I am a deeply spiritual person. I have prayed in synagogues from every branch of Judaism – be it the Reform community I grew up in to Hasidic shtieblach in Bnei Brak, Israel. I have also found myself in deeply spiritual moments in mosques, churches, and Buddhist temples.
In recent days, though, I have found my connection to Judaism in particular waning. And it’s not because I don’t care about my community – I do, deeply. And I think our resilient tradition is a rich one that can help inform a humanistic, compassionate worldview. It’s just that my mom has a rare and aggressive form of cancer known as sarcoma.
Frankly, I couldn’t find much in my religious tradition to help comfort me when we discovered last week that after a year of chemotherapy, a new tumor has appeared. The very same day, my step-dad ended up in the hospital after having collapsed on a treadmill due to heart issues. God – if you’re out there, I’m not sure you’re listening very closely to my prayers.
After a lovely trip this past weekend to Charlottesville, where I connected with nature and some of the most gorgeous scenery I’ve seen in the U.S., I felt so much better. My step-dad came home from the hospital and thank goodness, is now in recovery.
After such a fulfilling weekend with friends and some awe-inspiring scenery, I remembered that my Jewish tradition extends beyond the words of a prayer book. It includes all of life, all of nature, all of humanity.
Life and nature are easy to find deep in the mountains. But not so easy to find in Washington, D.C. Our nature is nice, but it just doesn’t do it for me in the same way.
So I found myself back in the swing of things, grateful that my step-dad was recovering but anxious about my mom’s well-being. If I couldn’t have sweeping views of the mountains this week, I was going to have to dig deeper into the inspirational wellspring of humanity. Because D.C. does have a lot of history and culture.
I headed to one of my favorite spots in the city – Anderson House, owned by The Society of the Cincinnati. There, I found a lovely and friendly librarian named Rachel who helped me explore the library and archives downstairs. It is absolutely worth visiting the elaborate and elegant house upstairs as well, but we’ll save that for a future blog.
In the archives, I searched for the other thing that inspires me besides Judaism and that is foreign languages. I speak seven. They give me so much energy and hope.
I found the most unique and exciting book and I got to handle it myself – for free! This city truly is wonderful sometimes. The work was entitled Grammar of the French Tongue Grounded Upon the Decisions of the French Academy Wherein All The Necessary Rules, Observations, and Examples Are Exhibited in a Manner Intirely New. And “Intirely” was indeed spelled with an “i”. And each lowercase “s” looks like an “f”. Because this book was printed all the way back in 1779!
Even the French was archaic. For example, instead of the current “-ait” suffix for the third person imperfect tense, it said “-oit”. In a sign of the agrarian times, the verb for “to milk” was the one given as an example.
I could go on and on about this fascinating book, but what gave me the most spiritual strength in this difficult moment in my life was to find a kindred spirit in the author. He wrote of the importance of language learning in the introduction, noting how beautiful French was and how it must be learned by English-speakers. He even planned future books about the topic. At a time of growing xenophobia, it touched my heart to see someone hundreds of years ago believing in the same values as me: diversity, inclusion, and compassion.
This book gave me strength today. Culture, as much as it is derided in this country for being “unproductive”, has so much to offer the human spirit. To quote Jawaharlal Nehru, “culture is the widening of the mind and of the spirit.”
And when I found it hard to connect to my own religious tradition, I got an extra boost of medicine, of confidence, of clarity from American history. From languages. From humanism.
And ultimately, it has helped me realize that if the words in a prayer book just don’t do it for me right now, then I will seek out my spirituality in nature, in friendships, and in history. Because culture belongs to all of us. And whether I’m reading one of my old Yiddish books (I plan on rekindling this passion of mine) or something by an early American, I know I can find inspiration somewhere.
Nobody should go through life alone. Lo tov heyot ha’adam levado. It is not good for a human to be all by themselves. I’m grateful for my friends and family helping me through this hard time and am grateful to John Perrin for publishing this book and making my day just a little bit better.
Special thanks to Rachel and all the Anderson House staff for keeping this national treasure alive and accessible to all.