Rosh Hashanah Reflections on the Nectar of Kabbalah
This past Virgo New Moon marked Rosh Hashanah, or, the Jewish New Year. While scripture dictates only that the shofar should be sounded, tradition holds that the holiday is celebrated for two days, that Jews and the sacred most parts of the synagogue be dressed in white, and that our nights be filled with sweet, delicious treats to wish us a happy new year ahead.
Of course, the sweetest desserts are best enjoyed with a palate cleanser of bitterness in between. And this Rosh Hashanah, I found myself contemplating whether the bitterness I have been holding is worth carrying into the year coming.
the ages-old question: who is a jew?
You see, last year I became very frustrated with the meaning of Jewish identity and ritual. For the past two years I had been doing my best to observe shabbat and to navigate the complexities of contemporary Jewish life in the States. I had started wearing a kippah, keeping kosher, stuttering my way through Hebrew, studying Kabbalah under the guidance of a rabbi, and observing holidays like Tashlich and Sukkot in the privacy of my own home.
The more I outwardly identified as Jewish, the more triggering bullshit I encountered from friends outside the faith. Sudden questions and taunts to pry into my precise politics and feelings on Palestine were given an utmost importance. Anti-racist organizing spaces I once frequented were now home to unchecked questioning about whether Jews had ‘ever’ been targeted by anyone as an ethnic or religious group—once, specifically, this was over whether neo-Nazis had anything against Jews. Others wondered if it was out of the question to interrogate anyone who was visibly Jewish about their politics on Palestine before ‘permitting’ them to join public anti-racist marches.
In this peculiar times, I became painfully aware of my own failure to ‘pass’ as Jewish. With curly blonde hair that has never felt blonde or straight enough to fit my mental image of ‘Aryan’ or ‘Scandinavian’ people, with blue-green-grey eyes, without my father’s crooked nose, and with light skin that has passed for ‘white—only’ on all but a few occasions, the ancestral history scattered in genealogies scrutinized and tossed to the floor by occupying Nazis and Soviets alike is lost on generations who aren’t even taught about the Shoah anymore. I am cursed with the blessing of looks that would avoid suspicion.
Concurrent to all this, I watched as a Christian acquaintance started ‘identifying’ with Jewish ritual and culture. In her, I saw myself—an outsider, looking in. My Judaism isn’t a neat fit. I’m tattooed and queer. I wrestle with Semitic polytheism and Jewish magics that make all but the most godly rabbis blush with stern admonitions against blasphemy. Nor am I the modern Jew, descended from wealthy and well-connected stereotypes with an unbroken ancestry of Hebrew schools and warm mothers full of hearty recipes.
My Jewish ancestry is a ghost some might prefer to remain dead. She’s an Irish mother lighting candles in the window and praying that someone, some day, will remember her line. She’s Polish, she’s secular, she’s a makeshift Protestant in Orthodox country and a Catholic in Protestant country, with names that aren’t spoken anymore, that aren’t written on papers seen, with rituals and languages and culture up in flames to any saint or angel that might keep us. She calls to me, through generations of working class Christianities, and sometimes I’m afraid to answer the phone.
In the last year, I watched how easy it was for my acquaintance to insinuate her way into spaces I feel unworthy to enter. She sees beauty, she feels rapture, she experiences my culture—and in the same places, in the same rituals, I see ghosts of sorrow, I feel guilt and absence, and I experience the misery of what Christian dominion has made of its forcibly converted Jews whose ancestors still won’t die.
Owning the Trigger
At times, I have found myself disgusted by the way she ‘identifies’ with what was robbed from my ancestors. I am nauseated by the utter peace of her Jew-ish spirituality. And in myself, I find the same repulsion. I find the same dynamic between she and I played out in at least my imagination between myself and observant Jews raised in the faith. How can I find fault in her own multi-faith Christian-Judaism while hardly practicing a pure Jewish religiousity myself?
The trigger of this new Christian colonialism evokes within me the same question I have pondered about myself before: am I trying to convert to Judaism, or, to make peace with my Jewish ancestry? After all, one does not convert to their ancestry, one simply is or is not.
And in trying to answer that, I am led to ask what is it exactly that my ancestors are asking of me? And, more recent in our family’s timeline, what does conversion mean? What does it mean when a Jew becomes a Catholic at least in name to avoid execution?
After many months of meditation, I do not believe my ancestors want me to convert to anything. I believe it is that they simply want to be acknowledged, remembered as best as possible, and for their culture to be remembered as well. They are bitter in being forgotten. I have become bitter for them. They want to taste the sweets of remembrance. And for exploring these relationships, I believe Kabbalah provides the finest of maps.
A major theme I've found in my studies so far is that Kabbalah seems perfectly designed for and by a resilient people who have found themselves in captivity and kept under 'parent' cultures numerous times. Contemplating the Tree of Life is a way of reaching G-d even when you don't know the wisdom of your people, and even when the gods you know to call on fall outside the cultures of your ancestors.
We experience creation following the absence of G-d. That is to say on so many levels that our world exists after the movement of G-d. It is Her contraction that provides space for creation to form according to Her word. It is in this creation that we find ourselves wandering in search of Her, seemingly without Her, and looking for Her in all the evidence of Her that remains here with us—the stars, the hymns of trees, the sublime beauty of love-making, of fruit on the vines, and much more.
Our adherence to G-d’s will is perfect in its imperfection and its predictable failures. It is because there is distance that we must strive to be better, to follow the many pathways available to us to reunite with G-d, and even then, only for fleeting moments. If the saints and angels and gods of a thousand Romes are the pathways laid before us in this world of G-d’s creation, how dare we deny the presence of G-d’s will calling to us through them?
There is no part of this journey which is not of G-d’s will. G-d is speaking to us—G-d is speaking through us—we are the words, the thoughts, and the poetry of G-d! And it is the felt absence—the questioning of faith, of identity, of meaning, of existence—that makes the sweetness of this sonnet so beautiful.
To return to the bitterness of which I was speaking, I have come to realize my anger is absurd. My fear of failing to be Jewish enough is absurd. My ancestors are neither forgotten nor dishonored whether I pray to our G-d through the images of Jesus Christ, Astarte, or Mars. My soul will be flung over the Abyss and into the true infinite oneness of the Ein Sof regardless of the words I speak or the deeds I perform, or the pathways and empires made apparent in the world below. To seek G-d is to be Jewish…is to be Pagan, is to be Catholic, is to break free of all material cultural convention and dogma to dance in the game of revelations G-d is singing.
It is this nectar of faith and hope and failure and absence that I meditate on this Rosh Hashanah. I am releasing the bitterness I have held in myself and for my ancestors over these many generations now. I am tasting the honey of G-d in loving conversation with us. And I am seeking Her in every pathway She has made available.
Shanah tovah um'tukah, readers. May you have a blessed new year.
Pat Mosley (NC LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage and bodywork therapist in the Winston-Salem area. His work is rooted in compassionate touch, permaculture, and deep ecology with the resilience of all Earth's children in mind. Connect with him via email to email@example.com