In order to tell you the answer to the title question, I have to call on memories of that sage who is always going to be beyond all other sages no matter how much I study (at least in the sphere of how much she is influencing me);
When visiting the Native American Museum of Washington DC with my little brother and I when we were both still in school, my mother, who to be fair, was in a bad mood, finally found my brother and I as we dashed all over the museum, squealing that we would do anything to be Native Americans and live as one with the land and how disgusting the trail of tears is. Everything about Mom’s face said she was going to end the party. I don’t remember an exact quotation (I thought about making one up but I don’t think she would like that) but I’ll never forget the certainty and force in her voice as she expressed to my brother and I that this was not a game, that this culture, Native American culture, had died out, had been killed, and was now mainly confined to a museum. That it was not fun to come here, and that it should not make us day dream, it should make us go home as soon as possible and start trying to preserve our own culture, that the scariest trend these days is the way we spend time making a fetish of other cultures (at museums or on TV) and never look around at who is actually around us, our actual community, our actual culture, our actual identity, and work to strengthen it. And, as a result, our own richness, our own history, our own systems that keep us connected to real living people, are also slowly disappearing.
My mother had a particular culture in mind when she made this statement. Guess what it was. Have you guessed? Did you guess Judaism?
WRONG! Judaism must just be on your mind for some reason.
Although my mom is Jewish, you’ll have to ask her what she thinks the Jewish responsibility to Jewish culture is, because in this story she was giving my brother and I the responsibility to keep
WEST VIRGINIAN culture alive (by the way, we’re from West Virginia, my mom’s grand parents on one side moved from New York to West Virginia, and I grew up on land that an ancestor on my Dad’s side was given as a reward for destroying its Indian population. As an aside that may matter later in this post; another role model adult family member on my mother’s side asked me last summer before Tisha B’Av how it felt to know that my ancestors had done that massacre so I could have my beautiful farm, and that now I was about to go to a country and identify strongly with a group that was also driving a native people from their home, (she meant the Palestinian People.))
Now, my mom had a beautiful point. In fact, my mother is super full of wisdom and passion (and the other role model that I mention is my role model for many legitimate reasons and will always be). But growing up I often thought my mom was perfectly right about everything, and I wouldn’t want to trick you guys into that same mindset without telling you some information that you might want to take into account. My mom often pontificated on pseudo-native American values to my brother and I as we grew up on our farm eating meat milk eggs fruit and vegetables we raised or grew or collected, and the deer and occasionally other small animals (turkey, squirrel, once a duck that mom had just hit with her car and couldn’t bear leaving to rot) that roamed the area.
Did you know Native American hunters had great respect for the lives they took and whispered to them thank you before they skinned them? Did you know Native Americans never wasted any part of the animal out of respect and that if there was no practical use for a part of the animal they used it to make art?
That’s fine if you didn’t know that because I don’t think those things are true, and I call them “pseudo” because first of all there were and are more than one Native American tribe, and I’m sure they all had different practices. And second of all, the other thing she taught us about, kosher butchering, turned out to be more of a Midrash (story created to explain something in a text) on part of the spirit of Kosher Style butchering.
And it was a beautiful Midrash; my mom is an excellent Midrash writer. Maybe I’ll tell you more about her understandings if you ask me… but it will be unclear and nostalgic.
Now, how am I going to relate that whole first part to Avatar, the major motion picture?
Well, I happened to be visiting WV when Avatar came back. I was spending time with my mom bothering her with my new analities (I guess that isn’t really a word, but you know what I mean) about Jewish ritual, and refusing to eat the meat that she so lovingly carefully prepared for me from its conception. Understandably, I needed a break, so I went to Avatar with one of my best friends, someone I’ve known my whole life, perhaps partly because our families were some of the few Jewish families in a small town, although to be fair, my family was only half Jewish, but it’s a small enough town that that counts. Her family had had a much more active relationship with Judaism, she went to Hebrew School, celebrated holidays we did not, and to make matters more comfortable for everyone, she was learning about Yiddish music on the side at the same time that she was dabbling in West Virginian Old time music. Her main focus was finishing up a major in Peace studies.
Now, compare that to me who was frumming out (becoming more religious, probably in a unstable way). Not really, I’m not really so intense. But when I go home, I’m the poster child of the ultra orthodox. If you know me, now would be an appropriate time to laugh. But don’t really compare my friend and I because I think my take away message from learning the Cain and Hevel story in Chumash Aleph was not to compare myself to my loved ones. Plus… I can’t see myself and what I do and how I affect people and what my labels are so clearly anyway.
Back to the point: I was sitting there watching Avatar RACKED with guilt. Everything was reminding me how I had failed my mother. The blue people were obviously native peoples. And I was obviously the humans, making a fetish of them even as I was in the process of murdering them off. In fact I was murdering my poor little town! My poor little circle of endangered West Virginians (most of whom are college educated, many of whom are Jewish, and almost all fairly recent immigrants to that state, with only a few token exceptions) I was like an Avatar working for the humans even! the detested deserter. If I were a good daughter I would just come home and learn to shoot squirrels with a bow and arrow and play the Banjo and talk about art history a lot. Why was I not living as one with nature, particularly West Virginian nature?
As that girl Avatar bent down over her kill with complex and unpractical movements, seeming in some way to make its dying process quicker and more honorable, angry that she had had to take a life without reason, even an animal life (animals are different than humans in my thinking by the way, but very precious anyway, and my thinking is of course strongly influenced by my mom), my body tensed with a strong wish that I could return to passively participating in my mother’s personal rituals and world view.
And then my sweet redeeming friend, with that special smell she has had my whole life, leaned over me, and whispered, with only love and excitement for her people (and love for all peoples) in her voice, “Coretta, its just like Kashrut”.
God bless my accepting and gentle friend. Because then I was snapped back out of the “visiting home funk” and remembered what I think and feel and know and wonder about and wonder at; PEOPLE ARE COMPLICATED!!!!!! Calm down and stop beating yourself up over black and white versions of us that you know both in your gut and in your head are not complete. Your family, who you love, they just want peace for you. They care about you. That’s why they want to try and tackle the stuff in you head (so even if they read this and get mad (just for example) they will appreciate the chance to have something to work out with you (verses just being unconnected to you)). So stop freaking out Coretta and you’ll be able to watch them on their ways and enjoy and learn a lot and maybe even be a solid listener for them. I don’t have to be one with the ones that are most important to me, in fact I can’t be in this reality.
The movie Avatar exists to tell a story which has truth in it, but the reason they resorted to aliens may partly be because real people are not that simplified, real stories are almost never that simplified.
What is West Virginian culture? We must have already lost it or never cared enough about it. I guess I hope that someone else is really preserving it with the care I am not. And if it there were a museum about it (which doesn’t have to mean its dead) I would love to visit and enjoy and learn what I can.
Way in the forefront of my mind right now, this year that I’m learning at Pardes in Jerusalem, is Judaism, and it needs tending or watering (may more rains come to Israel) or maybe navigating, but not preserving, its growing and living and teeming and exploding, and that is a miracle. I expect everyone who reads this to submit a 200 page essay to me by next Friday on why and how this is so, please mention the wonder of the written word but also go farther than that. Just kidding, but I would totally read those essays and send you my reactions to them.
I’m not a Kosher Butcher right now (is it in my future? Who knows? If you know someone who would teach me I might be interested) However, I try to treat our whole intricate, comprehensive system like it is as real as it is, and live out all the parts I can (may I continue to go deeper and fuller with awareness, courage, and pride, and may my learning benefit my people and my planet as it benefits me). I’m not sure how to clarify but I’ll give an example: I just moved into an apartment I could cook in and I bought some dishes, so, I went to a Mikveh to ritually emerge them. Of course I got lost on the way there, but finally made it with a lot of help from friends on the phone and from strangers.
When I finally had all the stickers off the pans (there can’t be any stickers on them because every part of the pan should be touched by the water) and my arms in a freezing cistern up past my elbows, it was pretty late at night. I could smell wood smoke, like back at my old home in West Virginia, I heard quite family voices from inside the stone buildings and it was just the right temperature to keep me very awake. I think the word is brisk.
Suddenly, I was out of my head at last, out of my tenseness, out of my worrying that there might not be a way to work out this balagan (mess), that I might not ever be able to read Chumash in Hebrew. I was shaken by the temperature enough to notice where I was, but I was made even more awake by doing something that did not make practical sense, I was out of the race for a second, I was stepping back and doing something for only the sake of the Big Picture. So, I was where I was for the first time in a while, my whole self was free to focus on the sensory experience of a practice that was both age old and very here and now, both personal and much much bigger than that, both about my loved ones, about my ancestors and where I come from, and… just that moment with myself.
Its ok that I’m trying to learn Torah for a year. It is ok that I live in Jerusalem for a year. It is not breaking anything. It may be fixing something. I don’t think I could really say what at this moment. But I think it is.