September 18, 2010

Why am I writing and not in temple on Yom Kippur?

I’m Jewish.

I’m not a fully practicing Jew, rather I feel more Jewish by culture and heritage than by religion. I use the terms “oy, schlep, shtick and chutzpah,” fairly often, and I enjoy that I have actual authenticity to do so.

But now that God has recalled the Bible, Koran and Torah, I’ve had to yet again re-think the whole organized religion thing. As for Israel, I more often than not come down squarely on the side of my Middle-Eastern, Hebrew-speaking brethren. But like any country, they make their share of bad decisions, which on occasion, upset me.

My parents in their liberal near-north side Chicago hippie-dom/enlightenment mode never forced the Bar Mitzvah thing on me. What’s more, many of my friends were more about the monetization of the Haftorah-driven manifestation of their religious studies. It felt like how much cash they could bank, or how much their parents could out-produce the last gazillion dollar mitzvah gala was more important than the spiritual depth of the experience and what becoming a man (or woman) meant in regards to their faith. Worse, once the Mitzvahs were over, they rarely went to synagogue, let alone observed a sabbath. And once high school rolled around, some of the rowdiest parties were on Friday nights, and Yahweh-forbid we missed those.

My college experience in the relatively unenlightened 80’s was largely focused on how many ski days (among other things) I could bag and the holidays largely came and went unnoticed by myself and many of my Jewish friends. By the time I landed in San Francisco in a high-flying, fast-paced and ego-driven ad agency, I had all but forgotten the religious side of things.

But a few things occurred during all of this: My inspirational grandmother decided she wanted to have a Bat Mitzvah at age 60-something because she didn’t experience one as a child. I thought that was really cool and I admired her for it. Further, a few of my friends and co-workers were more conservative Jews, and I noticed the consistency of their beliefs. I started to ask them questions and learned a great deal more than what I learned in Sunday school as a child.

But what was more striking than anything, was when I was getting married, the prospect of a clergyman marrying me to my then-Protestant fiancee freaked me out.

We ended up having a co-officiated wedding with a real live Rabbi, and her real live Priest, both of whom stood up there while we recited our vows. Then surprisingly, my now ex-wife converted to Judaism in anticipation of our yet to be born Jewish son. I’m still grateful to her for that move.

All of this conspired to make me think more deeply about what my religion meant to me. And where I landed was a place of more honoring my Judaism than actively practicing it on a day-to-day basis. I love its culture, find sadness and pain in its struggles and oppression, yet find inspiration in the ingrained thinking that people must have the spiritual and intellectual freedom to observe and practice whatever religion they believe in.

My approach is thus more “general-spiritual, through a Jewish lens.” I simply find myself on a life-long journey of learning and introspection. When I finally figure it out, I may actually use my somewhat entrepreneurial mind to start a new religion, or cult. It would most likely land somewhere in between Judaism, Buddhism, Narcissism and Adventurism. I wouldn’t leverage it for power. And I may limit my congregation to one person, simply to avoid wars or suicidal Kool-Aid recipes.

So until my cult gets started, what do I do on Yom Kippur?

I kind of do my own thing. I use part of the day to reflect and do some introspection. I kind of fast. Not fully. I drink water and some juice. Bottom line, I get pretty hungry, and while that makes me grouchy, it does make me think about the less fortunate people in the world who feel the same thing almost every day.

Do I atone? In my way, yes. Do I feel I need a Rabbi and the collective energy of his or her congregation to make me do this? Not so much. And although I’ve been spotted over the years dabbling in different synagogues on this highest of holidays, I rarely walk out feeling that much more cleansed and purified then when I spend the day in solitude really thinking about, and taking responsibility for, my actions or inactions. But in general, it’s an amazing day to re-balance, get centered, and charge out the gates of the New Year more conscious of my impact on others, and with a deeper desire to put more positive energy into the world.

So as it is said in Yiddish: “Barat zich mit vemen du vilst; un tu miten aigenem saichel,” or:

“Ask advice from everyone, but act with your own mind.”

And with that I say l’shanah tova.

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