I’m not religious. I don’t believe in God. And even though I’m technically Jewish, it’s been years since I practiced Judaism in any manner outside of the occasional Bar Mitzvah, wedding, or funeral service, where my participation was mandated and “empty” at best. I guess I always considered myself spiritual, but not religious. That is, I’ve found comfort in people, music, literature, laughter, film, and friendship. It is these things that sustain me, that motivate and fill me. I don’t say this to sound disingenuous or pious or holier-than-thou (pardon the pun); rather, I say it out of sheer honesty. I think spirituality resides within the practicing of and subscribing to the things that inspire us. I don’t put my faith in God; I put it in people. I don’t find comfort in what I’m expected to do; I find it in what I have the choice of doing. And if I decide to read the Bible, I do so not to fashion my life after Adam and Eve or to accept the stories within it as “true”; rather, I do so for the beauty of the language, such as Psalm 23, my favorite albeit all-too-familiar passage.
Because I was raised Jewish, I attended a Yeshiva — a school that was half-day standard subject matter (English, Math, etc.), half-day Jewish studies — from Pre-K through 5th grade. It wasn’t until I was 11-years-old that I started public school, despite my constant railing against the Yeshiva and constant longing to attend earlier. Part of the requirements of the Yeshiva included wearing a yarmulke on my head and tzitzit over my shoulders, which was worn sort of like a poncho. The yarmulke wasn’t a big deal, really; the tzitzit (pronunciation here), however, drove me batty. I despised it. I was embarrassed by it. I removed it at every opportunity, and even, as you’ll read, found shortcuts around wearing it.
So, today’s poems are both religion-oriented. The first arose from a very real incident; the second was based more on one’s childhood perception of a religion that’s not his own. While the second one was, at one time, workshopped, the first has never seen the light of day, meaning it’s never been edited based on outsider comments. In other words, it’s raw. I know I first began working on “Yeshiva” within the last two years, so it’s relatively new. Mazel Tov, folks, and happy reading.
They shall make themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall place on the tzitzit of each corner a thread of techeilet. And it shall be tzitzit for you, and you will see it, and you will remember all the mitzvot of the LORD and do them and not follow your heart or your eyes and run after them.
– Numbers 15:38-40
I remember every day.
Not my devotion to Judaism
and prayer, but my need
to betray them both. Instead
of the required tallit they forced
us tiny Hebrews to cloak our bodies with,
wear beneath our crew-neck tees
and turtlenecks so the tzitzit
eked out and dangled to below our belts,
I cut off and tucked a single strand
into my waistband, able to produce it
on demand to any would-be Rabbi
or teacher needing proof of my devotion.
So After Rabbi Akon ripped it away
and exposed me as a fraud,
he grabbed my bone-thin arm
and flung me into the hallway, waved
his finger into the T of my face
and breathed his bad breath into my small,
quivering mouth, huffing like a respirator
avenging the newly dead. I froze.
I took an earful and marched
to Rabbi Bader’s office, plopped
first into the anteroom where his secretary
typed, clicked her tongue, asked why I was there.
I said nothing, waited for the principal,
and rubbed my sweaty hands
against my well-creased Corduroys,
knowing his punishment would be far worse
than any would-be God’s.
Sundays, Before Church
I had no reason to be anywhere.
Still, on Sundays, before church,
I’d burn rubber to Kenny’s house
to play a quick game of War
or toss the football out front
in the sanctuary of Sunday morning,
knowing that any minute he’d get the call
from his mother, ordering him inside
to scrub up, change into his church shoes.
I never owned church shoes, or even saw
the inside of a church until years later
at a friend’s wedding and the ensuing
baptism blessing a brand new Catholic.
Instead, I’d plop myself on the couch,
watch TV till church let out, wondering
what Kenny and all those good Christians
were up to. I wondered if the reverend
ordered Christ into the pews and sinners
to ask forgiveness. I wondered if
they were ever so moved as to dart
from the aisles, shout Hallelujah,
and quiver in place like bowling pins
ready to fall. I thought maybe Kenny
might bang on my door one Sunday noon
and flash a cross instead of a mitt and ball,
douse me in holy water, and lay hands
upon my forehead, saving me, too:
because who, after all, wouldn’t want to be saved?