icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

FISSURE: A Life Between Cultures



On summer evenings I lay in bed and looked out at the massive heap of boulders across from the mission. My eyes touched certain rocks each night, always coming to rest on the huge flat block that had tumbled down eons before, like Lucifer from heaven, separated from the gigantic guardians at the top of the mound. It lay on its side, glowing the color of a ripe apricot in the last light, then turning a dark purple-brown. I held that rock in my vision until my eyes grew heavy. Drowsing, I listened to the opening strains of the lullaby on the hilltop.

The song began with drums booming a deep solemn cadence, followed by chanting, slow and low in the beginning, becoming high-pitched, wild and insistent. I drifted off. When I woke in the middle of the night, the ululations still beat the air, and I wondered if I had slept at all. I felt a fierce surge in my chest, accompanied by guilt, because my parents wanted this summer song, this Diné ceremony, to end. The people my parents hoped to convert were the ones who offered me the first inkling that there could be more than one pathway to the Infinite.

Strict Calvinists, Dutch Reformed missionaries in the Navajo Nation, raised me. In many ways, as I would later try to explain, it was like growing up Orthodox Jewish with Christ thrown in. Being Dutch was part of being Christian, just as ethnicity is part of being Jewish. Of my seven brothers, the third generation born in this country, only one has married a woman who isn't Dutch American. Of course, the part about Christ being thrown in isn't quite right, because Christ was not a minor figure. Also, we were missionaries, and Judaism is not a proselytizing religion.

In our own way, we kept the Sabbath as Orthodox Jews do. My mother peeled potatoes for Sunday dinner on Saturday nights to avoid working on the Sabbath. On Sundays we weren't allowed to ride bikes. Recently I learned of a public figure whose Orthodox rabbi father destroyed her brother's bicycle because he rode it on the Sabbath. We couldn't play with the neighbor kids, read comics, or play baseball on the Sabbath. We did not buy things, because it would be wrong to cause anyone else to work. We went to church at least twice, sometimes three times, on Sundays and once during the week.

We breathed the Bible, memorized verses and chapters, often by default just because we heard them so often. While we ate, we parsed and analyzed scripture to ensure that we obeyed every commandment exactly as God intended. Then after every meal we read scripture, too.


Childhood dinner conversations with my father remind me today of Chaim Potok's characters dissecting Torah and Talmud over a meal. Like us, they tried to determine how the law must be observed.

My paternal grandfather belonged to the Nederduitsers, an even stricter, more cheerless Calvinist sect than ours. I recall a meal where my father and I discussed one of Grandpa's arcane beliefs.

"We got a letter from Grandpa today. He's saying it's a sin for us to have a cross hanging in the chapel. Why would he say that?" my father asked.

Without missing a beat, I answered, "Because to him it's a graven image. The First Commandment says, 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.'"

"Do you think he's right?"

"Well, Moses made the brass serpent so the Israelites who were bitten by snakes could look at it and be healed. The serpent was a graven image, and God was the one who told Moses to make it. I think the point of the commandment is that we shouldn't put any images above God in our hearts. So if the cross isn't more important to us than God, it's okay."

My father approved.

I run naked in the early dawn light. The cool air rushes past my body, and I feel good, until I start to worry that people will see. Then I notice that an orange towel is wrapped around my hips, making me feel safer.

I come to a church whose floors glow a deep blood red. The orange towel now covers my breasts, too. I find myself in the church basement, where people are singing the old hymn, "Out of My Bondage," and I join in, my voice rich and sonorous.

Later, a young man gives us stacks of gospel pamphlets. He announces, "A neighborhood near the church is in trouble. We're going to distribute these to help them out."

Now I want to leave. My body has changed clothing again. I wear a navy skirt and white blouse. I'm hefting a Bible. I pretend I'm about to throw up by covering my mouth and retching, and I race up the stairs and out of the building. Once outside, I can barely move my legs, and I long for the joyous, powerful running from the beginning of my dream. I feel anxious, afraid the young man will follow me and see that I'm not really sick. I can hardly move at all.


A few weeks before this dream, I had decided to devote my summer writing to defining my religious identity. After leaving our church, I had spent twenty-seven years trying to avoid believing in anything. On the first page of my new journal I wrote, "I feel that I know less than I have ever known, that I am an untethered astronaut, adrift in the cosmos. I want to know, not an objective Truth, because I don't think one exists. But I want to know my own mind, my own experience. I want to leave behind the nebulous clouds in which I've clothed myself. I will instead take on a cloak of substance, one that I can feel and others can see."

My sophomore year of college, I lived with a Jewish family, and that spring I took part in my first Passover Seder with Sylvia and Abe. I knew the Passover story as told in the book of Exodus. I could name the ten plagues in order without hesitation. I had been taught that the moral of the story was twofold: failure to obey God's commands could result in severe, even fatal, consequences; and the Jews were God's special people.

While brisket bubbled in the oven, Sylvia chopped apples and walnuts to make haroset. I made a salad, and she arranged a shank bone, a hard-boiled egg, a dish of horseradish, saltwater, parsley, and the haroset on a platter. I placed matzah, the unleavened bread that I'd learned about in Exodus, into a basket lined with a napkin. Matzah ball soup simmered on the stove.

At the table I learned that haroset stood for the mortar the people of Israel had used as slaves in Egypt. Saltwater symbolized their tears, parsley the new life of spring. Abe and Sylvia's youngest niece read the four questions from the Haggadah. We drank sweet, dark Manischewitz and sang "Dayenu," the explosion of gratitude that says, "It would have been enough." Fifteen stanzas sing the joy of liberation—"If he had brought us out of Egypt, it would have been enough….If he had split the Red Sea, it would have been enough." When the meal and the questions and the wine and the singing were done, the children searched for the hidden afikoman, the matzah that had been broken in half to be found and eaten after dessert.

Ritual touches the imagination and the emotions, leading to a depth of spiritual experience that the intellect cannot provide. Throughout the meal and long afterwards I reflected on the significance of the food, the words, the music, and the people with whom I had joined. In church I had sung a hymn that went, "When I see the blood, I will pass, I will pass over you." I had been taught that this was the Christian extension of Passover—Jesus' blood causing the Angel of Death to pass over us believers. After my first Seder, Passover meant something deeper and older than that. It was as if the food and the wine, no longer mere symbols, had in some ineffable way become part of me.


© Anna Redsand, 2024. All Rights Reserved.


To be continued on Monday, 4/1/24

"A Good Stranger" was first published in slightly different form in Isthmus.

Post a comment