Oh the joys of your dedicated blog-writing time being a Friday afternoon headed into a three-day weekend!
I thought I would do something fun – at least fun for me, something I found fun to write; whether you will find it fun to read is an open question – and share three autobiographical short stories from my personal faith journey. They aren’t necessarily the most important stops on the trail, but they were three moments I enjoyed writing about. Beyond indulging my frustrated literary ambitions, I hope you will find them humorous where intended and, thus, provide you a little window into my soul.
I promise next week to stop talking about myself and to return to the more important topics of secular and Jewish education.
A Friendship Bracelet from God
The God of Religious School was an intellectual idea. The God of Camp was alive.
We moved to California from New Jersey when I was eleven. Jewish identity took on a new meaning once we found ourselves outnumbered. Perfunctorily enrolled in Hebrew School on the East Coast became intentionally enrolled in Jewish summer camp on the West. I had to be sent away to find community. And find it I did. I found my people at a Reform Jewish summer camp in the mountains of Santa Cruz. (I was twenty-three years old before I realized that a guitar-led friendship circle was not one of the commandments.) Early-adolescent longing became intertwined with spiritual longing. “Fitting in” at camp meant exactly the opposite as it did back home. At home, I wished I could be more like that guy or the other one. At camp, I wished I could be more like me.
The God of Camp was a verb. The Jon of Camp was its direct object.
Samson and Delightful
The call to a life of Jewish education came on a lake in Maine. The answer came in a hair salon in Berkeley.
After yet another summer at yet another Jewish summer camp, I realized that one could live a life infused with Judaism for more than three months a year. That and the fulfillment I had always felt from my forays into Jewish education set me on my future path. I informed everyone I thought one informs in such a situation – parents, friends, girlfriend, etc. I was feeling pretty good until I discovered that there was one more person left to tell…my hairdresser. Should I cut my hair in order to maximize my professional and academic possibilities?
This was no small decision. It had been four years since my last haircut of consequence and my entire college experience was written in the curls that hung past my shoulders. During that time I had developed a pronounced Samson complex – all success attributed to the symbolic persona I had so carefully cultivated through my tresses. (Not to mention being a delicious source of irritation for my father.)
My hairdresser was not so supportive. After a tumultuous four years together she was more than just the woman who did my hair, she was both advisor and confidant. When I sat down in the chair I became tongue-tied. After all we’ve been through, was this really the end of the longest relationship I’d ever had with a woman outside my family? Who else stood by me during that first year as my hair climbed higher and higher steadfast that what must go up must come down? Only her. Who else understood my heroic battles against humidity and convertibles? Her alone. But the call was strong and I was resolute.
Our conversation resembled that which I imagine takes place between a rabbi and a potential convert. That is, she refused me at least three times as a test to my seriousness. “I have some big news,” I began.
“What is it?” she replied.
“I’m ready to cut it off.”
“No. I cannot.”
“What do you mean? I think it’s time to cut it off.”
“This I cannot do.”
“I sort of thought it was my choice, you know.”
“Are you sure you want to do this? You can’t change your mind later.”
“I know. I’ve really thought about it. But, I’m ready.”
Finally she acquiesced. She gathered all my hair into one last ponytail of biblical proportion and cut it off with a huge pair of shearing scissors. I went on to graduate school in Jewish education. My hair went on to become a wig worn by a cancer survivor.
I think we both turned out okay.
There is a picture above my desk at home of the last time I ate a bacon double cheeseburger. It was at a Carl’s Jr. somewhere off Highway 5 in central California in the summer of 1996. If I try real hard I can still taste every charcoal-seasoned bacony bite. When your favorite foods are pork and shellfish, the decision to keep kosher is not trivial. The decision had been made that spring at another Carl’s Jr. off Highway 5 (I had a thing for Carl’s Jr.) while returning home to the San Francisco Bay Area for Passover. I was sitting down for lunch and I had the chapter from Danny Gordis’ yet-to-be-published God Was Not in the Fire on keeping kosher in one hand and said cheeseburger in the other – an epiphany waiting to happen.
I had spent the preceding months wrestling with God and losing badly. I was well into my first year studying at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles and the indoctrination was beginning to kick in. I had done my best to resist it. In fact, the culture shock I had experienced during my first semester was so strong that in response I moved farther to the left than I actually was. I couldn’t just go and eat my pork off campus because that would have been an admission that eating it was wrong. No, I had to make a statement by bringing my pork to campus and eating it in full view. On Shabbat. While wearing a Walkman. With my hair fully grown back out and my earrings back in place.
The situation was of my own doing. I mean it had been my bright idea to pursue my Master’s at an institution whose style of Judaism was completely foreign to me. The plan was to learn everything I could about, what was to me at the time, “traditional” Judaism and then head back home more fully able to make the autonomous decisions about Jewish practice which was my responsibility as a Reform Jew. It never crossed my mind for a second that I would actually decide to do any of it myself. No way. God certainly had more important things to worry about than what I ate for lunch and did on Saturdays. I was there as kind of a participant-observer, an anthropologist if you will. At the time I still felt like I did when I was younger and my synagogue took us to Los Angeles on a trip. I remembered driving through a Jewish neighborhood and pointing at Jews who wore kippot as if they were animals in a zoo. I had no intentions of becoming one of them.
Rabbinical students drink beer, watch sports, and go on dates. That may not come as a surprise to you, but it sure as heck did to me. I was living on a floor with all rabbinic students and the fact that they were normal guys doing normal guy stuff while at the same time wearing kippot, donning tefillin, keeping kosher and observing Shabbat completely blew my mind. The decision to live on the campus of the University of Judaism forever changed the path of my life. The combination of communal study – I’m the kind of guy who falls head over heels for Talmudic hermeneutics – and ritual observance, all in the comforting bosom of camp-like idyllic isolation was just too much for my poor unobservant heart to take. They got me.
The next few months were spent slipping down the slippery slope of greater and greater observance. It didn’t take long because I have a black and white personality. Grey is not my color. (I’m more of an autumn.) First I began to wear a kippah during class, but not outside. Then I started staying in on Friday nights, but going out on Saturdays. Slowly, but surely, the scope of my practice expanded. I spent many hours arguing with any rabbi or professor who’d take me on. I could not escape the logical progression of my belief. Namely, if I believed in God (I did) and if I believed in the divinity of the Bible (I did in a vague convoluted way) then the logical conclusion would be to do what the Bible said. Still considering rationality a virtue, I found myself ready to accept almost any of the commandments, except one – kashrut.
“IT MAKES NO SENSE!” I screamed to Danny Gordis on an April afternoon. “Shabbat makes sense. I totally get wearing a kippah, putting on tefillin, davening and all that stuff. But kashrut?! It’s totally and completely arbitrary. There is no reason why I can’t perform the values that underlie kashrut with a cheeseburger.”
“That’s true and it is equally true that kashrut makes no sense. That’s the whole point,” Danny replied.
“Why does everything have to make sense? Religion is not science. You take it on faith not proof. If you want to know the value of kashrut, keep kosher. You cannot rationalize something that is not rational and you cannot understand the value of a practice you’ve never practiced. Stop talking and start acting. Embrace the irrational.”
So three months later I did, with a picture for posterity.