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Oxford , Mississippi
Back when Mississippi was dry, Ole Miss students and any other Oxford residents who wanted a drink would drive to Memphis, just across the state line, stock up on beer and whiskey, and haul it back in the trunks of their cars. Memphis was also where you went if you needed fancier clothes than you could find at Neilson’s department store, or if you just started feeling itchy and trapped in the small hot downtown and wanted to go out dancing. You didn’t need to leave Oxford to find a cherry Coke, which you could share with two straws at the Gathright-Reed drugstore, and you didn’t need to leave Oxford to go to church. There are plenty of churches in Oxford: Baptist, Methodist, Pentecostal, Episcopal, all kinds.
Before I arrived this week for a Southern history conference, I’d been to Oxford and Memphis exactly once each, on separate trips. I was a bridesmaid at my friend Tova’s wedding in Memphis, at the Peabody, the famous hotel where ducks swim in an indoor fountain and where they say the Delta starts.
I don’t remember Oxford nearly as well–it had been the stop in between Nashville and Hattiesburg on a rather frantic research trip for my master’s thesis, a blur of archives and oral history interviews. I hadn’t gotten to do any traditional Oxford activities, like go to a tailgating party before a football game or recite an ode to Faulkner.
My trip to Oxford this time might not be any more relaxed. I’m here giving a paper at a conference on the Civil Rights movement, and my schedule will be full just sitting in the auditorium and listening to historians talk. But the conference ends on Friday and I’m staying over till Sunday morning so my plan is to try to do one traditional Oxford thing on Saturday. It hasn’t occurred to me that I’ll spend Saturday doing the most traditional Oxford thing there is, which is going to Memphis.
The conference, all in all, is stressful. Stressful because I feel very much the youthful, inept doctoral candidate reading a paper in front of all these famous historians, including my thesis advisor and other people whose books line my shelves. Stressful because my dress is ever-so-slightly too tight, and I’d managed to leave New York without a single pair of stockings. And stressful because one of the other people speaking at this conference is my erstwhile beau. This conference is small, only a dozen or so people participating; I’ll never be able to avoid him.
His name is Steven; like me, he’s a history grad student.We tried a transatlantic relationship, Steven in Arkansas (where he’s getting his doctorate), me in England (where I was finishing my master’s degree). But I freaked out for reasons I still don’t entirely understand and broke up with him in May. I last saw him six weeks ago, early August, one very tense afternoon in Virginia. He was there working with papers at Alderman Library, and he stopped by my mother’s house the day I was packing to move to New York. I was tired and distracted and we argued and he said I yelled at him the way you yell at someone you love and I denied it and he left. Later, my friend Hannah looked at me pointedly (it was over the phone, but I could feel her looking pointed) and said, “That was very unwise. You shouldn’t have agreed to meet with him.” “Well,” I said. That was all I said. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Two months later, I call Hannah from the airport, this time on my way to Mississippi. “Have a good conference,” she says, “call us when you get there.” Then she adds, “Don’t let Steven get you alone like you did in Virginia.”
Steven ignores me at first, won’t even make eye contact or say hello, but the second night of the conference we all attend a reception at the Episcopal church, and he’s half drunk on red wine by the time I get there. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen him even approximate drunkenness. He had this delinquent youth in Boston, smoked pot every day from the age of twelve, passed out on the pavement from angel dust, crashed his mother’s car after downing too much bourbon, and shoplifted antiques and canned goods. Once, a friend of his had been entrusted with several hundred dollars, to buy provisions for a church youth group trip. He and Steven spent all the money on drugs and then stole $400 worth of groceries: hams, gallons of milk, bags of apples. The chronology has always been a little fuzzy–I’m not sure when exactly he stopped breaking the law, but I think during college. And since then Steve’s walked the straight and narrow, the extremely straight and narrow. Doesn’t smoke. Doesn’t chase skirts. Doesn’t drink much. Swims every day. Eats wheat germ in his oatmeal at breakfast.
But there he is, standing on the patio of St. Peter’s Episcopal, putting away red wine and getting slightly glassy-eyed, which I know only because he decides finally to make eye contact with me. The eyes are enough of an invitation. I walk over to him and we talk about this and that, how smart his paper had been, whether he plans to ignore me for the rest of our professional lives.When everyone else goes inside for dinner, we stay outside and talk, and finally we duck out of the back of the church and find a restaurant, where I drink a gimlet and eat the best chicken I’ve had in months. Then we go to Faulkner’s grave, an exciting and authentic Oxford activity, and Steven, who knows these things, says that when you visit Faulkner’s grave you have to drink bourbon in his honor. So we find a little liquor store, and buy a tiny bottle of Maker’s Mark, like the kind they give you on airplanes, and go and sit by his tombstone, and I shiver slightly in the September air, thinking about how Willie Morris had died over the summer, and how my friend Pete, who was in Jackson then, had drunk a bottle of George Dickel in Willie Morris’s honor and then gone to Choctaw Books and bought The Courting of Marcus Dupree. I think about how Faulkner is buried here right next to his wife, even though they had the most miserable marriage. And I think about how much Steven loves me, and I try to remember why I had broken up with him in the first place. This may have been precisely what Hannah was worried about.
“What are you doing on Saturday?” I ask. I vaguely recall that months before, Steve had said he might go to Hattiesburg to do research, and if that is still his plan, I might tag along. I could always use another day in the Hattiesburg archives, and it would be better than sitting around in Oxford car-less and alone, especially now that I’ve already done the Faulkner thing.
“I’m planning on going to Memphis,” he says.
“Oh yeah, what for?”
“There’s this church there that I went to when I was up in Memphis in August. I thought I’d go back.”
“But Steve, tomorrow is Saturday. One goes to church on Sunday.” He clears his throat and coughs. “This is a Messianic Jewish church. Synagogue. They meet on Saturdays, you know.”
I do know. I am a Jew, after all. I’ve devoted more Saturdays than I could count to worshipping in synagogues of one stripe or another. That wedding in Memphis had been full of Orthodox Jews, kosher- keeping, Sabbath-resting Orthodox Jews in modest clothes singing Hebrew songs and dancing whirling, ecstatic, sex-segregated dances; the wedding was on a Sunday, and I spent the morning before chanting familiar prayers in the women’s section of Memphis’s Orthodox shul.
That was before I gave in to Jesus, admitted I’d been fighting with him all these years the way you fight with someone you love, prayed the Sinner’s Prayer and got baptized. I knew all about Jewish services on Saturdays. It is one of the things you know when you are part of the olive tree onto which all the other Christians have been grafted. Evangelical friends of mine are always trying to trim the corners and smooth the rough edges of what they call My Witness in order to shove it into a tidy, born-again conversion narrative. They want an exact date, even an hour, and I never know what to tell them. The datable conversion story has a venerable history. Paul, the most famous Jew to embrace Jesus, established the prototype of the dramatic, datable rebirth. He was walking on the road to Damascus, Luke tells us, off to persecute the zealous disciples of the newly dead carpenter when Jesus appeared to him, and Paul became his follower instead of his foe. Centuries later, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was atttending a meeting in Aldersgate Street; listening to Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans, his heart was “strangely warmed.” At that instant,Wesley later wrote in his journal, he felt that he “did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” Less notable personages have dramatic conversion stories, too. My high school physics teacher sat in her kitchen reading the Gospel of Mark one day when, in an instant, she knew that Jesus was God and had died for her sins. My friend Tim dedicated his life to Christ when he was four at a mission’s conference at Bibletown, in Boca Raton, Florida. He had seen a puppet show about Jesus knocking on your heart. So he opened it and asked Him to come in. My story doesn’t fit very well with this conversion archetype. A literature scholar would say there are too many “ruptures” in the “narrative.” But she might also say that ruptures are the most interesting part of any text, that in the ruptures we learn something new.
I had no epiphanic on-the-road-to-Damascus experience. I can’t tell my friends that I became a Christian January 8, 1993, or on my twentieth birthday.What I can tell them is that I grew up Jewish. I can tell them about the time I dreamed of Jesus rescuing me from a kidnapping; I can tell them I woke up certain, as certain as I have ever been about anything, that the dream was from God and the dream was about Jesus, about how He was real and true and sure. I can tell them about reading At Home in Mitford, a charming if somewhat saccharine novel about an Episcopal priest in North Carolina, a novel that left me wanting something Christians seemed to have. I can tell them about my baptism.
A few years after the dream and a year before the baptism, I sat, drinking cider that scalded my tongue, with a Presbyterian minister I had known since my first week as an undergraduate at Columbia. “Pastor Mike,” I said, “I think I am beginning to believe in Jesus.” Pastor Mike sipped his cider in silence. Finally he said, “You know, Lauren, you can’t just divorce Judaism.”
I felt like I’d been socked in the stomach. Pastor Mike urged me to talk to the campus rabbi, and then he said, “I had no idea when you told me you wanted to get together that you wanted to talk about Christianity. I thought maybe you were going to come out to me as a lesbian.”Which, on a campus obsessed with identity politics, might have been more congenial than a Jewish student prattling on about Jesus.
Some weeks later, I walked into the bookstore at Union Theological Seminary and bought a Book of Common Prayer, which felt like the boldest, most daring-do thing I’d ever done. The next day I gave away all my Jewish prayer books. I left them anonymously on the steps of a nearby shul, the way an unmarried mother might have left her baby on the steps of an orphanage in some earlier era.
I haven’t spoken to Pastor Mike since that morning. It’s been three years. I tried to write him a letter once or twice, to say, You knocked the wind out of me with that divorce line you cavalierly tossed out over your crumb cake. But the letter didn’t gel. I got through, Dear Pastor Mike, Remember last time we spoke, at the Hungarian Pastry Shop, and that was as far as I got.
Pastor Mike’s metaphor, I learned, was useful: trading my Hebrew prayer book for an Episcopal Book of Common Prayer felt exactly like filing for divorce. That was the only word I could come up with. The more Christian I became, the more I needed to have nothing to do with Judaism. Every new Christian habit, purchase, or prayer was accompanied by the unlearning of a Jewish habit, the cessation of a Jewish prayer. I donated my Havdalah set and one of my tallisim to a synagogue. I gorged on lobster and got drunk on the driest, most expensive bottles of Amarone I could find. I sold crates of sixteenthcentury Jewish poetry and Hebrew commentaries on the Torah to a bookstore in Chapel Hill. I got an email from my friend Leah, then a Jewish Studies major at Duke. “I was just at a used bookstore on Franklin Street, and I picked up a Mikraot G’dolot for incredibly cheap. ‘Lauren Winner’ was scribbled in the cover–that wouldn’t be you, by any chance?” She didn’t ask why I was selling off my library. The only Jewish habit I couldn’t set aside was baking challah, which I kept up every Friday, two misshapen braided loaves, made with whole wheat flour, the recipe my friend Simone taught me.We had spent a long afternoon a few weeks before my Bat Mitzvah baking challah in her kitchen. That challah got me into college: my entrance essay was about baking bread as a feminist experience, about women passing down secrets from one generation to the next, in the kitchen. Pretty sophisticated, I thought, when I wrote it at fifteen. Six cups of flour, four beaten eggs, a packet of yeast dissolved in a dish of warm water, a dollop of honey, some butter, poppy seeds for the top if you want them, or raisins for the inside at Rosh Hashanah, to remind you that the New Year is sweet. Mix it all together, save for some of the egg to glaze with later. Knead it and let it rise in a warm place in a well-oiled bowl and punch it down after it doubles in size. Divide the dough into snakes and braid. The braid will always look better raw, more precise and perfect than after the bread bakes.
Divorce doesn’t come easy. I am as bound to Judaism as my parents are to one another. They’re not married anymore, but they have daughters, so they still see each other sometimes, at weddings and college graduations, and sometimes they talk on the phone, about going in together on an expensive birthday present for me or my sister.
I gave away all my Jewish books and let go of all my Jewish ways, but I realized, as I spent time with other Christians, that Judaism shaped how I saw Christianity. It shaped the way I read the Bible, the way I thought about Jesus, the way I understood what He meant when He talked about the yoke of the law. I found my heart sometimes singing Jewish songs. I thought I had given away all my Jewish things, but I found that I hadn’t. I’d just given away some books and mezuzot and candlesticks. I hadn’t given up the shape in which I saw the world, or the words I knew for God, and those shapes and words were mostly Jewish.
Shortly after buying that Book of Common Prayer, I moved to England, to study for a master’s degree in history at Clare College, Cambridge. Cambridge is where I was baptized and confirmed, where I first received communion, where I learned Christian liturgy and hymnody. Cambridge is where I learned to say simple phrases like “I’m a Christian” and “I’m off to church.”
When, two years later, I moved back to New York to begin doctoral work, I had to learn something else: how to be a Christian in a neighborhood where everyone knew me as an Orthodox Jew. I didn’t know how to tell Jewish friends that I had become a Christian, didn’t know how to explain to old professors why I now could attend classes during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, didn’t even know what to say to my accommodating Catholic acquaintance who, delighted that I was back in New York, had made dinner reservations for us at a kosher dairy restaurant on the East Side.
Just after Labor Day, barely three weeks after I’d moved back to New York, I traveled to Baltimore to meet with a couple, Jews turned Episcopalians.We sat rather awkwardly in the kitchen of their refurbished Victorian, drinking coffee and making small talk. They were not sure why I had come, and I could not explain. Finally I blurted out, “I tuck my cross underneath my blouse every time I see someone in a yarmulke. On Friday night, I actually ducked behind a fruit cart because I saw an old friend from college–it was clear she was coming from Shabbat services, and it was equally clear that I was headed to a local Italian restaurant where I would do forbidden things like spend money on Shabbat and eat forbidden food like shrimp scampi and prosciutto.”
“Oh,” said the wife. “Now I see. You’ve come to see us because you’re trying to figure out how to put your life back together.” On the train back from Baltimore to New York, I made up my mind to do several things: buy a Hebrew siddur; call up my friend Tova, whom I had avoided since joining the church; and visit a Messianic Jewish synagogue.
Messianic Jewish synagogues are the spiritual homes to congregation of Jews who have become Christian, but who retain some Jewish practices. They worship on Saturdays, they sometimes pray in Hebrew, they observe some of the Jewish holidays. Their men wear prayer shawls and yarmulkes. Their women dress modestly and sometimes cover their hair.
I have always hated Messianic Jews. They have always made me want to run screaming in the other direction. This hatred is not a very Christian way to feel, but I feel it anyway. They have always freaked me out, they unnerve me, they give me the willies. I want to shake them and say “Make a choice! Pick a religion!” But on the train back from Baltimore I was pierced by a sudden sympathy. Making this choice is not so simple after all. Relinquishing all your Judaism at the foot of the Cross isn’t easy. Maybe the Messianic Jews knew something that I did not know.
So it seemed providential when, sitting there by Faulkner’s grave, Steven–who is no more Jewish than Quentin Compson–said he planned to spend Saturday morning at Brit Hadasha, home to Memphis’s Messianic Jews.
Tova, it turns out, is in Memphis the same weekend, the weekend of my history conference. She’s visiting her family for Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles. On the drive from Oxford I fantasize about running into her. I know I won’t, I know she’s tucked away in her parents’ house and at her shul, miles from Brit Hadasha, eating a feast her mother prepared in her family’s sukkah and singing my favorite Shabbat songs.
Sukkot is one of the things I gave up because of Jesus. I gave up Purim, which I love, and kashrut, which I love, and dipping challah into honey on New Year’s, which I love. All because I was courted by a very determined carpenter from Nazareth. People ask me if I miss Judaism. Yes, of course, I miss it. I miss Purim, and challah, and the way kashrut sanctifies every bit of food you put in your mouth. And I especially miss sitting in a sukkah.
God tells us how to celebrate Sukkot in Exodus 23, Leviticus 23, and Deuteronomy 16. First, we learn that we are to “celebrate a festival” for God when we “gather in [our] crops from the field.” Then, we learn that the Feast of Tabernacles takes place on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, Tishri, for seven days. During that time, “all native-born Israelites are to live in booths so your descendants will know that I had the Israelites live in booths when I brought them out of Egypt.” And the Bible commands us to Sukkot joy–“Be joyful at your Feast–you, your sons and daughters, your menservants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your town.”
On Sukkot, Jewish families each build a hut, a sukkah, to remind themselves of the sukkot the Jews inhabited while they camped in the desert for forty years.We don’t really know what those first desert huts looked like. Rabbi Akiva, a Talmudic sage, says that the original sukkot were flimsy, ramshackle, twigs and bark and cactus needles, but another rabbi, Eliezar, says the sukkot were far grander–they were “clouds of glory” that accompanied the Jews all through their desert wanderings, protecting them from night animals and helping them not lose their way. Today, the sukkah you would build might be an eight-foot cube, made from plywood held together with nails and twine. You cover the roof with greenery (the covering is called a schach, and it should be translucent enough to let in starlight) and invite neighborhood children to hang drawings on the walls. You eat all your meals in the sukkah, and drink all your drinks, and sometimes even sleep there. I miss Sukkot because it is while sitting in the sukkah that you learn lessons about dependence on God, that even the walls of your brick house are flimsy. The trick is to grab hold of those sukkah lessons and remember them once you’ve taken apart your shaky hut and resumed eating your meals in the spacious kitchen of your fourwalled split-level.
During the service at Brit Hadasha, I imagine dropping by Tova’s house afterward, plopping down in her family’s sukkah and joining them for lunch. I imagine lingering over a lacy tablecloth out there in the sukkah, talking about holiday things and peering at the clouds and the sky through the schach, through the branches and leaves up above. In the end, of course, Steven and I don’t go sukkah-crashing.We go downtown to eat pulled pork barbecue instead.
Brit Hadasha is off of i-240, and the building is nondescript. If you didn’t know the name means “New Covenant,” you might easily mistake it for a Reform synagogue. Steven and I sit in his green two-door for a few minutes, watching the parking lot fill up with the usual assortment of minivans and SUVs, battered Hondas and old Volvos. I watch carfuls of smiling women and children parade into the sanctuary and wonder what I’m doing here. Couldn’t I have done this anonymously in New York? Did I really think it was a great idea to spend Saturday at a house of worship with my ex-boyfriend? My hands shake, and I contemplate staying in the car and reading a novel for two hours while he goes in and prays.
Steven interrupts my reverie. “I like it here because these people are pariahs,” he says. “They don’t fit in anywhere–not with Jews, not with Christians. Being a Christian means being a pariah, Lauren, it means not fitting in anywhere in this world. Your Episcopalians are no pariahs.”
When we walk in, a middle-aged woman with short gray hair and dangly earrings greets us. “Good Shabbess.Welcome to Brit Hadasha. Is this your first visit?” Steven gives a complicated answer about how he had been here on Rosh Hashanah, but it is my first time. “And where are you from?” Before he could give another complicated explanation, I say, “Arkansas,” which is where Steven lives, take my New Visitor card, and go find a seat.
A man clad in a tallis, a prayer shawl, stands at a podium in the front of the room, and a small choir clusters to his right, leading the congregation through songs that are printed on a transparency and displayed on a large screen. In the corner of the room, a circle of women are dancing, some variation on the hora. I am prepared for that. I’ve read a recent ethnography of a Messianic Jewish congregation, and the author explains that dancing is an important element of Messianic worship services. I feel an unexpected pull to join them. The dances are similar to those at Tova’s wedding. I have not yet found a group of Anglicans who love Jewish folk dancing.
The service consists mostly of songs, with a little spontaneous prayer thrown in.No one mentions Sukkot. The fact that it is Sukkot doesn’t seem to be part of the service at all. Why bother playing at Judaism, I wonder, annoyed, if you don’t move by the rhythms of the Jewish calendar? I have been trying, since I got baptized, to learn to live according to the seasons of Advent and Lent, but so far my body still thinks in terms of Jewish holidays.
The absence of Sukkot is just one of many things that irritates me about the service. The pink satin yarmulkes, straight out of a Reform synagogue in the 1980s, irritate me. The gold-and-magenta banners proclaiming yeshua irritate me. And the music irritates me. Rather than sing the haunting melodies available to anyone who is casually acquainted with the centuries-old Jewish cantorial tradition, the folks at Brit Hadasha seem content with songs that sound as though they had been lifted from the praise music guide at any nondenominational evangelical church, only Brit Hadasha’s songs have a little Hebrew thrown in.
This is how I feel all morning: that Brit Hadasha’s Judaism is just raisins added to a cake–you notice them, but they don’t really change the cake. The structure of the service bears no relation to the Jewish liturgy, and I can’t tell if my fellow worshippers think that being Jewish leads them to understand Jesus any differently from the Presbyterians down the street. Add Hebrew and Stir. I am bored and show off, screwing my eyes shut when I sing the Hebrew songs so that Steven, and everyone else, will know I that I don’t need to read the transliterations flashed up on the screen in front of us.
Occasionally I offer up a silent prayer that the Holy Spirit will work overtime on my heart and help me stop being judgmental long enough to recognize that these people are worshipping the Risen Lord, but I don’t really want God to answer this prayer.
Sukkot comes at the end of the season of repentance, two weeks after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. As part of the work of repentance, Jews say special penitentiary prayers called slichot. The slichot start at midnight the Saturday before Rosh Hashanah, because the rabbis knew that the heavens are most open to prayers at midnight. Among the slichot prayers is one you will say again on Rosh Hashanah, and on all the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and again on Yom Kippur, when God is making His final judgments about who will live and who will die, whom He will forgive and whom He will punish: Adonai, Adonai, el rachum v’chanun, erech apayim, vrav chesed v’emet, notzer chesed lalafim, nosey avon vafesha v’chatahah v’nakeh. “The Lord, the Lord, of compassion, Who offers grace and is slow to anger,Who is full of lovingkindness and trustworthiness, Who assures love for a thousand generations, Who forgives iniquity, transgression, and misdeed, and Who grants pardon.” It is a list, culled from the thirty-fourth chapter of Exodus, of God’s thirteen merciful attributes, attributes that, according to the rabbis, shine most brightly during the season of repentance. The prayer, a reminder to God not of our merit but of his capacity to overlook our sin, is sung to a particularly haunting melody, my favorite from the entire cantorial literature. It is minor, and repetitive, and dirge-like, and some people say that Jews wailed its tune as they walked to the gas chambers in Treblinka and Sobibor.
At Brit Hadasha, we sing a mostly-English-but-laced-with-Hebrew song also based on that slichot prayer, but this tune is zippy, full of rhyme and vim and pep. In the middle of the song I slip out of the sanctuary and make my way, through the circle of dancing women, to the ladies’ room, where I stare in the mirror and think. I wish for this service to be organic and seamless, but the seams show everywhere. Whatever part of me had come to Brit Hadasha hoping also to find the key to marrying Judaism with the cross is disappointed. I am not going to find any answers in a church that thinks clapping and tambourining its way through Adonai, el rachum v’chanun is a good idea.
“This must be why I hate them,” I say out loud to the mirror. “I must hate them because I want them to give me a formula for how to be a Christian Jew and I know their formula will never be my formula.” After I’ve spent more time than is respectable in the bathroom, I return to my seat next to Steven, settling in for more praise music, a Torah reading, and the homily. Across the aisle, a red-headed little girl in a white straw hat smiles at me and dances a little dance.
The rabbi is in the middle of a sermon series on the Book of Joshua. “Well, that’s refreshing,” I whisper. “A whole sermon series on something from the Old Testament. You would never hear that in a regular church.” Steven shushes me before I can climb onto one of my favorite soapboxes, the Christians-think-the-Bible-starts-with- Matthew soapbox.
This week’s sermon is on chapter 7. In chapter 7, Achan, from the tribe of Judah, steals some silver and gold and a beautiful robe; Joshua takes Achan to a valley and he is stoned to death. Ever after, the Book of Joshua tells us, that valley is known as the Valley of Achor, which means “trouble.”
The rabbi proceeds to read this chapter just like rabbis read in the Talmud, the fifth-century compilation of Jewish oral tradition.
“Where else is the Valley of Achor mentioned in the Bible?” he asks. This was a favorite rabbinic strategy–if a word appears only two or three times in the Bible, then God is telling us that when we come across one mention, we should think of the other passages that use the same word. This, for example, is how the rabbis figured out what activities were forbidden on the Sabbath. There are two words in Hebrew for “work,” avodah and melacha. In the Torah, we find avodah a lot, but God used melacha only twice–in the list of the thirty-nine activities that went into building the tabernacle, and in the verses, like Exodus 31:15, that forbid working on the Sabbath: “For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord.” The rabbis reasoned that He used melacha in those two places so that we would make a connection: the tabernacle activities must be the activities that are forbidden on the Shabbat.
Achor shows up in Joshua, and then again Hosea 2:15, where God promises to turn the Valley of Achor into a door of hope. “And what does God mean,” the rabbi at Brit Hadasha now asks, “when He speaks of transforming this valley of Achor, this Valley of Trouble, into a door of hope? He tells us in John 10:9, when Jesus declares, ‘I am the door. Whoever enters through me will be saved.’ The door promised in Hosea, a promise that in turn looked back to Joshua, was Jesus, the only door that could undo the trouble of Achor.” His reading is dazzling. I am dazzled. I have not heard anyone read
Scripture in this particular rabbinic way since I became a Christian. The rabbi has done just what the rabbis of the Talmud did when they squeezed out the Sabbath prohibitions from the word melacha. There is something Jewish about this place, I think, the most important Jewish thing of all. They read like Jews.
The rabbi’s marriage of the Old Testament with the New is so striking that I hardly notice what comes next–an altar call. “If anyone here does not know the Lord,” the rabbi says, “I invite you to come forward. I invite you to come up here and pray with me to ask our Savior into your life.”We might have been at a Billy Graham crusade. During the altar call Steven weeps, hunched over in his chair, crying like he’s just been told the saddest news in the world–when, in fact, he’s been told something very wonderful, which is that Jesus died to purge his sins. He weeps, and I sit next to him with my hand on the small of his back and my cheek pressed into his shoulder blade; I am both praying for the Spirit to set up shop in his heart, and wondering at all the work the Spirit had already done.
The couple behind us hollers out loud, peppering the rabbi’s words with amens like a pair of black Baptists. No one answers the altar call, which doesn’t surprise me but is nonetheless a little sad, an unanswered altar call being kind of like an uneaten piece of pie.
There is no weeping on the drive back to Mississippi.We listen, predictably, to Patsy Cline, and Steven drives too fast, and we get pulled over by a cop who looks like he stepped out of a made-for- TV-movie.When the cop has driven off and Steven has tossed the ticket in the backseat, he turns to me and says, “I bet you think cops are your friends, right? You don’t get nervous when they pull you over.” You would think he was a black high-schooler in the dark of a Los Angeles night, but he’s just pulling rank, sage Boston bad boy to the sheltered Southern judge’s daughter.
I laugh, and kiss his neck, and for the rest of the drive, Steven keeps to seventy, which gets us to Oxford soon enough. The afternoon is an ice-tea afternoon, under two sprawling trees on campus, and that evening we hope for a rainstorm to run in (but no rainstorm comes) and we hold hands and maybe we pray a little, too.
The next morning he gets up at five to drive me back to Memphis, to the airport, and I go back to New York and he goes back to Arkansas. He tells me I’ll forget the weekend as soon as I’m home, that it had been a weekend of borrowed time, a surreal four days when we lounged around a surreal little town and that I would go back to my life and conveniently forget.
I believe him. He knows me pretty well, and he is pretty convincing. I imagine that as my plane hovers over Queens, it will all vanish. It doesn’t, though. It doesn’t vanish, and I come home and call him and tell him so, and I marvel over all the things that can make us cry: leaving; Jesus; and too much whiskey. He asks me if I think we should try again, “to try to build an us,” he says, and I say that yes, I think we should try, and we smile, he in Arkansas and I in New York, and we hang up, and I stretch and drink a glass of water and then take a shower that is long.
Simchat Torah, the holiday that immediately follows Sukkot, is the day Jews set aside to celebrate reading. Every week, in synagogue, Jews read a few chapters of the Torah, just enough so that one hears the entire chumash, the entire Five Books of Moses, in a year. On Simchat Torah–literally, “joy of the Torah”–a cantor reads the last parsha, the last portion, the final two chapters of Deuteronomy, and the community starts all over again, paging back to the beginning, back before Moses and back before slavery, back before Abraham and Noah and Adam even, back to the creation of the world. Jewish holidays begin at night, and when I step out of the shower and wrap up in a big pink towel, it is getting dark. It is getting to be Simchat Torah.
I have things to do: unpacking, laundry, homework. There are books I need from the library, and I told my father I would call him when I got back to New York, and I have no milk for breakfast. But instead of doing homework or laundry or milk, I find a long purple dress in my closet and somewhere a pair of tights and a wooden barrette from the basket on my sink, and I put those things on, and I go out into the world, down the block past the library and then to shul, for Simchat Torah. To a shul where I sometimes worshipped in college, when I was still an Orthodox Jew, a shul where they know Hebrew and know melodies and know nothing about Jesus.
Simchat Torah is one of the few times you will find men and women mingled together in an Orthodox synagogue. After maariv, the evening prayers, the women come down from their balcony, and all the Torah scrolls are taken out of the ark, and everyone dances them around, scroll by scroll, person by person, making what in Hebrew is called hakafot, circlings or rings, dancing around the synagogue in a circle that mirrors the circle danced through the Torah each year. As you dance, you pray, Ana Adonai, hoshia na. “Oh Lord, save us.” The congregation makes seven hakafot, seven different circular parades, carrying our scrolling, circular book around and around the shul. The hakafot can last hours, on and on.
When I get to shul, maariv is over, and men and women are already thronged together in the sanctuary, kissing Torah scrolls and pelting those who carry them with wishes: “Long life!” we sing to the men holding Torahs. And the prayer threads through all of it. Ana Adonai hoshia na. “Save us, save us, save us.”
After the hakafot will come a reading from the Torah, the verses about Moses’ death.Tonight the reading will be about his death, and tomorrow morning the Torah will start over, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”
But I will leave before the Torah reading. I stay for just an hour of hakafot. I dance, and I feel the way I felt about Steven when we were sitting there at Faulkner’s graveside: I think about how much love there is here, and I wonder why I left in the first place. I watch the crowd’s delight, the joy that comes from a year of reading Torah, and while I watch, I calculate another lectionary in my head. In church, we are working our way through the Gospel of Mark, and this week we are starting the tenth chapter, where Jesus, speaking to the Pharisees, recasts the mosaic laws about divorce; I remember that in two months, Advent will start, and the beginning of Advent is when the church has its own Simchat Torah–the beginning of Advent is when the church finishes one yearly cycle of Scripture readings and begins again. As we make our hakafot around the synagogue, I sing the prayers, I sing, Ana Adonai hoshia na, ana Adonai hatzlicha na. I pray with my hands open, I pray that the Lord our God will save us. And I watch the Torah scrolls dance by, and I know that I have already been saved.