Rachel S. Heslin
Thoughts, insights, and mindless blather

Religion, tradition and a sense of belonging
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NOTE: this is probably my most potentially controversial entry to date, so please understand that I am struggling with my own understandings and in no way wish to denigrate the faith and beliefs of others.

I was pretty religious in high school and very involved with my Jewish youth group -- at least, I was up until the point that I started having serious problems with the whole concept of "chosen people." I felt guilty the first time I didn't go to high holiday services (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur) when I was in college, but, in time, I became comfortable with my choice. I stopped telling people I was Jewish and started saying that I'd "been raised Jewish."

Still, the connection would reach out to me. When I was in Russia in the fall of '95, one of the coolest experiences I had was finding a Rosh Hashana service in Moscow. The prayer books were unsettling: half in Russian, half in Hebrew so that I was confronted with two languages I could vaguely follow along with. But when we sang, I knew the words and I knew the tunes, and I belonged.

And, for me, the primary attraction of religion has always been about belonging. My personal beliefs about our connectedness with the universe around and within us are just that: personal. They aren't beholden to any specific religion, other than the general acceptance that one should be honest and kind and fair to all whom one encounters.

Shawn's not Jewish. Although he, too, doesn't attend services or belong to a church, he told me early on that Jesus' sacrifice had a profound, positive effect on him as a child, and he wanted to give our future children that faith and wonder as well. I didn't have a problem with that. I think that faith and wonder can be beautiful things.

This past week, though... well... it was difficult for both of us.

On Thursday, we joined my family for Passover at the synagogue my Grandma goes to. It was a difficult decision for me, because even as they say that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it, I believe that those who dwell on the past are also doomed to repeat it, because it's all that they know. Passover, itself, had become a problem for me because its focus was on being delivered from slavery. In and of itself, being delivered from slavery isn't a bad thing, yet I felt that it happened thousands of years ago; why should we continue to dwell on how "we" were mistreated and God rescued us? Doesn't that encourage feelings of victimization and self-righteousness?

As I thought of it more, I decided to instead look at it as an opportunity to truly appreciate the freedom that I do have, and to reflect on whether or not I was still allowing myself to be enslaved where it was not necessary. After all, expectations, habits and fears can all steal our freedom and our choices in ways that we may not even be aware of.

The final decision to go was because of family. I remembered Dad telling of the time that my brother and I had chosen not to go to high holiday services and the rest of the family had been sick or other wise unable to go, and he'd sat there and looked at the row of empty seats next to him and wanted to cry. I understood that feeling. I didn't want to have him or Mom or Grandma go through that again.

So Shawn and I went. It's a Reform temple, and the prayerbook was very egalitarian and modern. Still, I was uncomfortable about the way it defined "The Wicked Child" as "one who was removed from the [Jewish] community." Shawn was even more uncomfortable, as even the whole "you shall welcome the gentile into your home" thing merely served to solidify the idea that he was considered a guest, not family by the community. Plus there were other issues.... You get the idea.

But we survived. After all, we were there for family.

Friday, some friends of ours were performing in their church choir for Good Friday, so we went to see them. I'd never been to a Good Friday service before, so I have no idea whether or not it was typical. I mean, I'd heard that there was this controversy about Christians blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus, but I had no idea that the liturgy actually spelled out that The Jews handed Jesus to Pilate, Pilate offered to set him free, and The Jews said, "No, free this other guy," and Jesus was therefore killed. For all my lessened identification with Judaism, I was still terribly upset by this. I didn't belong there. It felt like when I was in Belgrade in '93, when there were times that I was terrified that some drunk on the street would decide to beat the crap out of me just because I was an American.

So what are we going to do? I mean, for our children?

Obviously, this is something that Shawn and I are going to work through together. I think that it will end up coming down to nurturing our own faith, our own sense of belonging. I do firmly believe that traditions are important. However, even though some traditions in our families were centered around religious events (Passover seder at Grandma's and Grandpa's; Christmas with Shawn's parents), it's possible to build family and connection in other ways as well.

This year, we're going to start having Thanksgiving at our house. We're still trying to figure out Mother's Day and Father's Day, changed since Grandpa passed away last year, but still important. And maybe Shawn and I will be able to come up with some new traditions of our own.

I'm looking forward to that.

Man must not allow the clock and the calendar to blind him to the fact that each moment of his life is a miracle and a mystery.
-- H. G. Wells


One of the traditions of Passover is to examine the perspectives of four children: the Wise Child, the Wicked Child, the Simple Child, and the Silent Child (the one who does not know enough to ask.)

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