Friday, February 23, 2007

Have Podcasts, Will Travel

Last Sunday, February 18, was my mother's 80th birthday. In honor of the occasion Ken and I spent the weekend with my parents and my brother, sister-in-law, and nephew in LA. This meant another road trip for us, and another chance to experience the wonders of traveling with an iPod.

I reported on this in an entry about our excursion to Vancouver in August. On that trip we used the iPod to listen to music. Since then I have discovered the wonderful world of podcasts. Now I can download various programs that can inform, amuse, and entertain us on our journeys. I've just started delving into this territory, so my range is somewhat limited. If anyone has any recommendations, please let me know. For this trip I chose selections from Fresh Air, Garrison Keillor's Writer's Almanac,, and Speaking of Faith.

Our favorites for the trip down were two different interviews with Aline Kominsky Crumb. Ms. Crumb is a women's comic and graphic book pioneer. A Jewish girl from Long Island, she is someone who is, to quote from Sara Ivry's article on Nextbook, "known as the brassy but forgiving wife of legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb [and] has charted her own equally rebellious life course."

We first listened to an interview Terry Gross did with Aline and R. Crumb from the February 2nd edition of Fresh Air. In listening to them respond to questions about their life together I could feel the love and respect they have for each other. There was a sweetness between them that I hadn't sensed in anything else I had heard or read about them.

Then we listened to Sara Ivry's Nextbook interview with Aline Crumb. It was interesting to hear her talk about herself and her family from a Jewish perspective. I particularly loved her story of having to take her Great grandmother Sophie to synagogue each Shabbat. It was an Orthodox shul where the women sat upstairs behind a black curtain. When 8-year-old Aline asked her great grandmother why they had to sit upstairs behind the curtain the reply was, as Aline remembers, "we can't look at the Torah because we're women and we're dirty, or something like that." From that moment on, Aline would not go in and would wait outside on the synagogue steps with a book until her great grandmother came out and she would walk her home. The punchline to this story is that Aline's grandmother and great grandmother were president of the Sisterhood and raised a lot of money to build a new synagogue building. The women wouldn't hand over the money until the men agreed to change their affiliation to Conservative so the women could sit downstairs. That was when Aline realized that "my Great grandmother Sophie was a true feminist."

Our favorites on the trip back to SF were two programs from Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett, a series of interviews dealing with a wide range of spiritual topics from American Public Media. It is coincidental that these programs are also interviews with women--one with the Jewish Torah and rabbinic scholar Aviva Zornberg and the other with author, scholar, and journalist Karen Armstrong.

In the program with Aviva Zornberg, Exodus, Cargo of Hidden Stories, you get a glimpse into the way this learned, creative, modern scholar interprets the ancient texts. I can't even begin to try to repeat them here, so I will quote from the website, "[Zornberg] guides us through the Exodus story that is remembered at Passover, and that has inspired oppressed peoples in many cultures across history. We find meaning in the text that Cecil B. DeMille and Disney never imagined — about the worst and the best of human nature, and the realities and ironies of human freedom." I already own her commentary on Genesis, "The Beginning of Desire," and I plan to get her Exodus commentary, "The Particulars of Rapture." These are not books you can read cover to cover. Like the commentaries of Nechama Liebowitz, you need to study in bits, moving from one parsha to the next. It is not meant to be easy reading, but the work put into the study is well worth it. As I said, listen to the podcast and you'll hear what I mean.

While the Aviva Zornberg program was Ken's favorite, mine was the interview with the writer Karen Armstrong. She talks about her early life as a nun, why she left that life, and what brought her back to a spiritual practice. Her personal path back to religion--she calls herself a "freelance monotheist"-- came through the study of the other monotheistic religions of Islam and Judaism. It was her description of Judaism that most affected me, and has stayed with me. She talked about Judaism as a religion of doing rather than being, of practice rather than faith. It's not that faith isn't important, but that the way to the faith is through the practice.

This truly resonates with me as I travel on my spiritual path. There are times I'm not sure what I believe or why I'm doing what I do--daven each day, keep kosher, follow the Jewish cycle of ritual. But it is through the practice, to continue doing even when believing is hard, that brings the faith. The practice brings me a code of ethics to work with, a way to help those within my community and without, a place to release, to empty out the anxiety and make a place for faith. The practice is the gift of Judaism. Thank you, Karen Armstrong, for sharing that with me.

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