All About God, and the Great Ivy League Debacle of 1972

When I introduced this blog I said I’d talk about God, but I didn’t have the motivation to do it until a good friend, who once worked as a minister, challenged me.

So here goes. Me, of all people, expostulating on one of the two subjects you’re supposed to avoid at dinner parties. Give me time and I’ll be shooting my mouth off about politics, too.

The photo  above is meant to be ironic, and illustrates the very messiness of the enterprise. Here I am tricked out in pious Jewish garb, surrounded by a cultural smorgasbord of spiritual books and artifacts. Ai, a shonda! There’s a statue of Mother Mary. A battered Be Here Now by Ram Dass. And my menorah! I’m all over the place. I’m Jewish, to be sure, yet the Sermon on the Mount is as precious to me as Psalm 23. The Bhagavad Gita is at my bedside.

Here’s the part that takes some guts to admit, but I believe in God.

I’m not just saying it because I go to AA meetings and they’ll throw your ass out if you don’t. What I mean is, every time I slash my way through the thicket of “I’ll never make it” and find I have prevailed, I can’t help but feel it’s not “me” so much as some fatherly force that guided me.

Teaching takes its toll emotionally. I leave a classroom after a good day and bow my head in thanks. What got me through transcends my ego.

Though I don’t consider myself strictly religious by way of set practice, I meditate often on God.

And on all the received wisdom surrounding religion, much of which I challenge.

The Jewish god is supposed to be unforgiving, “by the book”; the Christian, kinder and gentler. But is this true? This father god of my people isn’t all Sodom and Gomorrah, and denying Moses entry into Canaan because he got angry and struck the rock. Doesn’t Esau forgive Jacob for screwing him out of his birthright? Doesn’t Joseph forgive the brothers that threw him into slavery? Doesn’t God smile on Abraham for giving the preferred portion to Lot? The book brims with tales of God favoring the merciful. Ah, you need a box of Kleenex to read our stories.

I had to read Nietzsche at Columbia. He said the Old Testament was better literature than the New. The Hebrew bible boasted heroic power, that of a strong, naïve beating heart. It also had something else he found missing in the Christian book: “a nation.” The Genealogy of Morals, though at times poisonous, hit me where I live.

I grew up in a secular household. A friend of the family gave me Bible Stores for Jewish Children. I still have it, held together as it is with duct tape. Written by Ruth Samuels, color-illustrated by Laszlo Matulay, published by Ktav Publishing House in 1954, it captivated me alone of the Gitlin kids, expressing a legacy of which I was proud.

I had no bar mitzvah. My parents, radical secular humanists, remembered when “The rabbis named names” during the McCarthy era. (Enough said.) And so my brother and I, and two sisters, were spared the Hebrew school busses, and that extension of the learning day so rued by all our Jewish peers in the middle-class ghetto of my youth, in suburban Cleveland in the 1960s. Unlettered in Hebrew, I would make faces at my cousin Stevie as he strove to hold up his end of the bar mitzvah rite on the bima at Temple on the Heights. He reminded me of this some years later and I was horrified at the memory. He’d almost cracked up.

I am married to a Catholic. We have no children, haven’t had to agonize about organized religion and which one to raise them in.

By the time I was 50, I had morphed from miserable freelance writer in Cleveland to struggling high school English teacher in northwest Arizona. Feeling culturally alienated in Prescott and its environs – this despite a lifelong fascination for The West, and cowboys – I marched into Temple B’rith Shalom. Hip, erudite Rabbi William Berkowitz heard my fairly articulate belly-aching about the unexplored “birthright” and, wanting me to put my money where my mouth was, handed me the same primer he gave 11-year-old boys. Some weeks later, hearing my lusty contribution to the Friday night prayers, he said, “Watch out, we might just conscript you into the choir.”

Which came to pass. There I was – me! — in prayer shawl, on the stage during High Holy Days, singing sacred music during our celebration of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The choir was fun for three or four years. I loved being one of three men up on stage belting out the “Chatzi Kaddish”; I experienced such a connection with an ancient mystery, felt such power, rattling the windowpanes with my impassioned if asthmatic tenor.

But Billy left and this new rabbi kicked our threesome offstage, got in this ringer of a gal who sings like Beverly Sills. It’s no doubt better now, but I got bored. Worse, I began to suspect that all this religion and choir stuff smacked of an ego trip. I quit the choir, returned to my original profane existence, merrily frying bacon every weekend, in fact  blowing off temple. I go sometimes, not much. High Holy Days went by without my knowing it this year. I guess I’m not much of a Jew.

Yet I can say I’ve acquired some rudimentary Judaic experience.

When I was younger I knew nothing.

This makes all the less explicable my taking religion courses when I showed up at Columbia University in Fall of 1972. I declared a “concentration” in religion. Concentrations were for people too stoned to know what they wanted to major in. My only explanation is that I’d had psychedelic trips I regarded as mystical.

I sucked as a Columbia religion student. I was dissolute, self-indulgent, too stoned. I would, however, excel as a guy in later years studying religion and spiritual texts on his own.

I just finished a book by Elaine Pagels. In her Why Religion? she explains the enduring role of religion in our lives, and why she likes studying it. She recounts tragedies she experienced, namely the deaths of her husband and son. In the end it becomes a book about how she would not succumb to final despair but fought back, resisting the dark force through scholarship itself. She is a leading scholar on Christian history and on a special set of Christian scrolls, unearthed at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945, that cast new light on religion studies. Many by now have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, an alternative to literalist dogma. Bring forth that which is within you and you will be saved. If you do not do this, if you do not search your heart, what is there will destroy you.

Elaine Pagels gave me a B+ on a paper I put some work into. Soon after that I went through foolish misadventures I would realize had been traumatizing but didn’t admit it at the time. At any rate, there went my academic discipline. I was about to drop into utter junkie-like dereliction.

I flunked her next big assignment.

She ended a lecture to 200 Barnard and Columbia students by asking to see me.

I went up.

“What happened?” She had lauded my essay on the Ghost Dance of the Plains Indians. Now this. “I had to look twice to realize it was the same student!”

I couldn’t talk about it. I must have shrugged. She shook her head, and I went off.

After reading this latest book (my fourth of hers), I wrote her a letter, care of HarperCollins, in which, among other things, I recounted my little remembrance of her, my encounter with her eminence. This time, I hinted at an explanation. As if it mattered now. Somehow it was a letter I had to write. You see, I have searched my heart. I wonder if she remembers me.

Columbia kicked me out two years after that class, but I wound up reading a lot of books of and about religion, ranging from the King James Bible to William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience.

Still, there’s a part of me that stands outside it all. Maybe I’m not a joiner.

Once I told Rabbi Berkowitz, “I’m not really religious.”

He didn’t buy it. “I think you’re very serious about it,” he said. “I think you’re motivated by a deep interest in it.”

If I ever retire, maybe I’ll dust off that Hebrew primer. See if I can finally memorize “V’Ahavta.”

Note: I’d incorrectly identified the synagogue where I pulled faces at Steve Schlossberg as he tried to bull his way through his bar mitzvah service. The above represents the correction. Thanks, Danny, for straightening me out.

Welcome Aboard

“What am I doing here?” you ask.

Well, what am I doing here?

You’re here to scrutinize, sniff around, judge, light up at what’s here or become bored and leave. I’m here to throw observations out for your amusement. With any luck, I’ll be able to refute my wife’s indictment of me as a hermit. That’s right, I’d like to get a conversation going. I shall foist on the unsuspecting public a plethora of literary musings, meditations on art and culture, feelings about spirituality, and speculations on what makes my dog tick (that’s Rosa above, loafing on her favorite beat-up pad). I’m a high school English teacher, an aging hippie, a critic of American civil discourse, or lack thereof, an aficianado of film and music, and a working man humble enough to take a job in retail to supplement his income, trudging as he is toward the ever-receding Oz of retirement.

My mother loved charades, and said her favorite prompt of all time was “Scaling the heights of rapture, plunging the depths of despair.” I can only imagine the grimaces and gesticulations that led to that one getting solved. Life has its ups and down and I intend to chronicle them here. I can wax gloomy as a Russian melodrama, and I can get silly, indulging a lifelong passion for nonsense. All of us on this bloody planet carry our fair share of torment, guilt, and shame, just as we all are privy to the thrilling transport, the belly laugh, the feeling of oneness with the universe.

I’m the last to know what my own life means. I gnash my teeth of a sleepless night worrying about why my high school English students clearly loathe me; I drive home from the school next afternoon  buoyed by a morning’s encounter with the greatest kids in the world. Who wrote this mad play? On the video series The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell tells Bill Moyers, “No man has led the life he intended.” I try to understand what it all means, to read the signs and steer my actions accordingly, but the world has a way of queering the signals I thought would lead me to answers. If I’ve concluded anything after being whipsawed by Fate and circumstance over six and a half decades, it’s that nothing matters. But I stay on the case. I suit up and show up. Karma gave me my marching orders, and it’s not for me to question them.

And what if I was just doing this blog so I can shoot my mouth off about whatever I want? It’s a free country! You see, contrary to my wife’s picture of me as taciturn and withdrawn, I’ve always been rather a ham. Here’s the deal. If I connect with you, if you “get” me, if I make you laugh, get mad, or even just say “Hmm,” it’ll be worth it. I was hoping not just to have people read my writing (and see my magnificent photos) but to get the above-mentioned dialogue going. So let’s define the zeitgeist together. Help me understand God. Help me understand how we can cry the blues and laugh our ass off on the same day. Help me understand how a four-legged creature that runs around my house naked and doesn’t have to go to a job can possibly be said to be less smart than I am.

Join me here. And welcome.