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Monica Friedman: The Glove That Covers the Hand of God

During the renovation of my website, it was necessary to take down the interviews that had previously been posted under "Inner Journeys." I've intended to repost some or all of them at different points, but it was helpful to Monica to repost hers now rather than later. If you haven't had a chance to read it, do, as it's both thought-provoking and profound.

I met Monica Friedman a little over ten years ago after I decided at age 56 to leave New Mexico for the MFA program in creative writing at Western Michigan University (WMU) in Kalamazoo. My advisor had hooked me up with Monica’s best friend Sarah, so I could talk to potential fellow grad students about the program and get some help looking for housing. Actually Monica was graduating that spring and planning to move to Tucson, so, although I felt an immediate connection, I didn’t think we’d have much opportunity to develop a friendship.

As it happened, social media played a role in growing our friendship. When another WMU student graduated and went to teach English in Prague, I joined her Prague Blague. Unbeknownst to me for some time because I didn’t know her user persona, Monica was a frequent commenter. When I figured it out, we started communicating. One result was that four years ago, Monica, Sarah, one other writer and I got together for a week in Camp Verde, AZ for what we called Desert Rats Writers Camp, and it became an annual thing, except that this year only Monica and I could make it, and we chose Flagstaff for its cool climate instead of Camp Verde.

On the last evening of Camp, we settled on matching brown leather couches to talk about Monica’s spiritual journey. As much as we’d corresponded over the years, I wasn’t quite sure what her story would be. One of our earliest exchanges about spirituality happened when Monica interviewed me about my book Viktor Frankl: A Life Worth Living. She asked if, in the process of writing it, I had learned much about Judaism. I replied rather reticently that I’d already known quite a bit, since I had at one time studied to convert. She wrote back something akin to, “You don’t have to be so retiring about it.” I explained the source of my diffidence and offered to share an essay-length memoir about my dance with Judaism. Monica was supportive after reading it, and when I later wrote To Drink from the Silver Cup, the memoir of my spiritual journey, she said she hoped I would include my story about my relationship with Judaism, which I did.

Now, as we sat in the dying summer light, I wondered what I would hear from Monica. I started by asking about her childhood faith. “Oh, I think I believed in God. My earliest memories of religion are at about six or seven, and I believed everything I was told about Judaism. Until I was about twelve. I stopped going to shul then except for the high holidays. When I was sixteen, I was completely done with religion and refused to go even to high holy days, despite the fact that it angered my mother and father.

“Did they put a lot of pressure on you?”

“Absolutely. They said stuff like, ‘You’re breaking your parents’ hearts.’ They went as far as to say, ‘You’re finishing what Hitler started,’ even though that was usually reserved more for dating people outside of Judaism.”

“So how would you describe your faith now?”

“I consider myself a pantheist. I believe there’s one Thing in the Universe—you, me, and the lamppost. Grass is God; trees are God; quasars are God. We’re just like the glove over the hand that’s God. Matter is like the covering that God wears.”

“Wow,” I thought, though I didn’t say it. “That’s profoundly beautiful. I love it.”

What I did say was, “Can you describe your evolutionary process—from being done with religion, to being where you are now, thinking of yourself as part of the covering that God wears?”

“Yeah. I was totally an atheist from sixteen on. Then I took a class in college—a psych class about Carl Jung. It was because I couldn’t get into the class I wanted. This class had eight or ten upper classmen and a young prof. The students really directed the class. We were talking about synchronicity, morphogenic fields, and archetypes.

Although I’m quite familiar with Jungian psychology, I’d never heard the term morphogenic field, and I had to ask. “It’s about everything being connected,” she said. “I started seeing synchronicity in my own life.” I smiled at this, thinking that not being able to get into the class she wanted had been a bit of synchronicity.

She went on. “As the child of a PhD chemist and a school teacher, I’d been taught to rely on evidence. Taking this class opened me to the idea of synchronicity. I saw that there were things we can’t measure, things beyond quantitative measure, things we can feel but can’t touch. Ideas I had about pantheism came to me as I thought about the Universe and about things that were divine or spiritual. I thought, ‘No religion can own the Truth. And, there can’t be a separation between matter and spirit.’

“Those ideas were developing in me, and then I really got into yoga. I did the yoga teacher training, read the Bhagavad Gita and studied that philosophy. That validated the beliefs I’d been coming to. I realized that I wasn’t the only person who had come to this conclusion. I still hadn’t heard the word pantheist. But then I made friends with a guy online, a zookeeper. He used the word, and that’s when I knew there was a word for what I am.”

I shifted direction a bit. “You’ll always be Jewish,” I said. “But how would you describe your relationship to Judaism now?

“I’m culturally Jewish.” There was a definiteness in how she said that. Then she added, “My stepchildren are nominally part Jewish. Hitler would’ve counted them, even though their mother doesn’t.” Her stepchildren’s mother is ethnically Jewish but a convert to evangelical Christianity.

“We light candles, eat Jewish food. I tell the children stories that work for me. I’ll always love Isaac Bashevis Singer. I’m kind of like Kafka. He didn’t relate to Judaism, but he had areas of interest in the culture. Like I have interest in Kabbalah. I light candles sometimes. I have mezuzahs on the front door and on our bedroom doors. I don’t go to shul except for Bat and Bar Mitzvahs, baby namings. I have gone to support my dad on my grandfather’s yahrzeit. I haven’t turned my back on my culture like some people have.”

“Awhile back,” I said, “I mentioned a film about a boy with Down Syndrome who loves to daven. You said you had the film in your Netflix queue, but that you were tired of seeing things about Judaism. Can you say something about this? Is this something you feel all the time, or is there an ebb and flow to it?”

“I agree that there’s an ebb and flow. The people I know who are very into their religion, their world is very small. My world encompasses Judaism and a lot more. I talk about this with Tabor [her husband]. My parents, for example, don’t spend any time with people who don’t believe as they do, who aren’t the same as they are. All the interesting people and ideas I would be missing to live like that! And I don’t see how people who know about world mythology can think theirs is the True Religion. They’ve made up their minds without judging the evidence.”

There was a pause. Then Monica said, “I say sometimes that I need to meditate more, but when I write and am in the zone, then I am meditating, even sometimes tapping into the Divine. And how good it is! When you do, when you feel like it’s coming from someplace else.”

“What do you mean?”

“Sometimes when I’m giving advice or throwing Tarot, I feel that this is coming through me. It’s not me giving the advice. I can write pages and pages, coming from some deeper place, whether within me or without me. It’s tapping into the Divine. I think anyone can do it—our brains are wired for that. It’s a choice to tap into it or not. You feel it—God, spirituality, ecstasy. It feels like magic. It feels wonderful.”

She paused again, and shifted back to talking about her experience of Judaism, the Jewish community she grew up in. “I didn’t say this before, but the kids in Hebrew School were so mean to me. The community wasn’t loving and welcoming. I didn’t date many Jewish guys because they were entitled assholes.

“What I liked best about synagogue was oneg Shabbat, eating the tiny éclairs.” [after services] I smiled, thinking of a very poignant vignette Monica had written and shared with some of us, about walking to shul with her father in the falling snow at night and about the pleasure she had taken in oneg Shabbat that night.

Monica shifted again, back to the things she didn’t like about Judaism. “Those aren’t the reasons I didn’t believe in Judaism,” she said. “I didn’t believe in Judaism because organized religion doesn’t make sense to me.”

“Why not?”

“How can you claim to be in complete possession of the Truth when other people had complete possession of the same truth for thousands of years before you? And the Bible contradicts itself. So much of it doesn’t make any sense.

“You know, I didn’t always repent on Yom Kippur, but I didn’t die because of it.” Another pause. “And there’s so much hypocrisy. How can you believe in their beliefs?”

Monica Friedman is the author of Rosalind Franklin’s Beautiful Twist and of the comic blog, Qwertyvsdvorak.com and several essays.

Check out her blog by copying and pasting http://qwertyvsdvorak.com into your URL.

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