It’s Always Something

Sunday, on the precipice of a new moon and the Jewish New Year, I woke at 4 am, early even for me. Cool air drifted through the window and rain pitter-pattered against the glass as I lounged in bed, draped in an autumn mumu and reading my second Gilda Radner book in two days. I’ve been pretty open about how hard I’ve been finding life, so the peace of that moment was sweet.

I’m not entirely sure why Gilda’s been giving me so much comfort right now. I’ve been reading and watching everything about her and I think partly it’s her guilelessness coupled with that intense mischief. Her intelligence and sense of the absurd were palpable, but so were her huge vulnerability and empathy–it was all wrapped in an enormous, childlike glow. Not a childish one, mind you for by all reports she was eminently kind, and children rarely are. (People who think children are born kind are fooling themselves; kindness is always a learned trait.) But Gilda was surely childlike: playful, present, boundlessly, bountifully enthusiastic. So much so that her voice was extra-raspy and her limbs extra rubbery, as if excitement was constantly stretching her limits.

I just love that. I loved it even as a very young person, when I first saw her on SNL. The big treat at 1970s sleepovers for elementary schoolers was to stay up and watch the show, and the first time I saw her girl scout skit I thought I’d never seen such a tall little girl in my whole life. Certainly not such a funny one. From reading It’s Alway Something, her autobiography, and Bunny Bunny, Alan Zweibel’s wistful, endearing account of their friendship, it’s clear Gilda lacked a layer of skin, and this made her her extra sensitive and somehow, miraculously, extra playful.

We don’t have enough playfulness in our world right now. We have rebels and cynics and smart mouths and clever-clever-cleverness. But we don’t have many goofballs, and lord knows we could use them. Goddess is with the goofballs; they’re our holiest of fools. That’s why, I think, the focus is back on Lady Radner (I’ll never call her by Gene’s last name.) Not only is a new documentary, Love, Gilda, coming out this month, but her name seems to be on everyone’s lips.

I had laid down my book and was thinking about all this, and about the person who had pretty much lived in my bed in recent months but not recent weeks, when permakitten Grace crept onto my lap if she hadn’t been staunchly ignoring me when the sun had been shining and my heart and hearth had been unusually full. I guess you could call her a foul-weather friend.

I thought about how I’ll always need one, just like Gilda had her dog Sparkle.

I felt like crying but tried to focus on my kitten’s loud purr, her sweetly striped paw extended onto my heart chakra. She doesn’t mess around, and it’s my job to stay present when she’s being such a beautiful reikitty.

Later that morning I went to church and met up with Lisa #1, as I call my old NY1 producer who is also blond and also loves all shades of blue. I used to call her Little Lisa because she is 15 years younger than me and five inches shorter. But she’s such an old soul that it really was a ridiculous nickname. Our lives and backgrounds are super different–she’s a Broadway musical zealot, and I remain a screwball dame–but we share a heart-and-head language that’s precious to me. We caught up beforehand and then held hands during the service, a good one about how even Jesus made a mistake. The point, Reverend Jacqi said, was that he evolved out of his tribalism. As we all must.

There was an irony in attending church services as Yom Kippur began that day. But just as I recently accepted that while I’ll always love Boston it is no longer home, there’s an even bigger part of me that is finally accepting that I do not worship comfortably as a Jew.

My father rather than my mother is Jewish, but it is not patrilineal law that makes me feel less than completely Jewish in my faith. (Ethnically, genetically, I am Jewish, and it is a crying shonda that only antisemites agree.) The reason that I do not feel fully Jewish is, ironically, the same reason I love members of the tribe. It’s that we are so deeply believe that Gd is in the details. This is why Jews stick to rituals so closely and why we fight for our principles so fiercely.

You see, I do think that sometimes we miss the forest for the trees, which may be what the rabbi Jesus was gently suggesting in his teachings and actions. And, yes, I do think Jesus was a rabbi until the last day of his life. That he wasn’t recognized as such bums me out, though I can feel my Jewish grandmother rolling in her grave as I type this.

Question: Do I think Jesus was the son of God?

Answer: Oy, no. I don’t even think of God as a person or an individual entity but as the whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, that extra spark of intelligence and love that connects everything and everybody. Certainly not a dude who fathers a son, even metaphorically.

But I do appreciate how Jesus preached over and over that we needed to look past the form to the function, that everything but love was just a construct (clearly he spent some times with the Buddhists), that we must not stick so closely to the letters of the law that we forget the rituals are meant to bring the divine into daily life, not enforce tribalism. Frankly, as the daughter of a big shiksa and a Woody Allen lookalike, I can attest to the fact that MOTs can be just as awful to semi-semites as gentiles can be.

My own grandparents seemed to feel pretty validated in their decision to ignore my sister and me until I turned out to be good at school. (In their eyes this clearly marked me as a Jew, Swedish looks aside.) I grew up in a half-Jewish, half-Catholic town whose two communities were divided by the Mass Pike and economic wealth. Subsisting on my dad’s assistant professor salary, we lived in the Irish-Italian Catholic neighborhood, but with a last name that didn’t end or begin with a vowel. This meant I hardly fit in, especially on Tuesday afternoons, when every other kid disappeared to CCD. My sister and I were raised with no religious training, and, for me at least, a lot of looming questions.

Decades later, I’m aware I escaped a bullet by not being Catholic–predatory priests apparently abounded in my neighborhood–but back then I begged to convert, even when my friend’s dad half-jokingly accused me of deicide. (You know the Jews killed Christ, Rosenberg…) I felt even less solidarity with the Jewish kids, who lit off to posh ski weekends and celebrated their tweenhood with bank-breaking bar and bat mitzvahs. Sometimes I even served as a shabbos goy of sorts on the high holidays, providing childcare at synagogues while my peers attended services. I felt terrible though I certainly appreciated the cash.

I knew no Hebrew, only the Yiddish used by my grandparents when they trash-talked my mother, sister and me. I knew nothing about the Torah or the dietary laws. I never even tried smoked fish until I got to NYC though my grandmother did make a beautiful borscht and matzo ball soup.

I knew only that some kids in my Italian-Irish neighborhood made me sit on the “kike” seat of the swingset.

In college I took a minor in Jewish studies and went to Hillel every Friday. But I never felt like I fit in, not really. It all seemed like a construct, and that Chosen People business was bound to rub me the wrong way. Frankly, many of the laws seemed like much ado about nothing, holdovers from long-gone eras that no longer served their initial purpose and were ridiculously prohibitive.

Since then, I embrace some of the rituals of Judaism–I sometimes fast on Yom Kippur, I adore the message of Passover. But I’ve accepted that I feel lonelier in every schul I’ve ever visited–no matter how progressive–than I do at Middle Church, whose appeal I’ve described before.

For one thing, I respect the teachings of Christ and just adore both Marys.

So what I’ve found is that the Jewish new year is as bittersweet as the food of this ritual. And for 5779, I’ve resolved to give myself a break. I’ve declared once and for all that I’ll stop trying to append myself to this community.

Really, I’m Jew-ish. The wry wit, the tenacity and pragmatism, the emphasis on education and social justice, the Ashkanazi gut: these are all my birthrights. But I do not worship as a Jew, and that’s just not going to change. It’s not just that I don’t know Hebrew, wasn’t raised in the temple so the rites and rituals will always feel constructed to me. In my heart of hearts I am first and foremost a brucha bruja–a “blessed witch” who is grateful for any bearer of light who has ever graced humanity, from Jesus to Buddha to Gilda Radner to Reverend Jacqui to Lisa #1.

I am a child of the universe.

Anyway, all this was already making me feel pretty lonely. Then when I woke today, I was instantly sick to my stomach.  Only as I was straightening from the toilet bowl, shaking and damp and pale, did I remember what my body already had already registered like an alarm clock: Seventeen years ago I lost people I loved in the Towers and with them, the life I thought I was going to lead. Seventeen years ago our city and country changed, irrevocably, for the worse. It’s times like this that I crave spiritual community. It’s times like this I realize how completely I lack it.

Sometimes I’m alone but not lonely, sometimes I’m lonely not alone. But this time of year, every year, I am both alone and lonely.

And when I feel this way, this brucha bruja digs into the tenets of paganism and even astrology. For we are knee-deep in the sign of Virgo, who gets a super bad rap but is the healer of the zodiac. She who sorts through our rubble and methodically decides what can stay and what must go so we can live our best lives. After the summer of eclipses and retrogrades we’ve had–after the 18 months we’ve had–who wouldn’t welcome such a soothing hand on the brow?

This week as the rain falls intermittently like all the tears I’ve been shedding, I invite you to join me. Take a moment to ask for help handling the stuff in your life that feels out of control. Whatever our belief system, the universe wants to lend a hand. Let it. And love each other.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy