1. Retrieve or recover (something previously lost, given, or paid); obtain the return of.
2. Bring (waste land or land formerly under water) under cultivation.
I. The Past
At 13, I stood nervously at the bimah – working up the courage to begin my Torah reading. Taking a deep breath, I sang out the first word – baruch – in a clear voice. The passage was called Lech-Lecha – “Go forth”; the story of Abraham leaving his ancestral home to make his way to the promised lands of Canaan, knowing nothing about his journey’s destination except that God wished him to go there. I, too, was starting a journey – “Bat Mitzvah: the coming of age,” the Rabbi called it. I laughed and ate cake with friends and family later, still very much a child. Who had wished me to grow up so quickly, anyway? Certainly not my God.
At 15, I stood angrily before the Western Wall – the Kotel – hands clenched so hard nails bit into flesh. I felt tears well in the corners of my eyes – why was I to be penned off, while my father, brother, and male friends were able to walk freely in a large, open space, proudly wearing their Tallit, free to carry Torah in Jerusalem’s most holy prayer space. Looking out at the hundreds of men who davened in the square, and the relatively small collection of women packed in tight around me, I felt isolated. I was side-eyed, disapproved of, rejected. Who had decided these rules were necessary, that men and women could not pray side-by-side, as equals? Certainly not my God.
At 17, I had been interested in applying for a position within the Religious Education branch of my Jewish Youth Group. Chanting the sometimes-haunting-sometimes-exuberant melodies in an animated, cohesive group was the one thing I looked forward to most about the Youth Group meet-ups. Talking it over with mentors, and considering the application, I met nearly all of the requirements for acceptance. Except for one. “We really prefer for our members, especially our leadership, to date other Jews and promote Jewish relationships.” I could have lied about my very not-Jewish boyfriend, but I walked away from that youth group after finding out about their “dating recommendations.” Who said dating or marrying a non-Jew made one any less spiritual or dedicated to their tradition? Certainly not my God.
At 20, in Kyoto, I stood at the kiyomizu-dera, a look of utter awe on my face. I had never seen a more beautiful place, the rich greens and golds of Summer framing the ancient wooden structure like an incandescent garland. The Temple’s name means “pure water,” I’d translated. I, too, had been named for water. The smell of Sandalwood tickled my nostrils, and I felt a thrill run up my spine. As I entered the building, my heart pounding, I felt cleansed. What essence permeated this place; what history, what Divinity? Certainly not my God.
At 25, I conquered a giant. At the top of Mt. Fuji stood a single torri gate, gleaming in the first rays of the sunrise peaking over the horizon. I broke through the ceiling of clouds feeling like a ghost on the wind. Had I entered heaven? Surely this was heaven. I breathed deeply, tasting the clearest, cleanest air I had ever tasted in my life. Turning, my eyes fell upon the vast crater of primordial rock marking the opening of the still-active volcano, drinking up its depths. Such power. I felt the whispers of a voice, deep and ageless and terrible and beautiful all at once. What God was this? Certainly not my God.
23, 24, 25, 26…I stood, many times, at many rituals – a feast for the ancestors, a prayer for the full moon, a dance to call the spirits of the land – wondering why I had never heard the phrases “Modern Pagan” or “Modern Witch” before. An entire world of possibilities opened up to me as I became close with new friends: a world of liberal environmentalism, a world of seasonal celebrations based on real changes in nature (not words in some ancient, male-centric book), a world of spirits and ghosts and magic. Here too was divination, Astrology, lunar cycles, and crystal healing – practices that sang to my soul, and called to me like a magnet. Here there was a healthy acceptance of Death – not fear, but understanding, reverence, and readiness. Here there were Goddesses as well as Gods. I learned of Shamanism, and I journeyed into The Labyrinth and gained secret knowledge of a personal Delphi. I gave and received Oracles, and finally, I began to wonder – “Are these my Gods after all?”
At 26, I stood beneath the chuppah and married my beloved, that same boy (now man) from 10 years previous. It was a Jewish wedding with an interfaith flair, and it was beautiful. And yet, a part of me felt a twinge of guilt as I crushed the glass, marking the start of a new life in partnership. I had wanted a Jewish wedding, but I had long given up the Conservative Judaism of my youth. I even had tattoos, a traditional Jewish taboo. Was I Pagan now? Or still Jewish? Could one be both? I thought about God and felt angry – the Patriarchal Lord of the Old Testament with all of His arbitrary rules wasn’t my God. I thought about a life without the Hebrew alphabet, the call of the Shofar, and the sweet taste of challah, though, and felt sad. That seemed wrong too.
In short, I’d grown up the typical liberal American Jew, loyal to his tribe and family, and very proud of the ethical heritage of the Jewish people.
My Jewish identity was like a strongbox, very well protected, but what was inside it? The interior meaning of being a Jew was indistinct, smuggled, inchoate – much like the Hebrew letters I could pronounce but not truly read. -Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus
II. The Present
There is a concept within many of the modern Pagan religions referred to as a “hearth culture” or “hearth practice” – a cultural orientation, mythological alignment, and Pantheon-focus that one feels at home within. I loved this idea – it felt personal and empowering, that we could chose what works for us, what ancient practices to renew and what Gods to worship. I wanted that feeling of “coming home.” Every time I tried to find it, however, something tugged at my heartstrings and nagged at my mind. You already have a hearth culture. You always have.
I attended a Unitarian Church for a while from late 2015 into early 2016, a lost soul trying to make connections with people of varying faith backgrounds, who rallied under the call of social justice. It was a lovely place, and I liked its energy. But I walked out of the church every Sunday with a sense of loss, a flatness, a lack of some spark. I still didn’t feel like I belonged there. I had lost something that I desperately wanted back. Not the strict religion of my youth, but being in on the secret of an enduring survival. I wanted to walk in the footsteps of my ancestors without denying the powerful experiences I’d had in Japan, at the Witches Sabbat, and during private Pagan rituals with friends. I wanted the haunting Hebrew melodies, the flickering of candles, the smell of spices, and the taste of red wine, but I wanted mysticism and an occult sense of mystery too. Kabbalah, it was called. The Four Realms. Assiyah, Yetzirah, Briyah, and Atzilut. Could I enter those realms? Could I exist in that space?
I stumbled upon Tel Shemesh, Kohenet, Machane Am Ha’aretz, and Magickal Judaism. I read Gershon Winkler, The Jew in the Lotus, and Ketzirah‘s blog. I found Jewish Renewal. My eyes widened, my heart opened. Judaism had – has – a mystic tradition. Judaism had – has – room for witches, priestesses, Goddesses, and magic. Judaism can be syncretic. Judaism can be Pagan. Judaism can be accepting of interfaith. Ideas began to form. Light half of the year, dark half of the year. A seasonal cycle. Prayers and rituals. Altars and shrines. Miriam had been a prophetess for her people, perhaps I could be too.
In September of 2016, I received a reading from a medium, and she said to me, in so many words, “Your ancestors are restless.” I felt restless too. Something was calling my name.
On the Autumn Equinox, I dreamed of Asherah, the Queen of Heaven, and She had a familiar face. I wondered at the glory and the beauty of Her, bathed in moonlight. I drew The World from the Tarot. Coming full circle. The joy of completion. The feeling of coming home.
Zalman Schachter-Shalomi brought his unique combination of Hasidic energy and existential confrontation. The morning he led the davening, he came up to me during the last part of the Shema, touched me on the shoulder, looked straight into my eyes, and said, “Your God is a true God.” I found that a powerful challenge.
I usually felt as I prayed in a group that I was assenting to ideas and images that were very foreign to me or that I didn’t have time to check out. Zalman’s gesture had cut through that in a very personal way. Something about his statement struck me in the heart as true, even with my intellect marshaling a thousand reasons why it couldn’t be. My God is a true God? Which God was he talking about? Long white beard, old Daddy in the sky? Autocrat, general, father, king? Master of the Universe, doyen of regulations and punishments? These were the images that made me reject the very idea of God.
But in a funny mental jujitsu, the more I struggled with these images, the more what Zalman said came through. “Your God is a true God” meant to me that the images and the language weren’t going to be supplied in advance. I would have to find them for myself out of my own experience, and in my own language.
I wasn’t the only one taken aback. Moshe Waldoks, an all-star veteran of Jewish prayer, was also moved by Zalman’s direct challenge. He told me it was his peak moment Jewishly in Dharamsala.
“We always say it at the end of the Shema, but I understood it for the first time: that I ultimately will find the God that will work for me and it will be the true God. That was a tremendously potent moment. It gave me a lot of energy that I still carry with me. My eyes filled with tears. It was a loving act of support and affirmation that we live our lives and all we can do is help our people – all people – find what their God is and help them be true to it, live with a certain truth in their lives.” -Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus
III. The Future
My God is a true God. My God is Creation, the spark of life, the Ein Sof of infinite nothingness and infinite everything, that which is One. My God is the voice of the spirits – my ancestors, the land, the trees, the rocks, the ocean, the dancing flames of the candles. My God is the Pantheon of Canaan, the realms of Kabbalah, the Temple of Delphi where it is mandated, “Know Thyself.” My God is the syncretism of ancient Alexandria, the wisdom of the Jewish mystics in Tsfat, the memories of the Holocaust victims whose tragedy we must never forget. My God is acceptance, tolerance, liberation, equality, justice, freedom, and love. My God is science and discovery, the thirst for knowledge, and the constant struggle to understand the unknown.
I am reclaiming my ancestral religion, but like Jacob, I wrestle.
And to that we say: Amen.