Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Meditation Without Tashlich

Tonight is the eve of Rosh Hashanah. For the past four years, I have said Tashlich with Jews from a West Lafayette, Indiana shul, standing atop the bridge over the Wabash River. But I am new to this area, and haven't taken the time to discover a place and people with whom I can seek G-d's forgiveness and forgetfulness.

I have nowhere to go to throw my sins away tomorrow—no water to toss bread into, no current to sweep away my soggy symbolic sins. Maybe I will wander down to the ocean, walk myself through rituals and prayers that are not completely mine, but which possess me entirely. I am both captive to and captivated by your promises, frail though they might feel.

And perhaps this is why we sometimes terrorize those whom we mean only to love. From whence do jealous rages and ridiculous insecurities come? Petty and pathetic, weak and fearful, we sometimes lie prostrate before our own shortcomings, begging them to wrap themselves around us, when really we should be showing them what it means to love toughly.

Who is like You, God, who removes iniquity and overlooks transgression of the remainder of His inheritance. He doesn't remain angry forever because He desires kindness. He will return and He will be merciful to us, and He will conquer our iniquities, and He will cast them into the depths of the seas.

Give truth to Jacob, kindness to Abraham like that you swore to our ancestors from long ago.
From the straits I called upon God, God answered me with expansiveness. God is with me, I will not be afraid, what can man do to me? God is with me to help me, and I will see my foes (annihilated). It is better to take refuge in God than to trust in man. It is better to take refuge in God, that to rely on nobles.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Jewishness: The Inside and the Outside

My transition from living in West Lafayette, Indiana to living in Santa Monica, California has not been easy. But now that I'm finally settled into my new place, I've been able to finish a few novels that I started over the past month or so. Last night, I finished Adam Mansbach's The End of the Jews. I have mixed feelings about it. In some respects it is brilliant--for example, the way in which the three central characters (an old Jewish novelist, his hip-hop loving graffitti artist grandson, and Nina--a young Jewish woman/photographer from former Czechoslavakia) question what it actually means to be Jewish these days. I'm also interested in the way he juxtaposes Jewish and black identity in America.

But I wonder if he is saying something about identity in general, and the ways in which it bends and sometimes even breaks down in what one character calls America, "the culture of the cheeseburger." Nina, for instance, right before the collapse of Communism in Czechoslavakia, meets a jazz trio comprised of three African American men as they are traveling through Eastern Europe. She takes their photographs, and they end up getting her out of Czechoslavakia. She fits well with the group, and the men jokingly suggest that she is "Creole, three generations back."

Later, when she applies for admission to Hunter College, she checks the box next to "Black" on her application, and is awarded a scholarship for young black photographers. We see this duplicity--despite her ignorance (coming from Czechoslavakia) regarding what it meant to be black in America--of course, as horrendous. "If you got a soulful type of vibe," she tells the grandson at one point, as he deals with the fallout of being a Jew who writes about hip-hop, "you can understand the greatness and the sophistacation of any tradition. . . . Art is universal...We gotta deal with that" (187).

On some level it seems rather silly. Thinking one is black or even being accepted into a black community does not make one black. But is it the same, I wonder, with Jewishness? I can convert to Judiasm, for example, but there is no conversion process that will render me an African American. There are different ways of being Jewish--one can be a convert to Judaism and claim Jewishness; or one can be born into an ethnically Jewish family.

But can one identify him or herself as being Jewish if both of these categories are absent? I want to say that it is possible, but not unless the identification is accompanied by a certain respect for what can never be known, in the absence of an ethnic component. I guess such a person is like the Mobius strip, in that s/he is both inside and outside of Jewishness?