Monday, July 26, 2010

Gang Colors and Religious Insignia 3--The Sign of the Pig

The other day I had an invitation to eat at The Iberian Pig. Now this gave me pause. For Reform Jews, the degree of kashrut followed is a matter of conscience, but even prior to the last three years I was thinking about not eating pork, ever since reading Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole. That book brought home the terrible stinking grossness of hog farming. Being down wind of one was intolerable, people were ill, and the water table was being contaminated. Can you get free-range pigs?

In medieval Spain and Portugal, with the Inquisition breathing down their necks, Jews had to pass as Christians and do such things as keep lard on the boil on their porches--or display hams in their windows at Easter (and, of course, eat them). The Inquisition (short for "The Holy Inquisition Against Depraved Heresy") was supposed to concern itself only with rooting out Christian heresy. But since Jews were being forced to convert on pain of death, they would continue to practice Judaism secretly. "Pig" paired with "Iberian" brings that history to mind in a way that the local barbecue pit does not.

I don't think for a minute that this local Decatur restaurateur has any notion of the Inquisition. Nevertheless I felt out of place under the sign of the pig. I don't want to flaunt who I am. I just don't want to be anywhere that I have to pretend I'm not me or possibly celebrate the heritage of the Inquisition.

Going to church with Dennis does not present me with that same problem. I participate as I can; everyone knows very well that I'm a Jew. I have participated in the monthly lunches--not a problem. But the spring barbecue on the front lawn under the pig-mascot sign? Not for me!

An invitation from loved ones is a horse of another color--not something to discard lightly. But The Iberian Pig won't be my choice for a return visit.

By the way, according to Geraldine Brooks in People of the Book, church and crown were not too picky about who came under the purview of the Inquisition. The military campaign to drive the Muslims out of the peninsula had been very expensive. So much the better when someone, whether converso or Christian, could be charged and convicted of heresy. The unfortunate individual's property would be confiscated and go toward refilling the crown's coffers.

Addendum, Sept. 10, 2010
I think some Christians are beginning to "get" this pig thing. The news this past week as been about the Gainesville, Florida, preacher who was planning to burn the Qur'an and throw in some pork for good measure. It has become an international incident. Apparently this is also the time of the year when some churches hold pig roasts. (Shades of Sukkot, the Feast of Booths?) A friend was going on and on about all the "Pigs on Fire" church cook-outs he was planning to attend, when someone lightly commented she wasn't too thrilled with his term "ecclesiastical barbecue" right now.

When it was just us Jews, Christians did not have to experience confrontation by a pluralistic world. They have us so outnumbered that they can avoid that confrontation--just say it doesn't mean anything, and by the way, why are you so over-sensitive, get over it. Muslims--a different story.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Gang Colors and Other Religious Insignia--2

I was going to participate in breaking the daily fast on the first day of Ramadan on Monday, September 1, 2008, with the women's interfaith book club at Charis. The three Muslim women had recommended we wear some kind of head covering, saying it didn't matter what kind. So I had phoned and asked if they would be offended if I wore a kippah, and they said not at all.

A kippah is a head covering some Jews wear to indicate reverence for God. Some say it is worn as a reminder there's something "above" the wearer. Perhaps you've heard of yarmulka. That used to be the more common term. Yarmulka is Yiddish; kippah is Hebrew.

Back in the '50's and early '60's at the Temple, no one wore a kippah. American Reform Judaism at that point in time was rejecting such traditions; they were not considered "modern" or suitably integrationist. When I showed up again over 40 years later, everything had changed. A number of men were wearing kippot. So were women, which was unheard of before. The old tradition had been enlivened. Society had changed, too; people had become proud of their ethnicity.

So I put on my kippah. My hair was still long. I pulled it back and bobby-pinned the kippah on the back of my head. It was winter-white with blue and purple stripes in a roughly circular design. My then-25-year-old son came by the house. I felt a little embarrassed but I guess he took it in stride. My children were raised before I rediscovered Judaism.

I got in my car and drove to the bookstore. It felt risky when I got out of the car, but it's only a few steps to the door. Inside, I still felt awkward with my kippah on. It didn't help that I hadn't finished the book for the evening (Qur'an and Woman by Amina Wadud). I was over-committed, of course--when am I not?--but what did that mean except that I had deemed this book less worthy of my time? It also meant I had little to contribute. Then the Muslim women led us in the "breakfast." This was turning out to be one of those times I feel stilted and apart and couldn't fix it. The hat didn't help. Although they had asked me to wear a head covering, I felt like I was grandstanding.

Outside afterward, that vulnerable feeling again! Glad to jump into my car, drive home, take it off! I need to fill up my rituals with meaning before I perform them. Also, this was a mail-order kippah with a pointy look to it. One of the new gently rounded ones, like little circles, would work better. As with any clothing, you will feel better if what you're wearing is in style. And no grandstanding for me; I will not show up at your church wearing a kippah unless I'm wearing one at my synagogue!

One other thought. I said I felt odd and isolated wearing the kippah. Well, if I set myself apart, shouldn't I expect to be targeted? I've heard something like that twice in the last three years, from separate cross-sections of liberal white religious but post-Christian Atlanta. That's enough to think it's a pattern. Here's one example: "Now, Jan, if you, Dennis and I went to some foreign country and kept to ourselves with our own customs, couldn't we anticipate persecution?" That one was from a minister (and a Buddhist), arm around my shoulder, confidingly. Spoken as though by someone who's above it all. The other source was less creepy.

It turns out this sentiment surfaced during the French National Assembly circa 1789 in the struggle to ratify the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The reactionary view was that Jews should not have civil rights because--for one reason--they had excluded themselves and did not mingle with society. The liberal answer was that they were forced by law to live apart! In other words, the issue was legal segregation, not ethnic customs. Blessedly we don't have legal segregation these days, but I think "You should expect to be persecuted because you set yourself apart" actually refers to how Christian theology sets Jews apart for not accepting Christianity, not to the circumstance of Jews' having our own customs. My hypothesis is supported by the otherwise general liberal embrace of immigrants and ethnicity. It's also supported by the fact that culturally assimilated Jews have not been immune from hateful attitudes--or persecution.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Gang Colors and Religious Insignia--1

Oh my God, those earrings--are they the Muslim design, whatever it's called?

A quick look in the 1st place I could think of, the printed list of symbols for use with obituaries and available in every day's paper tells me, yes, the star and crescent, that is the familiar Muslim symbol.

I have had this pair of earrings for years. Fifteen? Twenty? They have never been a frequent choice because of the color, an unshiny, almost greenish gunmetal gray. They are thin, inch-and-a-quarter crescent-moon-shaped pendants with a small five-point star hanging from the top horn. Each moon is decorated with a vaguely fruit-looking geometric design. I couldn't say where I bought them but remember I did buy them. They were not a gift. To me they had always been reminiscent of that fairy-tale man-in-the-moon sleepy-time motif. They had come up in my mind today as a possibility for the outfit I'd put on. It was then that the Muslim connection hit me.

I'm a Jew but for the 1st 60-plus years of my life it would never have occurred to me that I might be wearing the Islamic symbol. I grew up in Decatur, a suburb of Atlanta where from 1902 until 1932, the public school week was Tuesday through Saturday. Therefore few Jewish families settled there. That was still the case in the 1950s and '60s when I was in school. Although I attended the Temple downtown on Peachtree, the neighborhood ruled, in terms of my identity group. Also, my parents celebrated Christmas and Easter in the secular aspects of those holidays. The only Jewish holiday we celebrated in the home was Chanukah, and even that was limited to reading the prayer and lighting the Menorah. My parents have died, so I've missed the chance to ask them the reason for their choices, but thankfully they held on to their Judaism. They have bequeathed to me a spiritual treasure chest.

The upshot of all this is that for most of my life a Christmas sweater or ornament earrings at the holidays were de rigueur. I thought nothing of it. In my reality, the "Jewish community" didn't exist, until everything changed three years ago. (And how that occurred is another story.) All of a sudden the colors you wear define the camp you're in. Jews do not wear red and green in December. Red's fine; Christians don't have a copyright on the color (although jingle bells and snowflakes--maybe!). For Christians, too, the colors are not insignificant. In a seasonal Sunday-school class I attended last year, someone laughingly but quickly re-framed a woman's royal-blue dress (which was actually pretty close to the color of the Israeli flag, I thought) as "Madonna blue," quickly bringing her within the pale.

All this takes some some thinking about, some careful programming!

So, anyway, I looked up the moon-and-star motif. Yes, the Islamic symbol is known as the star and crescent. No, the motif did not materialize with the Prophet Muhammad. It has featured in various combinations across the world. Like most of our symbols it arose first in a pagan context with the crescent representing, naturally enough, the moon god, and the star, Ishtar. As far back as the 14th and 13th centuries BCE, the crescent and star symbol were found in the environs of ancient Israel, supposedly on Moabite name seals. Coins are a major way we find out about ancient icons. Coins with the star and crescent show up in Byzantium associated with the cults of Mithras and Hecate. Though some scholars think the Muslims took the symbol from the Byzantine empire, others say it was already in use by Turkish states across Asia and by the 400-year-old dynasty and world power that existed in Persia before the coming of Islam. At any rate the star and crescent was not exclusively identified with Islam, as some Byzantine emperors were still using it on their coins during the crusades!

And now, Bing has tons of star/crescent images--including the sleepy man-in-the-moon with star, tattoo patterns, and even crescent-moon Santa Clauses with stars. A Portuguese and a British town include a star-crescent in their coats of arms (although with the crescent on its back and the star hovering above). And of course there's the Shriners' symbol.

And I googled Muslim jewelry but found no star-crescent earrings.

So--will I wear them? I thought I wouldn't, but after working my way through all of this in writing--maybe so! If I'm not confused! And if the place is right! ...But it still may feel weird. Would you? And if you are Muslim, would you be offended? If you think I'm totally neurotic, and if you are a Jew, would you wear a cross? If you are a Christian would you wear a Star of David? What if the symbols were somewhat indeterminate? If you are out of a Christian tradition but not active, would you wear a cross? If you are a Jew but not practicing, would you wear a Star of David? A Chai?

A dream

Yesterday I had a mini-dream--that is, hypnogogic, the ones that last just a few seconds while you're falling asleep but you don't quite fall all the way. It was during a nap that started out restless. Just experiential and visual--no sound, emotions, other sensations. Experience of being...pelted by something. Certainly not stones--too small (and no pain). Not hail or sleet--no cold, and...yes, there's a blue sky.'s seeds! And maybe there is a light, brushing sensation....
I could have a blog.
Half the time I sit and stare at Facebook. Should I make that post? What would be the use of it? Would it just be a bother?
I do have an idea, although my first experience here seems to be Blogger's Block!