The Upward Spiral
How Can the Son of a Hindu, a Christian, and two Cubs fans become a Jew?
Think in terms of an electric light socket. Plug a lamp into it and you get light; stick your finger into it and you’re dead. Electricity doesn’t choose your fate, you do.
— Rabbi Rami Shapiro
Eleven years ago I went to Israel.
As a part of a delegation, I interviewed Benjamin Netanyahu. He deftly dominated my pathetic attempts at tough questions. We sampled falafel everywhere, though Jaffa had some unnamed gems. Frishman in Tel Aviv was a favorite. I wonder if it’s still there.
After a whirlwind two weeks, from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to Haifa to the Dead Sea, and dialogue with everyone from a Druze priest to the head of the IAF, it was time to reflect.
By way of Amman, I flew to Lebanon to celebrate New Year’s at the hookah lounges and the clubs of Beirut with my cousin. During the day I read Thomas Friedman’s seminal book on the Middle East. At no point were we ever far from the American University where Steve Kerr’s father Malcolm was blown up by a bomb.
At some point it occurred to me my trek was the opposite of the title of Friedman’s book. It was the beginning of a journey I had no idea I was undertaking. If you had told me then that a decade later I would become a Jew, I would have been confused.
If you are not something, how do you become it?
It is not obvious to me that you can be something you are not.
How does someone who has never been a ballerina become one?
They start dancing.
Introduction to Judaism
Growing up I only had one Jewish friend. I will never forget how his face looked the day after he got jumped. He had been walking home from the bus station in one of the most affluent places in America. His mom saw it from the kitchen sink and called the cops. He walked into language arts class the next day with a black eye and a cut nose, and only from his mom would I later learn the story of the anti-Semitic nature of the beating.
He never once complained.
This happens? In Oak Brook, Illinois?
My naive worldview re-arranged.
At his bar mitzvah we danced liked crazy. When I came home I asked my parents if I could have one. My mom is a Sikh immigrant born in a refugee camp. My Irish-Swedish-Norwegian-Danish-English-American dad grew up Baptist.
They looked at each other and laughed.
Three years later, in high school, that same friend and I were at a stoplight by the Gyro King. Some teenagers pulled up next to us. The driver rolled down his window and menacingly yelled: “Jew!” We didn’t know them. They didn’t know us. They made a visual inference. We kept driving. Our sophomore year, at a recital of Handel’s Messiah at our high school, everyone stood up.
My friend kept sitting.
It would be a long time before I would understand why.
In college I joined Sigma Chi.
The public motto of the fraternity is in hoc signo vinces.
It means “in this sign, you will conquer.” The fraternity was run by a guy nicknamed Pope. The ethos of the fraternity was work hard, play hard, and then grow up and do something big. As the rush chairman of the Omega chapter, I used to lead cheers:
Everywhere we go-o. People want to know-o. Who we are. So we tell them. So well tell them. We are Sigma Chi. We are Sigma Chi. Ass-kickin, hell-raisin mighty mighty Sigma Chi.
The strange thing about a house built on Christian philosophy and presided over by a modern-day Pope was the disproportionate number of Jews who were brothers — at least a dozen. We used to joke about this, calling it Sigma C’Hi — pronounced like L’Chaim.
The idea that the motto of our fraternity implied conquering in the name of religion, killing others as a way to express the superiority of your religion, never dawned on me at the time. We did not take it literally — although there was a lot of ego, tribalism, chauvinism and ambition in the halls. There was also a lot of real friendship, brotherhood, introspective conversation, and alcohol.
Mahavira, the Jain patriarch, once said:
Do not injure, abuse, oppress, enslave, insult, torment, torture, or kill any creature or living being.
Jains are vegetarians. I am not aware of any fraternities founded on Jain principles. If there are, I want to know how they have fun.
Fraternities evangelize. That’s how they recruit members. Some religions do to.
Judaism is the opposite. You can join, but it ain’t easy.
Growing up my religious identity was primarily one of confusion. Nothing was pushed on me; nothing was overtly offered. My mom later recriminated my dad about the latter. To me, both of my parents seemed God-like. After Introduction to Hinduism and Introduction to Christianity in college, it hit me: they can’t both be right.
Or can they?
When it came to religion, I felt I belonged to no one. It saddened me, it angered me, it confused me, and it made me religiously ambivalent.
So I chose my calling:
A franchise built on over a century’s worth of communal suffering and an unremitting optimism that one day it will all not have been in vain. That day finally came last year. Redemption arrived.
Sometimes people deserve to have their faith rewarded.
— The Dark Knight
To be a Cubs fan is to belong to a secular faith perhaps observed by many Chicagoans than their “actual” religion.
As has been said, Marx was wrong: the opiate of the masses isn’t religion, it’s sports.
Here are the largest gatherings in human history.
- Kumbh Mela pilgrimage, India, 2013 — 30 million
- Arbaeen festival, Iraq, 2014 — 17 million
- Funeral of CN Annadurai, India, 1969 — 15 million
- Funeral of Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran, 1989 — 10 million
- Papal gathering in the Philippines, 2015 — 6 million
- World Youth Day, 1995 — 5 million
- Chicago Cubs World Series celebration — 5 million
Christmas is Coming the Goose is Getting Fat, Please Put a Penny in and Old Man’s Hat
I love Christmas. The gifts and the songs. The more I read about Jesus, the more inspired I become. He was basically a Jewish socialist.
Like Bernie Sanders?
No, much much more. The most important human being who ever lived. Our very calendar is B.C. to A.D.
As Mike Birbiglia points out in Thank God for Jokes, having your life define time is a pretty big win.
Circles Versus Arrows
The Gifts of the Jews by Thomas Cahill, an Irish-American — and presumably Catholic — scholar born in Queens, begins with two quotes that leave me hanging between the karmic teachings of my mother’s Hinduism and my experience of being an American entrepreneur.
Everything an Indian does in a circle, and that is because the power of the world always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. In the old days when we were a strong and happy people, all our power came to us from the sacred hoop of the nation… Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood and so it is in everything where power moves.
— Black Elk
Unless this is a new mind there cannot be a new line, the old will go on repeating itself with recurring deadliness: without invention nothing lies under the witch hazel bush.
— William Carlos Williams
The Gifts of the Jews
The idea of a chosen people always confused me.
If the Jews are chosen, does that mean I am un-chosen?
What Cahill, an Irishman no less, writes is that the Jews created a directional narrative in human history — the idea that the future could be influenced in a divine way, rather than human history being locked into a cosmic cycle. The very idea of progressive history, with a singular God presiding over it, one could argue began with the Jews, says Cahill:
The Jews started it all — and by “it” I mean so many of the things we care about, the underlying values that make us all, Jew and gentile, believer and atheist, tick.
So what is that “it”?
“It” is the idea that individual initiative can influence the future. It is the idea that a divine calling isn’t to stay where one is, but to move forward, out into the wilderness, and chart the future. The upward spiral, rather than the endless cycle. This was Abraham’s gift to the world — and the religions that sprang like Athena from Zeus out of Abraham’s head follow this logic. We see it even in our language according to Cahill:
Most of our best words, in fact — new, adventure, surprise; unique, individual, person, vocation; time, history, future; freedom, progress, spirit; faith, hope, justice — are gifts of the Jews.
In the causes of history, Cahill sees it in Exodus:
These movements of modern times have employed the language of the Bible; and it is even impossible to understand their great heroes and heroines — people like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Mother Jones, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, Helder Camara, Oscar Romero, Rigoberta Menchu, Corazon Aquino, Nelson Mandela, Desmont Tut, Charity Kaluki Ngilu, Harry Wu — without recourse in the Bible.
In our political system, Cahill sees it as a premonition of America:
Democracy, in contrast, grows directly out of the Israelite vision of individuals, subjects of value because they are images of God, each with a unique and personal destiny. These is no way that it could ever have been “self-evident that all men are created equal” without the intervention of the Jews.
One day all people might be redeemed as equal as well — we are certainly not there yet — but that won’t be a gift of the world’s religions. It might be God’s idea, but it will be a repudiation of much of what religion, written by men, has to say.
The very idea of a male God becomes problematic, when you think about it.
Our Father is in heaven. But whatever became of Our Mother? And what is to become of Mother Earth?
We are the undeserving recipients of the history of the Jews, this long, excessive, miraculous development of ethical monotheism without which our ideas of equality and personalism are unlikely ever to have come into being and surely would never have matured in the way that they have.
The Schmatta Business
Growing up my typical “outfit” was a Chicago sports t-shirt and jeans. No one would have ever described me as particular fashionable. It is one of the great paradoxes of my life that I ended up in the apparel business.
Clothing is a business that swims beautifully through Jewish families and Jewish tradition. The rise of American Jewry, from Levi Strauss to Ralph “Lauren” Lifshitz, is inextricably woven into clothing. Pun intended.
The rag trade, and the Jewish influences on it, is a foundational part of world economic history. Ten years ago, carrying fabric around the Garment District of Manhattan, I felt like an outsider. It took a decade before I felt like I might belong. Normally the Jew becomes a merchant. In this case the wannabe merchant became Jew.
God Is With Us
One day seven years ago I walked across the lobby of a hotel and introduced myself to a woman. To this day I do not remember making the decision to walk up to her. It was an out of body experience — like a magnet, I just went where I was supposed to go. Manuela was wearing ballet flats that Tinkerbell might wear if she were to go clubbing.
Her first name is derivative of Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Zoninsein — her last name — means sunshine, in German.
God’s sunshine is with us.
Manuela didn’t ask me to become Jewish.
In her company I came to feel maybe I already was.
There is a synagogue in Manhattan on 11th street. Presiding there is a rabbi named Joe. Manuela and I went every other Saturday for a year
Three times Rabbi Joe changed my life — each time making me feel an insider to the Jewish tribe rather than a member of the un-chosen looking in.
The first time was during Yom Kippur, when he explained that the Jewish God is not Jewish. In saying this he gave me access to the God I want to believe in — one who cares not for the angle of approach, but one who lights the way should you approach at all.
The second time was in his offices, when I blinked through tears of fear that I perhaps was not welcome to join. The rabbi told me I was. For the first time in my life, I belonged to a tribe. Some say *the* Tribe.
We all know that’s a baseball team in Cleveland. The Indians.
A wound I did not know I had began to heal.
The third time was at Passover seder. In the synagogue, I sat across from the rabbi. As we went through the story of Exodus, my thoughts turned to two other tribes without a home.
First I thought of today’s Palestinians, who you could argue live under the reign of a new Pharaoh. History’s dualism is cruel, and like the prison guard experiment at Stanford, prisoners become guards, and guards become prisoners.
Then I thought of my mom, born in a refugee camp in Kurukshetra on the way from Rawalpindi to New Dehli at the time of partition. In the midst of her family’s exodus, she came into the world like all babies do.
My restless life has been characterized by running as fast as I can. Shabbat is now my favorite twenty fours of the week. I am mostly alone with my thoughts and with Manuela. I am mostly in the present. I avoid the black mirror.
For a mind always racing towards the future, this is a revelation in and of itself. Rabbi Rami Shapiro helped me understand something I still do not understand:
This is what makes grace so radical and Shabbat so difficult. We are trained to do, but you cannot train to not do, for the training itself is something. Unlike creation — something from nothing — Shabbat is nothing from something.
Courage in Conversation
Growing up with two religions — wrestling with two cultures — was a blessing in and of itself. That our children, should they arrive, will be raised in a singular tradition is something both alien to me and most welcome at the same time.
A religion born of discussion and dialogue, a people endowed with the ability to be radically candid with each other — who challenge each other, who have courage in conversation, and who take on the difficult topics—this is something I came to believe I could aspire to belong to.
When I saw Schindler’s List growing up, my first real exposure to the Shoah, I was struck by the scene at the end where the protagonist, who did so much, breaks down — feeling he did not do enough, that there were more people he could have saved.
While it seems the stakes are not the same for all of us, they are. Right now, someone who could live is dying. Right now, there is something that you could be doing, that you are not doing, to alleviate someone’s suffering.
It does not take being Jewish to develop this perspective, but it certainly is Jewish to have it. Every day I know: whatever I am doing, it is not enough.
Beginning in college, for over a decade, I reveled in an intellectual atheism — reading as much of Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris as I could .
Fifteen years later I stumbled through a summer of profound depression. For some weeks, I lived in Beijing in Manuela’s care. My salvation became a Chinese proverb she shared with me which I call The Lost Horse. In the story, every blessing becomes a curse, and every curse becomes a blessing.
While staying in a hotel called the Opposite House, the cruelty of the parable’s dualism set in. This summer trip was supposed to be the time of my life — and I felt the opposite. I would wake each day no earlier than noon, and embark on a page of All The Light We Cannot See. I could scarcely finish a page.
I still have not read the book.
I could not find the light.
Then I found a lost Chinese horse in a Hebrew Bible:
I summon earth and sky to witness this day that I place before you living and dying, blessing and cursing. Now choose life that both you and your descendants may live.
— DEUTERONOMY 30:19
Rabbi Rami Shapiro, in Amazing Chesed, interprets:
Don’t imagine that the choice God offers you is between living or dying, blessing or curse, for real life contains all of this. The choice you are offered is whether to accept life as it is (the bi-polar world of living and dying, blessings and curses) or retreat into an imaginary world of one-pole magnets and gods who give us only what we want.
Or in the wise words of Job:
Shall we not accept the good as well as the bad from God?
— Job 2:10
Rabbi Shapiro concludes:
As I continue to remind you over and over lest you fall back into some other more comfortable and comforting definition of grace, chesed is the unconditional love of God manifesting as reality itself: life and death, prosperity and adversity, blessing and curse. The covenant with God is therefore a partnership with life and all life brings. Our covenant is this: God gives us reality, and we struggle to navigate that reality with compassion, justice, and love.
Human, by The Killers
For ten years, I have not been able to get this song out of my head.
I did my best to notice
When the call came down the line
Up to the platform of surrender
I was brought but I was kind
And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes, clear your heart
Cut the cord
Are we human or are we dancer?
My sign is vital, my hands are cold
And I’m on my knees
Looking for the answer
Are we human or are we dancer?