sun and seven of the planets. Bonus points for that time he didn’t pitch on Yom Kippur.

Bob Dylan: Probably the most accomplished musician of the twentieth century, Robert Zimmerman also owned his Jewfro like no one before or since.

Philip Roth: On the short list of greatest American writers of the last century and the source of innumerable awkward book club conversations.

Stephen Sondheim: Okay, okay, I know this is an idiosyncratic choice, but if you care about Broadway, you—right, moving on.

The Coen Brothers: Even the movies you forget when you’re listing all their movies (Barton Fink, Raising Arizona, A Serious Man) are classics. Walter Sobchak gives them the edge on this list over Woody AllenShomer Shabbos!

So, that’s my list. Who did I leave off?

*I made a slight edit to this sentence to avoid redundancy, but hey, it’s my sentence, right?

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 28, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Lessons of a Broken Heart

How to Woo a JewIt’s amazing how your first broken heart feels like the end of the world. Until your next broken heart which makes the one prior feel like a farce. I can recall how completely crushed I felt when my college boyfriend transferred schools and dumped me. Little did I know at the time that he was doing me a huge favor, but in the moment I was utterly obliterated. I didn’t know what to do with myself or who I was without him. I kept in touch with his family as a way to feel connected to him and as a way to delay having to deal with what was next for me. I had immersed myself into us as a couple and had not spoken to my friends at length in many months. I had to swallow my pride and call them. Of course they all understood as everyone goes through that relationship phase at least once in their lives. They allowed me to commiserate and I’m sure were bored to death when all I could do was talk about my ex, but they stayed by my side until I got it out of my system.

Finally, I had recovered. I had gotten to the point where I realized that him breaking my heart was the best thing he could have ever done for me. I was over him and moving on—just in time for him to come home on winter break and call me. Eight times over a two-hour period. Didn’t he know about Caller ID? I was flattered and quite pleased with myself. He wanted me back and I now had the power, but I also had the strength to tell him to bug off. I pondered what to do for a few hours, I admit, and even called those girlfriends to confirm my decision to not call him back. I knew that he was not right for me, and I knew that I deserved better. He hadn’t set a high bar for the next boyfriend, but at least I knew I would never settle for something that low again either. Of course, I went on to have heartbreaks much, much worse than I could have ever imagined back then but I learned that I would survive and go on to be stronger regardless of the circumstances. This proved itself when my marriage was crumbling. I experienced massive heartbreak once I realized that my marriage couldn’t be saved, and so I mourned the marriage and gained the strength to leave—partly due to the lessons I learned as an innocent twenty-year-old. I had learned that I would survive, that the bar was set higher once again, and that I wouldn’t settle even if it meant being a divorced, single mother.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 24, 2014

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Faking the Big A — Attitude!

tamar-caspiDating is all about attitude. If you’re in a pissy mood about something totally unrelated to your date, or if you were forced to go on a blind date by your overbearing mother and you arrived and knew instantly that this was not your beshert, it would behoove you to still smile and try to enjoy yourself. Nothing is worse than indifference. What’s a Jew to do?

1. Smile. Smiling sends positive signals to your brain and tricks it into thinking you’re actually happy. And then you might actually find yourself having a good time.

2. Be nice. Remember that your beshert could be around the next corner. So be nice to everyone because you don’t know who they know. Your dud of a date could have a friend who is perfect for you. That girl who is checking people in at that singles mixer your friend dragged you to could catch your eye.

3. Have faith. We’re Jews, which means we are persistent people. Dating is a numbers game so you may have to kiss a few or a lot of frogs before you meet your prince or princess.

4. Take a break. If your attitude is just so down in the dumps, whether it’s dating-related or not, that you can’t bring yourself to have anything positive to say, then take a break from dating. You aren’t going to yourself any favors by having a negative attitude.

5. Fake it. Some people are not naturally peppy, but when creating an online dating profile or going out on what feels like your thousandth first date, you need to crank it up a notch. Ask questions, be a good listener, and open up. Having too big of a guard up is a huge let down.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 22, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Finding My Jewishness

How to Woo a JewAt birth I was blessed with not one, not two, but four Jewish names. Tamar Avital is the name my parents gave me, and then they also bequeathed upon me a Hebrew name because apparently Tamar Avital isn’t Hebrew enough. To honor my great-great aunts I was also named P’nina Yafa. And with the last name Caspi I didn’t have a fighting chance to be anything but Jewish. People would know I was a Jew before they would meet me and for most of my life that was fine as I always identified as Jewish, an identity which was only further ingrained via the Jewish Community Center for preschool, private Jewish elementary school, Jewish sleepaway camp, temple youth group, Hillel in college and so on. My first kiss took place during my birthday party when I turned twelve, during a game of spin the bottle with the nice Jewish boy from the neighborhood who previously was my “husband” in Kindergarten at the San Diego Jewish Academy. My first real make-out session happened beneath the redwood trees of Saratoga, California at Camp Swig—with a nice Jewish boy from Northern California.

I never thought twice about having a Jewish family until midway through high school when I subconsciously and unintentionally decided that I didn’t need a Jewish husband to make that happen. None of my high school boyfriends were Jewish, nor were my college boyfriends or any of the guys I dated through my early twenties. I was planning an interfaith family in my head. I knew there were rabbis who would agree to officiate at an interfaith marriage, and I even once had a discussion with my college boyfriend about allowing future children to celebrate Christmas at his parent’s house just not in our house. Eventually, as I matured and gathered more life experience, I came to the realization that I did indeed need and want and desire a Jewish husband. As my Jewish girlfriends were getting married and starting families, I realized that having a Jewish husband who was raised similarly made these milestones all the more meaningful and that awareness changed my mindset completely. Suddenly all I saw were Yids. In fact, I would ask if a guy was Jewish before even wondering if he was single. Non-Jews were persona non-grata and I had zero attraction to those who were not members of the tribe. Not only did I want a Jewish home with a Jewish family, but I wanted a Jewish husband too—bonus points for having multiple Jewish names.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 21, 2014

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A Jewish Atheist’s Prayer

Leah VincentWhen I was little, I talked to God constantly. There were prayers for waking up, for the morning, for the afternoon, before eating, after eating, after using the bathroom, on hearing thunder, on seeing lightening, on a long trip, on wearing new clothing, on going to bed. These were the required Hebrew prayers, which I augmented with personal updates in silent English, checking in with God like a modern kid sends texts: a staccato barrage of shorthand messages bracketing every emotion and event.

When I left ultra-Orthodoxy as a teenager, I brought God with me on my journey, a silent and watchful companion in those turbulent years. Even as I tried cheeseburgers and kissing boys, I could still drench the pages of my prayer book with tears. But eventually, about eight years ago, when I read enough science to squash the last of the mystical stories I had been raised on, my growing skepticism evolved into a firm comfort with Atheism and I stopped talking to God.

I went to yoga, the other day. My mind wandered down my to-do list as I planted my legs in the postures for Warrior One, Two and Three. After a sweaty hour, as we lowered to corpse pose to end the class, I glanced at the woman next to me. Her shorts had ridden up, revealing a series of scabby scars on her thigh. I lay back with my palms up, eyes closed and stinging with tears.

Maybe it was the yoga, unfolding the pieces of my body, unhinging the stuck places, opening my heart, but to my surprise, I found myself talking to God in my head. Screaming at him.

“Where were you? Where were you, God?”

My throat closed as I tried to swallow my sobs.

I knew the scars that the woman beside me carried. As a teenager, I had taken a razor to my arm. Releasing blood gave me relief from the terror and confusion I felt after leaving my religious family and finding myself alone in the world. My cutting has long healed to Braille, but the woman’s fresh wounds suddenly brought me back to that time in my life that now seems so long ago.

“Where were you God? Why didn’t you save me from myself, from everyone, from everything?”

The anger piled on top of my supine body, a mountain of rocky fury hovering over me. It felt real, three-dimensional, my forgotten emotions solidifying above me as I railed at God.

There was no answer. But suddenly, I saw myself, a little naked creature, emerging from a door in the anger, walking out, away from it, onto a vast lunar plain. My shoulders sank into the yoga mat, as I felt the relief of being free from all of that bitterness. It was so simple, in this strange little vision I had. I just walked away from the anger and was free.

“Roll up to sit,” the yoga teacher instructed us, and my vision faded. But a sense of lightness remained, along with a strange aftertaste from having struck up a conversation with someone who no longer existed.

There is no God for me, in my understanding of the world now, but perhaps, I mused, as I rolled up my mat, there is still some place for me to send my hopes and fears. I can’t deliver my words to a Divine listener, but maybe there is still relief in sending my messages out to a psychic space beyond myself, in giving myself permission to pray, even, as an atheist.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on January 16, 2014

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