Look Beneath the Surface

“Do you meditate to Hindu gods?”

Ganesh, with a Hamsa, and hands clasped in prayer

My orthodox ex-husband noticed the arrangement of artwork on a countertop near where I meditate. A beautiful Ganesh made from three different metals was wrapped in a necklace that held a Buddha charm and a Jewish Hamsa, or the Hand of God. Beside it, an angel in silver clasped hands in prayer.


Next to that is Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, music, arts, wisdom and learning. On the shelves beneath this arrangement is my father’s 1960s Nikon camera and my grandmother’s china tea set, protected behind glass doors.

No, I don’t meditate to Hindu gods. Nor do I meditate to my grandmother’s teapot. I don’t meditate TO anything.

The point of this collection in a corner of my house is inspiration. Beauty. And when I sit down on the padded pillows I reserve for meditation, it’s intended to be a corner of quiet and peace where I feel relaxed enough to go inward and connect with my soul.

That’s what meditation is for me, and it’s how I view prayer, too. Private connection with a higher power. My own spirituality. My private domain.

But when others have a very strictly defined vision of how worship should be, anything else feels terrifying. Foreign.

mezuzahs adorn the doorposts of every room in my house
mezuzahs adorn the doorposts of every room in my house

This morning, I awoke to an email message from a woman in Israel whom I didn’t know. She included a link to another woman’s blog, a blog about me and how I’ve gone “off the derech,” which is an Orthodox phrase meaning lost my way, off the “right” path, the religious path.

The woman who wrote to me was similarly considered “off the derech” but really, also like me, she simply found herself and her own way of observing Judaism. (Read about it here.) And she had the courage to choose for herself what Judaism means to her. So she was commiserating with my new path, while the other woman felt I’d let her down.

I know neither of these women. But that’s the power of the written word.

I am, quite honestly, honored that either woman gave me even a speck of time and thought. Me, lowly little me, a Detroit woman who loves being Jewish but also finds beauty and similarity in, literally, every tradition on the planet.

I never set out to be a “role model,” as the dismayed Chicago blogger dubbed me. (I’m honored!) I am just a Midwestern woman, wife and mother who can’t help but write. I love stringing words together, I love speaking out. I feel I must say something when injustice confronts me.

And beauty.

And wisdom.

And questions.

While one woman sees me as so changed from how she imagined me, based on a book I wrote 13 years ago and an article I wrote 9 years ago, in so many ways I am the same person through and through.

I drink the same Israeli instant coffee every single morning since I discovered it at a religious women’s hostel in Jerusalem in 1996.  I love music, like I always have, and I love to write. A day spent writing is a dream day, in my humble opinion.

Hamsa, the hand of God
Hamsa, the hand of God

And, surprise, surprise, I have never liked being told what to do. Not when I was growing up in a Reform Jewish household and not when I was trying my darndest to be a good religious 20-something. The true me believes in trusting myself and having my own direct connection to God, without any conduits or interlopers telling me if my interpretations are correct.

We are not simply about the single moments we crystallize in memory by committing them to paper. The article I wrote for Tango Magazine in 2006 (which first appeared in print but lives on digitally), about how Orthodox sex is hot because couples have a mandated time of separation every month, was more about the practice of mikvah than it was about my particular marriage – and yet, people read into it as my hot marriage, my declaration.

(While it was a great article, that I am really proud of writing, it didn’t include the times my ex was waiting in the garage for me to pull in from the mikvah, late on a summer night, and I was so annoyed, as if we were to drop to the garage floor and do it right there. “Give me a minute,” didn’t make it into the article. We were hot at times, yes, and we were normal annoyed bored married people, too.)

We identify the writer with the writings.

I remember in graduate school a friend reading a poem about being molested as a child. Afterwards, many of us approached him and said, “Wow, I’m so sorry you went through that.”

“What makes you think it was biographical?” he said. “Can’t a poem be fiction?”

31uG+0u6tFL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Now, you can’t argue that about an article, especially a personal essay, but I would argue that people evolve and so do relationships, right? So what would make you think I am the same person I was 13 years ago?

While there were good moments in my first marriage, there weren’t enough of them to make it worth the long haul. And when I wrote the book on hair-covering, I was drinking the Kool-Aid, I believed what people told me – and yet, I still took a journalistic approach to writing the book, including a variety of different opinions and practices on the Jewish practice of married women covering their hair. (25 chapters’ worth, in fact.)

[For those people dismayed by my phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid,” what I mean is, it was semi-journalistically written, and semi-influenced by my immersion in Orthodoxy. I now believe that hair-covering, if you really look at the sources and translations, along with rabbinic interpretations and communal customs, has more do with fitting in to a particular community than to out-and-out legal observance. But so does much of religious observance, a topic for another blog.]

I am just one person, on a planet of billions. My way of seeing the world is one interesting perspective (at least I hope it is) – there are so many more.

When we write, we inspire dialogue, at least I hope to, and we add our voice to the cacophony of opinions in the world. We are no more right or wrong than anyone else – we simply are brave enough to put our viewpoint out into the world and trust the world to handle it, and us, with care.

I am so glad my voice is a force for thought and change among so many different people.

But truly, handle my words carefully and add a dash of your own perspective. You are part of this conversation. It takes two – or many more – to tango.

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