Sunday, February 5, 2012

Darkness and Light

In Parsha Bo we hear about the plague of darkness. The Etz Hayim has an interesting commentary. If the darkness was only a lack of physical light, it says, couldn't people have just used candles? This question, while kind of bizarre, leads to an intriguing suggestion: the darkness could also have had psychological, emotional or spiritual dimensions. While I'm not sure I buy that reading in the context of the text, I think lots of people can relate to emotional darkness-- whether feeling like you've fallen into an abyss, or just struggling with general dissatisfaction.

I've been feeling some of the latter lately, and though it may sound overdramatic, I absolutely agree with designating it as a "plague." If life is supposed to be about joy and satisfaction, not having those things can definitely feel like a curse or affliction. It sucks when things suck, not just because bad things are happening, but also because they have a way of creeping in and nullifying, or at least diminishing, the good stuff. Etz Hayim quotes the Midrash connecting the Darkness/Light metaphors with Heaven and Hell: "Just as the light of Shabbat is a foretaste of the world to come... the darkness of the ninth plague is a foretaste of Gehinnom..." Powerful imagery for people engaged in an intellectual examination of depression, though I don't think I'd use it to cheer someone up.

The hardest part of our practice these days is how inconsistent things are, and that mostly has to do with us still not having found a community we really connect with. Mrs. Yid's schedule continues to be pretty crazy, and I spend most Shabbats alone. It's hard to be consistent when I'm missing my partner in crime (and Yiddishkeit). Most of the time we're too busy to really notice it, but it still pops up from time to time-- for me, particularly when I have to spend Shabbat alone, but also on the rare occasion where we wind up doing a lot of Jewish social stuff.


This week is a great example. This week my cousin came from Israel on a speaking tour and invited us to come hear her talk. We met her beforehand, had dinner, and then went to the event. Despite the fact that initially I was rather anxious about meeting new people, things actually turned out totally fine. I even had a chance to talk Israeli politics/anthropology with a few folks.

At the end of the night, my cousin mentioned she was going to be spending Shabbat speaking at a synagogue in the East Bay, Beth Funny Name to be Determined. Mrs. Yid and I have been interested in checking out BFNtbD for a while now but haven't made it across the bay, and I mentioned I would try to check it out.

But then I remembered that Mrs. Yid was working that day. As soon as I realized that I would have to go alone, I got a sick feeling in my stomach. It festered over the next few days, and I realized that even though I wanted to go there and see her speak... I was also kind of terrified of going by myself. And that feeling didn't go away, even after talking about it multiple times. I kept waffling back and forth about "maybe I could go," and then retreating. And every time, I was also beating up on myself for this even being an issue in the first place. I didn't wind up going, and I was pretty irritated with myself.

The week didn't end too badly, though. My cousin was chatting with some of her rabbinical colleagues and remembered that we had spent some time at Beth Elderly a few years ago. It turned out that the new-ish rabbi there was organizing a young adult Havdalah. Would we like to come?

Going to services alone at a shul where I've never been before is tough. Trying to chat up random strangers in a super crowded room after services at Evil Minion is tough. But a few young adults at the rabbi's house? This, I can do. So I said yes, and we went, and things actually were really, really nice. It turns out that since we stopped going the new rabbi has been working hard to encourage more young people, and they're now experimenting with more Carlebach stuff in their services, as well as trying to make more opportunities for the young folks to meet and hang out outside of shul, too.

This was like music to my ears. One young married couple-- who had also gone to Evil Minion many times and found it really hard to meet anyone-- had even joined the board!

As with anything involving Jews, there were things that weren't perfect. Mrs. Yid had several wardrobe malfunctions and had to battle the city's various inept transportation systems and wound up coming late. There wasn't much for me to eat because no one knew my food allergies. There were people there who I wouldn't choose as my best friends (did you know Canada has bad weather? Now I do, too. In excruciating detail.) But all those things actually had a bright side. I had to go in and schmooze for an hour with strangers by myself, something I had all but convinced myself I was incapable of doing. I got to see that there are plenty of other young-ish people out there with worse social skills than me. (I'm only moderately awkward! Go team!) And the fact that I didn't get much food gave us an excuse to go out for dinner afterwards to celebrate.

On the way home, I told Mrs. Yid that I had just had an epiphany.

"It's terrible!"

"What?"

"I think... your Dad may be right."

"About what?"

"About that stupid Gandhi quote he likes so much. 'Be the change you want to see in the world.'"

"How?"

"I think it means... we can't spend all our time banging our heads into the wall trying to shoehorn ourselves into someone else's community... if there's a place that's welcoming to us, and they're trying to grow their young members... maybe what we need to do is get involved, and build it into the kind of community we want to have."

"Funny, I feel like I've only been saying this for the last five years."

I love my wife.

Mrs. Yid and I have talked a lot about anxiety this week, and we've concluded that my anxiousness about talking to people may be a bit beyond the norm-- and that it may be something worth looking into with a therapist. Plenty of people in both our families take anti-anxiety and anti-depression meds, so it's not out of the question that I might have some funky brain chemistry going on, too.

But maybe it's also that, given the choice, I'd rather meet people in small doses. Maybe it's about needing to not bite off more than I can chew.

Even though this has been a really tough week, I'm starting to feel hopeful. There's a little more light in the tunnel.

It's nice to know we have options. It's important to remember that there is a community that has continually welcomed us, without pressure and without preconditions. And it's fantastic that there seems to be the seeds of a change happening there where all the pressure won't be on us to save the shul.

So who knows, maybe by this time next year, I'll have a new name for Beth Elderly. Maybe Beth Median (math joke!) Maybe Beth Boardwalk (it's by the beach).

Or maybe, Home.

4 comments:

Antigonos said...

I know well the problem of finding the right shul to davven in. For years I shlepped from the Lower East Side in NYC to the upper West Side just because the rabbi at the Society for the Advancement of Judaism [the Reconstructionist Mother-shul] had really good questions, in a congregation of highly intelligent people who were looking for answers.

Here in Israel, the mechitza poses certain problems, as my husband, a sabra of Iraqi origin, and who is 85% secular, won't go to any Ashkenazi shul, and I can't really go to an Iraqi nusach bet knesset because, not only do I not like Mizrachi hazzanut [cat yowling is musical compared to it] but the ezrat nashim is a tiny cubicle, a separate room with a tiny grille, with maybe 2 women for a male congregation of 50 or more. In an Ashkenazi shul it means I simply don't get to know half the congregation...but I do like being able to pray without constant interruption. There is much less female gabbling since Orthodox Israeli women are religiously well-educated.

Services are also without frills and the davvening and leining goes straight through, no choir, no sermon, two hours from start to finish on Shabbat morning [when one has a family, it's tough for women to go on Friday night]. Many minyanim, of course, do not have rabbis leading the prayers at all; but the men take the task of shaliach tzibur in turn, while if there is a rabbi, he gives shiurim on Shabbat afternoons and during the week. It suits me.

I'm not sure that, until you find a level of observance that you are comfortable with, that you can even begin to find a community you feel comfortable with. I get the impression you have been looking for a community before you know yourself better.

As for the darkness in Egypt, ever since the lights went out in NYC [just as I exited the subway at Union Square] in 1964, I have understood the psychological effect of being without light. It was OK for about half an hour...and then it became really oppressive, almost a physical thing.

Friar Yid said...

I'm not sure that, until you find a level of observance that you are comfortable with, that you can even begin to find a community you feel comfortable with. I get the impression you have been looking for a community before you know yourself better.

That's an excellent insight. It's hard to know where the observance stuff will go, though, since right now we've basically plateaued in terms of Jewish practice (such as it is), and absent a new impetus to break through the inertia, I'm not sure we're going to go anywhere.

For instance, there are some pretty basic Jewish benchmarks that we don't follow in any traditional sense-- the most obvious ones being kashrut and tefillah. I'm happy when I get to pray but don't get to it every week much less every day, and I don't see that changing much anytime soon.

As for kashrut, I just don't really care about it. It's interesting in an academic sense but not having grown up with it (and already having a dairy allergy that limits my diet significantly), I don't feel any connection or urge to pursue it. (This has not been helped by reading more about the kashrut industry or the ever-increasing craziness of humras.) I'm aware that this is a pretty significant divide between me and most serious Jews, but at the moment I can't picture any scenario which would change it.

I think I'm interested in finding more things I can opt into rather than opting out of other parts of my life I already enjoy, and feel like maybe it's time to try doing more with others instead of always alone or with my wife. I'm not trying to avoid personal responsibility for my Jewish life or education, but I guess my hope is that with some support from friends or a community I would be more inclined to start stretching more and trying things I otherwise wouldn't.

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