Last night when Thandie Newton won an Emmy for her performance in Westworld, she said she wanted to thank G-d even though she did not believe in Him. And so we, like the radiant Thandie, want it both ways: believing and non- believing, hedging our bets – just in case, there is an afterlife, that there exists a power in the universe, a first principle, one that might seek us out or One we might fear could wreck havoc on us.
In our darkest times, we search for meaning, attempting to make sense of injustice, of evil: and we tend to come up with no reasonable answers: platitudes that we cannot understand, the knowledge is “ beyond” our limited comprehension, but no one, I assert, can accept the suffering of little children… In the best of times, we thank G-d for lives that shine, for the gifts we ponder we deserve or do not deserve. We like to think we have been blessed, that the records of our comings and goings have yielded our good fortune, and like the offspring of our proud mommies and daddies, we are being rewarded for our actions. On a walk last week, my grandson spotted tiny aphids all working in concert, tiny programmed insects, dancing to the dictates of nature. Reading The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, through her 1660 heroine, I observe Ester, who explores Spinoza’s “heretical ” theories that G-d is the impetus, the spark that illuminates all of us and Nature, not responsible for the good or bad,but that underlying force that motivates. Studies show that people with religious beliefs do in deed do better in illness as their strength to endure is fortified by their beliefs.
During these days of awe, our High Holidays, Jews are supposed to behave better, atone, ask for forgiveness, demonstrate their potential for positive behaviour. And then tomorrow, Yom Kippur, we fast, symbolically draining our bodies of the bad, purifying our souls. We wish one another “ a good fast.” My parents who were perhaps most exemplary good and moral people you could ever encounter did not fast. My mother prone to migraines, as I am, was all ready so lean she did not want to lose an ounce. My father, I may recall, perhaps fasted to noon, having disparaged religion when polio took his legs. Yet they still counted themselves as Jews, my mother particularly, possessing a mystical belief in a Creator. Bound up, yet having loosened the holds religion places and expects of its followers.
In synagogue Elyse Goldstein, rabbi at City Shul provoked her congregants to think about what it means to be Jewish, providing all the arguments the Millennials sprout regarding Anti-Semitism, the holocaust, nostalgia, doing good deeds, notions of religion, fidelity to Israel. etc. She explained that Israel is such a contentious topic, that even she, rabbi of a Reform pulpit, hasn’t lectured on it for many many years. She challenged us to consider, What does the “am” signify in “I am Jewish” for each congregant. She cited a study in New York that enquired of people what religion they belonged to, the surprising response of several claimed Judaism as their own in spite of the fact they were not born or converted to Judaism.
I’m finding that certain memories have been hammered in my head, the holiday dinners at my grandparents and later at my parents’ home , yet as I attempt to ferret out the break- fast dinners, I come up empty. I do recall my parents would drive north, depart the city for Mackinaw Island or Agawa Canyon, taking in its autumn beauty, but I am unclear exactly when these drives occurred, and did they arrive back home for my mother to put dinner on our table, or did they stop for a grilled cheese sandwich at a diner, for they did follow kosher dictums on food.
Except, we as children, Wendy and I, were allowed bacon because our Jewish paediatrician extolled the virtues of it, years before the tasty meat was discovered to harbour dangerous carcinogens. My father, guffawed and did not accept that medical opinion. To weeks before she passed away, my mother’s favourite lunch was a bacon and tomato sandwich toasted.
From my youth, I do recall attempts at fasting and one particular Yom Kippur when a friend and I succumbed to bags of potato chips in the early afternoon, we received the scorn of her neighbours, the Fishbeins, who discovered us chomping, giggling and our adolescent mouths covered in crispy crumbs. But I hold no memories of a formal family get together in which we “ broke the fast”.
For years, fasts have reached a vogue position from the Atkinson to the Mediterranean to the present day Keto in which some uphold that if you starve yourself of carbs, your body will find them in your body and devour them, rendering you slimmer.
Having fasted yesterday, I do wonder at the benefits, for I received my persistent headache that even prevented my sleeping. My Pilates instructor informing me that our Yom Kippur fast does not help the body for the right way is a three day cleanse wherein one gradually reduces foods and sugars, and then day by day reintroduces them to the body. So our fast may be symbolic, but I have yet to attend a Yom Kippur service where someone, either man or woman, usually “older” has not passed out. So the ritual does not make a lot of sense except if the comatose person is able to connect directly with G-d.
Rather, reciting prayers together, revisiting those departed in a liturgy, retiring from the demands of daily life and the cell phone, dreaming of a new and improved year are worthy objectives. So cynical and as unknowing as I am, I cannot complain about a day at shul, especially with a rabbi who makes me think, ponder and consider .And even a symbolic fast isn’t so bad, but more than just once a year.