Wrestling with our perceptions of the sacred

October 14, 2005|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Yesterday was the sacred Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur, during which my people do not eat or drink for 24 hours. "May you have an easy fast," we tell each other. In solemn preparation, some of us make our deep spiritual pilgrimage earlier in the week to Attman's Deli on Lombard Street for a corned beef on rye with maybe a kosher hot dog to help wash it down.

This is a heartfelt tradition found absolutely nowhere in the holy texts, but is nonetheless considered vital to those of us who consider ourselves cultural Jews first, and congregational members not exactly.

A trip to Lombard Street (even in its current upheaval with so many new homes being built there, and so much road and utility construction) is a journey to the Mother Country of Jewish Baltimore.

At Lombard and Lloyd streets, we still have remnants of those distant days when legions of the city's Jews huddled there. A couple of delicatessens remain, as well as the ancient Lloyd Street Synagogue, the B'Nai Israel Congregation, and the Jewish Museum. They are the last traces of a time when this little section of East Baltimore held nearly 10,000 Jews and roughly 35 synagogues, and the old Corned Beef Row's street peddlers and chicken pluckers quoted Scripture to the slicers of pastrami, who responded in Yiddish with Talmudic wisdom of their own.

Yom Kippur is marked as the time of supreme human penitence, the Day of Atonement on which fasting serves as a metaphorical cleansing of both body and soul. Instant Lent, I've heard it called. One year, when my eldest child was in kindergarten, I explained to her that Yom Kippur is the day on which God judges our behavior over the past year.

"I've had a good year," she said. "I think God will give me an A."

This was a child's innocence at work. Many of us wrestle with our perceptions of God and religion across the changing years of our lives. The Old Testament, after all, is believed to have been written about 750 years before the so-called Common Era. And the New Testament was written years after Christ's death, but long before our own era of science and technology.

As Lily Tomlin once noted, "Reality - it's kind of a collective hunch, isn't it?"

If reality itself is a collective hunch, then what does that say about our notions of God and religion? We want to believe there's some guiding hand, some moral force up there in the heavens. But many of us, whatever our religious beliefs, tremble before the tsunami in South Asia, the hurricane on the Gulf Coast and the earthquake in Pakistan, and are not so sure. That's why it's called faith.

(And it's why some of us take comfort in the half-facetious observation: "I don't believe in God - and I hope he won't hold it against me.")

As Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in his novel Shosha, "I can easily visualize the Almighty sitting on the Throne of Glory, asking, `Who am I? How did I come about? Did I create myself? Who gave me these powers? After all, it couldn't be that I've existed forever. I remember only the past hundred trillion years. Everything before that is hazy.'"

A week ago, at Rosh Hashanah, that solemn day commemorating the birth of the world, observant Jews could be seen on a little bridge off Cross Country Boulevard overlooking the Western Run in Northwest Baltimore. They stood there with their empty pockets turned out as though casting all their sins into the water, and they recited Tashlich, the prayer of purification, in which believers ask God to forgive all their sins of the past year.

(Variations of this ritual, which dates to the 14th century among the Jews, is also known to have been practiced by Christians in medieval times, and in ancient Siam, where the accumulated sins of all members of a community were symbolically loaded onto a boat and sent drifting out to sea.)

So last week the reverent Jews stood on this little bridge over the Western Run, some of them quite old and others just beginning their adult years, and you thought, `How bad could their sins be?' And you noticed there wasn't much water in the Western Run since we'd had such a stretch of dry weather. But it was all right. It's only meant symbolically. The water isn't really the point.

And now you think about the flooding of the Gulf Coast, and survivors emerging with their homes wrecked and their existence in tatters, and they say, "Thank God."

Meaning, thanks for the simple mercy of sparing their lives.

And in Pakistan, where a terrible earthquake might have killed more than 35,000 people and left thousands more homeless and grieving, those pulled from the rubble are heard crying, "Praise Allah."

Meaning, in the midst of so much catastrophe, praise for the lives that were spared.

On Cross Country Boulevard, on a little bridge over the Western Run, they stood with their pockets out and cast their little sins upon symbolic trickles of water, in hopes that God would be forgiving. And in New Orleans and South Asia, they call out his name in the vast hurricane waters, and the vast tsunami waters, and whose big pockets are to be turned out to account for those dreadful sins we call nature?


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