Green, crisp, tart granny-smith apples smothered in dripping, sticky honey. These are my memories of Rosh Hashanah as a child. I remember the anticipation with which I awaited the round plate that our counselor at the Jewish day-care center would place in front of us, apples sliced ever so delicately, with what seemed to be a vat of honey next to it. We were permitted one piece at time, and wooden popsicle sticks served as knives for spreading. Grasping a crescent-moon shaped piece of apple with one hand, I would lather on as much honey as a popsicle stick could hold; then the race began to get the apple into my mouth before the precious honey dripped off and onto the table.
Memories of fruit and honey. Crunchy and smooth. Sour and sweet. Cool and warm. A perfect blending of tastes and textures. A moment of Heaven for a small child.
These are, of course, memories that seem to be purely culinary. They are not memories of God, nor even of culture or history. I am sure that prior to the much-anticipated placement of the apples and honey on our tables, the teachers must’ve shared with us — perhaps for many preceding days — the meaning, the stories, the significance and the history of this most sacred day. I am sure that we were not permitted to dive into our treats without demonstrating some understanding of the holiday upon us. Yet, those memories have not stood the test of time. As vividly as I can see the tray of apples, as clearly as I can feel the cool crunch of the apple between my teeth, as much saliva as the mere memory generates more than thirty years later, I have no recollection of any kind of the religious training that most certainly accompanied this.
A tragedy of sorts, yes. But this tragedy of modern, reformed Jewish education in America may point also to a precious and compelling awareness of the “felt-sense” of religion. For, while I cannot conjure up the faintest recollection of any words spoken by the teachers (or even the rabbis) regarding this holiday, the mere thought of apples and honey brings a flood of tears to my eyes and deep warmth to my heart. It is this “felt-sense”, this inexplicable, un-nameable, undefineable yet unbreakable connection to Judaism that — even after having lived for 15 years in a Hindu ashram where I have devoted my life to the service of a Hindu saint, even after having taken vows of renunciation in the Hindu tradition, even after becoming a speaker/teacher/leader to Hindus around the world — causes tears to flow spontaneously from my eyes every time I hear chanting of the Torah or every time I light the candles of the menorah on Hanukkah. It is this absolutely indissoluble link between a Jew to Judaism — regardless of whether that Jew could tell you anything about the most sacred of days other than that one eats apples and honey — which has kept the religion alive, strong and flourishing for thousands of years despite invasions of every possible kind from every possible corner. It is that link that causes me to cry, neither tears of joy nor tears of sadness, but merely tears of truth, as I say L’shana tova to myself, as the waters of a river I sacrilegiously yet profoundly worship as the Goddess flow outside my window.
What is religion then? It is not the teachings I cannot remember that link me inextricably to the sound of the Torah chanting. It is not the sermons in the temple I missed while my friends and I gathered in the bathrooms to gossip. It is not the prayers I no longer know nor the holidays I no longer observe. It is certainly not the identification, externally, with world Jewry that connects me, for a tiny number of people in my life today even know I’m Jewish. In fact, in the land in which I live being white means Christian. There isn’t even awareness of another religion. So, if religion is neither in the teachings nor the services nor the prayers nor the community identification, what is it? What, after having become fully absorbed into an Indian Hindu spiritual culture, causes my heart to race in delighted anticipation at every inter-faith gathering as the Jewish Rabbi takes the podium?
What is this bond? What is this link that defies and surpasses practice and lifestyle?
In the peacekeeping and inter-religious harmony community there is much talk about the artificial lines of religion, about unnecessary borders and boundaries between faiths, about the necessity of realizing that all is One. Yes, all is One in the way that all drops of water are of the ocean. The molecules are all H2O. They all came from the ocean and ultimately will return to the ocean. But surely on some level, even if not detectable by microscope, water which has sat in a pool of the Himalayas, surrounded by mineral rich rocks and foliage, unknown to pollution, in a world of silence and serenity must be different than water which flows through the gutter of an impoverished, polluted, crime-ridden city. There must be something, on some molecular or energetic level, different about these 2 drops of water. That, of course, does not deem one better than the other or justified in oppressing or killing the other, but there must be some qualitative difference in these molecules. Even if you take the drop from the gutter and put it in the Himalayas, wouldn’t it, on some level, retain any bit of its “gutterness?” Similarly, if you take the drop from the Himalayas and put it in the gutter, despite the sewage and trash with which it is now associated, wouldn’t that molecule remain, forever, somewhat different than the others?
The Chief Rabbi of Israel once lovingly said to Swamiji, as I tried unsuccessfully to serve him another plate of fruit during the Hindu-Jewish Summit in Jerusalem, “You can take her to India, you can make her a Hindu, but you can never take the Jewish mother out of her.” Perhaps in this lifetime being a mother, or at least a biological mother, was not part of my destiny, but being a Jew certainly was.