Historically, Sunday morning for my people means bagels and lox.
But sometimes a girl’s got to rejoice in the other Lord’s Day, in spite of my devotion to the Jewish Sabbath and also, to brunch.
Now, longtime readers know that I’m no stranger to church. Though I’ve no patience for the hypocrisy and harm organized religion has wrought upon the world, I confess to finding solace in the stories and rituals of the ancestors—not just those of my own mishpocheh, but in the myriad miracles, meditations, chanting, candles, drums, and songs that have threaded communities together, especially when the cloak of human decency has worn thin.
I also love to sit in the pews of others’ hallowed halls, imagining the carpenters who carved out the niches and artisans who adorned them with gold and gems, from the filigreed saints of Sacre-Coeur atop Paris’ Montmartre to the carpeted dome of Jerusalem’s beleaguered Al-Aqsa Mosque to the kaleidoscopic majesty of Savannah’s own Cathedral of St. John the Baptist.
As much as I adore pomp and pageantry, many of my favorite houses of worship are simple and bright, with the restorative respite of an old-timey infirmary before hospitals became their own emergencies. Or perhaps the clean coolness of a mid-rate hotel room on a road trip away from the kids. (Call me cheugy, but no Hampton Inn has ever let me down, OK?)
Christ Church Episcopal on Johnson Square emanates that freshly-laundered serenity, much like my own synagogue right up the street. Both congregations were founded in 1733—the same year as Savannah itself—and through my metaphysically-smudged glasses, the most striking difference between Georgia’s “Mother Church” and Congregation Micke Israel is the stained glass window depicting Jesus instead of the Ark of the Covenant. (We can talk about Gothic architectural nuances and theological divergences some other time; I’m just saying that after growing up in suburban Arizona where someone once asked me if a bat mitzvah was a mammal or a reptile, it’s a real blessing to live in a city where Jewishness is part of the historical metanarrative.)
I eat too much bacon to fulfill anyone’s definition of pious, but I had been very much looking forward to the re-opening of my cherished synagogue for the High Holy Days next week. When it was announced a few days ago that services would again be Zoom-only to minimize COVID Delta Variant risk among congregants, my heart ached to hear the crack of the shofar and the organ’s minor chords fill the sanctuary. Lo, how I miss the legs of my family pressed on either side of me and pinching Mark for talking too loud.
I realized that it might be some time before I’d have the chance to be a heretic in person anywhere again soon, thus I found myself climbing the grand steps of Christ Church last Sunday morning. I’d been invited to hear renowned sociologist and local treasure Dr. Bertice Berry deliver a guest sermon, and I figured it would be more nourishing than another helping of French toast at Collins Quarter, amazing as it is with those little crunchies on top.
In a honeyed voice that lands like a salve, Dr. Bertice has offered tender wisdom via short inspirational videos throughout the pandemic, her blocky glasses and beatific smile closely framed in the intimacy of one heart to another. I had not seen her in real life since she spoke at Planned Parenthood Southeast fundraiser several years ago, and we greeted each other warmly from behind our masks. (Forget Tyra Banks—Dr. Bertice is the Queen of Smizing.)
I settled into an empty pew as Reverend Samantha McKean readied some of her young acolytes for the procession. Their white robes reminded me of the Selichot ritual, when the jewel-toned coverings of Mickve Israel’s many Torahs are exchanged for white velvet coats in preparation for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. They’re changed back after Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when tradition holds that we are written into the Book of Life for another year. Or not.
I began thinking of this past year, and how much angrier I am than the last. How forgiveness of myself and others is paramount but feels more difficult than ever. How the challenges, tragedies, and storms keep coming, even though we’ve not recovered from the last crises. I felt my blood begin to boil with furious helplessness, for those in the path of Hurricane Ida and those left behind in Afghanistan, for wars against women there and right here at home, for dear elders suffering alone and exhausted folx sleeping in the woods at the edges of our own neighborhoods.
I am a person of faith and also truly pissed off at how some of the subplots of this Book are turning out. Too many annoying characters, not enough wizardry and miracles. I’ll hold off on a recommendation until I’m finished, but so far I’m giving this shit two-and-a-half stars on GoodReads.
I shifted around in my lonely pew, wondering if I could sneak out in time to catch breakfast.
Then Dr. Bertice came forward in her flowing robe, singing a song that sent sweetness up to the high ceilings and settled down in my soul. Her homily centered on the first chapter of the Gospel of James, and when she quoted the admonition that “anger does not bring forth God’s righteousness,” I let out a sigh so loud that a woman two rows over smized at me over her mask.
Huh, ol’ James sounds a lot like my long-gone bubbe, who used to shrug at my childhood tantrums and say that sitting around mad about things wouldn’t ever fix them. James also advised being “not a hearer who forgets but a doer," and Dr. Bertice implored us to “be doers of the world, which called up for me the Talmudic teaching from the Pirkei Avot, also known as the Ethics of Our Fathers:
“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
I’ve always liked this lesson because it holds us responsible for the common good and still allows us to have boundaries and take a day off to do the laundry and Netflix binge. But how are we supposed to know if what we do is enough? How much of this mess is mine to atone for?
I guess that’s where the faith part comes in. The Book of Life is too darn long for any one person to read, and none of us get to live long enough to get to know the end of the story. Though it must be true that we are all descended from doers—none of us would be here without those who came before us. One day we will be the ones who did our best to do the work with kindness and capability, and Dr. Bertice invoked this vision of the whole human family hooked together by stories and ritual, scattered across time and space.
Of course, her use of the word “scattered” reminded me of Waffle House hash browns, and since I also like them smothered and covered, I thought also about extinguishing the fires of my anger with love and making sure my eyes sparkle back over my mask when we see each other.
“We are here to shore each other up,” reminded Dr. Bertice as she squeezed my hand after the service. Soul nourished, I left the church to fill my belly and attend to what work I can do, whether I’m ready to usher in another year or not.
Truth of it is, none of us believe the same way about anything, whether it be in testaments old or new, in angels and ancestors, in a Supreme Creator that may or may not be paying attention, or even exist at all.
None of us are promised another year in the Book of Life, or even tomorrow. All we can do is break the bread that we have together, and do what we can for each other.
To misquote the ancient rabbis, it’s all about caring for others as we would ourselves—the rest is just commentary.
Keep the faith, friends ~ JLL