Tuesday, April 14, 2015

One Hundred Hours Closer, Perhaps . . .

So already, I am about to sign up for an adult learning program that's being co-sponsored by Hebrew College and the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston. The program, called Me'ah, takes its name from the Hebrew word מֵאָה, which means one hundred, and it begins next fall. As the Hebrew College web site explains, 
"Participants are immersed in reading core Jewish texts, grappling with concepts representing cultural and political movements from four historical periods — biblical, rabbinic, medieval and modern. 

"Me'ah courses comprise 100 hours of class time over two years. During this time, you will have the chance to contemplate new and broad-minded ideas and acquire a scaffold upon which you can later build."*
The application invites applicants to submit an optional essay about their educations, Jewish and secular, and also about their reasons for wanting to enroll in the program. So what follows is the optional essay I wrote this morning.

Last week, a friend told me about the Me’ah program being offered at Harvard Hillel, and immediately I decided to sign up. I feel deeply Jewish, often seek to understand more about Judaism, and regularly struggle to strengthen my connection to G-d—and I do believe in G-d. I believe that Me'ah will provide me not only with a place and a time for study, but a community with whom to wonder and learn, and with whom to stay the course. Despite my yearnings for greater connection to G-d, I am not someone who goes to Shabbat services, and I don’t fully understand why I don’t. I also don’t understand why I did not simply write, “I do not go to Shabbat services.” Who is that “someone” to whom I’m feeling the need to refer?

Though my sisters and I are all married to non-Jewish men to whom religion is unimportant—I’d describe my husband as culturally Christian, profoundly spiritual, and completely supportive of all the ways I choose to embrace and explore my Jewishness--we come from a strongly Jewish family whose members practice Judaism differently but committedly. My nephew, a citizen of both Israel and the USA, is pursuing rabbinic studies; several of my first cousins are very observant Orthodox Jews; other relatives, particularly on my father’s side of the family, have long been active in various Reform and Conservative synagogues and Jewish causes. As differently as our Judaism plays out day to day, many of us light candles on Friday night, although many of us do not understand the Hebrew that we can read and chant. 

My Jewish/religious education began at Temple Emeth’s Hebrew School in South Brookline, and continued formally through my early adolescent years at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham. I was not bat mitzvahed—although years later I participated in an adult Jewish education program at an area synagogue that led to a shared bar/bat mitzvah-like experience for the group of us. Later on, I attended Jewish adult learning summer institutes at Brandeis (I believe they were URJ**-sponsored) for several summers. For a number of years, I was a member of Temple Ohabei Shalom (where I did sometimes attend Shabbat services) and took advantage of some adult learning opportunities there.

At the same time, I was teaching “The Bible as/in Literature” and “Religion and Literature” at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, so I kept learning about the Bible, about religion and the challenge of teaching about religion in public schools, about different religions. 

From my cousin's Facebook page
Most recently, I’ve been grateful for the spiritual guidance and support of one of my very religious cousins, who is generous with insights and materials: as much as he’s passionate about his commitment to active Jewish life in the community and in the world as he works toward the coming of the Messiah—which means encouraging all of us to work toward the coming of the Messiah--he also manages to be extraordinarily sensitive to my sensibilities and experiences as a very secular Jew.

This is all to say that I’ve been learning and stopping learning, learning and stopping learning for a long time. It’s time to learn again, to try again.

A couple of years ago, I started blogging—and was surprised to see how often I blogged about Judaism. A former boyfriend—a Catholic whose daughter’s marriage to a Jewish man motivated him to do a little Jewish learning of his own—encouraged me to explore a book called 60 Days: A Spiritual Guide to the High Holidays by Simon Jacobson. Something about that book, to
which I turn to again and again, has reassured me about my Jewishness and, even more importantly, about the possibility of developing a meaningful relationship with G-d. So I send you a link to one of my posts, “The King is in the Color Field,” that’s about the possibility of that new relationship, which I hope I will move closer to by participating in the Me’ah program: <http://soalready.blogspot.com/2014/09/the-king-is-in-color-field.html>.

* Me'ah Adult Learning Program. Me'ah | Www.hebrewcollege.edu. Web. 14 Apr. 2015. <http://www.hebrewcollege.edu/meah>.  
** Union for Reform Judaism

Friday, April 3, 2015

From Slogging to Springing to Singing

So already, I woke up this morning thinking about the opening lines The Canterbury Tales:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke. (Prologue)*
No, I'm not a Christian pilgrim en route to a holy shrine. But there's something about the gathering captured in the Caxton woodcut above (that I chanced upon when I went online to find the "Prologue" to The Canterbury Tales) that reminds me of a Passover Seder, and Passover is indeed a pilgrimage holiday. And the point is winter has finally retreated, spring is awakening, and new paths, new ways seem possible. Another chance to be and live differently, to be and live "better."

I thought about season-related hope and rebirth a lot about ten days ago when I was sitting on the second floor of the Cambridge Public Library looking out on Cambridge Rindge and Latin School's tennis courts. Beneath the cirrus-streaked baby-blue of the mid-afternoon sky, the last layers of winter's endless snow were receding inch by inch. At one point, some CRLS baseball players, clad in short-sleeved t-shirts even though the temperature was only thirty-two degrees, emerged from the Field House and began practicing their pitching and catching on the snow-free side of the courts. Sun + Calendar + Baseball + Imagination = Spring. And anticipation of Joy.

Sitting above Broadway in Cambridge on such a day, I thought about Vita Nova,** my favorite collection of Louise Glück poems. In "Nest," Glück's narrator describes her feelings after a winter of desolation:

Then it was spring and I was inexplicably happy.
I knew where I was: on Broadway with my bag of groceries.
Spring fruit in the stores: first
cherries at Formaggio. Forsythia
First I was at peace.
Then I was contented, satisfied.
And then flashes of joy.
And the season changed--for all of us,
of course.

No forsythia to be seen in the shot above of Broadway through the front windows of the library, but the front of CRLS told another story: Forsythia! My first of the season. In Quincy ten days ago, it was only the sidewalks that were blooming, emerging finally from beneath the retreating snowbanks. They reminded me, in way that made me feel both nostalgiac and hopeful, that not only did I used to go for walks in late March, but that the joy of walking in late March was watching spring unfold certainly if tentatively. 

Frankly, it was final lines of Glück's poem "Vita Nova" that had been haunting me as March waned.
Surely spring has been returned to me, this time   
not as a lover but a messenger of death, yet   
it is still spring, it is still meant tenderly.
And they're on my mind today as I think of those I know and care about who are in mourning while others are celebrating, or preparing to celebrate, without sadness. May the ancient rhythms and customs, natural and spiritual, comfort them.

More than any other month, April brings seasonal childhood memories to mind for me--particularly of one staggeringly huge flowering tree that stood behind several of our across-the-street neighbors' homes in the Boston neighborhood of Jamaica Plain. The lowest branches of that tree were very close to the ground, and to stand beneath that tree in April--I remember one April vacation in particular when I made it my business to spend some time every day underneath that tree--was to be surrounded by pink, shadow, and fragrance--so much fragrance!*** I can't think of April without remembering that tree, yearning again for that experience of enchantment, and hankering for the joy that I always associate with a heightened, transformed experience of this world as we usually know it. [Note: Fourteen years ago, I went back to my old neighborhood to find that tree. It was dead, but still standing--and absolutely as large as I had remembered it being.]

This year, after the forced, practiced long march of February and March, joy, and the intensity and immediacy of it when it surprises us, felt more like a memory or an unrealizable aspiration--hence my attraction to those lines from "Vita Nova." It wasn't just my childhood nostalgia that potentially distanced me from it. There was something tempting about hanging on to the "winter mind" that I had first cultivated in February. "Winter mind" was in part a response to my recognition that it's often the pace rather than the elements of our lives that wear us out and down. I embraced "winter mind" because it simplified life; made it less frantic if less memorable, less defined by peak experiences; kept the number of "elements" in our lives smaller and thus more manageable.

But I dare anyone to resist the possibility of the joy when it just plain asserts itself and takes up all the space--or even when it comes knocking gently. On that first day that spring surrounds us--or explodes around us, on that first inhalation of sweetness that can only be spring's, on that first day that we involuntarily wrap our arms around the breeze rather than fortify ourselves against the wind, there's nothing to do but let go, give in, welcome, and give thanks.

So even though there are patches of snow to be seen, my thoughts are on several verses from the Song of Solomon****:
11. Look, winter is over,
the rains are done. 
12. wildflowers spring up in the fields.
Now is the time of the nightingale.
In every meadow you hear
the song of the turtledove. 
Or as the King James Version***** translates 2:12, "The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land."

It's all about to be singing--and there will be a lot of singing this weekend--tonight at Seders, in churches on Easter Sunday, in cars, in showers, in living rooms, kitchens, and clubs. May we all move, as Glück's narrator does in "Nest," from peace, to contentment and satisfaction, and ultimately to joy. But short of that, may we all find comfort, peace, and hope; and may we embrace the opportunities that the natural and spiritual worlds lay out for us and remind us of during this season every year. Like Chaucer's pilgrims, let us begin our journeys. Or perhaps I should say, let us begin our journeys again, buoyed by spring, story, and song.

* Screen shot from <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Canterbury_Tales>
** Both "Nest" and "Vita Nova" appear in Louise Glück, Vita Nova (HarperCollins Publishers Inc, 1999). 
*** Screen shot of <https://poietes.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/cherry-trees-in-the-arnold-arboretum-in-boston-ma-by-bruce-berrien-fcc.jpg>.
**** Bloch, Ariel A., and Chana Bloch. The Song of Songs: A New Translation with an Introduction and Commentary. New York: Random House, 1995. Print. 
***** From The Official King James Version Online, <http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/>