The Golden Circlet

All the good things in life

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Tu Bishvat Seder

Last weekend was the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, the “New Year of the Trees” — a Jewish Earth Day, or Arbor Day. It’s not a major holiday, but has some lovely ritual associated with it, especially the seder, which was created by Isaac Luria in 17th century Israel as a mystical, kabbalistic way to celebrate the Tree of Life.

Just for fun — and because we were missing the Tu Bishvat seder his Hebrew school hosts — we had a seder at home, loosely following this outline. Most Tu Bishvat seders eat no fruit with the fourth cup of wine, as this is meant to evoke the realm of God, but I like the idea alluded to in the outline I linked to of choosing as a fourth fruit a “fruit of the Gods.” Chocolate, for example. We also tried to include the seven species, as well as a fruit none of us had eaten recently (papaya), so we could sing the shehechyianu.

Here was our menu:

  • First Cup: Pina Coladas in Coconut Shells
  • First Fruit: Mixed Nuts
  • Second Cup: Pina Colada mixed with a bit of Sparkling Grape Juice
  • Second Fruit: Olives
  • Third Cup: Sparkling Grape Juice mixed with a bit of Pina Colada
  • Third Fruits: Dried Figs, Red Grapes, Strawberries

  • Dinner: My Grandmother’s Special “Orange Mud” Soup (which contains barley, one of the seven species), Bread Drizzled with Honey

  • Fourth Cup: Sparkling Grape Juice
  • Fourth Fruits: Guacamole with Chips
  • Papaya, Kiwi, Pomegranate, Mango, Chocolate

It was really a lovely seder. We’ll definitely do it again next year.


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The Artist’s Way and What God’s Got

I have mixed feelings about The Artist’s Way.

On the one hand, I know lots of people who have found it instrumental in developing their own creativity and careers. On the other hand, I don’t believe in anything like the spiritual power of positive thinking. I just don’t believe that God provides gifts, help, or aid to people who are on the right spiritual path, at least not on consistent basis. My belief in God is a tenuous thing on the best of days, but as my rabbi said when I asked him about his own personal faith, “The question is not, ‘Do you believe in God?’ Of course I believe in God. But how much God? Clearly, not enough.”

To look around at a world full of believers, full of people trying hard to do the right thing, full of people with rich faith throwing their entire hearts into the enterprise of making this world a better place, and to know that despite all their efforts and all their creativity, the world is in terrible peril, is to know that there is not enough God to go ’round. What else can we conclude? Humans have wrecked the planet using their God-given free will (and therefore deserve what we get)? God wants us to suffer as part of some grand, mysterious plan? We’re just not praying hard enough, or doing the right things, to make God help us? I don’t believe any of that. I know that good people can try hard to do the right thing their entire lives in this unfair, unequal world, and not get any heavenly help to escape their situations. I know that powerful people motivated by greed may very well wreck my home, and yours too, and God may not show up to stop them. Unlike Jesus, I’m not surprised anymore that God has forsaken me.

So when Julia Cameron claims that all I need to do is say what my creative dreams are, begin to act on them, write about them, treat myself with kindness, and pray for divine assistance in my creative work, God will help me, I don’t entirely believe her. I do believe her a little. I believe in God, a little. And the God I believe in, or want to believe in, is indeed a creator. My God has abundance and blessings to share. My God doesn’t want me to suffer, or to struggle. My God wants all good things for me, and will add fuel to my fire — if I build it — the way sparks burst out of a log: inconsistently but explosively. That’s how God works. That’s all God’s got: everything you need, but only some of the time.

That said, my experience of the Artist’s Way is mostly that it is a helpful experience. Talking about, writing about, acting on, and being kind to yourself about your creative dreams is a good thing. I’ve been through the book twice on my own, and right now I’m working through it again in a group. I have some thoughts about why it might be helpful from a scientific, rather than spiritual, perspective, but I’ll save that for another day.

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About a year ago, my whole family converted to Judaism. For me, taking on a faith in which I wasn’t raised was a mysterious, maze-like process, with lots of false starts and roadblocks over many years — my whole life, really. Just like with a completed maze, once it’s finished, you can look down on the page and the path is totally obvious. But in the midst of it, you never have any idea what the hell you’re doing, or where you’re headed, or if that’s the right place to be at all.

Our rabbi said that he was not the one who would “convert us” to Judaism. He told us that when we were Jewish, we would tell him! But when that happened, we wanted to mark it in a formal way, and he suggested three experiences we walked through to do that. The first task was my husband’s alone. Jews, of course, symbolize their covenant with circumcision. Luckily for my husband, like most American men, he’d already gone through that as an infant! But the rabbi did suggest a Hatafat Dam Brit — a ritual re-enactment of circumcision for Jewish conversion. My husband said he found it straightforward, and not really spiritual. He said the worst part was simply the embarrassment of trying to arrange it — we live in rural New England, where there are no mohels. There are Jewish doctors who are willing to do this ceremony, but their secretaries and support people are not Jewish, and for my shy husband to call up the doctor’s office and try to explain what he wanted made for an awkward moment!

The last task was a formal conversion ceremony, at the synagogue, where our rabbi gave us our Jewish names, said a blessing for us, and we spoke about what the experience meant to us for our family and friends.

But the middle task was the one that mattered to us: the mikveh. Everyone is familiar with this religious ceremony. Christians call it baptism — it’s what John the Baptist and Jesus were doing in the river Jordan. In Judaism, immersion in water is a purification rite. It is done during conversion, and women do it after childbirth or menstruation. Men do it for a variety of idiosyncratic reasons — some Jewish men go to the mikveh before every Shabbat. The idea is to become ritually clean, but there is also an idea of being “reborn,” of becoming like a newborn child in the waters of the womb, which is why both Christians and Jews use water for conversion.

Jewish law requires that the waters of a mikveh be “living,” that is to say, from the sky, not the earth. For conversion, we immersed ourselves in the lake in our front yard.

Our rabbi came, turned his back to us while he sat on the lake, and we waded, naked, into the water. There was immersion — each of us alone — you want the water to touch every inch of you. There was prayer: the Shehecheyanu, the Sh’ma. But the details are hazy for me. All I can tell you is that when I went into the water, I wasn’t expecting much. Because there were Hebrew prayers involved, we had practiced, on our own, days before. I expected the “real thing” to be like the practice. I expected the conversion to be symbolic, rote, nothing more. I thought the spiritual work was the reading, the study, the rituals we’d slowly been incorporating into our lives over weeks and months. Anyway, I’m not at all certain I believe in God, anyway. Belief in God was not what I was expecting when I converted to Judaism.

But I didn’t get what I expected.

The mikveh lasted all of five minutes, but those five minutes were something special for all three of us. I don’t know what happened — I don’t know who was there, what to name that presence that unmistakably showed up and pervaded the air and the water with electricity that you could taste, like smoke. I didn’t hear any divine voice, or receive any revelation, beyond simply a profound experience of joy and mystery — an awareness of the presence of God. And we all felt it, as we were astonished to discover when the rabbi went home and we were all inarticulate confession to one another.

I’ve never had another experience like it.

So now, every month, when my period is over, I create a little mikveh. I don’t like the patriarchal symbolism of purification after menstruation, or of the forbidding of sex during menstruation. But I find something meaningful in the ritual all the same, somehow. In the summer, I immerse in the lake, say my prayer, and have a little bath. In the winter I take snow or water from the lake if it isn’t frozen, pour it into the tub with my bathwater, and essential oils, and say my prayers and mindfully wash there. I do it at the beginning of Shabbat, because it sweetens Shabbat love-making for me. (My husband has grown to love the scent of the mikveh essential oils wafting through the house, portending a happy reunion.) It’s a small, but lovely thing. (And I should note that my little “mikveh” is not halachically kosher. I’m a reform Jew, I believe that God continues to command us in the present day, and although I’m happy to consult them, I listen to my own heart, not the medieval rabbis, when it comes to deciding what God wants of me.)