From Bagels, via George Herbert’s Temple, to OMG! the Temple

by Judy Kronenfeld

Photo by Christina Schmidt

Photo by Christina Schmidt

Snapshot, 1956: I am 12 or 13, sitting by my bedroom window on the sixth floor of our Bronx apartment building, which overlooks the roof of an Orthodox synagogue. It is a Saturday morning, and the low buzz and occasional soaring wail of the men davening next door fill the air, so familiar as almost not to be noticed. I am reading Homer Smith’s Man and His Gods, in part a diatribe against the suffering caused by and violence committed in the name of religion throughout history, a book lent to me by my then very liberal favorite Uncle, a sort of Christopher Hitchens, avant la lettre. My mother has gone with her shopping cart over the cracked sidewalks to the bakery a few blocks away on 161st Street, where the customers are probably four-deep in rows behind the counter. Maybe she will buy some rugelach, or poppyseed strudel, or some mandelbrot , or a chocolate marble babka, along with the bagels and bialys and the salt sticks, for Sunday morning breakfast. The very air is thickly immigrant Jewish on 161st Street, redolent with cadence and accent. It is absorbed through the pores, whether you know anything about Judaism as a religion, or not.
Snapshot, 1959: I have “cut” the obligatory Friday night services at a religious summer camp in Northern New York State and am hanging out, chatting about my anti-religious feelings with the equally inclined camp doctor, who is 24, and, outrageously, smoking—in both the literal and slang senses. I have by then, overheard too many conversations about whether you can or cannot pick up a pen, say, from a chair, on the Sabbath, if you want to sit down on said chair. In my sixteenth summer, my mother has inflicted this observant Jewish camp on me because her revered and conservative elder brother chose it for my suburban cousin. My mother often compares her favorably to me; my aspiring-to-beatnik self finds her too bourgeois.
My immigrant mother’s Judaism is domestic and social or political. She maintains a kosher home and creates High Holiday and Passover meals with the full panoply of restrictions. She is a fierce advocate of Israel. She is sure she can separate the Jews from the goyim we meet on the street by looks alone. She worries about “what is good for the Jews” and shivers slightly when we pass black-suited Hasidim; apparently, they are not. But, as far as I can remember, she has not set foot in a synagogue, except for her good friend’s son’s bar mitzvah, when we went as a family. Whether that is because she and my more skeptical and less chauvinist but equally hard-working father, who is also an immigrant, don’t have the inclination, or the leisure, or don’t have the money for dues, I do not know. Way back, in the early grades, I was sent to Sunday school in another synagogue around the corner, but I didn’t like it, and, indulgently, my mother and father did not force their only child to stay.
Snapshot, 1963: It is the era of intense study of texts, the New Criticism is in full glory, and I am intently studying John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, every fricative and sibilant, in an English class on the seventeenth-century metaphysical poets at the Ivy League college I am attending on scholarship. What am I feeling when I read, in the sestet of “If poysonous mineralls, and if that tree”: “Oh! of thine onely worthy blood,” and I hear that repeated wailing long “o” and the soul-wringing strain in “ONEly WORthy”? What am I feeling when I read George Herbert’s urgent paradoxes of rebellion, love and utter abjection in The Temple?
Well, I will change the service, and go seek
                     Some other Master out.
Ah my dear God! Though I am clean forgot,
Let me not love thee, if I love thee not.
                                   “Affliction (I)”
Whatever it is, it has something to do with my monastic devotion to poetry, and the kind of hushed concentration involved in saying and hearing every syllable. It has something to do with willed and deep involvement in the emotional trajectories of these Christian poems in which I’ve been asked—as part of my literary training, which is, in turn, a sort of unacknowledged passport to a wider, and more socially elite world—to immerse myself. Later, I will write an honors thesis on another priest-poet of whom I become enamored, the Jesuit Gerard Manly Hopkins, a thesis which will be eloquent enough to win a prize. To study literature is to study Christianity, although this is never overtly said. And, truth be told, it is not especially foregrounded in my mind, either. Nor does anyone ever remotely broach the question of the emotions involved, especially for those who are not Christian. Even this, my compartmentalizing, conscious mind seems, at least momentarily, to ignore. Almost five decades later, I will publish a poem about my youthful “experiencing” of even anti-Jewish Christian poetry in accordance with the reigning critical approach:
The Heresy of Paraphrase a true poem is . . . an experience rather than any mere statement about experience —Cleanth Brooks, The Well-Wrought Urn

 

Spit on my face you Jewes, and pierce my side,
I intone, an acolyte in the garden
of study—Jewish girl from the Bronx
on scholarship at an Ivy college—kneeling before
the vaunted poem. I am imagining John Donne imagining
the crucifixion, meditating
in my carrel-retreat above
the snow-hushed dorms—as Louis Martz said
Donne meditated with the help
of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint
Ignatius Loyola
in The Poetry of Meditation
(Yale U.P., 1954). Toes freezing
in my boots, I give myself
to the text, artifact holy
as a reliquary, autotelic
that word chanted in reverent tones
by Professor R. who’s in love with the swirl
of the Baroque, and swirls with it,
his own turns and bows as beautiful,
he knows, as what he bows to.
I am experiencing every phoneme
like blessed wounds; as Donne
becomes Christ—for sinnes,
which passe the Jewes impiety

I become him, my voice lowering
to his plangent prayer in the sestet—
Oh let mee then . . . admire
and not once do I think Jewes,
Jews.
Wedding snapshot: June, 1964. I marry a Southern man I met at a college Hillel mixer. Bourgeois rented-tails-and-top-hat two-family brilliance at the Grand Concourse Plaza Hotel, complete with chazan and ketubah—signed by my father, the giver, and my husband, the recipient—and finally smashed flashbulb, which at first squirts away and has to be chased by the groom.
Snapshot: 1983, skipping along now, time running faster. Brief and rather quickly overcome distress, partially parent-inculcated, over whether our firstborn, our son, almost thirteen, who has never taken Hebrew lessons should have a bar mitzvah. My mother, now living in a “trial” apartment in our town with my dad, to see if she and he can actually make the cultural leap from New Rochelle to inland Southern California, seems to have a New York model in her head of the “quickie” Bar Mitzvah. But no such opportunities are readily available, though our son, for a nanosecond, considers the benefits of glory and presents. And we really already made that decision ages ago when we didn’t enroll him in Hebrew school, his father, although a bar mitzvah himself, being unable to justify the time in a busy kid’s life—what with soccer and the elementary school musical in which the kid sang the lead—when he himself couldn’t convince himself of “belief.” When our daughter approaches thirteen, the question of a bas mitzvah doesn’t even come up, though by that time my parents have moved to our town and, for the first time in their adult lives, actually at my suggestion (“you’ll meet people, you’ll have fun”), have joined the only nearby Jewish place of worship, a Reform Temple to which they occasionally bring their granddaughter, and, very, very rarely, all of us.
Snapshots: In the 80s, 90s or 2000s at dinners with friends—almost all happily apostate Protestants or Catholics—connected to the University where we both teach, dinners liberally lubricated with wine. M., talking about her father’s strict commitment to an evangelical church she had to attend, cracks us up by calling Jesus, Cheeze-us, making me go hunt up a Lorrie Moore story, “Terrific Mother.” The heroine, suffering horrific guilt (because of a freak accident that caused her friend’s baby’s death) goes for a massage:
Speakers were built into the bottom of the table, and out of them came the sound of eerie choral music, wordless oohs and aahs in minor tones, with a percussive sibilant chant beneath it that sounded to Adrienne like "Jesus is best, Jesus is best," though perhaps it was "Cheese, I suspect."
In response to my anthropologist husband’s “If I had to choose, I would call myself an agnostic,” my novelist friend and I, both dyed-in-the wool atheists, each taking another sip of merlot, say “Oh, no, we know.” No one has anything at all positive to say about any aspect of religion except another anthropologist who considers himself a believer in all religions and sometimes attends an Episcopal Church, and a woman who recently joined Wicca. A former student is actually distressed: in the process of trying to extricate herself from an abusive relationship, and in the hope of comfort and support, she joined a friend’s Baptist church, but, she says, “they get inside your head and set up house.” One professor from a Jewish family refuses any connection whatsoever; he thinks of all practicing Jews as being in the Dark Ages. It is only very, very recently that I begin to think: hmm, most of these people are extremely subtle in the distinctions they make in their academic work.
Wedding snapshot: 2003. Our non-practicing Jewish son marries a non-practicing Protestant woman. Our closest totally apostate Protestant friend obtains convenient ordination online through the Universal Life Church and officiates. Émile Durkheim—a father of sociology and anthropology and a proponent of the social origin and function of religion—is invoked, rather than God, during the moving ceremony, written by the major participants.
Wedding snapshot: 2008. Our non-practicing Jewish daughter marries a non-practicing Muslim man. A woman Episcopal priest presides—a rabbi or an imam, even if one or the other agreed to officiate, would be problematical—but though she speaks of marriage in a way that strongly reminds me of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, she follows the wishes of the bride and groom and does not explicitly invoke God. As in our son’s wedding, there is something moving and inspiring about differences bridged by love. Or maybe, in the absence of practice, there are few such differences.
Snapshot: Spring 2010. The cathedral in its spacious square, right across from our hotel in Strasbourg, France, where, already retired, we are vacationing for a few days, after a conference my husband attended in nearby Landau, Germany. I think I can imagine something of the embrace of the medieval church, when wattle and daub houses huddled up all around it. The bells ring all day and all night, drawing the town in around the square, shepherding me somewhere in my sleep.
Snapshot: Spring 2012. Our daughter, her husband, and his parents, holding our grandchildren. Our daughter and son-in-law have gone abroad to visit his parents, who are practicing Muslims. There is, apparently, some sort of naming ceremony for the children involving the slaughtering of a sheep, but we are told it is not a religious ceremony. When we hear this, my husband and I joke that we should slaughter our own sheep, and join the local temple, so we can take the kids to services—to balance their exposure—when they visit with their folks.
Brief video: a recent Friday evening, August, 2013. My husband and I, newly joined members of our local Reform Temple, are at our first Sabbath services together, and I am very much aware that I have finally come to the place where I sent my long-dead parents all those years ago (“You’ll make friends! You’ll have fun!”). Whereas my husband’s childhood included synagogue services with some regularity, it is probably only the sixth or seventh time in my long life that I have been to Jewish services, and two of those times were with my parents and two at my parents’ funerals. My father seemed to grow a bit fond of the religious customs of his youth, and participated fully in Temple business after they joined, but made clear to me that he was still no believer; my mother enjoyed a few culturally familiar people and the outings the Temple sponsored, and rather mysteriously started talking about “belief” in a vaguely fundamentalist way, perhaps because she was beginning to experience the frailties of old age. In their late-blooming temple membership, it was as if my parents wore the Star of David for me, and whatever attraction I felt to Judaism was really an extension of my love for them.
Now I am feeling a little like a convert. The bits of awesomeness—the majestic doors of the Ark, the opening and closing of them in the rituals of the service, the Torah scrolls within dressed in their dark blue velvet mantles, adorned with silver crowns, finials and shields, the rhythms of the congregation rising, and sometimes bowing, and reseating itself, the profound soar of the cantor’s voice, the sheer Durkheimian act of participating in communal movement, communal lifting of the voice—all this is a little strange and exciting to me. A part of me wonders how soon the newness will wear off and these things become boringly familiar, as I wondered, on those extremely rare times when my husband and I did attend previously, and I had one arm around my Mom and one around my Dad, all of us swaying, whether my emotions would survive a steady diet of attendance.
Stop the camera! How did I come to be the person sitting in this sanctuary; how does this person relate to the person who scorned even agnosticism, saying, “oh, no, I know“? I am still an atheist. I definitely do not and cannot believe in a personal, providential God who has created us in his image, who, as the prayer books have it, orders and controls the universe, who makes the seasons alternate, and controls the stars as they travel through the skies, who rolls light away from darkness and darkness from light. I do not believe in a divine power that blesses good and punishes evil. While the universe clearly contains mysteries beyond my ken, I cannot believe in some “intelligent design” at work on the whole. And yet I am sitting here, though wondering intermittently whether that makes me a hypocrite, as my husband wondered about the integrity of sending our son to Hebrew school all those years ago. Perhaps those of us not “born into” a religious practice, who don’t belong as a matter of course, especially feel a need to “explain,” not the least, to themselves. When I think about the reasons I am here, I start accumulating the contingent, the mundane, perhaps just some whispers of those inching toward the more weighty.
For a long time I have been intellectually interested in religion. My scholarly research, particularly for a book I wrote focused on King Lear, took me deeply into the relation of Shakespeare’s work to early modern Christian religious controversy. My intellectual interest is undoubtedly in part motivated by my being an outsider with regard to America’s dominant Protestant Christianity, as well as an atheist who wonders “How can ‘they’ ‘believe’ in such stuff?” and “What does ‘belief’ mean?” I had briefly met the rabbi of our local Reform Temple when I was invited to give a poetry reading there, and at demonstrations against a Nazi organization that goose-stepped through a section of our town. Our town grapevine buzzed with glowing descriptions of her. My husband and I, having the freedom and time that retirement entails, decided to invite her to discuss with us the shape of a modern religion, particularly Judaism, that would allow, or indeed attract people like ourselves. Perhaps, way behind this overt project, was some half-conscious desire to re-evaluate or own relation to Jewish religious practice, but it was not uppermost. We were thinking we might write a book.
Initial contingency. This woman was in another league from the former rabbis I had either encountered briefly or heard of at our local Temple. The prior rabbis had apparently been, respectively: interested in social action, but tediously boring; insouciant about their responsibilities; or in fact, immoral—at least one married rabbi had an affair with a congregant. We met Rabbi S several times at our house and discussed our anxieties about “organized religion,” or, more honestly, mainly mine, since I am the stranger in a strange land, whereas my husband’s family went to synagogue frequently enough when he was young to make it something other than a novel experience. We didn’t start a book. We kind of fell in love with the rabbi’s warmth, openness and intelligence, her inclusive understanding, and her seriousness. Had she been more like any of the previous rabbis, clearly lesser people, we might have immediately thought “uh-oh, no way!”
It was reassuring to hear that many in Rabbi S’s congregation, and she herself, did not, after all, believe in that anthropomorphic personal God who “rolls light away from darkness and darkness from light.” Sometimes “the good” or the possibility of good in the universe was mentioned as a substitute for that personal Deity. I remained nervous: “the good” does not demand worship, but the God of the Old Testament does; how does one worship good, or the possibility of good?
I have always felt ethnically or culturally Jewish, though the role of that Jewishness has obviously very much attenuated in my life; I am an intense, excitable, sometimes totally uncool New York Jew, by birthright. My (WASP) professor in that English class in the seventeenth-century metaphysicals once stopped me in mid-comment, essentially telling me to curb my enthusiasm. I have come to treasure my belonging to a minority, not least because I appreciate the occasional jaundiced eye that minorities may cast on the pieties of the dominant American culture and religion, on the way in which “God” and politics are frequently tied, in spite of the constitution’s separation of church and state and of religious persuasion and political office, and I treasure that membership, even if—or especially because—my minority is often cultural, and not religious. But it is true that that sense of cultural identity, in the absence of practice or study, tied only, for example, to the recordings my husband and I own of cantorial performances which move me deeply—perhaps that much more because of my living largely outside Jewish culture—or to the occasional Yiddish word that pops, with all its redolence, into a conversation with the rare Jewish friend begins to crumble, fade, or dissolve into the mainstream, when one is living in a largely non-Jewish environment. And my parents were gone; I could no longer piggy-back on their almost iconic immigrant Jewishness, or share in their Temple membership by proxy, or enjoy a cultural Jewishness that was an offshoot of their lives. What if, in the absence of religious practice, cultural Jewishness becomes so diluted as to, ultimately, disappear? Thus, though I may have suppressed the thought for some time, in response to the rabbi’s question, asked without coercion: Do you care if Judaism completely disappears?, I surprise myself by answering, Yes, I think I do.
Nevertheless, my story is hardly a “conversion story,” even if I do feel like what I imagine converts feel like at services, at least right now. We do not decide, after our sessions talking with lovely Rabbi S, after becoming friends with her and her husband, after being invited to her house for dinner, and inviting her to ours, that we will join right away. Once the possibility of joining has been planted in our minds, however, and has no obvious immediate impediments such as the somewhat obnoxious rabbis of time past, mulling it around gradually reveals some advantages we hadn’t previously focused on.
It’s no accident that the population of religions organizations is often slanted towards the long in the tooth. Our official working lives over, we are somewhat isolated. In our case, many of our University friends are retired as well, and so free to travel or visit their far-flung kids, as we do, and are therefore less often around to share a social life with us. Our last frontier lies ahead of us—my husband, in mundane pragmatic mode, points out that we need someplace to have our funerals!—much more obviously ahead of us than when we were working. There is a faint but real comfort, if not exactly a belief in the eternity of spirit, or anything like that, in approaching that frontier in the company of others, on the same train. The doors open, and, as before, some new people board, and some older people step off. The train has traveled this route thousands and thousands of times before and it will again. I imagine that one feels both very small, and, at the same time, accounted for.
Final contingency. My husband has been somewhat phlegmatic all along, or perhaps has been waiting for the impetus from the stickler, his wife. But the tipping point for our decision is what I blush about—the final little psychological push. My brother-in-law, with whom I shared my story, called it “holy bribery.” Though I know Rabbi S was doing nothing like this, I started worrying—my cheeks are getting hot now—that though we’ve so much enjoyed seeing her and her husband for dinners at her house and at ours, she will be too busy to keep us on her list, if we don’t join her congregation. I really need a cold wet wash cloth about now.
So, here I am, on a Friday night in August, my prayer book open, for the moment almost shocked at the God in it, who seems like the Ineffable, the Abstract, the Unknown, and almost shocked at the elegance and simplicity of the language, its failure to offend me. Maybe it is language itself that I am worshipping.
May the Maker of peace in the high places make peace descend upon us and upon all Israel, and let us say: Amen. May the Source of strength, who blessed the ones before us, Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing, and let us say: Amen. May the Source of peace send peace to all who mourn and comfort to all who are bereaved. Amen.
My eyes briefly moisten, as they did when I was at services with my parents, because of the attention paid by the language in this place, to what is barely acknowledged in my secular life, but surrounds it. And, literary student that I am, I find myself thinking of the British poet Philip Larkin’s 1955 poem, “Church Going,” which begins with his persona wandering casually into a church, but only “once [he is] sure there’s nothing going on.” Although the poem is written squarely from the perspective that churches are defunct, superannuated, it ends with a certain respect for them, as places which once
...held unspilt So long and equably what since is found Only in separation—marriage, and birth, And death, and thoughts of these....
The respect, however qualified, is for the way churches housed the weighty questions of our lives. The poem concludes:
A serious house on serious earth it is, In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, Are recognized, and robed as destinies. And that much never can be obsolete, Since someone will forever be surprising A hunger in himself to be more serious, And gravitating with it to this ground, Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in, If only that so many dead lie round.
In the Temple tonight I am reminded, and it seems the people with me are taking time out from the busyness of their lives to remind themselves, as great literature reminds me, that we live sub specie aeternitatis, that life, like the flight of Bede’s sparrow through the mead-hall, is a passage from darkness to the darkness of which we know nothing, with only a brief interlude of warmth and cheer in-between.
The numerous Protestant tracts and polemics that I read when I was doing literary research (and my small experience of Orthodox Judaism), as well as powerful fiction and memoir, warned me off of religion, but, in a paradoxical way, my long immersion in early modern religious poetry emotionally prepared me for its possibility, laid the groundwork for it.
On the one hand, I think my prior subliminal idea of religion involved something like a constant uneasy test of faith, or of a credo. I thought of those Reformation Calvinist believers in predestination who were constantly on guard in the effort to interpret the “signs” that they were saved, though I knew that others, convinced of their election, may have been filled with joy, and may have lived in a way that served to prove their blessedness. I thought of the frightening power of the elders in congregations, such as the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to be a scourge on the consciences of those they thought sinners, and of my University friend who experienced something like this first-hand in the present day. I thought of the social pressures brought to bear on the young who were “supposed” to be experiencing their personal call by Christ by a certain age, that I had read about in fiction such as James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and memoir such as Kim Barnes’ In the Wilderness. In my “own” religion, insofar as it had a lot of “rules” about the practices of daily life and of worship, like the Orthodox Judaism I was thinly acquainted with, I was afraid of my ignorance, of standing out like a greenhorn.
Yet, on the other hand, my reading of the great poetry of Anglicans like Donne and Herbert, of Catholics like Hopkins, laid down some emotional substructures, almost trained me in feeling gratitude, reverence and joy, though, in the last analysis, I could not completely intellectually ignore the connection of these emotions, in context, to Christian belief and doctrine, which may have ultimately walled them off. Yet I wonder, can these emotions transcend a particular theology? As an undergraduate, was I merely imagining, under the guise of New Critical appreciation of these Christian works as “an experience rather than any mere statement about experience,” only Christian struggles of faith, Christian reverence, Christian consolation? I encountered gratitude, reverence, and joy, in poems embedded in a theology descended from, yet different from Judaism’s, a theology in which these emotions are so often responses to the Incarnation and to the sacrifice of Christ that makes salvation and eternal life possible. Yet I am not willing to say these poets cannot be read and enjoyed by non-Christians, or that all, or even most of the emotions in their poems are exclusive to Christianity. Perhaps my mind might rationally resist the underlying theology of a poem like Herbert’s “The Flower,” if I bring it to the fore, but my heart cannot help respond to the joy there in the use of one’s gifts, and in recovery from affliction:
And now in age I bud again, After so many deaths I live and write; I once more smell the dew and rain, And relish versing: O my onely light, It cannot be That I am he On whom thy tempests fell all night.
Such poems truly got to me spite of all, they really did; I felt them. In some measure, I needed those emotions of joy, reverence, and gratitude; I still need them. These are good emotions; when I experience them in the Temple, they leave me cleansed, calm, at peace.
Yet my ardent questions still remain: how can I experience joy in the plenitude of the world, revere its splendors and intricacies and interconnectedness, be grateful for being alive in this moment in time, and for the people in my life, without belief or faith in a Creator, a personal beneficent Giver, an Object of gratitude? Religions are constantly renegotiating their central texts; in many cases what was once understood literally comes to be understood as metaphor. But at some point doesn’t the metaphorization need to stop? What is God a metaphor for? How can one worship the tenor of a mere metaphor? Is the comfort I feel in the sanctuary, with the congregation, with the words I say and hear thus in any sense specious? Am I involved in New Age “religion lite”?
Or is my asking that question merely a function of my nose-to-the grindstone first-generation-American Jewish personality that believes everything good should require really hard work, abetted by that Protestant model I absorbed—in the absence of real knowledge about Judaism—of the constant, arduous test of faith?
We are all rising now, to go into the social hall for the Oneg. For the moment, I am living in and with the questions.