I’m going to my first-ever religious Jewish service tomorrow morning — at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley, where I’ve performed and improvised a few times. I called my friend Menachem Creditor, the temple’s rabbi, to ask — among other things — what one wears at a Jewish service. (Thanks to my late father’s love of church ceremonies and my six years at an Episcopalian choir school, many Christian services are more than familiar to me.) Our connection wasn’t great — he was about to pick up his daughter from her school bus and I was about to pick up my son from school — but he told me that, if I wasn’t wearing a yarmulke and … something else I couldn’t hear … someone would hand them to me. He said the service starts at 8 a.m., but usually only “visitors” come then, and that I should plan to arrive at about 10 or 10:15.
Recently I have been struggling with learning about my Jewish heritage, as I prepare for the next stage of development of my show Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews (opening at Theater J in Washington D.C. in March and at The Jewish Theatre San Francisco in April). Just finished reading David Mamet’s The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews, a book of essays about how assimilated Jewish “apostates” such as myself are engaged in treason against our own race. Now reading some more of Wallace Shawn’s book of essays (titled, simply, Essays), in which he seems to ally himself with all people, regardless of tribe or nationality — a stance I have long felt myself to hold. But, spurred by this project and by Mamet’s pugnacious arguments, I am excited to at least think of myself as a member of this ancient tribe. (And yet, I have to say, whenever Mamet talks about how great and wise the Jewish writings and traditions are, I reflexively think, “But isn’t every major religion and culture — that is to say, every one of long-standing — equally wise and great, albeit perhaps coming at things from different angles?”)
And then there’s the God thing. I’ve had no experience of God — which, the more I read and listen to theologians, may actually put me in their camp. People, including Rabbi Creditor (and my atheist father), have described God as something like the full potential of the human imagination. Even there, I think (perhaps frivolously?), “What about the imagination of animals and plants, and of the vast universe?” And then I stop myself and think, “Well, that would pretty much be God, wouldn’t it?” (if the universe had an imagination). And I am reminded (and it makes me smile sometimes) how shallow my thinking is.
And yet I keep wanting at least to move forward.
May I confess that turning 50 has not been as uneventful, emotionally, as I had anticipated? Possibly this has something to do with the fact that my father had a stroke at 55 and died at 59. But I think it has more to do with my ambivalence regarding how relatively important or unimportant it is that I am alive. Is it possible to kind of separate out these two feelings: (1) that I am not particularly important in even the medium-sized scheme of things and (2) that the fact that I am alive — that I have been so unimaginably fortunate as to have a chance to be alive one time — is enormously meaningful?
My stepfather, Frank, a mensch, who has made my mother’s life so wonderful (and the rest of the family’s as well), has been ailing. He and my mom are both in their 80s (though she’s several years his junior), and so when there are ailments they tend to raise a larger question: Is this part of a serious decline? My mom is, as she is typically in these situations, remarkably clear-minded about what’s going on; in addition, among Frank’s amazing children is one — Rachel — whose husband, Peter, is either a geriatrician or a gerontologist, depending on what the dictionary would tell me if I were to look it up. (He’s a doctor who works with old people.) Rachel and Peter arranged for Mom and Frank to go from Chicago (where they live in a beautiful high-rise on the South Side) to visit with them in Cleveland. As of Mom’s last email, Frank has been improving greatly; I cannot begin to tell you how hopeful this makes me.
I’m trying to work with time — to accept it, not let it be the enemy, let it just be. I have a tendency to resort to kind of a willful narcolepsy in response to things that challenge me. Maybe I’m somewhat depressed most all the time. The things that make me happy: I’m wildly in love with my family, just really blissed out when I’m with them. I have friends whom I love. I love living in Berkeley. I am a proud American. I am a proud un-American. I am proud to be a Jew, and totally confused about what that means. (I imagine that I would be equally proud to be whatever else I happened to be born as.) I love listening to music, and reading.
The work I do — making stories on stage and on film — is, in part, the craft of working with time. Its masters teach me — or try — how to make of my limitations (or, perhaps, the ordered confessions of those limitations) a sort of strength, or at least a living. For thousands of years Jews have commented in the margins of history, creating pressurized, often indecipherable (at least to many) counter-narratives to the prevailing ones. At 50, facing the task of fitting my infinitesimal story into the vast tapestry I sense is there, I guess I want to say to myself (and to you) that I will try, very hard, as hard as I can, to be open to any possibilities that present themselves.
And why is it that the prospect of going to temple for the first time arouses these chaotic thoughts in this atheistic, apostate Jew? I’d give you my usual superficial answer, but I want to try something different this time: I want to have the experience, rather than imagine my way through or around it. I am, as the great Suzanne Vega song puts it, tired of sleeping.