religion and burgers

It was the first Rosh Hashanah in twelve years that I wasn’t on the bima, singing.

“Just so you know,” I’d told the midwife, many months earlier, “I’ll be leading high holiday services about a month after the baby is born.”

“I don’t think so,” she said, in her gentle but straightforward way.

The baby might be two weeks late, she explained. So then I’d only have two weeks to recover. But even if the baby was on time, a month would not feel like very much.

“Oh,” I said.

It was the first Rosh Hashanah since I was eight or so that I wasn’t even in synagogue. Getting to New Jersey, where my congregation is, felt impossible.

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Instead, I was walking down the block with pink sunglasses on, disheveled, my baggy shirt falling off one shoulder. Bear was pushing the stroller.

“We have to do something special,” I’d been saying for the whole morning.

“Burgers?” he suggested, mostly joking. But maybe a little hopeful. 

“L’shanah tovah, Eden!” I kept saying into her little face. “Happy new year! It’s the new year and you’re seven weeks old and you’re a little Jewish baby!

She didn’t care about any of that.

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(“Stop prattling and push my wheeled throne, cow.”)

And then there was a flood of Jews in nice clothes, coming from the local shul, the men still wearing kipot, some of them, and I fought the urge to smile at each one of them as they passed, to signal somehow, I am one of you!

And I was ashamed.

Which is stupid.

But also, I was reminded.

 

There’s this feeling I get, when I come out of services at the end of the first day of Rosh Hashanah. This sense of emerging from some other place, possibly underground, or underwater, but hidden, in any case, and darker and more secret. It’s so bright outside, and the world expands abruptly, and it’s filled with normal people who are just going about their day. But I have been in this secret other place, where the day was turned sacred and ancient rites were observed, and I am still vibrating where I’ve been rung and wrung out.

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I tried to explain to Bear why I felt guilty and sad now, for being one of the ordinary people on the street, just walking to get burgers, who had been here already when the observers came out into the sun, blinking and relieved and renewed.

And then I kept talking, for some reason, and I was trying to explain why I care about going to synagogue at all, ever. It’s not about God or anything. It’s about the act of setting things aside for recognition.

“The thing is,” I was saying, “It’s human nature not to notice the big things. They become normal and we forget. It’s human nature to deal with the little details of the every day, and just try to get through another day, and get caught up in that. And then one day we die, and we haven’t taken the time to celebrate what we already had.”

“We don’t need to celebrate it for it to be good,” said Bear. “Those are separate things. Making a big ritual out of something doesn’t give it meaning. Either it has meaning or it doesn’t. Either it’s good or it isn’t.”

“Well, maybe it’s good, but we don’t take the time to acknowledge how good it really is.”

“I like going to services, but I think we can appreciate things without getting dressed up and sweating in a room together,” said Bear.

“It’s to mark the passage of time,” I said.

He looked thoughtful and then said, “I guess I don’t feel like I need to do that.”

“I think you do,” I said.

“I don’t think I do. But I’m weird. It seems like everyone else does.”

“You do, too,” I said, pushing it. “You appreciate ceremony.”

“Not really. I’d rather just do normal things.”

“What about our wedding? I think you were touched.”

“I would’ve been fine with City Hall.”

“Yeah, but you liked it better than you would’ve liked City Hall.”

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(whatever. he totally loved it.)

“I liked it. But I was nervous, and then I was exhausted.”

“Good things involve being nervous and then exhausted. You were nervous when you proposed, too.”

“Not really.”

“Yes you were! You were totally nervous! I could see it.”

“Okay, I was a little nervous. But because it actually mattered. It was a good kind of nervous. I wasn’t nervous because we’d gone through all this effort to make it matter. It wasn’t the big effort making me nervous, it was the actual thing.”

“Well, it’s okay to be nervous for the actual thing of standing up in front of all these people to make this huge public commitment to stay together forever. That’s a real thing. And the ceremony is to acknowledge that it’s already a big deal.”

“It would’ve been a big deal without the ceremony.”

“I was nervous and then exhausted when I had Eden,” I said, a little triumphantly, thinking of another great example.

“You had to go through that. You don’t have to go through a religious ritual.”

“Fine. True. But I’m just saying it’s nice to make things special. And acknowledge that things are already special at the same time.”

We were wandering through Cobble Hill now, Eden thankfully asleep in the stroller.

“Will you be upset if she doesn’t care very much about Judaism?” Bear asked suddenly.

I thought for a second that I might say yes, but then I said, “No. My dad never cared very much, but I always knew he was proud to be a Jew anyway.”

“Are you going to come to resent me for not making things more special?”

I thought about it. I mean, I don’t know, of course. But I sort of know. Because I’m willing to let Bear feel however he actually feels about stuff, even if it’s different than how I feel. I’m weirdly easy that way, I guess. He’s easy with me that way, too, though. I think that’s why we get along just about all of the time.

Bear doesn’t have to feel bad about missing Rosh Hashanah services. But I want to understand why I do.

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We walked in silence for a while. “I don’t want to get burgers,” I said.

So we went to an old-fashioned ice cream place, with signature egg creams. And I got peach pie and an old-fashioned hot dog. Which is, like, the opposite of a burger. Maybe.

“Maybe I don’t even really know why I care about today,” I said. “Maybe it’s just that I’ve always done it. Maybe that’s the way religion works.”

“You don’t have to have an explanation,” said Bear.

“I know,” I said, lamely. “But maybe it’s okay that I care, even if I don’t know exactly why. It’s just part of who I am. It’s just part of my life.”

“That’s fine,” said Bear. And then, after a while, “If I were a better husband, I would’ve thought about this and gotten us tickets to the Brooklyn Heights Synagogue for services, or something.”

“That’s hard to think of in advance.”

“I should have.”

But actually, just talking about it all made me feel a lot better.

And the next morning, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we took Eden into Manhattan for the first time, all the way uptown, to a synagogue where a talented lay cantor friend of mine is singing this year.

When we walked into the sanctuary, everyone was standing and singing and swaying and that was perfect, because I had Eden in her sling, and I have to sway with her anyway. It’s kind of like I’m always praying, these days. I was so happy, suddenly, I almost cried. I felt Bear looking at me. I glanced up and he was smiling a little, looking proud of himself, for getting us here. It felt like a kind of homecoming.

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And then everyone sat down and the rabbi started to talk, quietly, in a whispery spiritual voice, and Eden opened her eyes and mouth at exactly the same moment and yelled at the top of her lungs.

AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!

We left.

And when we emerged into the light of the outside, a little while later, in our nice clothes, I felt special.

Which is enough of a reason, I think.

*  *  *

Do you go to religious services?  Once a year? More than once a year? Why or why not?

Unroast: Today I love the way my ankles look, so un-swollen. I’m still appreciating them.

P.S. the blurry photos are ones I took as a teenager one night on the bima in my synagogue, of the eternal light, that hangs over the ark (the closet where the torahs are kept), the torot in the ark, and myself reading from one of the torot with the yad, the pointer shaped like a hand.

P.P.S. On Yom Kippur we made it to NJ, where I sang one prayer (Kol nidre) on the bima, and Bear held Eden in the back so she could hear her mother singing. She made it most of the way through, and then I could hear her yelling, “WHERE IS MY COW? Why does it think it should be mooing up there instead of offering me its udder? Cowherd, get the damn thing over here already! I require my dinner! You listen to me, cow. Can it hear me? Someone get its attention. COW! I will not hesitate to have you made into burgers! I’m not being facetious. Burgers.” 

24 Comments »

Kate on September 9th 2013 in life, marriage, new york

24 Responses to “religion and burgers”

  1. Jen responded on 09 Sep 2013 at 8:52 pm #

    I left my religion (Roman Catholic) last year, after spending decades trying to force myself to believe correctly and practice faithfully. I did the latter quite well, but it turns out that “fake it ’till you make it” doesn’t work for matters of the former. I was an agnostic with strongly liberal leanings at 12, and the same is true at 35.

    I suspect I will find myself at Mass on Christmas. I served as cantor for my friend at one of her Christmas morning Masses last Christmas (I served as a Mass cantor for 12 years). At first, it felt like cognitive dissonance. I don’t believe in or assent to church teachings. But then I realized- this is my heritage. My earliest memories include darkened, candlelit churches filled with carols and huge family Christmas dinners. It’s a holiday that celebrates love and family, hope and joy, peace, tradition, new life, and light out of darkness. I can celebrate all of those things with a happy heart and clear conscience. So I do.

  2. Cris responded on 09 Sep 2013 at 11:07 pm #

    I decided when I was 10 that being Catholic wasn’t for me.–A decision I’ve never regretted.

    I do understand and believe in the importance of making space for ceremony and ritual in our lives. As you say, it’s a way to mark the passage of time. It’s also a way to acknowledge the importance of life’s milestones. That’s why I became a Life-Cycle Celebrant, to help people mark those life passages.

    So, to answer your question, I don’t go to religious services. But I do help people create and celebrate ceremonies for themselves, which means I attend more ceremonies in year now than I ever attended services as a kid. I find great meaning in these ceremonies and I’m glad to have them in my life.

    This was a lovely post. Thank you so much for sharing.

  3. Sari responded on 09 Sep 2013 at 11:39 pm #

    Bear looked totally happy.
    And you did too.
    And I actually didn’t even hear Eden start to cry.
    I’m glad you made it.
    xo

  4. RJ responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 12:42 pm #

    Your entry had me teared up that you made it to second day services and then I busted out laughing when you said Eden started in just as the Rabbi started talking…!

    Regarding your previous entry on being a cow:
    You are a Writer. Period. Get used it identifying yourself as such. You are really quite good!!

    Regarding your questions to your readers:
    I go to Saturday morning services and Torah study (also Jewish, Happy New Year from Atlanta, Ga) occasionally, but not as often as I would like.

    Other than when I was in college getting a BA in comparative religion (so yes, religion and spirituality are important to me on a daily basis), I only later missed High Holidays the year of 9/11 because I was scared to go to shual. And I felt horrible about it, and prayed at home. I felt like I had missed an integral part of my being, like I’d left a limb accidentally at the park.

    Your description of leaving synagogue is spot on. The bright sunlight, the leaving of a sacred space into the profane world. And the community of it all.

    My husband has asked me the same question, when we have kids, how will I feel if my child is not that into it/services/being a Jew…? My husband converted in, so what if we have a child that wants to convert out? Oy.

    How did I answer?

    I want to give my future kids a solid Jewish education and I want them to be happy. But it’s trickier than that, because my Mother is a Holocaust survivor. So, honestly, I would be internally devastated if they converted out, but on the flipside, if practicing a different religion is a better fit for them, I will respect that and love them all the same.

    All the best,
    Shana Tova!
    RJ

  5. Becs responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 3:02 pm #

    Hi Kate,
    In case no one’s told you in a while, you are amazing, and I love reading your blog. Some days I am exhausted and stressed out from life and work, and I read your thoughts and I love how brave and kind and funny you and your family are — and because of your writing and sharing, I feel like a part of something bigger. So thank you for being a bold and brave writer, and being generous enough to share it with all of us.
    ~Becs

  6. Cinthia responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 4:04 pm #

    Great post, Kate! Glad you, Bear and Eden made it to service, at least for a bit. I was raised Catholic but quit going to church as a teen. I was tired of how women were portrayed and how our rights were monitored, and how men ruled the church and women bowed their heads. I’ve never regretted it, though I do miss the ceremony. I miss being in a room together with others yet separate, all of us filled with belief. I also miss the smell of church.
    P.S. I LOVED this: “It’s kind of like I’m always praying, these days.”
    Yes, you are. And your writing sings.

  7. Kate responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    @RJ
    I also studied comparative religion in college!

    Do you feel like you would be more understanding if your kids ended up practicing a different religion or were completely non-religious? I always think this is interesting.

    Shana tovah!

  8. Kate responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 6:29 pm #

    @Cinthia
    Thank you for loving that line, it was my favorite.

    Yes! The smell! My mom tells me that the first time I ever went to services as a kid I said it smelled like “home.”

  9. Kate responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    Just a thought: I notice that Catholicism and Judaism seem to have a lot in common, especially in terms of making ritual feel meaningful and kind of magical. It’s that whole ancient thing, maybe. Also, sidenote: when I taught at an interfaith educational organization, ALL of the families were Catholic/Jewish mixes. So interesting…

  10. Kate responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 6:31 pm #

    @Becs
    Thank you SO MUCH
    You just made my day. And this means even more now that I can’t write even close to as often as I’d like to. You’re really kind.

  11. C responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 6:59 pm #

    On a really basic, unromantic level I think that any kind of ritual is comforting because it doesn’t require choice and it does require a giving up of the ego/individualism that puts so much pressure on our society.

    I genuinely believe these aspects of ‘belonging’ are good for your health! (and this TED X talk thinks so too: http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_buettner_how_to_live_to_be_100.html)

    That might sound kind of clinical or animalistic but its still beautiful if you think of the human spirit as intrinsically one part of a whole, like each spirit as a piece of a universal neshama. And also at some point we have to choose to be there or to put the effort into joining in. On a scientific level I wonder if there is a limit to the size of the group any number of individuals can blend into.

    On a personal note I couldn’t fast this year for the first time in several decades and it made the whole experience much less rich, but perhaps sometimes its worth missing out so that you know how much it means to you?

  12. Kay responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 8:10 pm #

    Shanah Tovah!
    Yes, I go to services – I used to go to shul every Friday night, followed by Shabbos dinner with friends / family, plus holidays. Now I live abroad and have yet to decide which local congregation to join… And this year, I haven’t been able to go to shul at all as I just started a new job and can’t get time off (and my work schedule is made by gentiles :) ). And I do feel odd / sad / guilty (?) about not going – because I know that my loved ones are all busy with the holidays, and I really wish I could be there with them. Oh well, next year in Jerusalem! ;) (Even though it’s not Pessach, this still seemed topical.)

  13. Baiba responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 8:31 pm #

    Kate, I really enjoy reading the posts where you tell about being jewish, jewish traditions etc.
    And I am very glad that you and your husband have Eden and that Eden has you both. :)
    As about being religious – I do not belong to any religion, but I can’t imagine Christmas without going to the curch – it is a tradition but does not have a lot to do with being religious. If I would have to choose my religion it would probably be Lutheranism, because it has been around me my whole life. My mother is an atheist, but for some time during my childhood she sang in a local church’s choir, so sometimes I went with her and listened to the service. Then I started to think about religion as something interesting, all the traditions and the feeling that you belong somewhere as well as the stories the pastor told – I think I got pretty lucky because of the great pastor the service never seemed boring. In my teenage years I went to Easter cermons as well because they were held during night and it seemed pretty cool to be in the church at nighttime, but I never felt the need to become a member of any religion, because although I do believe that there is something… but I am not sure if that something has to be described as God, Destiny or something else and I dont feel the need to share that with others or have a pastor between me and that “something” but I still think about religion as something very interesting, even fascinating which results in watching documentaries about religious traditions, visiting churches as a tourist.

  14. morgaine responded on 19 Sep 2013 at 11:19 pm #

    This piece rang so true for me. (I also studied comparative religion in college! Can I get on some kind of list? :P )

    I identify strongly with and feel at home within the pagan community. The cultural symbols really resonates with me – swirling cloaks, druids, forest sprites. I keep many pagan artifacts, attend pagan events, and call myself a witch. All that said, I consider myself agnostic. I take no particular stance on the afterlife or the presence of a higher power, and I don’t believe it’s possible to know. Hell, I have no idea if my spells actually do squat. I’ve come to the conclusion that that’s beside the point, though. The camaraderie of the pagan community does a lot for me, and I am able to appreciate and even revere their beliefs without necessarily subscribing to them. Many religious people find that community and belonging are the strongest cornerstones of their affiliation, and I find that to be true.

  15. Kaylene responded on 20 Sep 2013 at 7:54 am #

    I’m not religious. My extended family is Catholic; but my immediate family (mum, dad and brother) have never taken part in church services beyond dragging us to our cousins communions. Because we were invited, and we couldn’t just not turn up.

    So yeah. Myself and my family are not religious.

    Even so, there are certain family traditions we have which take on an almost religious significance for me, in a… secular way. Like Christmas. We never went to church, obviously, but Christmas for me is a day to just spend with family… We wake up early (because Australian Decembers are too hot to sleep in,) open presents, eat cold ham and fruit cake, jump in the pool, just spend time together. It would feel… strange, not to have that. Even after I leave home, I’ll always try to come back for Christmas. Because it would feel wrong, to celebrate that day any other way.

    So i guess I kinda understand the disconnected feeling you must have had, missing out on the Rosh Hashanah services. Because if I were to experience Christmas away from home, away from my family, I’m sure I’d feel the same way.

  16. RJ responded on 20 Sep 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Kate,

    @RJ
    I also studied comparative religion in college!
    *****
    You, too? yeah!

    *****
    Do you feel like you would be more understanding if your kids ended up practicing a different religion or were completely non-religious? I always think this is interesting.
    *****

    I think, for me, that I would be more understanding if my (future) kids picked a different religion (or flavor thereof) that did not get my hackles up. There are two that I would have more trouble with than others, but that would be my problem, not my kid’s. As for non-religious, I would be ok with that in the sense of reading that term as not participating in an organized religion but having some form of personal spirituality/belief in the Divine/Sacred. It would be more foreign to me if they picked to be an Atheist. After a certain age, it will really be up to them.

    After my husband’s conversion, I saw the disappointment it caused his parents and the conflict that ensued because of the way they responded to his choice to convert and marry me. It’s taken years to heal the broken relationships with his parents and siblings. I would not want to do that to my own kids.

    RJ

  17. Lynellekw responded on 20 Sep 2013 at 6:44 pm #

    I grew up in a Christian family that doesn’t fall into any particular denominational camp, and doesn’t go in for highly ritualised anything. Last year we attended a midnight mass for Christmas at a local Church of England parish, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We attend various services occasionally, but haven’t found a place to call home – church for me is an element of faith expression and community participation rather than religious observation… I hope I’ve explained that right… so unless I belong to a church I don’t tend to attend services regularly. Which doesn’t make much sense written down, because I’ve never taken out formal membership, so by “belonging” I mean “attending regularly & participating in general church life”, which is basically achieved by attending regularly. And I’m rambling, now, and I can’t remember what I set out to say. I feel a little bit naughty joining in Communion at CofE churches, because I think the rule is supposed to be that you’re baptised into the CofE (or one of a given list of churches) to take communion, but I’m not clear on the rules and I figure that the ritual is, for me, a moment in time to set aside, pause and reflect – so if I want to, I just join in. And if I don’t want to, then I don’t. I don’t seem to have upset anyone yet.

  18. bethagrace responded on 21 Sep 2013 at 8:40 am #

    I got to go to Sunday morning church services and mid-week prayer meeting. I’d like to find a small Bible study as well, but I haven’t been able to find a solid spot since I moved last year.

    Finding the right church is much harder than I realized before, and I have all kinds of sympathy now for people who had to go through this before me.

  19. Lynellekw responded on 21 Sep 2013 at 10:14 am #

    @bethagrace – it’s harder than I thought, too! But it does make you think about what you gain from participating in a church, and what your own core beliefs are, and what you think is important to offer and teach and listen to. And that’s got to be a good thing, right?

  20. sami responded on 22 Sep 2013 at 9:43 am #

    I’m an atheist, so no religious services of any kind for me. But I do find it fascinating, reading about them… particularly Jewish ones, because we don’t have a very big Jewish representation in Australia. I have known precisely zero Jews in my lifetime! So it’s all a mystery to me. Your essays on them are like a different world and I dig it.

    Anyway I can see the desire for religion, for tradition, for that touchstone that many people need in their lives. It seems that a big part of it is not so much a ‘headcount’ as such (like, being present in a church at a certain time/day doesn’t mean you believe in an omniscient being any more than if you weren’t, you know?) but more about community and connection and support. And I think that’s rad because I’ve never had that. Not that I feel the need for it. But perhaps that’s because I never had it? I don’t know. But then perhaps I do, a bit? Maybe? Because I think this about sums up Christmas for me:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fCNvZqpa-7Q
    Gets me right in the feels every time I hear it! Emotions, man.

  21. Amy responded on 22 Sep 2013 at 10:21 pm #

    I loved this post. I am religious (Mormon) and always identify with the way you describe ritual and the sense of belonging it can bring. I attend church regularly, but Mormons also attend temple on their own time schedule during the week. I don’t go as often as I’d like, but that sense of being in a space out of time and full of the same rituals my family has participated in for nearly two hundred years is one of my favorite aspects. It might not have the ancient quality of Jewish or Catholic rituals, but it still makes me feel connected to something bigger, older, and deeper than daily life.

  22. jiminy responded on 25 Sep 2013 at 2:22 am #

    How familiar it all sounds! I have had trouble defining myself in terms of religion for a long time. Technically, i am an orthodox christian (Eastern church, that is), and while most of my countrymen claim they are believers, most only go to church on easter night, for weddings, baptisms and funerals. And it is those things that touch me the most, i think because the rituals of passing anchor me in a community. it is more about singing together than anything else, and strangely, God has very little to do with it. My husband is an atheist who very graciously accepted all the christian fuss for the sake of the older part of my family. But after 11 years together, although not missing it in everyday life, I do notice that I am sad about his lack of need to ritualize things. I hope you find a better path than mine, as you are more invested in your heritage to begin with. happy new year!

  23. sara responded on 11 Oct 2013 at 7:00 am #

    I love C’s response, and I also think the comments about choosing the right congregation are interesting. As a Muslim who lives on the East Coast of Canada, generally there will be only one mosque to choose from or none at all.

    Because I find myself as not extremely strict when it comes to religion, but still religious, I find it hard to meet people who are in the same place as me spiritually. There are some things that are taboo in the religion that you don’t really want to talk about with other Muslims if you don’t know their stance. Most of my friends my whole life have been non-Muslims but I do miss the group of kids I went to Sunday school with growing up.

    And because the Eids are not actual holidays in Canada, and I’ve been living away from home for 6 years, it’s not often that I get to spend my religious holidays with family. This makes me extremely sad, especially the first year when I was in Ontario and spent one of the Eids in tears. I had gotten to the prayer ceremony late and missed the actual prayer, the sermon was in Arabic without translation so I didn’t understand it, and then after the prayer, when everyone is hugging and saying Eid Mubarak to one another, I had no one to hug because I didn’t know a single soul there. This year, I went to the Eid prayer in the little city that I live in. I was hugged by people I didn’t know but it still felt good. I was happy to have gone, and to not miss out on a special day. I want to always do something for Eid.

  24. the elf in the self | My Kingdom for a Hat responded on 22 Dec 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    [...] ritual. Bringing back the sun. I don’t know why I find such peace in religion, but if I did, Kate of Eat the Damn Cake would say it better than I [...]