David Bogomolny, author of the blog ben Alexander — The skeptic’s Kadish, informs that he has only been writing poetry for about a year. One can wonder what the world missed in poetry by him waiting so long, I can just be happy he started. He has brought new forms to my view, as he explores and plays publicly into learning poetry. While he is an Israeli Jew who is openly writing about his inner struggles with his faith, I’m slowly doing the process of converting to the same faith and wrestling with my own beliefs. Every once in a while David fires off a poem that just stops me. He did it with his sevenling (another new form to me) I am such, and that prompted me to start this post. Then while still pondering that poem, he popped out another that relates to my thoughts, in I drank. With his permission I post them here.
There are blessings and curses to approaching a new religion, and a new culture, as an outsider. I feel free to pick and choose what works and what doesn’t work for me, in a way that I don’t think comes as easily to someone who is born into it. There are thousands of years of teachings and rules and customs which vary widely depending where in the world you are and where your ancestors were from. No one can asbsorb or practice all of them.
As an outsider looking in, I can see some of the warts that maybe those who are born into it have grown accustomed to seeing—you know they are there, they just don’t register any more. But that doesn’t mean they cannot be seen or questioned, and that is what David is doing and that makes it all the more significant when I read his poems.
The first one:
I am such a friggin' Jew; circumcised; born in and residing in the capital of Israel; always, always walking around with a yarmulke. I don't compose poetry in Hebrew; I don't hate; I have difficulty believing in my One True God, let alone in any foreign ones. I am just as different as I am.
Frankly, I’m glad that he doesn’t compose poetry in Hebrew. My lack of knowledge of Hebrew is one of my big stumbling blocks to accessing the faith. There are Jews who also have only a smattering of Hebrew, if that, so it isn’t just a problem of outsiders. Growing up reading history, I always thought that Martin Luther had it right with the Reformation tenets of holding services in the common tongue rather than Latin. I’m torn with the Hebrew being so integral to practicing the faith. As I said, on one hand I think it segregates and alienates. I think it also forms a barrier to those Jews who grow up for whatever reason without a foundation in the language. You aren’t fluent in Hebrew? You’re less of a Jew is the message I see. On the other hand, and there is always another hand, Hebrew is our heritage. It should not be forgotten. It should be used and kept alive. I think of Native Americans losing huge chunks of their identities by losing their languages, and it makes me weep.
The next line, “I don’t hate” is also one I wrestle with, and it also goes to a self-segregating mindset. It is a natural, human thing to do, to think of “us over here” and “you guys over there.” We all do it. We’ve heard the phrase “the chosen people” and trust me, that one is controversial even among various Jews. We just celebrated Passover, and the big theme there is how we triumphed over our enemies. Lots of Egyptians were blighted and killed, but we marked our doors with lamb’s blood so we survived the slaughter. The entire Egyptian army was wiped out as the sea closed over. Yay? I mean, hurrah that we were let go from slavery. So much of the Torah is about defeating enemies. That’s better than enemies defeating us, but still. Thousands of years later we are still drumming it into our heads “we’re better.” As an outsider, as one of “them”… that’s a bit uncomfortable.
Bringing that into more modern times… How do you not hate, when time after time, for various reasons people are trying to obliviate you from the planet? I had relatives who died in concentration camps. I had relatives who were big players in the French Underground. But I knew none of these people, just vague stories, and yet when I stepped foot into Germany, when I wandered around Munich, I felt this history as being “mine.” It was hard not to feel hate towards Germans in general, and that shocked me, and that was before conversion was even on the radar.
Closer in, this year, for the first time in ages, the local, public menorah was vandalized. I heard stories from the people in my Zoom schul talk about hate crimes and more subtle micro-aggressions. Of course we want to pull together with our own, and yet while I feel the history as mine, I am so far removed from that. Being one of the mistrusted, and even hated, others I have not experienced the persecusion that “real” Jews have.
I see the hate politics of Israel and the Palestinians and wonder how people who know, to their cores, about oppression can themselves turn around and oppress others.
To further this thought about “us vs them” thought David’s next poem brought it up again. And wait a minute, how can I be both an “us” AND a “them”? But I am.
I drank an expensive bottle of red wine from Moldova. It was subtle; smooth; unkosher. Kosher wines must be produced exclusively by Sabbath-observant Jews; open bottles are rendered unkosher if even touched by gentiles; this feels to me like racism. Such delicious wine.
“This feels to me like racism”… because it is. Institutionalized. Now, this is more of a problem for the Orthodox, but still. As someone who is converting, and not to become Orthodox, I would not be recognized as Jewish by some. There would be many in Israel who would not see me as Jewish. So if I handed even a kosher bottle of wine to someone who followed these rules, he would not be able to drink it. Unclean? Seriously? Seriously.
I find myself falling in love with aspects of both this religion and this culture. I see symbolism that rings true and meaningful to me. I’ve mentioned over and over how I love that The Tribe is genetically programmed to argue everything. I love lighting the candles and saying the blessings, in my mangled Hebrew, each Shabbat, and I feel connected to millions living and millions long past. I like that there is work involved in conversion, unlike other religions where you just show up and say, “Ok, I believe now” and you get a perfunctory (if that) ritual and you’re in. I could study all day and still never feel how someone who grew up immersed in Hebrew, the faith and the customs will feel. I see some of the warts, and I feel the outsider and am considered the outsider. And I wrestle with God about that.
“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” Genesis 32:28 (Israel = he struggles with God)