On this quasi-Pagan and heavily Christian holiday, I mull over Easters past and the meaning of holidays in my life. My parents are secular Jews, and when they moved from New York City to the predominantly white, Christian suburbs of early fifties New Jersey, Jewishness was, I'm sure, like being from another planet. So throughout my childhood, we celebrated Easter and Christmas as secular holidays, replete with bunnies, eggs, Santa, and all the trappings of American popular holiday culture. I have many fond memories of Christmas, especially, though I do remember some slight confusion when Christian friends and teachers in elementary school talked about the baby Jesus and the birth of Christ. Magi? Myrrh? Three kings? Hmmm. I preferred Santa. The even stranger spring-time tableau of crucifixion and resurrection while surrounded by colorful eggs and bunnies further confused me. How to sort it all out? And then there were my cousins on Long Island who celebrated a strange ritual called "shabbat" (the Sabbath), wore little hats on their heads, and appeared to actually enjoy going to "The Temple", as my paternal grandfather Louis called it.
When I was twenty-one, I hitchhiked around Europe for 11 months, ending up in Israel about seven months into the trip. My distant cousins near Tel Aviv received me enthusiastically, and I was whisked to a kibbutz north of the West Bank where I was enrolled as a volunteer. Some Americans came to kibbutzim (plural for kibbutz) to get in touch with their Jewish roots and study Hebrew. I lived in sub-standard housing as a member of an international group of volunteer workers, and apart from working 48 hours a week, we spent the remainder of our time drinking, smoking pot, hitchhiking, listening to David Bowie, dancing on Friday nights, swimming, and being young hard-working slackers in a foreign country. That said, my cousin Shula who lived on the kibbutz would occasionally steal me away and take me to her father's house in Tel Aviv for family gatherings. The older folks couldn't believe I didn't speak or read Hebrew, were aghast that I had not been Bar Mitzvah'd, and were even more shocked, when at Passover seder, I confided that I had never been to a seder before in my life. It didn't help that the seder was conducted completely in Hebrew. I think I drank alot of wine that day.
So what does all this mean now that I'm in my forties? Being Jewish is just that, being Jewish. Having never studied it or celebrated it, it's more a state of mind and a strange sense of humor with a love of bad puns. ("Hey you bald-headed babe, you look like a Jewish Mister Clean! Hey, two bald-headed men--put your heads together and make an ass of yourselves. But seriously...". A nod to Robert Klein, please.) You get the picture.
But seriously, when Rene was a young child and we were first married, we celebrated some of the Jewish holidays in a desultory and thoroughly incorrect manner, and we also enjoyed the trappings of Christmas and Easter, Mary's family being Catholic and all. We would play Dreidel (that funny spinning top) with Rene on Hannukkah (one of seven spellings of that word, I think), light a borrowed Menorah with our own pagan prayers, and also read to Rene about Jesus and The Holy Spirit, not to mention The Ascended Masters and Buddha. We also tried our hand at Kwaanza a few times, just to round things out. While we tried to infuse Rene's life with spirituality and an abiding belief in Spirit (with a capital S), God, the Goddess, and the greater good of the Universe, religious identity did not play a part in our lives. The curious reader would need to ask Rene about how this all affected him, but I see my mature and lovely son as a spiritual but grounded person who is infused with love and deep compassion. What will he ever do with his children? God only knows.
I have a picture of my brother and I dressed up on Easter, sharing a pack of the ubiquitous JuicyFruit Gum that my maternal grandparents always brought with them. I have never been able to separate the smell of JuicyFruit from my grandparents' substantial body odor. But I digress. For what did we dress up? The Easter Bunny? Jesus? I think it was a way to integrate into the life around us, honor what was normal, and participate in our community. While we didn't go to church, we would go out for, or cook, Easter dinner, and mark the day for what it was to us---a special day of family and togetherness with some religious undertones that were best ignored. The chocolate bunnies were very helpful on that end. When my father was married to his second wife, we participated in huge family feasts at some famous country inn in rural Pennsylvania. Overall, many nice memories abound, leaving me with the sense that this odd Sunday in March still holds some resonance for me.
So, dear reader, this Jew from New Jersey with no connection to his religious heritage meanders along the path of life, more of a neo-Pagan Taoist/Buddhist by choice, with earlier incarnations as a teenage atheist, twenty-something agnostic New Age Meditator, and current forty-something secular Jew believing deeply in the goodness of Spirit and the possibility of global change through love and true compassionate living. While I may not be Raptured or taken up by the ships in 2012, I will continue to walk this lovely but troubled earth lightly, with as much love in my heart as I can muster.
While my parents could not ground us in religion, what they thoroughly succeeded in teaching us was the skills to be good, solid people, loving and compassionate parents, law-abiding citizens, thoughtful mates, and productive, tax-paying members of society. My father gave me a love of nature, creativity, curiosity, and an abiding interest in people and helping them when I can. My mother gave me a thirst and love for music and art, the gift of creativity, and the finely honed skills to be a loving parent and spouse. My step-father, a Catholic Italian, brought to me a love of food and cooking, the understanding of social grace and chivalry's rightful place, and appreciation for beauty.
As for Easter itself, I see the Resurrection not as a literal story of one individual's rising from Death. I see it as an illustration of the ability of each person to remake him- or herself at any time, and the power of humanity as a whole to reinvent itself, correct imbalances, and restore equilibrium at times of collective spiritual death. We can all resurrect ourselves, but we don't need to wait for our physical demise to do so. Easter is really about rebirth, the symbol of the egg and its fertility, a symbolic notion of rebirth and the coming of Spring which, in my view, long preceded the coming of historical Christianity. Those colorful plastic eggs are only a bastardization of a deeply felt need for rebirth at the end of the literal season of winter, or at the end of a personal winter of spiritual or emotional entropy.
Religion may not be central in my life (or even peripheral), but a spiritual love of life and humanity runs deep in my core, and for that I am eternally thankful. While Jesus' resurrection on this day may hold only somewhat abstract meaning for me as I type at this keyboard, the resurrection of the planet and humanity from the deadly sins of greed, avarice and hatred compels me to continue walking the good road. I hope to see you there.