What does it mean to be a Jew?
Can one deny its fundamental tenants and still find refuge in its traditions and stories?
Growing up, I was taught that being Jewish was more than just my religious observance or my cultural identity. It was to fill the totality of my being, both physically and spiritually. (0) For a majority of my life, I welcomed that outlook gladly.
But what was once the most obvious description of how I could label myself, became the center of one my deepest inner struggles.
I still continue to value many aspects of my religious upbringing. For example: I have fallen in love with the concept of Shabbos (1). Particularly Herschel’s notion of it being a ‘Sanctuary of Time’ (2). Allocating a part of our lives to exist in a state of being over a state of doing. But what if I practice Shabbos on Tuesday – is it no longer Shabbos?
I don’t know. I don’t know if I will ever know. I like not knowing.
Point is, I have not posed my question to offer my own explanation, nor do I have any particular desire to hear the answers of others. Rather, I would like to try and share what came out as consequence. What the question itself has taught me.
Nigunim. “A Nigun in a is a form of Jewish religious song or tune sung by groups. Nigunim are especially central to worship in Hasidic Judaism, which evolved its own structured, soulful forms to reflect the mystical joy of intense prayer (5)”.They are my Adriane’s (6) thread, binding me to a world I feared I lost behind. They continue to speak to the depths of my being, igniting my heart to the great Unknown. They were the one element of my old life that stayed with me, pure and unaltered. I have used them as an anchor to keep me grounded many times over.Click here to listen to Niggun Hachana
And then I found Kirtan. Kirtan is a genre of religious performance arts, connoting a musical form of narration or shared recitation, particularly of spiritual or religious ideas. (7) Although Kirtan originated in the 6th century by Hindu Alvars and Nayanars (8), my first experience was with fellow Millennials in my Yoga Studio in Bali. As much as anticipated the lack of authenticity, both with the surroundings and with my lack of familiarity, I was surprised by how familiar it was.
To better understand my point of view, I want to share a part of the ceremony that I recorded. I do not have a video of the ceremony, somewhat intentionally. But if you can, try to listen to the following recording eyes closed. See if, and where, it speaks to you.
I traveled half way around the world, but all I really did was trade one farbrengen (9) for another. One group of passionate believers with another. I traded one world for another and still found myself at home.
I used to think that I found myself in Nigunim. However, a more apt description would be to say that I lost myself in Nigunim.
There is a known aphorism that, “all religions are deep down saying the same thing.” Although I disagree with that maxim, I find that the sentiment people are trying to describe has a truth. That even though the medium may be different, spiritual experience is one and the same. Just as we all express affection in our own ways yet Love in universal. Transcendence is Singular.
Kirtan wasn’t a part of my family history. It wasn’t passed down to me. But it spoke to me nonetheless.
I lost myself in Kirtan with the same intensity as I did with Nigunim.
Ultimately, does it really make a difference if it was a Kirtan or a Nigun?
Did it really matter that the Kirtan ceremony wasn’t as authentic as possible?
Is Shabbos any less Shabbos if it goes by any other name?
Is it still Shabbos if it doesn’t go by any name?
If labeling myself Jewish has as much value as I give to the idea of being Jewish - I ask – what does it mean to be a Jew?
To get a better appreciation of Kirtan, there is a great video on Youtube