Saturday, April 14, 2007

My Shabbat morning: davening at the keyboard

My dear spouse in her blog entry about the amazing André Ivory reflects how her observance has shifted from shul to slippers over the past few years. So, follow where you will find your inspiration satisfied. For so many years, Layne, you wore yourself ragged in the admirable but wearying service of others. For nearly fifteen years you spent so much time for our own family's spiritual and emotional growth working in your neighbor's schools and temples and board meetings. I do not deny that you created immense good that resounds and reverberates farther than you will ever know. I admire your generosity and cooking both. Now, perhaps your instinct tells you to slow down, to take stock, and to rearrange your mental shelves and check your soulful inventory. This means, as I observe, your own inward reflection and domestic centering. No, it's not me saying this only to justify my own homebodyness or my refusal to socialize.

Maybe for the stereotype, neither a bedroom or a kitchen occupies the ideal manse. But for you, retreating from the cares that your mother, your father, the business that you inherited, and your passel of frenetic duties, volunteered commitments, and familial obligations might be the cure the shrink ordered. Here, maybe, I can listen to you (like it or not) more carefully, we three men can find that you have time to settle yourself in and not run around entirely in the service of ourselves and half the people you know in a ten-mile radius, and you can relax more. Or, am I again only cleverly arguing for my own selfish habits to become mirrored in your lassitude? Oh well, keep listening to what I am meditating upon. I know that your disagreement will soon be posted for me and all the world of CasaMurphy readers to see, to lament, and to gloat.

Frankly, here at home is where in Judaism the heart of the practitioner beats most ardently. Not in the synagogue. Yes, for the stereotype, perhaps for many of us half-blurred into images of swaying Hasids and Teyve- central casting rabbis chanting under tented tallit fill our memories-- for this as many "nostalgic" scenes remembered more from film than duller detailed if more meaningful reality. But, myself speaking now, the services while I like the cadence and the expression of yearning aesthetically never have done much for my spirit, which needs to be paired in my case with the intellect more consistently, two oxen yoked to pull my grumbling soul and recalcitrant body along towards whatever New Jerusalem looms or so they say.

So, do I spoil the temple's Purimspiel? My wife and I on this as so much differ somewhat. I fear that my lack of inspiration when attending services has weakened our family's resolve. Am I a poor role model? Or, is it right that I act on what I think is true, rather than going through the motions? I know well what many seekers tell me, that for dry spells you have to keep on acting out what you may not feel inside, and by the movements on the outside you shift the inertia within. But, I have tried this, and I do find that thinking more than doing fits me better.

She'll probably call me lazy for this posture. But, I heard her on the phone one day mentioning to a friend (I know not whom) that I find more sustenance in such a pursuit of wisdom rather than finding it in the middle of a minyan. Undoubtably much of this awkwardness comes from my inescapable lack of Yiddishkeit, my absence of whatever pull within those around me is again tugged upon by the niggun, the ancient melodies, the reverent bow, the kiss that transfers from fringed tallis to Torah cover during that intimate exchange that I find more appropriate-- antisocial me-- than the hugging and hand clasping at the "sign of peace" shoehorned (for good intentions I realize, kumbaya and agape and fellowship) into the post-Vatican II Mass. Unless of course an attractive woman happens to be your neighboring congregant.

I know my sons see this too. I regret this, but I also know from my own ups and downs in the courtship between my soul and whatever force I seek outside and beyond my own ego that many such steps to and fro, towards the desired and away from the one who however externally ravishing simply is "not your type" will come in their own pas de deux. Or dieu as the case may be. Forcing them into this waltz is like making a kid learn ballroom dancing for his own good at some hypothetical cotillion. They are old enough to know what they want. I told Layne that I did not want to push them into what they did not want. This would only embitter them later. I am confident that Leo and Niall will find their own partner, their own rhythm, their own stride as they find they swirl about the ballroom half- astonished that they have found their own footing.

If this disappoints my spouse, I ask her understanding. This is a sensitive area that I feel guilty-- oh that Irish Jewish match made in heaven-- about. She and I have powerful yearnings that in one undeniably shattering breaking of the vessels kabbalistic Big Bang way Judaism has spoken to, and reached out to meet us halfway. Our lives continue on this whirling, treacherous, mysterious celestial path towards where we can never know truly, for our dance will end without us hearing the applause. At least as we can imagine it now in our sheltered niche. For André, the Yiddishkeit that has seduced him so totally and marvellously impels him towards his own embrace on that same Holy of Holies hockey-rink beneath the creaking dancefloor. For my wife, this venerable DNA, this call that connects her like it or not in truly lovable determination and contentiously humanist righteousness to three thousand years of her people, entices her into kitchen, bedroom, diary, blog, money, her workaday world, the bench on the back deck where she looks out at the canopy of trees and a few persistent stars that break the citified haze.

For me, less assured of my place in the realms of the secular and the sacred, the doubt expressed by Jacob, the desperate bargaining of Abraham, the craft of Rebekah, the prevarication of Sarah, the subterfuges of so many schemers and survivors that they engendered: this is what appeals to me. The fact that even the scriptures of the Jewish people begin with their clumsy arguments, their angry retorts, their sex and food and wrangling and wandering about in a forty-year-old bout of begrudgery, showdowns with a deity as pissed off as his chosen people are for bearing that dubious distinction. That's what I like about those stiff-necked Hebrews, and why Genesis (Sarna JPS commentary) is a desert island book.

You can argue with God and hold your ground. Wrench after a utterly mysterious night combat of man-on-man (angel? Deity? Psychomachia? Masturbation?) sexual intimacy (thigh injury? groin pull?) your hip out of joint (mine is ever since my own youthful knee injury although no untoward contact was the cause). Dream of a ladder up and souls arising. This image opened my dissertation. Then pillow your head on a stone that becomes for the Celts the mythical Stone of Scone that is under the throne not at the usurpers of Westminster Abbey but back with the people of the Northern isles. Scotia is said to have taken that stone with her as she and Nial sailed west away from Pharoah's wrath. Like the headstrong grappler who was given one name and takes another, I know my birth name and my name today, yet wonder who I am, looking into the mirror and seeing my reflection only in the future of my son's two gazes, never in the past.

(A commercial from our sponsors, for even public tv has them now....Brought to you by the letter "E." Image credit: "Historiated initial E at the opening of Psalm 80, showing Christ in a mandorla between two musicians with fiddle and trumpet (above), and Jacob's ladder and his wrestling with the angel (below). From f.102r of MS D.6, Psalter with gloss and Hours of the Virgin. English, c. 1210-20. St Johns College, Cambridge.)

Not to mention: wrestle with angels and take two wives. One near-sighted, poor Leah, who myopic me I always felt sorry for. Imagine her waking up with him the morning after, her veil discarded on the carpet of the tent, her eyes squinting at his as the stars faded to sun. Now he realizes that he's spent seven years toiling for father-in-law Laban only to be a victim of the ultimate switcheroo. She's lying there, no virgin, his mate fully mated, and he then deciding to spend seven more years to get her sister, the one he thought he was deflowering that dark night before. I wonder what Leah thought as she looked at her new husband in that first dawn light. How could she ever forgive him? Or her father? Or her own prettier sister? (Oh well, probably just as good I didn't follow the example of the patriarch whose name I took as my Hebrew one.)

I am not at the little temple today. I am home, for a couple of hours reflecting upon and then typing these meditations. I sit here waiting for my family to return from their own Bemidbar, their own wanderings in the desert where they found not deprivation but the fleshpots of Palm Springs rivalling those of the ancient Pharoahs. But, as my own indigenous tribal clans-- whose eventually far paler journeyers across from Scythia to Egypt to North Africa to Spain to Ireland mythically were spawned by the offspring of a royal daughter, Scotia, who refused to condone her father's persecution of those same Hebrews-- claim, I (who have been derided by the natives as a "professional Irishman,") too belong with those sandy nomads, and my chillier blood mingles with their warmer pulse.

So, I do show that, as once predicted in midrash, I am a saving remnant. For a few, from all those other seventy peoples who said perhaps wisely to the Unutterable "thanks but no thanks" to the offer from on high before the Hebrews, #71 in line, signed the covenant at Sinai, never quite fit in with the rest of their gentile ilk. They were restless, so their descendant somewhere along the line became a gilgul, a sort of existential protoplasmic searcher. An upended soul that seeks, like Hamlet's father, or the purgatorial revenants about whom I spent so many pages imagining, its eternal place of rest.

Thanks to my own birth to a lonely immigrant who herself roamed from a faraway seaport that for centuries traded from the "Spanish Gate" with Atlantic traffic, herself in and out of this city on a trek I cannot further follow, I have always been somewhat adrift on the DNA sea. My adopted surname carries in its first syllable the very "sea," the second that of a "hound," so I am a sea-dog, a sea-warrior. Hard for me to see why that name and not, say the Smith of the Irish, "Mac Gabhann," became the common as dirt last name it did to outrank all others, given this curious etymology. But maybe that's why I like the ocean breeze, if not the grit and sun, and why I find my soul mate's often reflected in the eyes of a faithful dog. (Oops, sorry family.)

Countless times, so books about adult converts told me, those who have become ger toshav, "strangers at the gate" asking the twelve tribes for refuge, discover that they in their past harbor a MOT, often years after their own appeal's been granted for adoption into the Tribe. I remember the shock with which I read in Sebastian Barry's novel "The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty" (probably there's an Amazon review?) twice my birth mother's surname, Finan, as that of the Jewish merchants in Sligo town. I wrote a local historian there asking if any such store ever existed but received no reply; my search into sources is incomplete but so far's no confirmation emerged. Appeals to the clan website unanswered. My detective work exhausted the written record. But, fancy has often been based in fact. DNA now shows that what the Lebor Gábala, the Book of Invasions, once suggested as the attenuated origins of the Irish may be indeed traced along not Continental passages from the Danube into the isles of the North Atlantic, but along that same Mediterranean and North African littoral.

In my Medieval Ireland: An Encyclopedia entry on "The Jews in Ireland," I wrote about such stories. Family Romance, I know, but if such half-understood urges draw me on this path, so be it. Amen. Sin é. Stanley Siev, of the same family as Raphael who runs the Irish Jewish Museum that I wrote of last month on this blog, mused in the conclusion of his booklet "The Celts and the Jews" that the Uí Murchú could be related to doctors (the medical kind not the PhDs) and healers. So, perhaps another stereotypical but happily Jewish connection between my own adopted Irish clan and those dusky Semitically-coupling navigators who-- as Bob Quinn proposes recently in his fascinatingly speculative "The Atlantean Irish"-- landed on the southern shores of the island can be more than another shanachie's tale by the peat fire.

Shabbat shalom aleikum v' / agus Dé Sathairn de síocháin agaibh.

No comments: