I & We

Samain and the Gratitude Moon

Monday gratefuls: Joe’s visit. Annie’s visit. Seoah’s staying on. Murdoch’s staying on. The engineers who designed our Rav4’s. The laborers who assembled them. Deb and Dave at On the Move Fitness who prepare my workouts every six to eight weeks. The oxygen concentrators that make it possible for Kate and me to live up here.

I’ve mentioned the Turkish TV series Resurrection (see the post for Oct. 21). It’s a long one, well over 400 episodes. A huge work of historical fiction, a novel on the small screen. It holds my attention, though I imagine many would stop watching over its persistent Muslim bias against non-Muslims, its more than occasional violence, and its often laughable translations. Immersion in it and our several years at Congregation Beth Evergreen have combined to make me reconsider individualism.

As an American, as a confirmed existentialist, as an ex-Christian, as a phenomonologist, as a thinker, as an introvert, the individual has always loomed bigger to me than the collective. The notion of a hermetic life. Yes. The life of a scholar hidden in the library. Yes. The life of a novelist obscured by working alone. Yes. Even a move to a mountain home far away from 40 years of friendship and memories. Yes.

The tribal life of frequent, intimate contact with many others has not been mine. Growing up among the 5,000 or so souls in Alexandria, Indiana had its similarities, but we were not bonded by shared purposes, traditions, and genetics. We were a loose collection of families and individuals who shared a common marketplace and a school system. Beyond that we divided into different Christian denominations, extended families, and had no intrinsic loyalty to a lifetime with the folks in town.

The Christian ministry experience is more complicated and I don’t want to go into much depth about it here, but the rise of Protestantism enhanced individualist tendencies as it clambered out of Catholicism in tune with the Enlightenment. Being, say, a Presbyterian is not the same (tribally) as being even a Catholic, and it’s very far from being a Jew or a Muslim.

Beyond those two, a small town childhood and the odd life of an ordained clergy, I’ve followed the path of developing my potential, getting analysis for my psyche’s troubles, and eschewing joining. Love of family and of my Woolly friends, though both dear to me, is not a tribal experience. And, they’ve been enough. More than enough, satisfying.

But. My first taste of tribalism’s benefits came in the year after 9/11, when my ignorance of Islam came into sharp relief. I read the Koran, the whole thing, over Ramadan, fasting during the day and reading it in the segments suggested. I read a lot of other things, too. Volumes of history. Poetry. Works by famous Muslim scholars. Lots of reading. What was the caliphate? What were the five pillars? How did Islam grow and spread so rapidly?

After attending a three day conference on Islam at the University of Minnesota, I went to a break the Ramadan fast event at Dar Al-Farooq mosque near the U. The congregants welcomed me warmly. I sat against the back wall as the men prayed. The women were downstairs. A small boy came over to me, smiled, sat in my lap, and asked, “Are you a kafir?” An unbeliever? Yes, I said. I was. His eyes got big.

The meal was good, eaten on the same floor where the prayers had been offered, covered in clear plastic sheeting. Afterward a group of men talked to me, took me to a library, offered me books to take home, answered questions. It was a warm and inviting experience.

Resurrection shows the same warmth in the Kayi and Dodurga tribes. Their lives are for each other, with each other. They also fight, intrigue, and betray. But the benefits of a tribal identity and life are obvious.

At Beth Evergreen the sense of tribal identity probably doesn’t occur to most congregants. It’s just there. They know the holidays, some of the rituals, know what a b’nei mitzvah is, maybe have some knowledge of Hebrew. Islam permeates the tribal life in Resurrection, but observance is a good deal more casual in this Reconstructionist synagogue.

Think of this. When they read the Torah, it’s a book by and about their ancestors. Yes, maybe its more myth than fiat, but it’s still about the development of the Jewish world and the Jewish worldview. While eating in the Sukkah, they recapitulate a harvest festival celebrated centuries before the common era, by their ancestors, in the promised land. See that? I slipped in promised land. Well, it was promised to them, their ancestors.

On a more immediate basis the caring among members of the congregation, as expressed by the Mitzvah committee, the e-mails and phone calls we’ve gotten over Kate’s illness and mine, the connections outside of the synagogue among members, like my breakfasts with Alan for example and Kate’s time with her friend Jamie, evidence a degree of intimacy and community I never found in a Christian church. I’m sure there are some that have it, I’ve not experienced it.

In rereading this I noticed the theys and theirs in the paragraphs above. I’m not a Jew, nor do I want to become one. But, I love these people and they are my people. I’m not of them in the formal sense, however.

Instead of leaning toward individualism, I may be standing up straight, inclined toward Self and community in somewhat equal parts. That’s still not the tribal modality. In that case the collective overwhelms the individual and their needs. Not gonna be me.

And yet.

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