God Was on the Brown Line and I, I Did Not Know

Today is my unofficial Jewish birthday. One year ago today, my Jewish journey began. Considering that I used to be a public transit planner, it shouldn’t have surprised me that my journey began on the Chicago ‘L’.

Regular readers may recall last year, after the economy finished imploding my consulting work, my first five years at Marina City (where I happily returned this February) came to an end. I moved in with roommates to lick my economic wounds and search for a desk job and a way back to my own apartment.

Emotionally, life was no better. My roommate situation was far from a happy one. I felt a lot of sorrow and shame at my economic situation. And my longtime Buddhism just wasn’t working anymore. Try as a might, I just couldn’t find a calm center anywhere in my life. Except, maybe, for my belief in God–a personal belief that I’ve carried around my whole life, but made explicit in my late thirties. If anything, that belief became stronger during my time in socioeconomic exile last year.

That belief managed to catapult me into the worst afternoon I ever spent as an adult–and most likely the best, as well. One day it all became too much. Sitting in my borrowed room on my borrowed bed looking out my borrowed window, I realized my life had become a very pointed conflict–between my belief in God on one side, and on the other all the pressure in my life to buckle under, remain hopeless, or simply keep my thoughts about God to myself.

Most of all, I felt those pressures in Buddhism–which simply sidesteps the question of deity entirely, and in my long-term recovery work for codependence–which told me the people I talked about Higher Power (for me, God) with every week had to remain secretive and anonymous.

Finally, on the afternoon of August 31, 2010, I literally felt the emotional bottom drop out of my life. I thought about all of this and realized that my relationship with God had no natural home in the context of my life. I felt a punishing sense of spiritual homelessness. It was palpable, like being covered against your will with a heavy, scratchy, wet, cold blanket. And it was harrowing.

Feeling all of this as I looked out my borrowed window, I lay down on a borrowed pillow and sobbed. I knew there was no going back to the Christian religion of my birth–Christianity had never connected with me to begin with. And I knew there was no safe harbor for my spiritual life in my life as it stood in that moment. So I cried and cried, and felt very small and alone. And when I came up for air, I very humbly asked God where, after all and if anywhere, I belonged.

I decided to try and shake off my sorrow by scraping together a few dollars and heading up to Lincoln Square to blog from a neighborhood Starbucks. (At the time, I had hoped to eventually move to the neighborhood and was spending a lot of time there.) I couldn’t lose my dejected feelings on the walk to the Brown Line, so before I got on the train I reiterated my small prayer. God, I can’t figure this out. But I know there’s somewhere, somewhere that I belong, and I’ve known it all along. May I please, finally, know where that is?

Then I sat down on the train for my half-hour ride to the station at Western Avenue. Looking out the window at the city passing by below didn’t help me feel any better, so I decided to pull out my smart phone and begin Googling world religions and the spiritual traditions of the people who have been closest to me. I figured I had nothing to lose, and I also knew full well that it was not very likely that in a moment of despair and frustration, comparison shopping for paths towards God on the Brown Line was going to be more than a futile effort.

And then I began reading about Judaism. Until then I knew it as the religion of many of my closest friends back home in New York City. There, Judaism is so ever-present, such a fact of life, you almost don’t notice it. It is simply one of the main dichotomies of Gotham life: white/black; city/outer borough; English/Spanish; gentile/Jew. Jewish inspiration is so much a part of NYC life, when I moved here I had to learn that many of my mannerisms and turns of phrase and much of my humor was directly related to my upbringing in a significantly Jewish environment.

But I had never thought about Judaism in anything more than cultural terms. The Israeli boy I dated in my teens before he went into the army. The rugelach and macaroons I would scarf down at my Jewish friends’ houses during various holidays. The tattoo on the forearm of a friend’s grandfather who had survived a Nazi concentration camp. Very pungent. Very much a part of my life. But not my tradition.

There’s a familiar story from Vayetze, one of the weekly Torah portions (parashot) read in synagogue during the Jewish year–the story of Jacob’s ladder. Jacob, one of the Jewish patriarchs, lays down to sleep during a sojourn through the desert and dreams of a structure with heavenly beings descending to the earth and ascending back up from it. In the dream, God tells Jacob that God’s presence will always be with him and will always be with his descendents–that, in fact, it has always been so. When Jacob awakens, he realizes he has spent his life being willfully unable to recognize God in the mundane moments of life. He exclaims, “Surely, God is in this place, and I did not know it!”

I read about Judaism for most of my thirty-minute trip up the Brown Line. It seemed to be telling the story of my life. Everything I’ve ever believed about God, and humanity, and the relationship between the two, and the relationships among humans, ourselves. All of the ethics I’ve ever been moved by, all of the things I’ve ever wished to find valued by another person, much less an ancient community of people, all of the metaphoric power of ancient myth I could never find in the “second half” of the Bible, I realized I was very unexpectedly reading about on a four-inch screen on an ‘L’ train. I was reading the story of Judaism, and at the same time I had an inkling I was reading the story of me.

And then the inkling grew into a knowing, like a giant spiritual light bulb going off above my head. It did not take long for me to make that mental and emotional leap. It no longer felt as if I was reading about someone else’s tradition. It felt like I was reading about my own. As if I had been meant to have this moment for a very long time, and little by little I had been led to it, to experience it. To understand why, raised a Roman Catholic, my entire life seemed to have been spent with one foot in Judaism.

To know.

When I got off the train at Western, I paused a long time before heading down the steps to the sidewalk. An afternoon of browsing Judaism over coffee, a month of seeking a synagogue, and a year of conversion studies were about to follow. And, somehow, I knew it. Most conversion journeys begin in struggle, and proceed apace. Over the next several months the lack of inner struggle on my part would surprise my rabbi. But it just wasn’t there. For me, the struggle had been in the years leading up to that moment. But not in that moment, and not anymore.

So I stood there, surprised and awed, humbled yet overjoyed–what Abraham Joshua Heschel might have called a moment of radical amazement at the Divine. And from a depth inside of me I never knew existed, knowing. The feeling stayed with me as I finally made it down the stairs to the street, into the cafe, onto the Internet, finding a synagogue, studying through several thousand pages, attending several dozen services, and immersing in mikvah.

Today, on the anniversary of my tap on the shoulder from HaShem, I now realize two radically amazing things about that day. I came to know who I am. And sometimes, moments can last a lifetime.

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