We cast a wide, loose net and asked a good number of people this question: “Describe a moment in your life that you would call spiritual.”
Only after we had the responses in hand did we recognize that we had, on some level, anticipated something quite different. Generally we were imagining spirituality as something that stands up and stretches after a long nap. Our spiritual sherpas, however, felt otherwise. Even while napping, they seem to suggest, they stay spiritually on the qui vive. Their spirituality is life.
We also noted that an extremely high percentage of women wrote about giving or watching birth. (We were unable to include some of these answers here.) The frequency of this response does not necessarily argue (as one of our editors ruminated) that biology is, after all, destiny. It does, however, hint that biology informs one’s sense of the sacred.
We noticed too that the kitchen is a favorite holy hot spot (after the out-of-doors). Any comments?
Susan Weiner Reiman, storyteller, mother, poet, Princeton, NJ
The day we buried the goldfish in the backyard, my three-year-old son Jonathan and I put it in a brown-paper lunch bag, and as we started off across our half-acre backyard, I began to cry. I had lived in this house for one-and-one-half years and I had never put my hands in the dirt. I’d never even walked that far back on our property. Here my son was at the beginning of life and the goldfish was dead, and I hated the suburban development where I was living. I remembered when I was a kid and my mother flushed my goldfish down the toilet, and I didn’t want my son to have that connection with death. (At times, I’ve felt like I’ve been flushed down the toilet, and I didn’t want my son to have that connection with life, either.)
We dug a hole, and when I heard my son shoveling the dirt (what is that sound? thump? bang?) on some level it was that sound that I felt in my chest at my mother’s funeral when I shoveled the dirt on her coffin.
My son said, “Why are you crying, Mommy?” And I said, “I miss my mother. This reminds me of the time when we buried my mother in the ground. You were only a baby then, so you don’t remember her.”
The thing was I had this little boy who was standing there holding my hand, you see, so it was life and death; whereas my mother’s funeral had been death death death. I was also crying because I knew that my father-in-law had leukemia, and we’d be going to his funeral very soon. He was a Holocaust survivor and he was the ultimate grandfather. He was also very accepting of who I was; when I walked in a door, he was glad to see me.
After the fish was buried, the grass felt like grass instead of “lawn.” I asked Jonathan, “Would you like to sing something?” and he sang “Row Row Row Your Boat.”
Then I had him repeat after me the first four words of the Kaddish (Mourning Prayer); “Yisgadal V’Yiskaddash Sh’may Rabbah” and I said, “This is what we said at my Mommy’s funeral.” Jonathan made a circle of stones. The next week we planted a flower there, but it died. I like knowing there’s a goldfish buried at the back of the yard.
At the end of our funeral, I said to Jonathan. “Would you like to say anything to the goldfish?” There was some silence between us and I waited. Finally, he said, “Water.”
Nina Beth Cardin, rabbi and seminary administrator, Teaneck, NJ
I last experienced a spiritual moment with my two-week-old daughter. The baby had been changed and fed, but she was still crying. It was nighttime, quiet and dark. My sons were asleep and my husband wasn’t home. To comfort the baby, I took her in my arms and sat on our swing. We were swinging together. That’s it. That’s everything. It was nighttime, and quiet, and we were swinging.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author and editor, New York City
My synagogue has two rabbis, a man and a woman, as well as a female cantor. During the High Holy Day season, the rabbis alternate between the “sanctuary service” and the “overflow service.” This means that once on Yom Kippur, either on Kol Nidre or on the day of Yom Kippur, the congregation that worships in the main sanctuary is led by two women. When I see our female rabbi and cantor standing on the bimah (podium), leading us in prayer, I am thrilled and proud. It’s almost like a physical soaring. That moment encompasses so many spiritual highs: personal, aesthetic, religious. High Holy Days, family, unity, the leadership of women. And these women are leading not only us women, but every member of the congregation — woman, man and child. After so many years of being represented exclusively by men in my spiritual and communal life, it is awesome to be represented by women on the High Holy Days.
Chava Weissler, professor, Bethlehem, PA
In 1985, I went to see Kever Rahel [the tomb of the matriarch Rachel in Bethlehem, Israel]. When I entered the site of the monument, there were men and women standing on opposite sides of a cenotaph covered with blue velvet. Many of the Sephardic women there would go up to the velvet curtain and kiss it, as if greeting a respected and beloved older relative. When I approached the curtain, I found, to my astonishment, that I burst into tears. I backed away, and as I did, I regained my composure. Then I moved closer again to reexamine the site and the feelings it had stirred in me. Again, when I stood on the site of the grave, I burst into tears. Again, when I moved away, I stopped crying. These were not tears of sadness, but of reunion. This was someone I knew, someone to whom I could bring my troubles.
The techinos (Yiddish supplicatory prayers for and sometimes by women) that I am working on see Rachel as human and as Shechina, the female presence of God, but not as God per se. When I was at Rachel’s grave, that distinction became less clear and less important than before. I only knew that this was a real female presence. I felt it so strongly that I wanted to offer a prayer and started to recite from the Book of Psalms. I quickly realized that I was speaking the wrong words in the wrong voice. The psalms were the Psalms of David. I needed to speak as a woman to a female aspect of God. In the end, I followed the Sephardic women’s custom of encircling the cenotaph with a red thread. I wished there were words for me to say. I felt like there should be words.
Merle Feld, poet, and playwright, Princeton, NJ
I never think of myself as waiting for you
I never think of myself as waiting for you
but then when the holiday has come and gone
when I’m packing up the Pesach dishes
or taking down the sukkah
I feel hopeless and alone
Then I realize
I’ve left a small corner
somewhere deep inside myself
And in that small corner
I’m still a child
a little girl
and I had hoped
without knowing it
that this hag*
My tears fall on the Pesach dishes
and I wonder
why you’ve left me here
Faye Moskowltz, author and professor, Washington, DC
Two widely spaced spiritual moments:
At eighteen, traveling alone, stripped of parents, siblings, friends, and teachers — my mirrors — I realized myself for the first time, a separate being, no longer a reflection, but the embodiment of spirit.
Short weeks ago, as I waited for a glimpse of my first grandchild, time seemed to elongate, to embrace me, my daughter, her daughter, the grandmother for whom the new little girl was to be named; I felt myself profoundly linked to the continuum of past, present, and future — still an individual, but shorn of mere mortality by connection to all that was and is and will be.
Janet Leuchter, Klezmer singer and voice teacher. New York City
Spirituality means maintaining a sense of humor when it’s 11:00 p.m. and 90 degrees and your electricity has just died and your parents just happen to be visiting and you really need air conditioning. Spirituality means you are suffering from laryngitis just when you have to record something important. So you ask yourself, “What are my complaints compared to people I know who’ve lost parents, children, health, jobs, homes?” My most spiritual experiences come through seeing my voice students learn and change and through certain acts of tzedaka (charity).
Starhawk, writer, witch, peace activist, San Francisco
A single moment at 17. I was hitchhiking along the California coast, living in nature for the first time. There was a sense of everything around me being alive, a sense of feeling connected to the earth.
Fran Leibowitz, author, New York City
I have had no spiritual experiences. I think that such experiences are wishes, people’s longing to feel something, then refusal to accept a certain emptiness, a certain randomness, a certain percentage of experience that can’t be explained. People are groping, longing. I’m too old for that.
Debbie Friedman, composer and singer, Encino, CA
My confrontation with death and my acceptance of aloneness freed me to incorporate spiritual consciousness into my life. For me, there is no separation between spirituality and living. Spirituality is at the core of all that is.
Amy Eilberg, rabbi, Pennsylvania Valley, PA
I am a regular davener — I pray every day. For the first two weeks of my daughter’s life, I had the longest break from that daily habit that I’ve had in many years. I was exhausted, still recovering, and every minute that I was awake was spent in taking care of her. When I prayed for the first time after her birth, the prayer book tingled in my hand. Having spent every day in care-taking tasks, I found that it was a whole new davening experience. It was a whole new book.
Nahma Sandrow, author, playwright, professor. New York City
“Being grounded” is a phrase that I would use instead of spirituality. One of the great advantages to being born Jewish is that one doesn’t have to agonize over trying to be on a particular plane of spirituality. Your life does it for you. It’s in the mundane rather than in flight and height. It’s not just rising up, but rather being anchored and structured.
Compiled with the help of Jessica Schulte and Debra Orenstein.
A Woman’s Prayer From the 18th Century
by Nina Beth Cardin
In 1786, Judith Kutscher Cohen of Italy received a gift from her husband: a 112-page prayer book compiled for “a married woman to be used especially during her pregnancy, labor and birth, and purification from her (monthly) impurity.” The prayers in this siddur represent a genre of women’s liturgy, written in Hebrew, centering on the home and the woman’s role as wife and mother.
Not always immediately suitable for us today, these prayers nonetheless provide us with rare examples of women’s spiritual life from over 200 years ago. Signora Kutscher Cohen’s book is only one of several women’s siddurim in the rare book collection of the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Here is the full text of a blessing for breast-feeding:
On Breast Feeding May it be Your will, O Lord our God and God of our fathers, that you provide for your gentle creation — plenty of milk, as much as she needs.
Give me the disposition and inclination to find the time to nurse her patiently till she be satisfied.
Cause me to sleep lightly so that the moment she cries I will hear her and respond.
Spare me the horror of accidentally laying upon my child and smothering her while I sleep, God forbid.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, my Rock and my Redeemer. (translated by Nuia Beth Cardin)
Nina Beth Cardin, a Conservative rabbi, is assistant to the vice chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary.