when there are no more words
when there are no more words
I grew up steeped in conversation. When I was a baby, my parents would prop me up with pillows in my red high chair so that I could see and hear all of their words. I would sit, strapped to my chair with my thumb in my mouth and my eyes open wide, darting back and forth to follow the convoluted trajectory of the conversation. In pre-school, in order to gain a leverage over our dinner table and its arguments, I stacked phonebooks on my chair. From my perch, I gleefully peppered the debates with my opines.
My parents and grandparents always encouraged my participation in these conversations, but they never babied me. They found my phonebook towers more irritating than amusing. Soon, I learned that if I wanted my family to listen to my thoughts, I had to engage them with my voice, convince them that what I had to say was important. At the dinner table, I learned how to stand up for myself. In the past couple of years, I think that everyone in my family has come to realize that this type of conversing isn’t always the best way to communicate. We all struggle to simply sit and listen and share. Yet, I’m also grateful for these dinner table conversations because they taught me how to persuasively advocate for myself and the issues which are important to me. These debates were formative, they helped me to develop my convictions. For the most part, they centered on two main topics: education, and Judaism.
The working adults in my family all have jobs in education and community activism. They are all deeply interested in the process of shaping strong, resilient, minds and communities. My grandparents, my parents, my uncles and aunts, my cousins, my sister--everyone is pulled toward this work. Soon, I will join their ranks.
If my family is a family of educators, then we are also a family of Jews. Since its founding in the 1960s, we have belonged to a Reconstructionist synagogue, Dor Hadash. It means New Generation. Reconstructionist Judaism is notoriously difficult to define because most people who engage with it reconstruct its meaning to fit their lives. What I’ve learned from my father and his parents about Reconstructionism is that it’s about using the traditions which remain meaningful after all these years, ditching the ones that aren’t useful, and creating new ones as the need arises.
When I was young, my family planted these two seeds inside of me, and for the first few years of my life, they grew. I was oblivious to it. Perhaps because conversations of education and religion happened over the same dinner table, my constructions of both of them were enmeshed together. They will be forever. What my family taught me about how to be skeptical and entitled, I apply to Judaism; and what I learned about faith, I apply to learning.
* * *
While I certainly wasn’t thinking abstractly about education and religion in elementary school, I’m sure that my unconscious thoughts on both of these entities impacted my behavior. My Hebrew school teacher, Shlomit, would usually start class each week by reading a bible story. I loved these stories, they were so simple, so complete. But the minute Shlomit finished reading, I would jump up, before any of my classmates had a chance to beat me to it, and question as if I was at the dinner table. I wanted to know if God really did create the world in seven days, and where the Garden of Eden was, and why we couldn’t just go back to it.
Every week, I would ask questions like these. Every week, Shlomit would tell me, in a thick Israeli accent coated with years of chain smoking, that she believed the bible stories had many important lessons hidden inside of them. This is all I remember of her responses. I was always disappointed. When my dad picked me up at the end of class, sometimes I would spend the car ride home complaining. Most of the time, he let me whine and ramble from the safety of the back seat, but once, he stopped me. I was talking about Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge, questioning truth and a God who didn’t want people to know things. At a red light, my dad turned to face me, smiling slyly. He said that it didn’t even matter if the bible stories were true. Judaism, he told me, is about how you live.
I was startled by my father’s words. First, I wasn’t satisfied with this interpretation. As far as my brain was concerned, stories were either true or false. If they tested true, then I believed in them. If they were false, then I didn’t. There was no middle ground. I was in the business of collecting facts. I thought that my father was too--this is why his comment surprised me. Up to this point, I saw my dad as a very certain man. He was a high school calculus teacher turned principal, he had to be certain, it’s what made him good at his job. I experienced my dad’s certainty at home too. He helped me with my homework when it didn’t make sense, he made me set the table and take out the garbage even after I concocted brilliant excuses, and when my sister and I fought, he asked us for the truth and then expected us to figure out a solution. I was confused by his advice because I thought he was telling me that truth didn’t matter.
In my confusion, I completely misinterpreted the advice. As is my Reconstructionist tradition, I latched onto the part of the experience that was meaningful to me, and ignored the rest of it. My dad said that it didn’t matter whether or not the bible stories were true, so I decided that they weren’t. I grew into a self righteous, obnoxious pre-teen. In Hebrew school, I would roll my eyes with my classmates when our teachers prodded us to find meaning in the Torah. During snack break, my friends and I would scoff at our teachers for trying to get us to believe in things that were obviously not true. Who could actually believe that Moses parted the Red Sea? If it didn’t happen, it couldn’t mean anything.
This was my mindset when my grandparents announced at dinner one week, that they had signed my entire family up for a two week guided tour of the Holy Land. Our trip would be led by a Reconstructionist rabbi and an Israeli tour guide. A couple of other families from synagogue has also registered for the trip. My grandparents and parents were excited. My sister and I exchanged awkward glances across the table, before fronting the reactions we knew our family expected. I was not particularly eager to visit Israel. I didn’t want to sit on a bus and listen to some Rabbi drone on and on about the significance of various biblical sites that I already knew were insignificant. I was indifferent. I knew that I would enjoy the vacation parts of this trip--I wanted to float in the Dead Sea, and to hike through the desert--but I was not interested in the religious implications of a visit to the Jewish homeland. As far as I was concerned, my home was in Pittsburgh.
A few weeks before we left, my dad talked with my sister and me about our expectations for the trip. He explained the long standing tradition of writing a prayer and putting it into the cracks of the Kotel, the last remaining wall of a very, very old temple. It’s at the site where God supposedly rested after creating the world. For many people in many religions, this wall and the area around it is one of the holiest places in the world. My dad said that we should think of a question or prayer to write for the Kotel.
I thought for awhile, and when I devised the two snarkiest questions I could think of, I turned on the computer, opened up a word document, set the font size to one (God has perfect vision, right?) and wrote:
Dear God: Was there anything before you? If there was, what was it?
I was supremely pleased with myself. My questions were perfect questions. I was sure that there was no story that could provide answers, and if my questions didn’t have answers, I was free to continue holding to my narrow purview of religion. I printed out my word document, cut and folded up the piece of paper as small as I could, and stuffed it in my suitcase for Israel. A couple of weeks later, I walked with my mother up to the Kotel, and confidently jammed my now grimy piece of paper into the wall. It was far from a holy moment. As I stepped back to look at my handiwork, I noticed the women all around me wailing in a trance of prayer. I felt very uncomfortable. Fidgeting with the long skirt that I would never, ever wear again, I tugged at my mother’s arm and told her that it was time to go.
* * *
Over the next few years, my understanding of Judaism changed very little. When I was 12, I became a Bat Mitzvah. I spent months with my father, preparing to read from the Torah. I learned to decode Hebrew fluently, but never to read it. In the end, the whole experience had little meaning for me beyond the party which followed the ceremony. I suppose I was too wrapped up in the intricate drama of being a middle school student to think about anything larger than my group of friends and our gossip.
When I got to high school, I joined a Jewish youth group. I signed up at the suggestion of a friend who was involved with it and knew me well. My family thought it was a good idea too. I liked being a member of this youth group, I made a couple of good friends. It was mostly social, but I grew to value the few religious traditions that we incorporated into our activities.
At sixteen, I traveled to Israel with my youth group. Since my last visit, I had begun to think about Judaism less critically. Though I was learning to appreciate some of its stories, my central aim in signing up for this trip was to have fun. I wanted to go to Israel for the beaches and the mountains and time with my friends, away from my family. I was not anticipating a religious experience.
And I didn’t get one. I got the opposite of a religious experience which is how I found myself back at the origin of my Jewish identity. As I expected, I had fun going to the beach, and walking through the markets, and hiking up the mountains. As expected, I rolled my eyes through our visits to biblical sites. As expected, I did not have fun visiting the Kotel. In fact, each time we visited the wall, I grew successively more disgusted with it. The only thing I could notice at this holy site, were the metal detectors at the entrance, the soldiers and their guns, and the trash littered on the ground.
Logically, I understood why there were metal detectors and guns. We had spent a lot of the summer visiting museums and listening to speakers and talking amongst ourselves, trying to untangle the complicated story of Israel’s history. And I had been having similar conversations for years over the dinner table with my family. Yet there was something about the juxtaposition of prayer with such obvious symbols of violence that really shook me. And there was garbage on the ground! Even such a holy place could not escape the reality of apathy.
The day before we left Israel to come back to the United States, we visited the Kotel one last time. I couldn’t bring myself to go up to it. I stood by the exit with one of my counselors. I told him that I didn’t think I got what I was supposed to get out the trip. I explained how repulsive I found the whole situation--all of it. He gave me a knowing smile and a hug, but no words of wisdom. Then he said that if I wanted to go up to the wall I would have to do it soon because it was almost time to go. I stayed where I was. The next day, I got on a plane and flew home.
When my family asked me about the summer, I told them the truth: that I had fun, that we had gone on some cool hikes, that I had become closer with my friends, and that I didn’t think I could be Jewish anymore. As I sat at the table, struggling to reconcile my experience in Israel with the beliefs I had about peace, my dad stopped me, just as he had on that night, at the red light. First, he said that if I didn’t want to be Jewish, that was OK. Then, he said that the reason he raised me as Jew was so that when I grew up I would have the tools necessary to be a part of a Jewish community. Finally, he reminded me again that Judaism wasn’t about history, or any story really, because being Jewish was about how I used the traditions to navigate life and find belonging. Being Jewish is about how I live.
When I first set out writing, I wanted to explore the origin and evolution of my Jewish identity. I’m disappointed with what I came up with. I wrote a fragment of a story. What I’ve shared is far from a complete account. The story of my Jewish identity is so much more than conversations at the dinner table, and two trips to Israel bookended with trite reassurance from my father. The complete story is much more messy. It has artifacts, and pictures, and songs, and layers upon layers of built tradition. The story is huge. So huge, that it has seeped into every single part of my life. It doesn’t distil into words, or any medium, because it’s not a story about knowing things. It’s not even a story about believing in things. The story of my Jewish identity is a story of belonging. How do you tell the story of belonging?
I first grappled with this question in middle school. The summer after fifth grade, I sat at home and did absolutely nothing. During school that year, I had decided that I was too old for day camp, and when my parents suggested sleep-away camp, I gave a stubborn, resounding no. So I did nothing. I don’t even think I read any good books. I had a listless summer, and in my boredom, picked incessant, petty fights with my parents and siblings. No one was happy with me. At the end of that summer, my mom told me that what had happened was not allowed to happen again. I needed to have a plan for the next summer. I complained for awhile, but I knew she was right, and eventually I relented to sleep-away camp. She brought home brochures for every kind of camp conceivable. There were Jewish camps, and music camps, and math camps, and art camps, and acting camps. Together, we ended up choosing a Quaker hiking camp in Vermont.
I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Vermont, but after the first few hours of the summer, I was sure that I had made a big mistake. Returning campers paraded around in crazy outfits, counselors asked me too many questions, and there was non-stop shrieking, singing, and hugging. It was incredibly overwhelming. As the first hours bled into the first days, overwhelmed turned into very, very homesick. It seemed like everyone but me belonged at camp, they had the rhythm of the days inside of them. I didn’t. My counselors tried to get me talk about my home because they wanted to help me find a new home at camp. I couldn’t do it though. I didn’t know how to talk about my home. I could not fathom a way to convey the safety of belonging. I had no words. I was mostly silent. I stood awkwardly at the periphery of camp, wishing for my family and my city.
Eventually, with the gentle coaxing of a very patient counselor and lots of tears, I hoisted on my backpack, laced my boots, and plunged myself into the community. I willed myself to learn all of the stupid songs, and weird traditions. I stopped thinking about belonging and not belonging, and bravely forced myself through the motions of the days. Soon, I was hooked. I had the rhythm of camp, and I was home. Over the next few years, as I grew into the story of summer camp, I lived for and by all of these quirky traditions: three songs after every meal, skits after every adventure, and tie-dyeing at the end of every summer.
* * *
I had two homes, one in Vermont and one in Pittsburgh, but I still failed to convey my sense of belonging. I wanted the people who I loved in each place to understand what it was like to belong to the other. In my effort, I allowed my experiences in each place to inform my actions in the other. At camp, I often led “reading the newspaper on the back porch” as a morning activity, and a friend and I orchestrated a Shabbat dinners during our final summer. In Pittsburgh, I taught the children I babysat for the graces we sing before meals at camp, and occasionally I demanded a moment of silence from my family before we started to eat dinner. Doing these things was fun, but Pittsburgh and Vermont remained, and remain, worlds apart.
Where I’m arriving now is that these stories of belonging are too big to tell. No medium can substitute for an experience. This semester, I’ve thought a lot about stories. I have questioned over, and over, and over their function and utility. In my last paper, I hit the nail on the head. In writing about my great-grandfather and the stories he shared with me when I was little, I realized that the point of stories is to show us that we belong in them. This was a pleasant discovery. It’s comforting to feel implicated in a history which reaches deep into the past and stretches far into the future. Something was still unsettled though. I didn't know what to do.
It felt like the learning I had done was essential. I worked really hard to understand and find belonging in the stories which generated and evolved into my experiences. I knew that this effort was not in vain. I contrived the next step, the doing step. I told myself that the next step was storytelling. Here, I tried to tell a story to which I already knew I belonged. I failed. I should have known that once you belong in a story, it becomes too big to tell. But this doesn’t mean that all the effort we put into understanding and telling stories is a waste. Far from it. In this class, storytelling is the process through which I have arrived at belonging. Now, there are no more words.
The time is ripe for story-changing.
The Story Cycle
I realized as I was writing the conclusion of this paper that my understanding of the story cycle aligned perfectly with the Natural Cycles (on this site, they refer to the model as 8-Shields). When we have a new experience, we work to process it by telling its story. Once we understand the experience, it becomes a part of us. It belongs to us, and we to it. This belonging grants us the responsibility to change the story. I imagine that story-changing is achieved through intentional action. Thoughtful action will create space for new experiences, and the cycle can begin anew.