The pain

“This is a critical juncture in the history of Jewish identity,” the rabbi says in his talk after the day’s Torah portion. “The foundation of Judaism, monotheism, is tested.” I’m at a reformed synagogue in Santa Monica housed in a plain, square building. In high school, I used to drive past it regularly on my way to my friend Becky’s house. Inside, the atmosphere is laid back. Only a handful of people have come to formally celebrate Sabbath.

The exact Torah section we read begins at Exodus 32.

The crowd Moses has led to freedom is freaking out. Moses promised to return from his mountain-top meeting with God in 40 days, but now those days have come and gone. The rabbi explains that more than likely Moses wasn’t really late, that it was probably a misunderstanding—the people had started counting the days at sunrise while Moses was counting them according to sunsets, something like that. Either way, collectively, the people enter the throes of a classic panic attack, their anxiety like a runaway train. If they couldn’t trust Moses, then maybe the God who helped them escape wasn’t reliable.

To stop from spiraling out of control, they revert back to what they know: worshipping something they can see and touch—an “idol.” The invisible one-God idea is too scary. They melt down all their jewelry and shape it into a calf, giving them something on which to focus their energy. Soothed by the certainty and solidity of the object, their anxiety subsides. Of course, at that exact moment, Moses returns.

Moses is furious. It’s not so much the idol itself that makes him angry as what it represents.

Before monotheism, people were accountable only to those who shared their gods; it was considered a crime to steal from members of one’s own tribe, while stealing from other tribes afforded you a hero’s welcome. One God introduced the concept of a unified humanity, making everyone connected—the entire world as a single tribe of people derived from the same source. To create an object to worship is to break apart the one-God idea. It might seem a small fissure, but it challenges the very essence of monotheism. It shatters the possibility of a unified humanity and, perhaps to make this exact point, Moses throws down the stone tablets with the commandments from God and they break into pieces.

The rabbi slows down. In his talk about the Torah section, he wants to make an important point about the human condition. He says that when we are faced with ambiguity, we tend to default to anger, depression, or fear. The one-God idea comes strapped with a degree of ambiguity—there can be no proof, nothing concrete to touch—as illustrated a few sections further along in Exodus when Moses’ request to see God’s face is denied. So the very thing we hope will alleviate our anxiety inevitably leaves some intact. “This pain,” the rabbi says, “is written into the human condition.” If you learn to tolerate it, you can trade certainty for faith. If you learn to trust it, you can swap being a part of something small for being a part of something infinitely vast. Here is the key: to bypass quick fixes for the slow trudge toward a deeper, more powerful solution. The rabbi puts a finger in the air and offers a sly smile that suggests he’s sharing the simplest and most profound of secrets. “The pain,” he says, “is the opening for the divine.”

Baby Moses

I remember the baby in a basket, sailing down a river. The entire movie about Moses and the Jewish exodus from Egypt and how the Ten Commandments came to be, and all I recall is that tiny floating baby. I was about eight when it was set to air. I was staying the night with my mom’s parents and I felt a buzz of anticipation to have a date that evening with my grandparents in front of the television.

As show time approached, I was belly down on the carpet. Fresh martinis clinked from the sofa behind me.

My excitement soon drooped like the saggy robes worn by the characters on screen, kicked away like the dust from their sandaled feet. The entire thing looked so old-timey and weird. What was this stupid story? Once the baby got old and grew a beard, I lost interest and wandered out of the room.

But the first few moments of the film are seared into my memory.The scene, as I recollect, goes like this: a woman sets her basket/baby into the river and lets it float away. The pained expression on her face reveals the difficulty of her decision. The baby will most likely drown but she deems this option safer than the baby staying with her. She’ll take the risk for the slim chance of the baby’s survival. Several frames focus on the baby up close, chubby and oblivious. The baby doesn’t have long; the basket is no better than a sieve. I was riveted; I had such high hopes for this movie. A woman standing at the bank downstream spots the basket. That this stranger is big-hearted enough to fish out the baby is almost too good to be true. That she turns out to be royalty and raises the orphan in the palace is the most surprising in the series of unlikely incidents that leads to the baby’s survival. Then the kid grows up in a montage of, like, two minutes and what I deemed the best part is over.

It’s not just me who got hung up on the baby. I’ve since spoken to others who confess that when they were younger and first exposed to the Moses story, the floating baby part captured their imaginations too. It makes me wonder if this aspect of the account resonates so profoundly because it speaks to our own survival stories: each of us here against all odds, the chances of our individual conceptions perhaps even slimmer than those of baby Moses being scooped from a river by a queen. We may not be able to grasp the improbability of our own lives—the chain of events leading to each of us being here too complex to fathom—but in the Moses story, the miracle of survival is writ large.

When I arrive in L.A., the synagogues, who appear to all be on about the same page in their weekly readings of the Torah, are mid-way through Exodus. The rabbis are going over the plot points covered in the movie about Moses and the Ten Commandments that I was too immature to understand. At long last, I get a second chance to discover what’s so great about the grown-up Moses. The first service I attend, we read about the people waiting at the base of Mount Sinai for Moses to return. These are the people who had been slaves in Egypt. Moses leads them to freedom with the guidance of God, who weakens the resolve of the Egyptians through a series of plagues and then parts the Red Sea for a speedy on-foot escape; the waters then flood the Egyptian army. When the people make it to the base of the mountain, Moses tells them to wait patiently while he goes to the peak to meet with God. Sounds straightforward to me, I thought, as the reading concluded. What could go wrong?

Important research

My second Friday in Los Angeles, before my understanding of Sabbath had unfurled its first petals, I was at a conservative synagogue for the intimate evening service that officially welcomes the Sabbath. It was held in a small room adjacent to the main sanctuary; about 15 chairs formed a circle around the perimeter. I was one of the first to arrive and as I waited, I took out my day planner and set it in my lap. I was holding a pen. The rabbi approached. As he knelt in front of me, my mind raced with the possible admonishments I was about to receive. I was dressed modestly, but I was wearing pants. Was it the pants?

“We don’t write on the Sabbath,” he said, his eyes locked on mine.

I looked at my pen like it was a fork I hadn’t realized was so filthy. I let it drop into the gaping mouth of my bag. “Thank you,” I said as if he just saved me from contracting bubonic plague. I had been mulling over how to recognize the Sabbath given that I needed to drive myself to and from the synagogues I was visiting and, as a house guest, I was not in perfect control of my surroundings. The rabbi’s reprimand gave me my answer. I could do this: absolutely no writing. No notes, no computer, no writing utensils of any kind. If I wanted to record events or thoughts from Sabbath, I had to wait until after the sun set on Saturday night. It was a small thing, but it invited the spirit of the Sabbath into my life and, from there, I found it much easier to embrace other aspects of the day.

When I got home from synagogue on Saturday afternoons, I made a concerted effort to relax. At least until sunset, my job was to loll around. At first it was a challenge, but I got the hang of it.

One afternoon when I was engaged in this non-task, my stepmom came into my room. “What are you up to?” she asked. I opened my eyes, realizing I had nodded off while contemplating the row of trees outside the bedroom window. “Very important research,” I said, wiping the drool from my lips.

Temple in time

My understanding of the significance of Sabbath opened slowly like a rose to reveal a more complicated and alluring beauty than I had imagined.

We humans think we are in charge of our worlds. We organize, create, build, and sweep up as if we are running the show. Sabbath is about giving up this control, acknowledging we aren’t the bosses by surrendering for a day the drive to alter the world in any way. At the same time, it’s a celebration of being. It speaks to the fundamental struggles of the Jews. For a people with a history of being slaves, this day of is a powerful statement of freedom. Slaves can’t decide when they’ll work and when they won’t. Sabbath is an exercise of free will. The fact that Sabbath can be practiced anywhere is vital for a people who spent generations on the move. Unlike temples made of stone, temples built in time are yours no matter where you are. Far from just the Jewish day of worship, when Jews go to synagogue on Saturdays, it is the Sabbath itself they are celebrating.

Yet, I wasn’t surprised to learn that even the most observant use creative loopholes such as lights on timers and slow cookers set on Friday morning. Some also have low-tech solutions. One man I met at Saturday worship services told me that growing up as an Orthodox Jew his favorite Sabbath activity was playing Scrabble with his siblings. To keep score, they would fold pages of a book, a dog-ear for each point. “It’s not writing!” he said when I narrowed my gaze at him. I wasn’t too shocked to find out he was a lawyer.

It took a while, but eventually I was able to pull my attention away from the activities that are not allowed on Sabbath to those that are encouraged. What’s a Jew to do? Say her prayers and go to synagogue—of course. Other than that: read for pleasure, tell stories, play games that don’t involve writing, nap, eat food that’s been prepared in advance, kick back in a hammock, daydream, take a walk around the neighborhood, eat some more, nap again, contemplate the beauty of creation, be grateful to have one day every week when hustle of normal life is set aside.

The idea of a weekly block of time free from work is a notion that much of the world has embraced, religious and secular alike. The weekend has become so central to how we experience time that it’s hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. Yet, the original intent has been turned inside out: we use our weekends to prepare for the work week—not vice versa. Laundry, groceries, cleaning—Saturday and even Sunday are opportunities to get chores done so that come Monday we can focus on our jobs or school or whatever it is we really do. Even the most observant Christian family does not use Sundays to officially suspend the daily grind. Meals will be cooked and cleaned up after, laundry will be washed and folded, errands run. Special “family time” may be carved out, but no radical existential statements underlie the day. The Sabbath may have been a potent gift to the world, but we’ve been running with it so long and so hard that not only has the contents dropped out along the way, we’ve forgotten what was ever in the box.

Sabbath

I was prepared for how this journey would change the way I saw the Los Angeles I knew from my old mental map. To experience the Venice Beach boardwalk from inside an Orthodox synagogue that sits at the end of a long line of shops hawking pizza slices, t-shirts, and “medical” marijuana is to never see the boardwalk in quite the same way again.

What I did not expect was how it would change my perception of time. Not the epic generational time of the Torah, but regular, everyday time: the ordinary hours and days that make up our weeks, months, and years. The most obvious difference is the start of the new day at sunset instead of the usual sunrise. It cuts in half what I previously perceived as a single block of time, a small shift with surprising consequences. Suddenly, I have twice the opportunity to acknowledge a new day, two access points where before there was only one. It’s the difference between a watermelon whole and a watermelon sliced open.

But the more meaningful difference is how every week builds toward the Sabbath. I had not realized the significance of the Sabbath, how it beats at the heart of Judaism. I had thought it was equivalent to the Christian Sunday, the one day out of the week when worship services are held at synagogues. Then, I saw it only as a list of things you aren’t supposed to do from sundown on Friday to after sundown on Saturday. Observant Jews can’t drive, turn on or off a computer or television or light, write with pen or pencil, buy anything, do laundry, cook, clean, garden, lift or move objects—nothing that is “work.” It seemed like a collection of rules so extensive and complicated that it would be more effort adhering to them than whatever toil from which they were trying to save you.

But it wasn’t until I met Barbara—mother of four and a lifetime Orthodox Jew (not counting her brief mid-20s Buddhist phase)—that I began to get it. We were talking about how she and her family prepare for the Sabbath; she was explaining the chores and errands that must be completed to ensure this chunk of time can be free from these responsibilities. Her family members have the normal weekday obligations—jobs and school—but in addition, Monday through Thursday is also the time when they grocery shop and clean the house and make food to serve through Saturday night. Friday before sundown, the finishing touches are addressed: the slow cooker is filled with whatever she might want to serve warm, the lights she wants left on are turned on, and the table is set for the primary meal her family will share on Saturday afternoon when they return from the synagogue.

As Barbara was explaining her Sabbath-prep techniques to me, I began to see that for her getting ready for the sun to set on Friday evening was like arranging to stay at a remote cabin in the woods. Everything you need must be purchased and organized in advance because once you arrive there will be no electricity, no cell phone reception, and no leaving to purchase something you forgot.

Only here the idea is to create the retreat right where you are.

Book of Doubt

When I first arrived in Los Angeles from Dallas, we—my dad, stepmom, and I—lived for over a year in a 500 square foot bungalow in Santa Monica. It was a few doors down from a small apartment complex occupied exclusively by a family of Hasidic Jews. The front of their building was quarantined by a low fence and crammed with playground equipment. I traipsed past countless times on my way to the candy counter at the neighborhood liquor store. Along this route was the stretch of sidewalk that my dad wanted to search, believing we would find my name among the many scrawled into the concrete.

Some of the Hasidic boys were my age. I had never seen anything like them. They had tassels at their waists and curls at their ears. In those months, I officially went “boy crazy” and I weighed even those boys as romantic partners. I would see them in the evenings walking in their uniform of tiny suits with the rest of their family members: one dad and one mom, and a string of siblings from big to small like stairs stepping down. I thought they looked particularly fetching when they topped off their outfits with kid-sized fedoras like old-timey gangsters from a school play.

For all the time I spent eyeing those kids, I never once spoke to them—nor they to me. Whatever made their world operate was too different from the particulars of mine; it was like we occupied dimensions so distant that any sound I might utter would dissipate before it reached their ears. I had the idea that they might be an optical illusion, a projected image on a screen; if I snuck up and looked behind it, I’d see only dust bunnies and boxes.

My dad and I walked back and forth in front of the apartment building, searching the names and messages left in the sidewalk. I kept glancing up at the building. It looked exactly the same, right down to the playground equipment.

Dad and I came to the corner without finding my name and then doubled back. A hundred other names were there, but we couldn’t find mine. Had it been washed out by time? Had my father only imagined our subversive act?

At first I was disappointed, but then I decided maybe it wasn’t there for a reason.

According to Jewish tradition, on Rosh Hashanah the “Book of Judgment” is opened and those who have lived righteously will find their names inscribed in the “Book of Life,” while those who have not will be written in the “Book of Death.” It’s a theme that Christians have galloped away with, sometimes to horrifying effect. When I encountered it at a Baptist church, the Book of Life was presented as set-in-stone—your name is either in there or it’s not. If it’s not, then you can forget about spending eternity with God.

In Judaism, I discover a more flexible interpretation. Besides these two options, there’s another place your name can be. It’s the location of a majority of our names. Those who are neither all bad nor all good, but a mixture of the two, will find their names in the “Book of the Doubtful.” Technically, the period of reflection and repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur provides the opportunity to have your name reassigned to the Book of Life; more realistically, I think it’s a long-term goal: you hope to do enough good during your days on earth that the scales tip in your favor.

Perhaps all sidewalks are an extension of the Book of Life, I thought. My name wasn’t there because it is in the Book of the Doubtful. Like most people, I have some work before it gets reassigned.

As my dad and I got back in the car, I spotted a Hasidic man standing near the apartment complex. I knew then that I would try to visit the synagogue in which the residents of this building worship—due to the rules about not driving on Sabbath, it had to be within walking distance. At the very least, a visit to that synagogue would allow me to inquire about my old Hasidic neighbors. As long as I was righting the old wrongs I had drudged up with my Rosh Hashanah soul-searching, this seemed a good one to add to the mix. Maybe our two worlds could finally speak.

Mental map

We all keep a mental map of the places where we grew up. All these years, “my Los Angeles” has remained preserved by teenage memories. It consists of my old school, two malls, the bowling alley and the ice skating rink. Each of my friend’s houses is on the map, as is the beach—not so much the sandy part filled with sun worshippers, but the boardwalk that runs from Venice to the Santa Monica pier. The bookstore where I worked for three summers in a row is on the boardwalk—and, just a few blocks up, Main Street, with its shops and cafes. Everywhere else, where someone else might perceive a vibrant city, I saw outskirts and filler. Now and again I would accompany my dad and stepmom to some place downtown or in Hollywood and a new spot would be added to my map—though how it fit with the rest was vague. The house where we lived was the center of the map, like a tack holding everything else down.

Now, in returning to Los Angeles, I hoped to superimpose another kind of map on that same space. I had a list of every synagogue within a 10 mile radius of my dad’s house. Several of the synagogues on my list I recognized—in particular, one on the Venice boardwalk and another on Main Street. I had walked passed them hundreds of times and, if I gave them so much as a passing thought, it was to lament the injustice of so unexciting a building daring to interrupt my window shopping. Some synagogues on my list I didn’t know existed and, yet, they were adjacent to landmarks on my mental map—one near the bowling alley, another a few blocks from the ice skating rink. Others were located in the blur of city, and I resorted to a street map of West L.A. to put them in context. I realized this venture would most likely render my mental map obsolete by providing a new frame through which to see the city, a spiritual skeleton I hoped to flesh out.

When I left for college, my three-year-old brother Alex wasted no time in taking over my old room; our house was two bedrooms and he had been residing in the dining room-turned-nursery all his life so I suppose it was only fair. Now he was grown and out of the house and I took over his old bedroom. “Take that!” Some long-dormant aspect of my teen-self snapped as I fell back on his bed.

I was staying so long that I actually unpacked.

My dad wandered in and suggested we drive the short distance to Santa Monica. He wanted to search for the concrete slab on which he claims to have helped me write my name in back when I first moved to Los Angeles. I had no memory of writing my name in wet cement. I couldn’t decide what was more surprising: that we had engaged in this subversive bit of bonding or that my dad remembered it. I knew the sidewalk my dad was referring to because it had tons of names and ran the length of an old apartment building a few doors down from where we had lived. Back then, that apartment building had been occupied exclusively by Hasidic Jews. I was curious to find my name, but I was even more curious to see if the Hasids still lived there.