a few months ago, i decided it was time to find out once and for all if a speck of me was jewish. i had convinced myself i was. how else to explain the profound holiness i find inside the nooks and crannies of all things jewish — the prayers, the writings, the blessing of the candles and the challah every friday night at our old maple table? most of all, the sanctification of time. of turning of the earth and all that glimmers under heaven’s dome?
turns out, there’s not an iota of jewish DNA inside me. alas. but i decided to sit myself down — at that very maple table — string together a few sentences, and bravely knock on the window of America Magazine, the great national jesuit review. i happen to come from a long line of jesuit-schooled folk: my papa, my uncles, my brothers, my very own self. in the catholic world in which i grew up, all things jesuit were spoken of in hushed and reverential tones. their intellect, most of all. anyway, America Magazine decided to green light my little essay, to post it online and run it in the print pages, too. because the world we live in now demands that a writer “share” her work on the few social media sites that might draw one or two more eyes to the equation, some of you might have seen my posting on facebook (a rare return) or twitter. but not all of you — and certainly not my mama nor my beloved mother-in-law (whose birthday is this weekend!) — so for you, i’m posting here, direct from the pages of America Magazine.
(next week in this old house we’ll be weaving passion week and passover once again, and i’ll be deep in matzo balls and easter baskets, so the timing is especially fitting. here tis (i’d titled the essay something along the lines of “The Jewishness That Stirs My Soul,” the America editors wrote their own headline)):
By Barbara Mahany
I propped myself against the kitchen sink not too long ago and spit into a clear plastic test tube the size of my pinkie finger. I spit and spit and spit, following directions to be sure I would sufficiently trap my DNA. Once the accumulated spit crossed the “fill to here” line, I gave my test tube an emphatic shake (again, precisely as told) and popped the whole shebang in the pre-labeled shipping box. Post haste, I motored to the drive-by mail chute in my little town, tossed my parcel into the open maw of the postal box, sat back and awaited revelation.
Over the years, I’d had a hunch that grew and grew, and I was submitting my hunch to science. Any day now, I figured, the friendly folks at DNA Central would lift the lid on what I had decided must be a long-kept ancestral secret. Surely, I must be some percentage Jewish. At least some fraction of a fractional percent.
That chromosomal uncovering might shed light on just why it is that I—a girl schooled by the Sisters of Loretto and a phalanx of Jesuits, a girl with a rosary for every occasion—had found, all these years later, my sense of the divine so animated by the sacred Jewish lens of wonder and wisdom. All encompassing, it is one intricately tied to the turning of the earth, the sun, the moon, the shifting of the stars stitched in heaven’s dome.
It is as if the ancient call to Hebrew prayer has reached out across the millennia and awakened all my senses. I am stirred by the command to whisper a blessing at the unfurling of a rainbow, at the first blossom of the almond tree. I am stirred by the command to scan the night sky till I spy the first three evening stars, and only then kindle the Havdalah candle, pass the spice box and recite the prayers that draw the Sabbath to a hushed and blessed close.
I had convinced myself that deep in my DNA there must be buried some short link confirming my genetic claim to Jewish soulful lineage, aside and apart from my nearly three decades entwined in a Jewish-Catholic marriage.
Alas, there is not. Not one strand of Jewishness to my Irish-Catholic name, not Ashkenazi, not Sephardic. How then to explain the soul-deep burrowing into the nooks and crannies of Jewish spirituality for this lifelong post-Vatican II Catholic?
Sure, I had married an observant Jew some 28 years before. And we had raised our two boys the only way we knew: immersed in both their Judaism and their Catholicism; first Communion and Bar Mitzvahs for both, with priests and rabbis all along the way.
Our older son, in first grade at the time, once exclaimed that interfaith Sunday school, where the curriculum taught all things Jewish and Catholic, was not enough; he wanted more, more fluency in each of his religions. So we signed him up for CCD and Hebrew school, as well as Jewish-Catholic school, and Sunday mornings meant an eight-mile dash down Chicago’s Dan Ryan Expressway, from Old St. Pat’s in the West Loop to the Hyde Park synagogue where he learned his alefbet and all his Hebrew prayers. (That child, now a 25- year-old at Yale Law School, has trained his legal sights on the intersection—no surprise—of law and religion.)
My own trek into the Jewish interior began with Shabbat, the holiest of Jewish holy days, one God offers at sundown every Friday, when we are commanded to kindle lights, bless bread and wine and, most of all, put down toil for the sacred arc of 25 hours, sunset to sunset plus a smidge for holy measure. The practice of slowing time, slipping into timelessness amid the cacophony of the modern-day world, is one that literally stopped me and, from the start, stirred a deeper soulful hunger.
It was not long after our wedding under the cathedral of oaks in my mother’s garden, when I was but a young unpracticed bride, that I set our first Shabbat table, tentatively placing amid the dinner plates two Israeli candlesticks, a kiddush cup for wine and a braided loaf of challah (which I would learn to bake over time, at the side of a Holocaust survivor who became my Shabbas friend). A rite at once domestic and sacramental, Shabbat became for me a tucked-away cloister of anointed time.
It is God whispering, I like to think. God cocking a finger, calling us home, each and every one of us. Come, be where it is still. Put time on pause. Savor this moment, this holy stretch of hours, savor each and every sense, savor and embrace the ones you love. And so, around the globe, as Friday’s sun slips from the sky, as our world dips into darkness, there is, house by house, table by table, the kindling of sacred illumination.
At my house, I hear the whisper early each Friday. Over the years, I have tiptoed into the kitchen at dawn to begin the alchemy of yeast and flour that becomes the challah. Awaiting its pillowy rise, I crack into the cookbooks of my various adopted Jewish mothers, peruse the spiral-bound recipes of temple sisterhoods from around the country (Bella Abzug’s Matzo Balls, among my clippings). My kitchen ministrations usher in the quietude, the prayerfulness, that has become my coveted weekly office. By the time I have set the table, ferried plates to the dining room, pulled out chairs for whoever has shown up (our Shabbat tables have often been populated by an eclectic roster of professors and scribes), I am, curiously, the Catholic who finds “church” in the holiest of the Jewish holy days.
Time and again in synagogue, on Friday nights or during the long hours of the High Holy Days, I find my soul soaring as the cantor lifts his voice in the minor-key call to prayer, as my husband beside me bends his knees, bows from his waist, wraps himself in his prayer
shawl. The rhythms of the Hebrew prayer, even when the words escape me, tap the sacred within. I perk my ears to the still small voice that calls us, each and all. Sh’ma Yisrael, “Hear, O Israel,” begins the holiest of all the prayers. And my soul listens.
That blessed once-a-week Sabbath interlude—and an urge to know more, to follow some sacred cord—led me into the Jewish bookshelf, where I discovered, among others, no finer poet of Shabbat than Abraham Joshua Heschel, who wrote: “Judaism is a religion of time, aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogenous, to whom all hours are alike, qualitiless, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”
Heschel only whetted my appetite for deeper and more nuanced reading—even of the Torah. I explored such sacred instruction as the one for the harvest festival of Sukkot when, through the roof of the sukkah (a temporary shelter built for the eight-day celebration), we are commanded to be able to see the stars in the heavens. Or the Talmudic teaching to recite 100 blessings every day, a call to attention if ever there was. Inscribed in Jewish text, there is a blessing for hearing thunder, another one for when you see a shooting star.
It is this ancient, agrarian-rooted call to see God’s wonder all around that I find woven into Jewish spirituality, and it is now an inseparable thread of my own, though I remain Catholic as ever.
Perhaps it is the echo of ancestral Celtic spirituality or the Ignatian instruction to see God in all things, that pulsing sense that every moment of the day is a vessel of the holy. According to Celt or Jesuit or Jew, all we need do to anoint that holiness, to make it evident, unmistakable, is to bless it with our attention. And our simple prayer.
In a word, it is “hierophany,” the place where secular and sacred meet, a “manifestation of the sacred,” a belief that dates back to ancient Greece. What stirs me most about Jewish hierophany is that it is infused with the astonishments of the cosmos, a core belief that creation is God’s first best text. Or in the words of Psalm 19, verse 1: “The heavens are telling the glory of God / and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”
It is this understanding that even before the Word, God gave us the litany of Genesis. And if we read closely the book of nature, if we surrender to the rhythms of season unfolding into season, if we allow ourselves to startle at the nascent vernal shoots, the newborn green pushing through the thawing crust of winter’s end, if we heed the mournful cry of geese in chevron streaking autumn sky, hold ourselves rapt when first snowflakes fall, if we witness the hand of God in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of wonder, we cannot help but feel ourselves cradled in the outstretched palm of the one who breathed and birthed it all.
And so it is, in the particular and timeless attention Jews pay to the turning of earth and heaven’s dome, in the liminal hours of dawn and dusk and depth of night, hours the Jews consider the holiest of holy, that I find myself wrapped in the most sacred prayer shawl, one I had never known was mine.
But now, it deeply is. Even if my DNA claims otherwise.
as published in America Magazine, April 9, 2019
on the soulful journey that is your own, have you been surprised by where you’ve found epiphanies and hallelujahs?
p.s. happy blessed birthday, VPK, and ellabellabeautiful, too!