Cong. Beth Evergreen is forty—that broad vista between the acne and the menopause. Some people don’t believe in miracles, but here we are, almost all of us from other places, mirroring the miracle that went on in 70 BCE. The Temple was destroyed, Judaism shattered. Then, what happened? Thanks to the ancient rabbis—not priests, mind you—the shattered pieces of the single body each became one, each a Judaism of its own, with its minhags and customs in each place in the languages of where those people found themselves, yet saving the Torah and then the Talmud in the original tongue. Congratulations B’nai Vale. Congratulations B’nai Aspen. Live long and prosper.
There I was at the 45th Convocation of Brethren Clergy, convening in exotic Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Brethren are a fundamentalist Christian offshoot whose far right is the old Order Amish and whose far left is Church of Christ. I had been invited there to give a talk on writing about religion, or how to write about religion without sounding like a simp.
I was feeling untethered, free—nobody knew me here. If I did something stupid, the act would never go any further than this three-day conference. My anonymity turned out not to be true, but that’s another story. I decided to take full advantage of the time out and to engage in as much of the convention as I could. Sing, shout, the whole bit. I attended meetings dawn to dusk. As the time went on, my spirits rose higher and higher. I was floating, released, full of gratitude. Was I turning Christian? No. Why, then? The reason was that I was seeing that our Jewish angst wasn’t like theirs, it was theirs. If these people were having all of the problems we faced, it meant that we were, in the broadest sense, off the hook. So it’s not Hebrew that has resulted in so many of us leaving after Bar Mitzveh: The Brethren don’t have to learn another language. It’s not Bar Mitzveh, nor is it our recent immigrant past, nor is it the Holocaust—they never had one. Nor is it even the old bugaboo—Materialism. These people were right off the farm, and yet they had all our tzurres: the young leaving, the elders un-heard and needy, the gap between poor and rich, lack of charity, problems with sects within the larger body of faith, arguments about certainty versus doubt—the full megilla. Our pains are the 20th and 21st century. There is one difference, and that one was okay with me.
Israel means He contends with God. Our God-wrangle is close, dear, and special. Jacob wrestles with the angel, Abraham makes deals, Job argues his position. In the middle ages a group of Jews put God on trial and God lost the case, and the Jews refused to address God as compassionate, until the famine ended. In Buchenwald, they held a court again, and a trial, and God lost the case again, and after the verdict, which was guilty of murder and was unanimous, they said the usual prayers, not because God didn’t deserve the verdict but because that’s what Jews do.
Maybe because our relationship with God is a covenant, it means that we are adopted—isn’t that what parents tell their adopted kids—we chose you? Is that what all the tzimmes is about being chosen people? As adopted kids, we don’t always sign on everything the way we’re supposed to.
The best book on Yiddish I have ever read is Wax’s book Born to Kvetch. The Brethren do not kvetch—they can’t even pronounce it. No Brethren preacher would ever say: “Man plans and God laughs,” or share ibn Gabirol’s thought about how people might live forever—that he should go into business selling shrouds.
We of CBE are cases in point. Very, very few of us were born here. Happy people don’t move. We are the heirs of kvetches, the children and grandchildren of restless wanderers, seekers, peddlers with packs, nauseated from a month in steerage. We’re not pastoral nomads any more but the link is there. Shepherds find grass, dig wells, and move on. We became city people and then commuters.
My elder son is married to a Catholic woman, my younger to a Methodist. Their wives have both asked me, “Why do you people tell jokes all the time?” I tell them that it’s a cultural thing. Man plans and God laughs. The Brethren are prayerful people, strongly devoted to the welfare of others and service to God and humankind, but they are not laughers.
A man goes to a tailor for a pair of pants. One week, two weeks, three weeks. No pants. After three weeks, he got the pants. The man complains to the tailor “If it took God seven days to create the entire universe and everything it contains, how come it took you three weeks to make up this order?” The tailor said, “Look at the mess the world is in, and look at these terrific pants.”
No member of the Brethren clergy would laugh at that — we do — some of us do.