Reflecting: On Hope
It’s been hard for me to journal lately. I find that my internal narrator is reflecting silently these days, whether due to high stress or because my body chemistry is changing.
Whatever the reason, I am attempting to go against that silence and tease out some of my own thoughts without its help. I celebrated the Seder for the first time two weeks ago, tapping into a merriment that I hadn’t experienced in a while. It’s gotten me thinking about religion again and the reasons it held so much significance in my early life.
As a child, I saw the general miracles of every day interactions with nature as proof of God’s existence. The synchronicity of everything was both divine and scientific. Raised Christian, I was taught to revere the power of God in all things, but was lucky enough to have a grandfather who took the time as a sworn atheist to make sure his grandchildren didn’t take the Bible too seriously.
I think it’s because of him that I didn’t go too far down the religion rabbit hole and saw the Bible as, in the words of my grandfather, “one of the greatest stories ever told.” As I got older, I began to see the Bible as just a cast of characters set to teach us about ourselves - whether it be good, bad, or otherwise - and God as the ultimate literary device for translating those beefed up Aesop’s tales into experiences our lizard brains would understand.
Do this and you’ll feel my wrath. Avoid this and you’ll receive my love.
And all that nonsense. No need to go into how abusive and toxic that myopic logic is. I, for one, preferred those fables over the Bible.
What I don’t think I quite got to appreciate about religion - or, for me, what I’ve come to see more as spirituality - was the community that surrounds it. Christian community, anecdotally, was not the kind I ever felt at home with. I felt like I was posturing in a group that would as soon as send me to Hell as it would burn me at the stake for being a witch.
Forget that my mid twenties to early thirties were spent in equal parts as a lesbian, then as a non-binary pansexual, and now as a T4T trans man. I am a literal shapeshifting demon. I’d probably require both the burning and the banishment, as well as a hearty dance on my grave mound to make sure I don’t rise up to influence the youth.
Over the last couple of years, though, information has been coming to light about my family - ironically, the atheist grandfather. His mother didn’t have a birth certificate, with some hand waving about being Polish or Lithuanian or “somewhere around there,” immigrating in the late 1800s or early 1900s.
You probably see where this is going and why, several decades after she passed, I found myself at a Passover Seder.
Almost immediately there was a difference in the celebration from all Christian-adjacent holidays I’d spent my life attending. It took until then to realize I’d been doing just that: “attending” - not participating, not laughing, wearing starchy clothes. You were present and there to honor God.
At the Seder, my friend told me with mock seriousness, we are expected to drink 4 glasses of wine and (more seriously) not serve ourselves anything.
“You get your neighbor to serve you, and you serve them. Treat yourselves like the royalty you all are.”
Some cold, stony part of my ex-Christian heart warmed up several degrees hearing that. Not because this friend and I made it our sole intent to get as drunk as we could in celebration of what he called “our liberation” (already I was included), but because suddenly there was no hierarchy. It didn’t matter if I was new or unsure of all the practices of the evening, that I only figured out what the orange slice was supposed to be on the Seder plate.
(Thank goodness for my ex and dear friend, who was also raised Jewish, for guiding me through the symbolism over ice cream mere hours beforehand.)
All that mattered was that we were celebrating freedom that night. And, more importantly, understanding that liberation is for everyone, regardless of their beliefs or their identity. A family celebrating Ramadan joined us as well for the feast.
As someone who’s been organizing with a leftist, Jewish, anti-Zionist group, I understand that this is not the norm - and that there are more conservative forces hiding in every religious or spiritual corner.
And we named it: those who spoke Hebrew said the usual prayers, with others helping us along in English. (There was always someone to translate, even for the smallest phrases. No one was left behind. Our discourse, to my recollection, didn’t even mention “God” at all.) We put addenda on the Seder plate, recognizing the role that colonialism plays in even our own celebration of freedom that evening.
There was something powerful in that naming, something that gave me hope when I had started thinking hope was only some feathery thing Emily Dickinson had spotted outside her window one spring afternoon.
Over the last few weeks, I’ve been slowly learning about the intersectional history of Judaism and anarchism (as well as Italy’s relationship to anarchism - being raised in a traditional Italian household, this was also important).
I’ve been reflecting, too, about how now I’ve dated two trans people whose fathers were rabbis, and accepted their children unconditionally when they took the time to understand transness. These two people were not disowned; they were not told to repent nor were they shamed, like many of my ex-Christian friends who are estranged from their families. I think a lot about how my own aunts and uncles, staunchly Catholic, who see my transness as something they will never understand. How, despite having my voice drop and the growth of visible facial hair, they still use she/her pronouns for me, and deflect any responsibility towards the pain this causes.
Even now, someone I’m seeing is having intense dialogues with their Jewish dad about solidarity with Palestine, which at first caused great interpersonal upheaval, but with time and space to learn more about it, their dad is turning the corner in understanding why it’s such a big deal to be more vocal about the actions of the Israeli government.
Anarchy has taught me that the only constant is change, and something I’ve been noticing about those in my life who’ve practiced Judaism from childhood is that this is at the core of their religious expression. Whether it’s more formalized or more spiritual in nature, I’ve been lucky to be able to take active part in their Shabbats, Hanukkah feasts, and now a Passover Seder where this has been proven to me time and again.
I always thought religion was this rigid thing, unbending and unyielding to the passage of millennia. A space for miracles to play out in a snowglobe or a vacuum for endless whisperings into the void. (We all know that sound doesn’t travel in a vacuum.) But, nothing in nature is truly unchanged over time. Even now some humans have stopped growing wisdom teeth, for example. The Judaism my friends have demonstrated to me is more in tune with the patterns and rhythms of life, without actually claiming the miracle of life and nature itself as something due to God’s majesty.
In a time when we’re so abstracted from the very earth in which we evolved, the dirt we crawled through, the oceans in which our paleozoic ancestors swam, isn’t that something to strive for once again? I join my grandfather in the ranks of not believing in a God who watches over us, but I don’t rule out an art form that uses life as its medium. To be a part of that expression, over thousands of years, near countless seconds, an untold number of breaths with other living creatures, is a gift I will absolutely celebrate.