May 27, 2013
It's been years since I last went to temple on a Friday night. Being a New Yorker has forced me to prioritize many things: career, networking, dating, hack interior decorating. But I haven't read Torah in ages. Recently, I felt the fresh pangs of guilt for this fact when a co-worker asked me, "Isn't 'malarky' a Yiddish word?" I gasped, "That's an Irish word, my friend." It was a brief, funny moment that reminded me of how my late mother's closeted Long Island accent that would surface in moments of faux chastisement. And then I felt very Jewish. And then I laughed.
Since moving to New York, a city where the varieties of lifestyles are abundant, I've found myself questioning what I know at every street corner — and I love it. Am I a member of "The Tribe" simply by blood; do the quiet souls of my ancestors run freely through my veins? Or do I feel Jewish because I grew up in that community? Even though my mother was a Jew, my father, an agnostic Protestant and musician, brought me to church on a regular basis so I could watch him play music for mass services; I learned to have faith in music as well. I still remember praying on Friday nights, playing Kol Nidre on the cello; meanwhile, I succumb to a peaceful feeling upon entering most church halls. There is a resonance in churches that pavilions tend not to rival. So how and why do I feel Jewish? Perhaps I won’t be able to truly reconnect with the Judaism that my predecessors knew until I answer this question.
One book in particular has helped me at least get started in the right direction. This book is The Alchemist, an esoteric, sparsely written novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. And yes, it is ultimately a Christian text. However, I have found this text to be more than just a piece of enlightened reading, but rather an inclusive text for people of Jewish faiths who are seeking to reconnect with their roots.
For those who have not read The Alchemist: the protagonist of the story is Santiago, a lonely shepherd boy who lives in an abandoned church in Andalusia. One night, Santiago dreams that a hidden treasure awaits him in the Pyramids of Egypt. After consulting a gypsy, he embarks on a quest that takes him across the Strait of Gibraltar, through Tangiers, and past the Sahara to an oasis called Al-Fayoum where he meets an alchemist. This alchemist teaches Santiago the secret of turning lead to gold. Along the way, Santiago learns how to read the signs of the universe, gains a small fortune, and falls in love. Eventually, Santiago reaches the pyramid only to discover that his treasure is not there. He is captured by thieves who speak of a dream in which treasure awaits them in an abandoned church in Spain. Santiago gives them all his riches in exchange for his release and returns to Andalusia to find a treasure buried under a tree outside his church.
I was probably 13 when I first read The Alchemist. I had just had my bar mitzvah less than a year prior, which kept me from taking much stock in the story's Christian overtones. Even now, as I've learned more about Christianity, I believe The Alchemist has no religious agenda despite its language and lean allegory. I connected most with Santiago, who tends to his flock and leads a solitary life. His friends are the sheep that he watches over. He knows them well enough to be able to read their few signs of worry, their hunger, to easily find an ewe that has wandered off. We clearly start off with a central figure in the model of Jesus. And yet, Santiago has unique pertinence to me as a Jew. The Judaism that I know has no immediate rewards in faith, no confessionals, no Hail Marys. From Coelho's character, I learned at a young age to take most stock in what I had, and to know it well.
Santiago is guided by many on his quest. Melchizidek, an old wise man, helps teach Santiago about the signs of the universe. These signs, called omens, are messages sent by the universe that, when read correctly, help us find whatever it is we are looking for. Melchizidek proffers: "When you really want something to happen, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true." Soon after, Santiago finds himself stranded in an Arab city with no money and no means of getting to the pyramids.
He takes this opportunity as a sign and starts working in a merchant's shop. While continuing to learn of the universe's omens, the boy earns enough money to hire a guide to take him across the Sahara desert. Along the way, Santiago also finds love in the form of Fatima, a young girl who agrees to marry the boy once he has found his treasure and fulfilled his destiny. As the narrator takes us through Santiago's pilgrimage, we see what Santiago sees and learn what Santiago learns. Thus a subtle feeling of self-help echoes throughout the book. Yet, Coelho inserts his pliant messages with no direct audience, except maybe Santiago, conveying that we can all learn to listen to the universe. Our environment is never just a wash of pretty colors and objects, but a ubiquitous teacher that anyone can have access to if they only take the time to listen.
Therein lies the inclusive beauty of The Alchemist. It can truly help anyone. And so, on my own spiritual quest, I've tried to keep mindful that our treasure in life lies not in our destination or what materials we acquire, but what we learn along the way.
Bringing it back to New York... I recently went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a Saturday, the Great Hall was packed with art goers. After consulting the information desk, I commenced on another small pilgrimage that I have made many times to the modern art rooms. My trajectory took me through the Greek room, through the African halls, and into the Matisse rooms. I took this specific route, as suggested by a tour guide, because Matisse was heavily influenced by African culture and design. Unsurprisingly, the African halls were nearly empty, while each painting by the French artist held captive a fistful of liberal-looking New Yorkers, art students, and older wealthy couples. Every step I took further into the museum reminded me of being in a Woody Allen movie. This time, I found myself more comfortable with the catalyst of my query.
And so, after four years of living in the Big Apple, I decided it’s funny being a Jew in New York City. Why the generalization? Because the Judaism that I know is funny. Funny enough to make the average person blush, and the New York City Jew, or even the greater tri-state area Jew, smile with pride. Categorically, I'm a New England Jew raised by bohemian baby boomers. My Jewish upbringing consists of bar and bat mitzvahs that challenged Malibu Beach sweet sixteens, of ceremonial introductions to Woody Allen's movies at a young age, and matriarchs-cum-matchmakers assuring me who all the nice girls in the synagogue were. But this is the ethnicity of Judaism that I, like most New Yorkers, know all too well. Other parts of my ancestors' faith remain a shroud of mystery to me — for now. After remembering the message of The Alchemist, I find myself excited to embark on a journey of reconnecting with my faith — not because of the Jew I will become, but the lessons in Judaism that I will learn along the way.