what it looks like to believe

Are you Jewish?

A young girl with brown hair gathered into a neatly assembled ponytail asks me this, as I wait for the 4 train on Franklin Avenue.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been asked this. Many times throughout the year, Orthodox men wearing thick beards and dark clothing have come up to me wanting to give me Shabbas candles or call out the songs of the shofar or just simply pray with me.

In the past, I have said yes. But my answer is far more complicated than that. I am not Jewish.

For a long time, I was Agnostic leaning toward Atheist. Perhaps dabbling in yoga has stretched my body out enough to progress my leaning into full-blown Atheist.

It’s not that I don’t believe in anything. I believe in Poetry. I believe in the magic of nutrition and the reward of eating a good meal and my body’s reaction. I believe in gun control. I believe in global warming. I believe in the power of free speech. I believe.

It’s just that I’ve been inside too many rooms where too much has happened for me to still get down on my knees and pray to a / some God.

I wish. And I have thoughts seeped in devoted pleas, but I’m more moved by the strength and rise of the sun, rather than the inscribed stories written in the best-selling book of all time.

In the past, I have said YES to these religious men who have asked me if I were Jewish because it seemed easier to say one word (that they were already expecting) then qualify my atheism. But two weeks into a new year and I guess I just want to stop obliging so much. So, when this young child asked me, I said: No.

Suddenly my body got really, really hot. Granted, I was wearing many layers at the time, but it is Winter and this is the costume we must wear: scarf, several textures of shirts on top of each other and jacket (maybe 2) and heavy socks and hat and gloves and

I was sweating.

Suddenly, the train came and I watched her and her family get on the same car as me, though we were at different ends.

I looked toward her and noticed her notice me.

Then….her father. Right beside me.

“I think you might be Jewish,” he said.

And I couldn’t help but wonder what about me led him to think this. My bright red hair? The curls? Do Jews have dreadlocks? I’m poorly dressed and have been called messy by a number of women. Is that a tip-off? My nose? My thin lips? My dimples?

“I…I don’t practice,” I said.

“Your parents are Jewish. So you are.”

The thing is, I didn’t feel bombarded. I have a bias against men like him: white, middle-aged. But he wasn’t a man standing in front of me, handing me candles for praying and a pamphlet. He was a devout believer. He wasn’t pushy, nor did I feel threatened by his question in any way.

And I wonder. Why don’t we do this more often.

We ask: how are you?
We ask:
what do you do for a living?

But what about:

Are you a Poet?
Are you happy?
What do you believe in?
How do you find a way out of your suffering?
Are you hungry?
What are you reading?
What words stain your wrist?
Where do your tears come from?

These men…this child…they are bold enough…such unwavering believers…that they are fearless. They go up to strangers and ask them this question without any judgement of their answer. Both child and father looked deep into me. My NO did not matter. They saw religion in me. Even if it is the religion of poetry; it is something.

I feel my feet curve from side-to-side in my black boots that are torn and have a not-so-secret hole in the soul sole that invites rainwater in. My migraine is back like a lover that I never loved in the first place. And the pain in my mind tries to take me away from my day. Smothering. Debilitating.

But in the evening, I fall against poets and we pray without finger-clasp. Without stained-glass windows or angels or illuminated memorials. We toast to words and I feel the belief inside them. And I don’t even have to ask. Although…I think I understand the power of hearing one’s answer.

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