(Image: Margaret Ackland: Last Supper 1993)
The purpose of rituals is to end, for a time, our sense of human alienation from nature and from each other. Ritual seems to be one method of reintegrating individuals and groups into the cosmos, and to tie in the activities of daily life with their ever present, often forgotten, significance. It allows us to feel biological connectedness with ancestors who regulated their lives and activities according to seasonal observances. Just as ecological theory explains how we are interrelated with all other forms of life, rituals allow us to re-create that unity in an explosive, nonabstract, gut-level way. Rituals have the power to reset the terms of our universe until we find ourselves suddenly and truly “at home.” – Margot Adler
“I don’t think I want you to say the prayers with me” she said as she looked over the cup, broken bread and Shabbat candles.
My stomach dropped. She had helped me learn these prayers and we had done this ritual together before. What had changed?
“This doesn’t mean anything to you,” she said.
“It does.” I pleaded. “Probably something different than what it means to you, but it means something.”
She took a breath and looked up at me with trepidation “What does it mean to you?”
I felt a rush of anxiety, similar to what I felt before taking my SATs. I’ve never been a good test taker.
“I think Jesus had his last supper on Shabbat, and there was bread and wine and…” I scrambled to find an explanation—one that I hoped would quickly bring me back into the fold.
I looked up, wondering if what I said had sufficed, hoping my answer was good enough. She was crying. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I just…I don’t want your Christianity here.”
This wasn’t the first time that this chasm had opened between us, but it was the most painful. About four weeks earlier, she had told me that she had found herself in a bind. She had fallen for me, a loosely identifying Christian and a strongly identifying queer Mennonite, but had always imagined herself with a Jewish person.
“No matter what decision I make” she’d told me, “I’m going to be so sad.”
It was November of 2016, and the waxing nights mirrored the gulf that had opened between us.
We’d met only four months earlier, but it felt like a radically different time. It was August when the days were long and full of hope and we were sure that a woman would be our next president.
On our second date, we sat on a patch of grass and talked for hours. “I don’t agree with everything in conservative religion,” she’d said. “But, I do think there is something to not jumping in bed with someone right away.”
I paused in disbelief. After eight years of dating in the bay area, I had given up on finding a person who might understand the sexual mores, that had been instilled in me from my religious childhood. I wondered if this was a person, with whom I could be my full self, both Mennonite and Queer.
In the months that followed, we found common ground in songs from our different, albeit overlapping, religious upbringings. Sure, she was Jewish and I was Mennonite, but when we sang together the harmonies were immaculate. We described our relationship using metaphors of sanctuary imbuing the space between in a holy aesthetic. Being contained in the boundaries of this relationship felt so good, like a hug so perfect I was afraid to move.
But I did move. Jesus at Shabbat? What was I thinking? I said to myself, with ridicule. Up until this moment, there had only been small tears in the fabric of our relationship, but this was a massive rupture; abrupt and in the middle of a ritual.
What I felt, in that moment, was a flavor of loneliness that bypasses melancholy, searing straight into something more primal and familiar: panic. I have memories of this—of embrace, exclusion, belonging, and othering. The burgundy carpet that covered the church sanctuary in my youth was thick and soft, embracing the holy space and the people in it. I remember feeling comforted by its velvety texture, sleeping on it like a bed at youth group sleepovers and standing on its soft fibers as the congregation sang in perfect four-part harmony.
The image of the carpet became mobile, within my mind, when I was six years old. It was 1990 and Operation Desert Storm had just begun.
“Tomorrow there is going to be a “Support the Troops” rally at your school,” my mother had told me.
“But,” she’d said, “We are Mennonites and we don’t believe in war. A part of being Mennonite is choosing not fight in wars or support fighting in wars. It’s up to you if you want to go or not. I want you to make that choice for yourself.”
This was a no brainer for me. Church was a place where I felt held and had a sense of identity. I was a Mennonite, above all else and the only one in my public school class.
The next day I sat in an empty classroom, just me and Mrs. Miller, a Jewish teacher, who volunteered to sit with me during the rally. Patriotic music and cheers wafted down the hallway from the gymnasium, as I held steadfast, a Mennonite with my image of the crimson carpet.
Back in the church sanctuary, I remember looking down at the deep hues, shoulder to shoulder with my brother during Christmas Eve services. Groups of five or six would walk to the front of the sanctuary and gather in small circles around tables of bread and wine. Whispers of “The body of Christ for you” and “Do this in remembrance of me” would then echo throughout the sanctuary. At the end, participants would turn to one another and embrace, symbolizing their connection to one another through this sacred ritual.
My brother and I stayed seated because we knew that communion was reserved for those who had been baptized and we had yet to make that commitment. Heightening the importance of the ritual was the knowledge that our ancestors had died for the belief that baptism should be chosen, not forced onto little babies. Gruesome stories of early Mennonites being burned at the stake and hunted by Catholic persecutors during the Holy Roman Empire were passed from generation to generation. Choosing to be baptized and Mennonite was a life long decision: to be other. It was clear that the risks, at least in our Mennonite history, were high. But, in the choice to be the ‘other’ and not of the world, you became one with your people and were granted access to the nourishment and embrace of the communion ritual.
(Image: persecution of anabaptist from Martyrs Mirror)
Adolescence presented itself with opportunities to take classes about baptism and membership. But, at the same time, another type of otherness was emerging inside of me–one I did not choose and that made me hesitant to claim my baptism and adult identity as a Mennonite.
This fear was confirmed at age 12, when I watched a lesbian couple be denied membership to our church. They had been raised in Mennonite communities, bequeathed with the same Mennonite traditions, baptized even, but that didn’t seem to matter now. Burned into my memory is the sight of them weeping in the pews, after the pastor delivered the news about their membership request. I looked up at them and then down at the carpet. Will this happen to me? Maybe it was better to not belong than to belong and be cast out,—better to never declare myself holy, worthy of baptism and communion, only to be excluded later. That looks dangerous, I thought. Bloody even, like the history of my ancestors, like the color of this carpet.
But here I was, with my beloved, being asked to move from inside the ritual to the outside. This is exactly what I had been trying to avoid within my own tradition. On the heels of the 2016 election, the walls of our relationship’s sanctuary were closing in. The ancient divorce between Judaism and Christianity came out of the shadows and into the light of the Shabbat candles. Temples built and destroyed, the persecution and demonization of Jewish life, promises of safety, then promises of safety denied, forced conversions and marriages. All of this poured from her DNA and into the ritual space.
“What did we ever do to you?” she said as tears poured from her eyes.
She was speaking to those outside of her tribe who had caused so much harm. The ones on the side of the divorce who gained an empire and used it against her people over and over again: Christians… me. I froze. My own response to trauma triggered by exclusion from my religion and ritual perpetrated by my own people: Christians, Mennonites…me
But what do you do when you are the thing that harmed you? Stay quiet. Look at the carpet.
This relationship ultimately ended on a rainy Wednesday in January, just a few days shy of the Presidential Inauguration. Though there was great kindness in the breakup process and even the invitation to say the prayers with her, it was the experience of exclusion that circled my mind and heart over and over again after she ended the relationship. I could not shake the feeling of raw abandonment. I felt like my biggest fear had come true. I had let my guard down, by learning and saying prayers, singing religious songs and participating in religious rituals. I allowed a feeling of belonging, but like the lesbian couple of my youth, I felt I was ultimately denied membership and kicked out of the sanctuary.
This spurred what can only be described as a period of spiritual mania. I embodied the archetype of a mad man, wondering the desert and looking for answers. I channeled all my energy through research. Less than four hours of sleep a night sufficed, as I became obsessed with early Christianity and first century Judaism, the history of anti-Semitism, human evolutionary biology, and Jewish-Mennonite relations amongst other things. Indeed, there is a certain type of madness that only grief knows. Mine was of course about the ended relationship, but also my own history of religious abuse. I was grieving all the times I felt unseen and unknown, unworthy and unchosen. I wanted answers for my pain.
One night, at 2am, I found myself reading the Biblical story of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob from the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim perspectives. I saw that all the stories were similar, but had one main difference. Each tradition claimed that they were the true chosen people of God. I thought about all the wars that were fought over this idea of chosen-ness, as well as the violence that is still being inflicted to this day.
I opened my computer and wrote this poem.
There are two kinds of people in this world
Prophets (the play-writes)
The fulfillers of prophecies (the actors)
And so I ask…
What visions are you disseminating?
To what scripts are you adhering?
My brother, be careful.
This is how wars begin.
The good news…
This is also how they end.
I began to think about my own ideas of chosen-ness and the prophecies to which I was adhering. I had long resisted ideas of Christian superiority, but when someone chose Judaism over me, it activated a feeling of inferiority. What story was I perpetuating by pining for a place in a ritual and in a relationship, where I felt the need to make a plea for my right to belong? This was a story set into motion a long time ago, in a Mennonite sanctuary, with a red carpet.
A release came by way of a dream one night. In the dream, I am walking around heaven with a tour guide. At some point, I see my former partner sitting in a circle of women who are enacting some sort of ritual. I think to myself, “This is heaven, I am sure it is okay to go over there. I’m here all alone. Maybe I can join her group!” As I move towards the circle the guide stops me.
“No, no! That is the section of heaven for Jews only.”
I turn to him. “What?! Even in heaven we have to be separate?”
To which he looks and me, smiles, and says, “You don’t have to be separate. She just chooses to be.” I felt all of my energy instantly pull into the center of my chest. Her boundary was her own and had nothing to do with me. It was not about me being wrong, or her being wrong, or either of us needing to be kept away for fear of contamination. It was simply her choice. In the dream, I understood and respected that this choice had nothing to do with me. I felt a deep feeling of love for her, and myself, and then…I walked away.
In waking life, I began a personal and daily ritual of chanting this mantra: I choose to be chosen and I choose to be loved, as if I was trying to wield a new prophecy, word by word. I wrote songs, poetry, essays and continued to research everything that I could think of on what it means to be human. I thought about the people who are being targeted the most with messages about their inferiority and un-chosenness. This led me to sign up for a training for people wanting to help immigrants who are seeking asylum. It was there that I met a woman, with brown, almond shaped eyes.
“I came to this country as a refugee,” she said to the group. “I am wanting to help those who are in a similar position today.”
On our first date she told me that she was from Belarus, the descendent of Holocaust survivors. Her family had come here when she was three years old seeking a place of where there was equal opportunity for Jewish people.
And on our third date, she said “I never fully learned the Shabbat prayers. You said you know them, maybe you could teach them to me.” I stopped straight in my tracks. I had stuffed a set of candle holders and a Kiddush cup in the back of my cupboard a few weeks after my break-up, almost as if I needed to hide them. But, as we said the Hebrew words together, I couldn’t help but think. Is this why I learned these prayers? Is this why I have these sacred objects?
It has been one year since we began chanting these prayers together, amidst, bread, wine and the light of the Shabbat candles. Bread and wine are still symbols that evoke stories and memories that are deeply Christian and Mennonite. I am who I am and I will always have come, from where I came. However, the experience with my former girlfriend has also been integrated into the meaning of the ritual, reminding me that Shabbat is deeply Jewish. Generations of Jews have preserved the prayers and ritual in the most dire of circumstances. That must always be remembered. But, for me, the deepest meaning is evolving out of the consistency of this practice with my partner. It is the meaning at the root of all human rituals. It is a core need, as vital as bread to squelch hunger and wine to quench thirst. My partner, in all her wisdom, made this explicit on our one-year anniversary. After I opened her gift, a beautiful Kiddish cup, to hold our wine on Shabbat, she said:
“I am giving this to you so that when we are having Shabbat, you always remember… with me, you belong.”
(Image: Our cup, photo by Addie Liechty)