16 December 2008

A Denver Bat Mitzvah

The daughter of a good friend of the family had her bat mitzvah at Temple Micah (a Reform synagogue in Park Hill in Denver that shares of building with a United Church of Christ Church) this past weekend. I'd attended bar mitzvah's for a couple of friends when I was growing up, in Oxford, Ohio, but it has been a long time. It was a refreshing change from the Christian wedding, funeral and Christmas services I've attended in the last decade or so.

The young woman being honored has received as her Torah portion the story from Genesis of Jacob wrestling with God, and a parallel passage from Hosiah. While the passage she canted and analyzed could easily have begun later, she started with an inconvenient passage -- as Jacob, who has prospered in the wake of cheating his brother Eassu took his two wives, two handmaids and eleven children over the river to safety to escape his fate. The man who would become Israel was a polygamist whose first biblical headline was a swindle.

But, none of those presiding did rushed for easy answers. Our honored young woman disclaimed her own interpretations as contingent, and responded more fully to her passage and to her day in an ambivalent, angstful, but hopeful prose poem well suited to the fact that she is a teenage girl with an emphasis on creative writing at the Denver School for the Arts.

The Rabbi too did not rush headlong to insist that anyone find certainty. Instead, he offered great praises that our bat mitzvah candidate has spent several years struggling, doubting, not certain that she wanted to embrace the Temple Micah community, or even God. The story of Jacob was personal, a portion for someone herself wrestling with God. The Rabbi presented her personal story not as one of the triumph of right over wrong, not as redemption from a fallen state, but as a model for the community, a model of the thoughtful Jew in a cloudy, complex world.

Obviously, I don't speak Hebrew, so I struck to the translations in the prayer book for understanding. But, the service itself wasn't all that different from participating in a Catholic mass in Latin, except that the Jews have more rhythm and a better sense of humor. A Jewish service sharing the Torah is more familiar to me, having grown up as a liturgical Christian, than the unstructured romp of Evangelical Christian prayer services.

The truly ancient resonance of the order of service, thousands of years old, was a funny juxtaposition against the banal and modern invocation that proceeds all group gatherings these days -- please silence your cell phones. It also shed light for me on the Jewish religious resonances that evolved within the Christian church to the resurrection story and communion. Returning from the dead has a symbolic Talmudic sense of a welcome to those whom you have not seen for a long time or lost touch with until being reunited. The sharing of Challah bread and wine with the Sabbath has an element not of sacrifice shared, but of the joyous plenty of being able to observe the Sabbath as a day of rest defiantly shared, notwithstanding the possibility that an outsider might see bleak austerity instead.

It isn't all easy for an outsider to understand. As a person for whom books are the tool of my trade, mundane objects often received immaculated on a computer screen without even the benefit of paper pages or a binding, the powerful symbolic, community bind and sacred role attached to the physical Torah scroll is puzzling. I can observe that role, and I can intellectually make sense of it, but empathetically sharing the emotion is too challenging for me to manage.

Perhaps the power of that communal symbol answer another subtle mood, inescapable in the prayers, the way the word "community" was uttered, and a host of inarticulates thoughts expressed subverbally. Perhaps it is an answer to a community forever haunted by its tragic past, and not entirely confident that the last tragedies could not recur. A few days before the bat maritzah, I read one of the last follow up stories on the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Mumbai. A nanny was taking a child orphaned when the parents were killed by terrorists attacking a Jewish community center in the city to Israel.

The gathering was not gloomy. It was joyous, thoughtful and forward looking. But, some of that joy was defiant. Cynical satiric wit is not a lost art at Temple Micah. We are finding joy among ourselves despite all the shit that world has and will throw at us. We are the ancient salt of the Earth, we will survive and we will prosper with joy. Nobody said those words, but that is I sense that I absorbed.

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