I have rarely thought about being Jewish. Other than when I was a child squirming during Friday night services on the hard bench listening to a melodic, yet unintelligible language, waiting for the praying to end so I could enjoy a brownie that waited on the sweets table in the reception room, Judaism has not been a strong presence in my life.
Though that may be true, so is this: I love being part of an ancient tribe of peoples who are linked to me by blood. Even so, my Jewishness is a distant reflection of my daily life, and how I see myself as a woman on a spiritual path that includes kindness and respect for all living beings. Somewhere inside my soul, though, I know that this particular ancient blood has contributed to the way I attempt to live my life. In peace.
This year my mother and father placed our family menorah, with faded candles carefully wrapped in faded tissue paper, into a box and had it mailed to me. Every Hanukkah, even when we stopped attending Temple after we moved to southern California in 1970, we lit the Hanukkah candles, and prayed the Festival of Lights prayer. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, ruler of the Universe …” This thin Jewish tradition has remained with me throughout my adult years, even if only in my memory. The miracle of oil lasting eight days, instead of the predicted one resonates with me; this story suits me well. I also like the idea that the Jewish people were against killing for religious superiority. This idea actually fills me with some pride. “Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war.”
This Hanukkah, Aster’s fifth Hanukkah with us, we lit the candles on a new menorah (the family menorah arrived two days too late!), a simple sliver-looking small representation of my Jewish heritage. As I spoke what Hebrew I remember of the Hanukkah prayer, she respectfully gazed on alongside her dad, my husband, whose blood has been washed clean of anything resembling the dogmatic religion his grandparents enforced on his parents. We three, this small yet vibrant family of mine, stood before the candles, as Aster picked up the shamas and lit the small, thin candles, night after night. (Doing some research after the fact, I realize I forgot to cover her head with a scarf, which is part of the tradition she would have joyfully observed, being the fancy, and tradition-loving kind of girl she has become.)
Along the years of my, for lack of a better term, religiously blank adulthood, I’ve felt a rather large hole inside of me. Still, if I imagine strongly enough, I notice the delightful Jewish traditions of my youth are stitched into the fabric of my soul, as I sit on the yoga mat and chant, move my body in yogic asanas, or join my daughter in hanging sparkly balls on a pesticide-free Christmas tree I bought through a Certifikid deal this year–the first (of not very many, actually) Christmas tree I’ve decorated that did not come out of a box.
My father grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. When his father died of cancer when Dad was just nine years old, all he remembers is being forced to “sit shivah” every day after school for a week. Nobody sat to comfort him, to help his grief flow from his body, his heart, his soul. Not one human being in his community of religious family and friends took him in strong arms and allowed his tears to stain their shawls. This seemingly benign lack of what we would now term “consciousness” ruined any chance his progeny would be enthusiastically brought up in an observant Jewish home. I understand now how the lack of demonstrative love towards a nine year old boy who had just lost his father played the major role in destroying the proper chance I had at “being Jewish.” I blame nobody.
The other night my daughter was wondering about her name, and I told her I was sure that someone in her first mommy’s church named her. I know from the DVD we were given after a birth family search we did through EthioStork that Aster was named by the church that her birth mother attends. I think about this church frequently, and the meaning it holds for the woman who gave birth to the daughter we share. I wonder sometimes if she would be displeased with us that we do not attend church. I know in my heart of hearts that my spirituality has grown roots in my soul from a life lived practicing kindness and the ancient texts of the yogic traditions, and those teachers who have written interpretations and explanations that are more relatable to this so called modern world. I asked Aster after the naming discussion if she would like me to take her to church. “No,” she said. “I do not like church.”
Each night as she attempts to fall asleep, with the lights turned out and me by her side, I pray words of light and protection, love, gratitude, power, and presence. And while I do I picture her birth mother, her sister, and the blessed man who made our connection happen. In the very north of Ethiopia, there are people who have blessed our lives with a light-filled child who mourns the loss of her first family and the country where her existence was created. I picture this place and ask God to send angels to protect and heal, protect and heal, protect and heal.
At this time of year, as I feel sadness about being so far away from my family of origin who live on the other side of the country, I open wide my heart, and call upon the ancient ones who celebrated the Festival of Lights, that honored a miracle in the name of humanity. We are all one, in the end. Jewish is my blood, this may be true. But I know for sure that God’s plan is for all beings to live in peace, together, in harmony with All that Is.