I’m a sucker for new beginnings, so the idea of celebrating two new years — one on January 1st, the other sometime in early fall — the Jewish New Year — is very comforting to me. It’s also a good excuse to let other things grind to a halt, take a little stock, and eat high cholesterol foods* that I normally try to avoid.
As a kid, religion was something that demanded my attention a couple times a week, when creaky Hebrew teachers and earnest, guitar-strumming youth group leaders tried to teach me about my faith. Twice a year at the High Holidays, we did the marathon prayer sessions that were most notable for the amount of times I could ditch to the bathroom, and also as a better-than-Vogue’s-September-book sneak preview of what the best dressed in my town were wearing that fall. I felt superior when Chanukah fell right around Christmas and the gifts spanned eight days, so I was still collecting loot as my block was littered with drying out pine trees waiting for trash pick-up. Ahhh, the benefits of being one of The Chosen. (Conversely, when Chanukah came early, the whole chosen people thing left me cold, like so many leftover, oil-soaked latkes — almost too much to bear.)
As I got older, though, organized religion began to lose its appeal when I realized the words of the clergy often didn’t mesh with my worldview. I will never forget one Yom Kippur service when the rabbi I grew up with gave an impassioned sermon about how wrong it was for kids to date people outside of the faith, or G-d forbid, marry a non-Jew. As his words grew stronger, one of my friend’s moms stood up, choked in a sob, and ran from the room. It was that moment when all the nice things my faith had to say slipped away. To me, excluding people from your life on the basis of faith is both narrow-minded and wrong; that my Rabbi could say such hurtful things on the holiest of days made no sense to me at all. I told my parents I was done with our synagogue, and if they wanted me to go to temple with them, we’d have to find somewhere else.
The place we went was an even older, more venerable institution, but it was in Boston and therefore a bit hipper, as it served a more diverse population. The AIDS crisis was in full swing; young men were dying inexplicably, and meal trains, hospital visits for those without loved ones nearby, and other outreach was necessary. My parents were a little mortified that people wore jeans to services and dared to bare their shoulders during one Indian summer Rosh Hashanah service, but something for me finally resonated. Community action was a place I could hang my hat. I volunteered for the AIDS Action Committee, and found a spiritual experience. I was in awe, as in terrified, of the uncontrollable nature of the disease (which had no treatment or cure back then), and only some kind of blind faith that everything would be OK — this too shall pass — would apply. That it actually did, and I have friends today who have been HIV+ for more than two decades, is truly miraculous.
Once safely outside of my 20s, married, and having babies, the idea of joining a temple — which fiscally had been unlikely and emotionally hadn’t been a priority to me until then — came back to me. Once again, I was living in a small town that had limited options for Jewish people. In fact, I had my first experiences with out-and-out anti-Semitism in that town, which bound me more to my religion that any words uttered in temple ever did. Jews are perennially the outsider; the under dog; the scapegoat who rises above. I like those qualities in a people, but I still grappled with my logical brain buying into Bible stories.
So began an earnest spiritual quest to figure stuff out, be a better person, and let go of those qualities, like anger and grudge holding, that really didn’t serve me or my family. Ironically, a lot of the rhetoric in the self-help stuff I consumed like so many Twinkies — quickly and just enjoying the sweet, light, positive burst — was pretty much religious in nature. The idea of what you put out is what you get back is very Golden Rule-ish, and all religions support things like keeping gratitude lists (“count your blessings”), seeking mindfulness (thank you, yoga!), and taking care of the world around us. Making caring connections, and turning to people in love, not anger or hate, is pretty much the bottom line in it all. Today I know I’m a grown-up because I find those words in my religion and in my everyday life, too. And when things get really tough, I still might ditch into the bathroom, but I have faith my prayers are doing their thing — even from the can.
A couple of years ago, I interviewed punk rocker, famed atheist, and PhD bearing scientist Greg Graffin — lead singer of Bad Religion — for a short bio I was writing about him. In my research, I came across something he said in an interview with Paste Magazine that really resonated with me:
“Belief does play a very important role in my life, but it’s a different kind of belief. In the family, in interpersonal relationships, even in friendship, faith is tremendously important. If you have a partner who you believe is a good person, then it is your duty to have faith in them until the end, despite the fact that they might have done some bad things. And you have to support and believe in your children. So what I’m saying is that faith has a strong component in love, and that’s where it belongs.”
Spoken like a good atheist! And a good Christian, a good Jew, a good Muslim, a good Buddhist… a good person. And in the end, no matter what we believe, love is always the answer… no matter what the question.
Speaking of love, here’s my favorite noodle pudding recipe – thank you Mychal Feldman, all those years ago, for bringing this to a break fast and making me a kugel convert:
* DONNA’S KUGEL
Note: You may be tempted to buy low fat this, and non-fat that, but control yourself: stick to the full-fat version and live a little! Serves 8-10, or just one if you’re feeling cray-cray AND hungry!
For the pudding:
8 ounces large egg noodles (Pennsylvania Dutch preferably) – cooked firm
6 eggs – mixed
1 pint sour cream
1 pkg (8 oz.) cream cheese (Philadelphia brand preferably) – let it soften so it’s easier to mix
1 pint cottage cheese
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 tablespoons butter – let it soften so it’s easier to mix
For the topping:
1 stick of butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
Cornflakes (probably about 2 cups or so – just have a whole box on hand – you’ll need the fiber cleanse the next day after downing all the kugel anyways)
Preheat oven to 350. Put the eggs, sour cream, cream cheese, cottage cheese, sugar, vanilla, and 6 tablespoons of butter in a mixer on low speed. Once those ingredients are thoroughly blended, add them to the cooked noodles.
To make the topping, melt the stick of butter, add the brown sugar, and then smush the corn flakes in with the butter/sugar mix until they are thoroughly coated. Sprinkle the topping all over the kugel, and then lick your fingers when nobody’s looking (no calories!).
Put the kugel in the over for about an hour, until a knife comes out clean when you test it.
If you’re a raisin lover, feel free to add in a cup of yellow raisins. People have also been known to add things like apples and pineapples; me, I’m a purist.
Serve warm (or cold) and enjoy! Make this on a Tuesday or a special occasion — doesn’t matter, it’ll always reset your dial to happy, if not healthy.
And if you see me shoving a couple of pieces of kugel wrapped in a soggy dinner napkin in my purse, along with all of your Sweet ’n Low, just know that the fastest way to a sweet year and a sweet life is not just to count your blessings, but to share them, too.
Now enjoy my favorite tune from Bad Religion, “Sorrow,” from the album, The Process of Belief.