Mine is a complicated if not convoluted soul. Sometimes it reveals a side of itself that has been hidden so long I’ve forgotten about it, or assumed it no longer existed. In recent years, I’ve experimented with further loosening my already weak and ambivalent ties to Judaism, my birth religion, whose wisdom teachings and sacred chanting move me but whose rule- and ritual-bound, family-centric and off the charts extroverted culture leaves me, an unattached introvert, alienated. While for years I observed Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover without fail, and wouldn’t have been able to imagine otherwise, last year I wondered how I’d feel if I experimented with making a different choice. As it turned out, forgoing synagogue services and Seders didn’t leave me wracked with guilt or deeply disappointed. I interpreted my waning interest to mean I had moved away from conventional forms of religious expression in favor of spiritual practice: meditation, contemplative time in nature and Feldenkrais movement lessons. I also wondered if, somehow, I were less Jewish than I once was. Had that identity atrophied for lack of cultivation? Maybe I really was an à la carte spirit, the name of this blog, someone who found more peace and freedom choosing from a spiritual buffet rather than ordering from somebody’s prix fixe menu.
Just over a year ago I discovered Hevria, a site whose mission is “to become the go-to community for Jewish and spiritual people who are ‘creators’.” Hevria, a combination of the words “Hevreh” and “Bria” in Hebrew, which mean “group of friends” and “creation,” is the vision of Elad Nehorai. He grew up secular and, as an adult, became a Hasidic Jew. He makes his home in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood I didn’t visit when I lived in Manhattan decades ago because it was filled with ultra religious people whom, I believed at the time, must be a bit…crazy. Wearing hats or wigs and coats and long dresses in 90 degree weather? Crazy! They, in turn, might not have even considered me Jewish at all, given that I didn’t keep kosher, didn’t attend synagogue and didn’t wear modest clothing (I preferred pants to skirts; it’s not that I dressed like Madonna). Then, decades ago, the divisions between Jewish denominations seemed ironclad and the mutual bafflement, if not scorn, entrenched. Despite supposedly being one people, dysfunctionality ruled. Jews were more skilled at tearing each other apart than at building bridges. To be Jewish was to be perpetually heartbroken by in-fighting, scandal or sheer institutional ineptitude. Those were just some of the reasons I chose not to affiliate when I was younger. Never mind that Jewish communities then didn’t actively foster creativity and individual expression, let alone consider creativity as another, or parallel, path to the divine. Creating could be a side dish, not the main course.
My weary soul not only sighed with relief when I found Hevria but also became a tiny bit excited about being Jewish. Seriously? What was that about? Maybe people like Elad, relentlessly optimistic and perhaps a bit crazy (in a good way), could shake up some of the stale paradigms in the Jewish world and, possibly, heal and transform it. Still, I felt disappointed that, at the time, Hevria had chosen its core group of writers; the rest of us could follow but not contribute. Meanwhile, the vulnerable and powerful writing on the site nurtured my complicated soul and helped it expand in new directions. I kept reading and commenting. Last spring, Hevria raised money to pay someone to review guest posts. I wanted to submit. And, I feared submitting. I feared baring my soul and having my submission deemed not soul-bearing enough. Oy! I procrastinated, unsure which of many ideas to develop. Over time, I reworked an essay I’d started years ago. Mostly I revised it in my head while walking in the woods. It took many trips to the woods before I finished it. Eventually, about a month ago, I submitted the essay. My rat brain, accustomed to instant feedback when I share writing online, wanted to learn ASAP if it had been accepted or not.
To take my mind off the submission, my body chose that moment to develop an unprecedented reaction. To what, I have no idea. The right side of my face ballooned, reddened and itched excruciatingly. Had it been Halloween, I wouldn’t have needed a mask. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I spent the next few days seeing doctors and trying different remedies, alarmed that my visage showed few signs of returning to normal. Before the symptoms resolved themselves, I received a lovely e-mail from Hevria. They had accepted my piece. The news did not instantly restore my face to its usual dimensions but it lifted and soothed my complicated soul. Although I never felt at home in the denominational Jewish world and I tend to eschew labels, I’m excited to say I’m a Hevrian. Who knows, perhaps I’ll visit Crown Heights one day to meet the people behind it.
On that note, here is my essay.
Thank you for baring your soul… it is a wonderful essay, enlightening and tender. You are so talented Ilona!
Thank you, Denise! Your words mean a great deal to me.
I love your essay! I’m Jewish by birth, but not religious at all. I never fit in any synagogue. Yet I still consider myself Jewish and spiritual. I’ve never written to you before, but I love your writing.
Thank you, Marina, for deciding to write! I’m so glad my essay resonated with you. Makes me happy to know that!
A BOGO special . . . twO fOr the price of One. NOt just a bargain, but dOuble the reflectiOn, inspiratiOn, life-lessOn and gOOd humOr. Thank yOu! And cOngratulatiOns fOr being selected tO share yOur sOul and shOw Off yOur talents. YOur O is alsO an Oh!