My Christmas Sermon

All you real Jews out there, you tell me. Is my mezuzah on right?

[Note: When I first posted this I said “menorah” in a few cases where I meant “mezuzah.” Having been alerted to this embarrassing oversight, I have hereby fixed it.]

I think I celebrate Christmas. Maybe it’s because I’m married to a woman of Catholic background. But it goes further back than that.

During college I dropped acid and read the gospels. To this day I regard as valid what happened to me sitting cross-legged on that bed in a student apartment on W. 119th St. in Manhattan. Ever since then I have returned to what I learned by rereading these stories, particularly Matthew, to freshen something that blossomed within me.

One of the profound moments in the six-part video series that aired during the eighties on PBS, entitled The Power of Myth, was when Joseph Campbell tells his ingenuous interviewer, Bill Moyers, what the virgin birth really means.

“Have you risen above your animal nature and been reborn as a human incarnation?” As I recall, this beautiful scholar created linkages to the Holy Grail myth and to the heart chakra in Eastern spirituality and particularly Kundalini yoga.

At one time I was this close to becoming a goy. I rather enjoyed going with my wife to Unity Church here in Prescott, largely because of a lovely man, Rev. Catlin, who was funny and wise. When he left the pulpit here, I didn’t want to go anymore.

But at one point I had sat in Unity during Christmas Eve with a candle on my lap singing “Silent Night” with the congregation. Before Catlin left, I formed a bit of a friendship with him, even imposing on him once in his office, subjecting him to some verbal blur about me reconciling my liking it here with my “being Jewish.” A torrent of hand-wringing esoteric bullshit. I do remember what he said. That it didn’t matter. I could carry around everything. In his place, no one belief system needed to be so literalistic as to block out any other. Here, humanism was the ultimate practice, giving and sharing and making the world a better place by practicing love.

After Catlin left and I didn’t go anywhere, but returned to my profane rhythms and self-indulgences, I got on a guilt trip. Or maybe a better way to put it was that something seized me that was ancient and tribal and Jewish and made me decide that I should at least give Judaism a chance. I’d had no formal training as a boy, never went to Hebrew school, never “had a bar mitzvah.” I wandered into Temple B’rith Shalom, where another bracingly likable chap, Rabbi Berkowitz, took me in, gave me a primer on the Hebrew letters, got me singing the prayers over wine (grape juice to this guy) and bread, and even conscripted me into a choir largely populated by very old people, mostly women. I felt some kind of identity with something larger than myself but couldn’t let go of other spiritual beliefs I’d found compelling.

I don’t go to the temple much anymore. I don’t go anywhere.

I am lighting menorah candles every night and saying the brucha taught me by my father – out of superstition? My prayer may not even be right. Last night I forgot to light the three candles off the shammes (“shammash” in Hebrew), a ritualistic blunder. My Judaism, insofar as I practice it, is not by the book. The mezuzah nailed onto my office door jamb might be on the wrong side though I think it’s tilted correctly. At any rate I never paid some Judaic hucksters any 35 bucks for a rabbinical script in miniature that’s supposed to be shoved into your mezuzah to make it officially holy. I sent a few bucks to the temple in a moment of fervency after High Holy Days.

I’ve come to the conclusion I’m not a religious man at all. Excuse the cliché, but I am spiritual without being religious. I have a spiritual life but do not belong to any club with rules and systems. I think the main thing that got me out of the choir was not just that I was kicked out of the spotlight along with some other guys in favor of some diva, but that I was subjected to pro-Trump crowings from what I gathered, with some shock, were a bunch of benighted Republicans. One rabbi after another had assumed the bimah since my mentor had left, all women. The rabbinate is undergoing the same transformation as the barbering industy; more and more women are getting into it. I missed Berkowitz.

Barb’s dicey relationship with the church is somewhat the same. She regularly sits in the adoration room to guard the host at Sacred Heart, and sometimes goes to confession and to Mass, and fingers rosary beads. But when she hears all these church ladies spew poisonously intolerant political beliefs, particularly about abortion, she will tell me she does not like the place and steers clear.

“Don’t let those old biddies drive you away,” I’ve said. “That’s your church. That’s your God.”

Funny for a profane old goofball like me to say such a thing. But I do. When she goes off to do her Eucharistic adoration in that serene meditation room, the nominal Jew frying bacon calls after her, “Say hi to God for me.”

I find religion fascinating though I stand outside of it. When I stood at the bedside of my old dear friend Mike, who died in hospice care in Tucson a few weeks ago, one of the visitors was a leftist ex-Methodist minister who’d quit the church to become a high school math teacher. I engaged him in conversation about his days as a symbol of “the faith,” and told him about my little “Jewish adventure.” He said it seemed to him people go to these houses of worship largely for the social life they provide. I got the feeling he didn’t have much use for religion anymore.

Today I think I’ll read the Sermon on the Mount again. And pray for a nation to find its soul.

A Gratitude List on My Sobriety Birthday

Plenty to be grateful for. My wife and dear friend Bill Noble, visiting from the Boston area. We’re about to have dinner at Prescott Brewing Company. I’d thought just the meat loaf was good, but they do a righteous burger too.

 

Today I complete fifteen years of uninterrupted sobriety. Nobody I knew back in Cleveland thought I’d do this.

I moved to Arizona eight months clean and haven’t used a mood- or mind-altering substance since.

Never was much of a bar guy, though I liked Miller Genuine Draft and Jim Beam shots. I don’t have much night life now that I follow farmer’s hours, working a four-days-a-week retail job that begins before dawn, and being, you know, old. But back in the day, in Cleveland (scene of all my revelries), I followed Wild Horses around in roustabout saloons including the Pirate’s Cove in the Flats and the Sahara in Willoughby Hills, where, despite my neurotic musings (like, why can’t I be a rock star), I managed to meet young ladies who gave me the benefit of their conversation as well as acquiescence to my more carnal, mercenary agenda.

All a greying snapshot from faded youth for a man just turned sixty-six.

I guess drugs got me into Alcoholics Anonymous. All I have to recall is my high, faggy voice under the influence of crack, sitting in a hiding place from reality with this kid who knew how to score the stuff, to remind myself why I don’t do drugs anymore. My final memory of drugs, all of them, was me abdicating responsibility for manhood. It was slow putting myself back together after my Humpty-Dumpty shatterings. But I did that, rescued myself from where I had been. I was in headlong flight from the anger, envy, and pain that boiled beneath. I had an existential crisis that forced me to look into my soul. It wasn’t pretty. But I’m grateful I did it.

I would change everything. Maybe I went overboard. I came to Arizona to be a teacher. Though teaching would provide many gifts, it may have been a mistake. Yes, it forced me into contact with others, made me transcend ego in that sense. I would stand out on lunch duty smiling in divine amusement at the freshness and folly of swarms of teenagers. I was such a one once. But most of the experience hurt too much to call fulfilling.

It certainly began as a horror show. This trial by fire inspired a sometimes salacious novel I wrote under the name R.G. Philips and, after finding no publisher or even agent, uploaded electronically. Strange, how mere dozens of people reading and liking it felt like immortality. As my old friend Rabbi Berkowitz said, “How much is enough?”

My AA meetings are down. I’m lucky if I hit a meeting a week these days. I haven’t been a very good friend to the man I’d called my sponsor, so I don’t have one anymore.

I’ve been abstinent so long there is no sharp, gnawing urge to drink or use. It is only when I am with people to whom alcohol represents a lifestyle that I suffer any blip in contented temperance. But why start all that up again?

I was a naïve buffoon of an instructor among hostile teens, in a region known for low high school graduation rates and low attainment of college degrees. But this tough place built in me a weird, unaccountable happiness. I began to suffer deliberately, facing up to what began to appear through the mists as my karma. The big picture wasn’t to become famous or make big money, but to be a mensch.

I have begun a memoir at the prompting of an old friend who said the South Euclid working-class Jewish neighborhood that spawned us was uniquely nurturing. Friends from back then are still there for him in a special way. I get that. A July trip to Cleveland enveloped and warmed me in a way I hadn’t expected. It was like one of those heartening Old Testament stories about reunion and reconciliation. How long have I fled from myself in fear and shame, unable to embrace others and laugh with people who know me?

I need psychological distance to write about a thing. I wrote about beating up my best friend because he finked on my sister and she gave me no rest. I wrote without wincing about being in a mental hospital during the struggle to attain a belated manhood in my sad twenties. Clawing even further back through cobwebbed memory, I wrote about a traumatic experience at Columbia University, elaborating scenes with the distant interest, even wry delectation, of an objective chronicler. My book is a sperm cell swimming upstream in competition with millions of other tadpoles; it were foolish to be hotly expectant of hitting that egg, though I’ve been read by the likes of Michael Korda and Jonathan Galassi. What do I do with the chesty confidence that impels me to my writing chair?

The strangest source of solace comes from my current job, stocking shelves at a store. I have a clear conscience and leave the place elated. No hateful students sticking pins in my tires, refusing to read, playing spiteful emotional games with an aging lover of writing, journalism, and literature.

I accept myself. Yes, I know I was a flawed teacher. The disciplinarian is the first face these kinds of kids must see before the ostensible wonders of language can even be broached. File this under “If I had it to do over again …” But young people from past classrooms float into my Facebook orbit to declare their appreciation of me.

Go figure.