When I was an undergraduate at Yale, around this time of year ahead of Sukkot (the Feast of the Tabernacles), bearded men in black often stood at one of the main crosswalks and approached students who looked like they might fit the bill with this question: Are you Jewish?
The place they chose for their kiruv (which literally means “bring close”) was outside the building that housed the campus post office. This was 1991-95—there was no internet, no texting, no email. Phone calls to Israel were prohibitively expensive. So I kept in touch with friends and family through what we now call “snail mail.”
Having dodged the draft into the army, I couldn’t fly home without risking arrest and jail time. My self-imposed exile broke something in me that I am still working to repair. The orthodox men asking me if I was a Jew–with the intention, no doubt, of welcoming me into the Sukkot practices dear to their heart–triggered that pain. Being a Jewish Israeli meant that I wasn’t free to visit my family or the soldier I was still in love with. Being Jewish was something I wished I could shed, and I tried.
Baruch Hashem, Thank God, I was unsuccessful. There were many angels along the way who helped heal my Jewish neshama, my Jewish soul. Early in the process, many of these angels were American teachers of mindfulness, Buddhism, and other psycho-spiritual practices who are themselves assimilated Jews, teachers whose ancestry is almost entirely absent from their teachings. Tara Brach, Pat Buxton, Krishna Das, Charles Eisenstein, Peter Gabel, Sharon Guskin, Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, Jon Kabat-Zinn. I had the privilege to sit in meditation, in listening circles, and on retreat with each of these wonderful teachers. Their dharma was pivotal in softening my heart generally, and this softening eventually led me home.
I’ve stayed in touch with a few of them, and over the years I’ve had the impulse to reach out with my own kiruv gestures—some way of inviting these beautiful souls into the sweetness their voices helped me find in a tradition I’d been alienated from. But the delicacy of the matter usually stops me. The last thing I want is to replicate the type of “kiruv” that once pushed me further away from Yiddishkeit.
But ahead of this Rosh Hashanah, I found words that felt right enough to send to one of these teachers who has become a friend, someone who also went to college at Yale.
“For many years,” I wrote, “including my time at Yale, I did not identify as a Jew. Most of what I’d seen of Jewishness—both in Israel and in the States—repelled me. So my spirit took me in other directions. That was what I needed, there were keys for me in Heidegger that I couldn’t find elsewhere. There were keys for me in tax law. Eventually, through teachers like you, I came upon other keys, including morphic resonance. Spiders know how to make cobwebs without having to be taught. People who hail from specific tribes are also wisdom keepers. Opening to ancestral pathways in our souls can deepen and crystallize the channeling we are capable of. Opening to stories coded into the particular DNA into which we incarnated in this lifetime can usher us into magic.
With that being said, I also understand now more than I did before that acknowledging Jewish influences/spirit can be professional suicide, including because so much of … institutional Judaism (both left and right, secular and religious) is aggressive. And resistance must be honored, not resisted. It’s all very delicate. Like feminism. … Women and Jews channel something that often raises defenses, but that holds medicine without which the planet is poorer.”
My friend replied with openness and appreciation, sharing a bit about his ancestry and also the story that inspired this post:
“When I was at Yale, I was walking with my roommate (who is Jewish). We were approached by some orthodox Jews who were trying to introduce non-observant Jewish students like my roommate to orthodox Judaism. They came up to us and asked, ‘Is your mother Jewish?’ [My roommate] said yes. I said, hopefully, ‘No but my father is Jewish!’ They said to me, ‘You are not a Jew,’ and then invited [my roommate], but not me, to a Shabbat. I think I decided then, that I did not want to be part of this religion. I have respect for its amazing teaching traditions and deep philosophy. I am not attached to not being part of it.”
Since moving to Jerusalem I’ve learned a new way to open a pomegranate. First you remove its crown cutting just deep enough to reveal its inner structure—the thin walls separating compartments of seeds like slices of an orange. Following those signs, you make shallow cuts into the skin from top to bottom. Then a most gentle separating gesture cracks the entire fruit open without damaging its precious interior.
The affiliated Jews—including a few bearded men in black—who came after the unaffiliated Jews in my kiruv process did so by respecting my inner structure. My inner structure (like King David’s) almost certainly includes ancestors who hail from other traditions. My inner structure includes beloved people, places, languages, and practices infused with other traditions. My inner structure also includes a fair deal of trauma over exclusion.
I am grateful to all who knew how to handle me with care. I hope I can pass along the blessing. L’shana haba’ah b’yerushalayim. For those who aren’t here already, let’s set an intention to sit together in a sukkah next year in Jerusalem.