Having It Both Ways (or More Than Two)

This year, several people (out of respect) have avoided wishing me a merry Christmas, instead wishing me a happy Hanukkah (well after Hanukkah was over) or happy holidays. The intent is generous and thoughtful. But I grew up celebrating Christmas. I consider it a beautiful holiday when celebrated well. I also love Christmas music of various kinds (I have a fond memory of Louisa Burnham singing “Balulalow” in our high school chorus long ago). I would have a Christmas tree, except that the cats would tear it down.

This leads to a larger question that has been on my mind. For nine years I have been practicing Judaism (and for four years serving as cantor at Szim Salom). But does this mean that I’m supposed to be only Jewish, to deny being anything else? That would be false; I am not only Jewish, and my upbringing wasn’t Jewish except maybe slightly, through hints here and there. I don’t mean I want to practice both Christianity and Judaism; I see how fraught that would be. I just do not find personal meaning in Jewish separateness (on the whole, with exceptions and qualifications). It does not make sense to me for my own life. I understand it and see its historical roots (for one thing, it was tragically forced onto the Jews many times over the centuries; and for another, it allowed Jewish practices and traditions to take shape). I love some of its meanings and principles. But it is not fully true for me. I not only want to find common ground with others, but basically do. I know that some people will perceive me as separate anyway, and that if a vicious form of anti-Semitism should rise up, I would not be spared. But let that be part of a larger truth.

Religious practice is a commitment, and its details matter. At the same time, I see it as an approximation of something else. Besides providing some sort of structure and moral framework, a religion offers a form for approaching the unapproachable and ineffable. The form is essential and serious. But it isn’t the divine. It is a way toward the divine. At least that is how I see it. I do not treat the form as literal law. But I don’t dismiss it as nonsense either.

In that light, and on that level, different religions can meet. But because the form is so important, and because the details have so many historical layers and reasons, one can’t just “mix and match.”

In other words, I don’t believe religious doctrine (Jewish or Christian) in any literal way. (What constitutes the “literal” is a complex question for another time.) I believe it as a gesture toward something else, a way of expressing something that can’t be said. My Judaism is not a rejection of Christianity; it’s where I find a home for the soul. But it isn’t my only home; I also find home in music, in poetry, in teaching, in surprising everyday things. And I am also in search of home, always.

I practiced Christianity in my early adulthood—in Episcopalean, Lutheran, and Catholic churches. (That too was absent from my upbringing, except for religious classical music.) At age twenty-five or so I drifted away; I stayed away from all organized religion until 2013 when, after a series of unexpected events, I started going to synagogue and learning Jewish liturgy and cantillation. I have been up front about the earlier part of my history; although I don’t talk about it often, it is not a secret.

This does not mean I am just “part Jewish.” I am fully Jewish by Jewish law, through matrilineal descent, as well as through practice and in my heart. (My father isn’t Jewish, whereas my mother’s parents, grandparents, and ancestors were all Jewish as far as I know.) But there’s more to any human than one particular identity, more than percentages of this and that. We are infinite, made up of many things, not entirely determined by our background, and never finally fixed. It isn’t just that I’m also Irish, Norwegian, French; I am also made up of the music I listen to, the poetry I read, the people I meet, the things I think about and write, life with all its ruptures and gifts, and things still to come. “I am a part of all that I have met; / Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’ / Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades / For ever and forever when I move.”

What’s the problem? someone might ask. Who’s putting pressure on you to be anything you aren’t? No one deliberately. But I want a new level of truth in my life. Some of this can’t be external, because external things always get mistaken and misclassified. Some truth can only be private. But I want to try to do better in getting to know others and letting them know me as I am.

People who are Jewish on both sides of the family, or who were brought up Jewish, or who want and need a particular cultural identity, may have trouble with what I am saying. But I know I am far from alone, and even if I were alone, I would have to find my way. And by that I don’t mean living by “me, me, me,” but rather taking part in the world, in a way that keeps unfolding.

Art credit: Marc Chagall, 1913, Paris par la fenêtre (Paris Through the Window), oil on canvas, 136 x 141.9 cm, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.

I made a few edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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