Stories from the Journey
Holidays live in the past as much as in the present.
Major holidays inevitably serve as triggers of memories: the memories of childhood celebrations, the memories of phases and people in adulthood that have come and gone. They are visceral, sensory-laden cues: the sight of a holiday symbol, the sounds of songs or the chants of rituals, the smells and tastes of foods that we eat now while mixing in memories of “then.”
The High Holidays bring a mixed bag of emotions for me. The season has always carried with it a subterranean unsettled feeling.
Growing up, we were barely a generation away from the Eastern Europe “Fiddler-on-the-Roof”-Russian/Polish-Ashkenazi-Jewish experience that continued to live on vividly in our own young lives in the form of the elders of our big, Jewish cooperative neighborhood.
But comparisons to the shtetls of Eastern Europe cease there. There were no men with sidecurls, tsitsis (fringes) and long black coats on our streets. Yet, who among us had a grandparent without a heavy Yiddish accent? Impossible to imagine!
Mom’s parents, and many of their crowd who formed the community in which we lived, had thrown away religion as shackles that kept them oppressed. They were modern, progressive, labor-supporting humanists. My mother professed herself to be an atheist, with the Holocaust as her ultimate proof.
But Mom was a fiercely committed Jew. She practiced a highly-refined brand of Culinary Judaism blended with a secular observance that merged our rich Yiddish-influenced environment with a big dose of pro-Israel activism. She was committed to our Jewish identity as a people and a culture, and she maintained an uneasy truce with the religious aspects from a safe distance.
Every now and then, we got a smattering of religion thanks to the fact that the only synagogue in our area was Orthodox, so if there was a bar mitzvah in the circle of friends, it was going to be under the aegis of the fire-and-brimstone-leaning Rabbi Sodden.
(I must pause here to note that my impressions of Rabbi Sodden were formed from my few visits to his temple on the High Holy Days, where, like any good Orthodox practitioner of his day, he took the opportunity to harangue the once-a-year crowd and douse them in a little bath of guilt. Later, under other circumstances I got to see a more empathetic side of him. I read that he passed in 2007, having served his community for 60 years.)
Dad, on the other hand, had served some time in cheder, and had a more religious inclination, although it wasn’t much expressed.
Except for at one time of year: The High Holidays.
This, I realized, was the Season-of-Mom’s-Discontent.
The September holidays weren’t at all like Chanukah for her, with its child-centered celebrations happily observed—awash in presents, candles and oil-infused latkes. And they weren’t like Passover, either; Passover, with its dramatic story of the Exodus—and with a dinner that took a month to prepare; relatives joining from near and far at a table that reached from one end of our Bronx apartment to the other—had the same importance to Mom that Christmas has for Christians.
But these Days of Awe—it seems there was no escaping the fact that they were days of Awe about one’s relationship to God. It was a temple holiday, or more properly, a synagogue holiday.
And we didn’t go to synagogue.
Except, Dad usually made his way to the shule during the holidays, and, mindful of the fact that he was not a regular, he would stand in the very back of the sanctuary that had its folding doors rolled back to accommodate the crowd.
Our erev Rosh Hashonah ritual consisted of mom preparing a big dinner, set out on the white tablecloth reserved for Shabbes (yes, we observed Friday night as a special dinner/family time). She would then periodically go to the window where she would watch impatiently for the sight of people coming back from the shule. Often there was an air of annoyance or impatience, one I can now well appreciate, as she had four hungry children to keep occupied, holding them off till Daddy got home.
In New York City, at some point long after these memories, the Board of Ed decided to close the schools for the Jewish holidays. Mom, a NYC teacher at that point, remarked that so many of the teachers of that era were Jewish, they really didn’t have the option to stay open with that many teachers out. But when we were young kids, the schools were open on the High Holy Days, and we, like all the Jewish children, stayed home.
There was no school for us, but no playing around either. We got into our dress clothes and walked around the neighborhood to visit our grandmothers. When I asked once why we couldn’t go to the park, my mom uneasily stated that if you weren’t in school, you were supposed to be in shule, and so she did not want us to be cavorting in the playground. This, then, was her show of respect. We dressed up, visited both our grandmothers, and waited for school hours to be over to be released to play. The message, she repeated often, was that religious or not, if you did not respect your own holidays, certainly no one else was going to.
A few times in my memory, Dad took us to the synagogue, perhaps at the end of Yom Kippur, for the last few moments of the service, to hear the final blast of the shofar. Since it was an orthodox shule, my going required my mother’s presence, in order for me to stand with her on the women’s side. I felt her impatience with a service all in Hebrew, her general discomfiture, her feeling out-of-place. I remember her turning to me and saying “that’s Adon Olam” (the song/prayer)—“it means that it’s almost over” she said with a sigh of relief, both that the service was ending and that she had at last understood something in all that Hebrew.
Obviously, I was very sensitive to my mother’s signals.
There was one place among the High Holiday observances where Mom conveyed a different sort of tolerance for the worship at the synagogue. It was when Dad would go for the afternoon Yizkor (memorial) service, in memory of his parents and his brother and sister-in-law. Mom did not accompany him; her memorials were in the candles she lit on that occasion, but there was a different sort of understanding in her voice when she referred to that. We did not go with Dad for that either, because in Orthodox practice, you did not go to Yizkor if your parents were alive.
As time went on I married, and with my husband, I joined a Reform temple. There, High Holidays were a family affair, with men, women and children seated together. It was a whole different atmosphere, with new music and new styles of worship. There were many years of enjoying that familial experience. But after my divorce, the suburban family temple no longer felt like home, and as my spiritual life shifted, many aspects of that environment no longer spoke to me in quite the same way.
Every year I question whether I want to go to a service or not. Some years I do, some years I don’t. I laugh now, that it appears that in this area, I have inherited some of my mom’s ambivalence around this particular holiday, or perhaps around traditional observance of it. I’m hardly alone. Ask any non-orthodox Jewish person if they are fasting on Yom Kippur and watch the dance begin.
I didn’t go to a service this Rosh Hashonah. I didn’t have a round challah, or dip apples in honey, or even spend time with my siblings.
But more importantly, I am aware of what this holiday represents: a time to review your life; to make amends, to complete the past, to start anew. This year, Rosh Hashonah was an internal affair. Next year? Who knows?
May we all be inscribed for a good year.
There are times in your life when you can see everything coming together in a way that is so perfect and so fluid that you can only stand aside and watch the pieces fall into place, knowing that only divine Grace could so direct the play.
Two years ago, on the night after my mentor Ron Roth died, I had a vivid dream visitation; a dream in which my friend Rev. Susi Roos and I were dressing in ministerial vestments in the vestry of a Catholic church. Ron Roth, in full priestly regalia, came charging down the aisle of the cathedral, holding his bishop’s staff and scolding us loudly in his most annoyed tone.
“Where are you, I’m WAITING for you!” he said impatiently.
He turned back toward the altar, and Susi and I fled down the aisle after him, practically running to keep up. He mounted the platform and we slid into seats behind him and looked out at a vast crowd.
On August 9th, that dream came to life when Susi and I got into our ministerial vestments in the vestry of St. Catherine of Siena Roman Catholic church in Rialto, California. And though Ron was not there in body, he certainly was fully present for both of us and for the people of the parish in the San Bernardino area who came in droves to attend the seminar and healing service Evicting Cancer, which, two years ago when I had the dream, was not even a glimmer in either of our eyes.
When I first floated the idea for doing this interfaith educational and healing event past Fr. Steve Porter, whom I had met in Brazil, I did some rapid math in my head. I knew his parish was large, and I figured that among 9000 people, many lives must be touched by cancer. How many would turn out on a weekday or weeknight to hear two unknown female ministers was at best a gamble—I figured anywhere from 10 to 100. But the Holy Spirit had other ideas.
Unknown to me when we had first spoken of the idea was the fact that Fr. Steve has conducted regular healing services at his church for years, and had everything and everyone in place to hold a large-scale event that otherwise would have taken a huge amount of logistical arrangements if we were truly starting from scratch—which we weren’t. With Fr. Steve’s enthusiastic support, the first of two events that day had around 300 people in attendance at 10:00 a.m.
A wonderful musical ministry team gave their time to support the services, and to provide translation during our talks as well. After we were introduced in English and Spanish by Fr. Steve, Rev. Susi, who works as both a nurse and a mind/body specialist at a leading cancer treatment facility, spent the first hour talking on the three biggest mistakes people make when addressing cancer, and gave easy and practical things people could do to greatly assist the effectiveness of their treatment. She put all the medical information into a spiritual context, touching on some of the concepts from her in-depth teleseminars and home-study programs.
Then it was my turn to open people up to a higher energy transmission through teaching and leading worship (something I’ve done many times on a scale larger than 300 people) and in the laying-on-of-hands healing (something I’ve done in smaller events).
Fr. Steve had arranged with one of the prayer groups to provide support, and in accordance with the way they conduct healing services at this church, every individual is personally escorted by a healing minister to come for laying on of hands; the minister stays with them if they go “down under the Power of the Spirit” (involuntarily fall gently to rest on the floor while healing is done on an unconscious level).
Our spiritual assistants also functioned as translators as the vast majority of those attending had Spanish as their primary language.
I knew one thing: don’t prepare too much, because whatever you think will happen, it will surely be something different. And so it was.
I was ready to lay hands on people in blessing, but shortly into the personal blessings I was led to look at them in the eyes, and as I did, thoughts would come flooding in, differing from one person to the next, such as “have courage!” or “you are loved…” There was clearly an energy being transmitted through the gazing, and all I had to do was get out of the way and let it happen. I also found myself clearing much “junk”—removing invisible energy blocks before passing people on to Susi, who then anointed them with oil. As she blessed them, many went down under the Power. Fr. Steve moved amongst the people and between us, lending energetic, logistical and prayer support.
The morning, scheduled to go from 10:00 – 12:00, continued till 1:00 p.m., as people waited patiently in line for their turn.
The evening event began at 7:00 pm, and saw many more people fill the church. This time it was clear to Fr. Steve that at least half were not his parishioners, but those who had heard about the opportunity through friends or through the local Spanish radio station, and had come with hope in their hearts, some bringing children, some with older people in wheelchairs, some holding pictures of loved ones.
As the evening went on, the Divine energy in the church became electric; people were open, full of devotion and enthusiastically ready to receive Grace. Reflected on many faces as they approached, was much fear, pain and suffering, and devotion as well. But just under the surface lay a hunger and thirst for love, hope, and most of all, peace—the gifts of the Holy Spirit.
The service started promptly at 7:00 and didn’t end till after 11:00. Fr. Steve estimated that we had over 1000 in attendance and about 700 who came up to be personally blessed. I had no idea how many; I could only see the person in front of me, and Juvenal, the human angel who was assisting me, pointed me where I needed to go in the cases of the elderly and wheelchair patients.
This time, as the evening went on, as I looked at the person in front of me, I knew within seconds who was physically sick and who was there for emotional reasons. If I asked, they would verify the information and give a few words about their situation. As expected, there were many with cancers, but there were many other conditions as well, often advanced and serious, as well as those seeking help with emotional problems.
People come to healing services hoping for miraculous help. And what they mean is, on the physical level, they want their cancers to disappear; their ailments—many of which took years and years to establish—to vanish immediately. I’ve been in this world of healing long enough to know that this indeed happens at times, and I believe that when it happens it’s to build faith not only in that person, but in all who know them.
More often, a new kind of journey is initiated. Susi quotes her first patient in this field who begged for her help, sensing Susi knew things that could help her, even though the doctors had told her they couldn’t do any more: “You turned my death sentence into a healing journey,” she later said.
While I’ve experienced that journey in my own life and witnessed it in so many others—some near and dear to me—that night took everything I’ve ever been through in the world of spiritual healing to a whole new level.
I stood at the center of the healing vortex and I could see, feel and know that an energetic transformation had happened for many attendees; that infusion of Divine energy would revitalize them; some in the physical, some in the emotional, some in the spiritual, and some in all three.
An infusion of energy always alters that which it touches; it’s a physical law. What’s less well-known is that it is a spiritual law as well.
As a result, I know that not only the people who came were changed; I, too, am changed.
For almost 30 years I have resounded with the quote from George Bernard Shaw that starts: This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one…
On August 9th, I was fully used by that purpose. There is no better place to be. For that privilege, I am grateful to God.
Our gratitude also goes to Fr. Steve Porter for making this event available to the people of his community, with whom we now share a profound sense of love and blessing.
While visiting Julio, (my friend of more decades than I care to admit) at his house in Florida some dozen years ago, I found in the guest bedroom—a room that vaguely resemble a monk’s cell if you don’t count the opulent bedspread and plush mattress—a single book with browning pages. It bore this intriguing title: “The Incorruptibles”. While it sounded like a 1950’s movie starring a gang of teens, it turned out to be a captivating account of many Catholic saints whose bodies were documented to have been found intact years or centuries after their death. I stayed up late into the wee hours, reading the somewhat grisly details of various body parts or even whole bodies in inexplicable states of preservation; no mummification required.
Around that time we were planning a trip to Italy. I was also studying with the mystic, healer and former Catholic priest Ron Roth, whose main guide was the 20th-century mystic and Capuchin priest, Padre Pio. So when I floated the idea of a detour down the Italian boot to San Giovanni Rotundo to visit Pio’s home-base, Julio’s eyes lit up as did his face with his (paradoxically) devilish grin: “I’m there, baby! I love chasing saints.”
Julio has a gift for such bon mots. The phrase made me laugh aloud, and it stuck. As it turns out, the two of us did chase saints across Italy, or as we later joked, Padre Pio chased us across Italy. In years after, we went on to chase saints halfway round the globe.
When I was growing up as a Jewish girl in the Bronx, in a secular Yiddishist environment, such a notion as saints would bring puzzled laughter. I remember my mom making humorous comments from time to time, like: “It’s the building next to that church, you know: ‘Our Lady of Ten Thousand Mitzvahs.’ ” In a largely agnostic/secular/atheist environment, the idea of devotions to deceased mortals and their representative statues was an inexplicable phenomenon of a culture diametrically opposed to our own.
It took many years of study and experience for me to begin to understand the world’s attraction to saints, and my own as well.
The first big piece of news for me was that those regarded as saints are found in every faith, and devotion to them is not limited to Catholicism. There are even those who could rightly be regarded as secular saints. The second was that there are among us today many who by any regard fit that description.
I’m fortunate enough to have been in the presence of some of the greatest of our time. It’s been my encounters with the living ones that gave me the understanding of the intense devotion to those who no longer walk the earth.
So, I think for a while, I am going to run a periodic series of reflections on sainthood; what it means for us in this era, and some of my personal experiences with those whom we may hold in this regard.
I leave this post with my favorite quote from one of my most powerful influences: the writer, Jungian psychologist and perhaps saint himself, Robert A. Johnson. Anyone who has heard one of my talks knows I am fond of quoting him, and this paragraph from his autobiography: Balancing Heaven & Earth: A Memoir of Visions, Dreams and Realizations sums up one of the most important and least understood aspects of this rich topic. Having once been invited to be the saint for a rural village in India after he spent several weeks there, he later wrote his reflections on the experience, which, while he kept in humble and humorous perspective, clearly affected him deeply. While I have come to appreciate other aspects that distinguish saints of all backgrounds, this unique perspective provides a good jumping off point:
I have meditated on the subject of sainthood many times since this experience, and I find a bit of wisdom in understanding that saints are people who suffer the projection of unlived holiness from a group of people and are made to serve in this strange role whether they like it or not. It is only the other side of the coin of scapegoating, in which a group chooses an individual to carry the dark side of their own personalities, which they are unwilling to own for themselves. This idea has been borne out by careful examination: every group I have ever experienced has done this living-out-by-appointment of the human elements that are too good or too bad for an ordinary person to accommodate in his or her own life. The group gives that overwhelming characteristic to some person nearby. God help the poor person who is landed with either of the excesses that humankind finds equally difficult to bear.
Love and blessings,