Savoring the Cycle of Tradition-Rebellion- & Change
It may have been the day my friend Doug and I skipped out on the Yom Kippur teen services to get a cheeseburger. As I continue rehearsing for this year’s High Holiday Services, I realize that this very act of rebellion likely lit the fuse of my fate.
Yom Kippur, part of the High Holidays, is called the Day of Atonement. It is considered the holiest day of the year in Judaism. It comes after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. It is a way of extending that new year with ten extra days of intention, to center, and turn in towards our authentic selves; asking for forgiveness from anyone we may have harmed, as well as forgiving those who have hurt us. The intention is to be able to start the year with a clean slate. It is a day of fasting, alignment and reflection.
This is a perspective that I most certainly did not have as a teenager. The temple had rented out a movie theater for the youth services. We were all crammed together, restless and unruly. The overwhelmed leaders were doing the best they could but were losing a shouting battle for control. The delight that Doug and I felt, to not only leave the chaos, but to walk into a diner in the 163rd street shopping mall and order a cheeseburger and fries, bordered on ecstatic. A cheeseburger is not, strictly speaking, kosher. On Yom Kippur, it’s like holding a lightning rod up in a storm.
Here we were, breaking the rules, breaking tradition, masters of our own fate, relishing the calm emancipation from the chaos of repression we were feeling in the makeshift sanctuary; laughing at our audacity. I remember the light coming in from the window we were sitting next to and the empty sidewalk outside. It was as if the two of us had stepped outside of time to feast on freedom itself.
The following year, my friend Marc and I walked out of the main sanctuary during an extended roll call in which all the families who had given money were announced by name, along with the amount they had given. This struck us viscerally as a tedious, shaming tactic. Outside of the temple, Marc, who had spent the summer working on a kibbutz in Israel, said we were being given a watered-down version of Judaism.
Not finding the services nurturing or meaningful, I announced to my mother that I would no longer be going. “What if everyone felt like you?” she asked, “There would be no more Judaism.” “Would that be so terrible?” I asked in return, “What if everyone didn’t have to label themselves and were just human?”
My father did not take kindly to my declaration. “If you do not go to services when you’re older, it will kill me!” Here was a man who had perfected shouting just above a whisper, actually raising his voice, filling the house with his lament. It was frustration and fear that he was somehow going to fail to pass the torch of his heritage. I looked at him and thought, “That’s it. I’m done.”
Here it was, teenage rebellion, the clash of the ages. The next generation being dissatisfied, blazing a “new” new trail. I am certain that a form of this drama is still being played out in households around the world.
There is an old Yiddish proverb, “Man plans and God laughs.”
In high school and college, my new declared religion was Absurdism with Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention anointed as the high priests. After graduation, I got a job at a Jewish Community Center in Berkeley, CA. As the song leader, I wrote songs for and with the campers about Velcro Sideburns and A Bowl of Stinky Ice-cream. I also taught them about The Beatles, Little Richard and the holiness of Rock-and-Roll.
When a new director said he was going to send me to a 5-day camp in Wisconsin to learn more Jewish songs. My reaction was: “fine.” I flew out with my guitar and thought I would learn some new music for the kids that would appease the director.
There were just over 100 of us at Hava Nashira, which means, “Let us sing together.” It was a camp of songleaders and we sang, almost round the clock. I was genuinely surprised at the services they had throughout the week. Not only by being enveloped by intertwining multi-layered harmonies but how did everyone know all these prayers?
In a morning service, I witnessed the presence and beauty between two renowned songleaders and it moved me to stillness. When they weaved in an ancient melody from those seemingly endless services I had endured in my youth, something happened. It was as if my chest opened and 5,759 years of heritage and tribal wisdom washed over me like a wave and I was a part of it; part of the music that conveyed more than a set of rules, more than a structured morality. It was a secret code that had been faithfully transmitted from generation to generation within a husk of seemingly stubborn neurotic behavior and patriarchal control. A code that whispered, “We are each here to repair what is broken in the world, to restore balance, to find sparks in the darkness and shade in merciless light; to lift one another up, and while none of us has to do all the work, we each have a part to play that is essential.”
Here was a direct experience that infused me with an earnest drive to learn the prayers and songs, not out of obligation but with an alluring sense of discovery.
Not long after, when I returned home to my parents, I actually led a Havdalah service during the visit. Turning off the lights in their house, we celebrated the end of Shabbat with song, wine, spices and the light of a braided candle. The astonishment and wonder in my father’s eyes is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.
I still believe that, beyond our labels and affiliations, we are all human. I know in my heart that no one group of believers holds the truth as a copyright. For me, it is not about converting anyone to a particular faith. If we are fortunate enough to have a direct experience of something that connects us to our roots, it can lead us to become centered within the truth that it offers us. Then, we can afford to branch out and see the wisdom and value of those who hold different beliefs. We can begin to see how our various roots have intertwined to strengthen the forest of our humanity.
At this time of year, during the Autumn Equinox, there is equal light and dark. There is a balance to the day and night that calls to us to harmonize with everything around us. As the seasons pass, we have the opportunity for change. During this pandemic, there is a whirlwind of change that is calling for unity, even in the midst of our seeming divide.
Now I’m a vegetarian– I no longer eat cheeseburgers and, as I prepare to sing for the High Holidays online, (which is certainly a striking break from tradition.) I will strive to generate a light-hearted and inclusive joy that will hopefully not just lift the spirit of those in a particular tribe but somehow ripple out to all of life.
May there be in our lives, something like a Cheeseburger Equinox, a point at which we have the laughing audacity to question the traditions that have been handed down to us. To break free of obligation and discover for ourselves an authentic connection that not only brings us back, but expands who we are and what we can become, by embracing change.