I sit beside my mother with my eyes closed, my hand in hers. In silence we face the morning sun streaming through her bedroom window. The sun makes the darkness behind my eyes an electric orange. As I trace formless, floating shapes that emerge, my mother breathes slowly. The rhythm of her breathing regulates the pace of my heart. As she exhales, she says a prayer: I am the light—the light is within me; the light moves throughout me, surrounds me, protects me; I am the light. These words were given to her by a friend, a Reform Jew like us, who, after dabbling in some hybrid of Kabbalistic/Reiki meditation, began to practice Musar, a Kabbalistic ethical practice created by nineteenth-century Lithuanian rabbis and now, strangely, prevalent among many American Reform communities.
My mother’s prayer is part of a meditative practice she has created, based on her own combination of Musar ethics—a roadmap for animating the commandments of Torah and weaving them into her everyday life—and some meditation tapes her surgeon gave to her. These tapes, she says, help her find divine, unconditional love at her center, the presence that is compassionate healing, that is innate harmony, as she battles a third round with ovarian cancer and an ongoing divorce from an adulterous, abusive husband. Her voice sounds like home to me, and as I listen, I watch the shapes in the warm haze of my head dance as they become her words. In the pauses between the words of her prayers a silence speaks: a silence of comfort, of knowing—a silence that twists my stomach and soul into knots in a good way, a cleansing way, in the way an acoustic guitar or a slow piano or sweet violin twists your soul into knots. It is a musical silence made out of loving communication, out of words said and unsaid.
The silence between us has not felt this way before. When my mother was treated for ovarian cancer for the first time in 2007, when I was seventeen, the silences between us felt tense and empty. Her diagnosis and the subsequent surgeries were violently sudden, and she could not speak of them. Neither could I. In our house we did not speak, generally, of vulnerabilities, of true things that touched us. I do not remember hearing any words that gave shape to the months of her recovery—no words for the stale darkness of the bedroom she hardly left; no words for the meals she could not eat, the people she could not touch, the hollowness of the bloodied, infected wounds in her stomach, which rounds of chemotherapy prevented from healing and which left her bedridden.
Healing words that might have been provided by a religious community were lost on us. As Reform Jews, the temple was familiar but not quite home, and we did not know a path for seeking the words we needed from it: no rabbi could touch the mezzuzah at our door, no cantor could sing the mesheberach for us, because we did not know how to ask for help. In our family, words for our wounds were not there, and so we could not speak our pain.
I can only describe this inability to speak as a flight from self, a retreat which I find common among both Americans and “cultural Jews,” particularly in moments of crisis that crush imagined worlds of “success,” worlds of pristine deathlessness, that we, and those before us, have built to protect ourselves from past wounds and fears we do not have the courage to understand.
My great-grandparents’ families—Orthodox immigrants from Germany and Russia—escaped war, poverty, and the effects of Haskalah by seizing the chance to rewrite their lives in the streets of New York and Chicago. They worked in kosher butcher shops in Brooklyn Heights and sewing stores on Maxwell Street in Chicago; they sold eggs and milk door-to-door and slept in overcrowded, one-room apartments; they sent their sons in tzitzit to shul twice a day. And yet their hopes and hard work could not save their children—my grandparents—from feeling, in their Old World clothes and in their poverty, their absolute otherness.
Many escaped this sense of otherness in any way they could: they went to war, committed arson, gambled away their savings, and slept with Italian Catholics. They ate bacon, tattooed themselves, and beat their children, who began working before the age of ten and grew up convinced that they were worthless; that life had much to do with money and little to do with God; that survival necessitated a silencing of a feeling self, a gentle self—a self that senses musical depths beyond the waxy shine of the American upper class, which my parents finally entered in the 1980s.
My grandmother told me once that my mother loved to sing “Modeh Ani” in the kitchen when she was a child, and she thought at one point that, had it been “in vogue,” my mother might have become a rabbetzin. In my own memories, my mother’s interest in Judaism surfaces only peripherally: in a mural of Noah’s ark she painted in our synagogue, in her love for Chagall’s stained-glass windows, in a few stories about Shabbat dinners at her grandmother’s house, which stopped, suddenly, when she was a small child. She never told me why they stopped, or why the only feeling that surfaced from the depths of her heart was a sense of loss and emptiness—which is what she told me when I asked her, once, about this past.
In my mind this emptiness is something produced by a silent, unspoken self. This is the reason why I consider the place of the cultural Jew to be one of exile: we know not the language of Jewish ritual but the language of Jewish soul-food; not the paths of our biblical fathers but the immigration stories of our parents’ parents and great-grandparents, who came to the United States to wipe slates clean, to create selves who could achieve the biggest dreams of thriving, of belonging. These dreams are related, in my mind, to this very flight from the self—a denial of a true self, a creation of a false self—that caused the silent suffering in my family. My mother’s cancer exposed the depths of a vacuum created, over time, by words left unsaid.
I felt the weight of this wordless suffering in the form of emptiness when I left for college, while my mother was still recovering from her surgeries and months of chemotherapy. The pain of watching her confront death made every waking moment a wave of noise that struck and reverberated within my hollowed self, as if I were a bell. Everything was registered as meaningless noise, as empty silence. Feeling that no one could understand this numbness, I withdrew into myself. Phone calls from old friends were left unreturned, while a fierce anxiety overtook me in the presence of new friends. I took no pleasure in activities that used to fill my heart—writing, dancing, playing sports—and preferred to spend free weekends sitting in an empty classroom by myself, staring out the window, trying to cry.
When I did muster the courage to go out, to say, yes, I’d love to stop by, drinking and sex served only as means for keeping those glass walls intact as I withdrew further and further into an unfeeling senselessness. If a human being is something that takes the stuff of life and translates it into something meaningful, then I was a broken one, for no act of translation was happening. The language of the world was lost on me, and all feeling was a brokenness only the gutted can understand.
I eventually found great solace in reading, in dancing with minds that spoke of things beyond my immediate world, and in the community of the history department at Carleton College. One day, my academic advisor, a medieval historian preparing to teach a course about early Christian thought, gave me Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which outlined, in arresting tales, the values of early Egyptian monks. Though I am not a Christian, these stories about the pursuit of Christian ascetic life struck something inside me that seemed to know a reformation of mind, an opening of the mouth of the heart, was what I needed in order to heal. Each monk in the book sought a way to heal by cutting through the noise of lives hooked on deceptions, on misunderstandings of what constituted the meanings of “self” and “voice” and “silence.” They searched for a silence that spoke, a silence they knew could only be heard through the labor of self-understanding. This allowed them to cultivate the humility, patience, and discipline they needed to be utterly transparent to divine light.
I saw myself in these stories. I saw in the quest of inexperienced monks an earnest desire, born from pain, to heal and transform their bodies through some reformation of the way they spoke with themselves, with others, with God. I wrote a saying of my favorite monk, Abba Poemen, on my dorm room wall: “Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart.” I realized that I needed vulnerability, honesty, and patience in order to form the words that needed to be formed, in order to interpret grief, not as a sign of failure and weakness, but as the hum of strength—the body’s way of communicating the love at my essence.
This lesson came to fruition during my senior year in college, when my mother’s cancer returned for the second time. One day, as I was writing my thesis on nature and the formation of Egyptian ascetic identity, sadness and stress overcame me. I cried for the first time since my mother had been diagnosed, four years earlier, and I cried for everything—cancer, emptiness, weakness, monks. Then I got up from my desk and went for a walk in the snow. I felt the cold and searched for silence that would speak to me, and I found this silence in the pauses between the sounds of wind and reeds and geese. I cried and looked at the river and sky and asked, with every fiber in my being, for help.
When my tears subsided, my thoughts turned to the Desert Fathers; I began to repeat a phrase from an Auden poem that was cited in an article by Benedicta Ward on Egyptian asceticism: “In the desert of the heart, let the healing fountain start.” At this moment I had a sort of spiritual awakening; I thought to myself: I have always had the desert in me my entire life—I have been in the desert my whole life. My thoughts became words of healing, and I began to laugh and cry. I realized the words I had been searching for were inside myself. As the healing words I needed to hear emerged from the silence around me, I felt, for the first time in many years, the profound depth of the present moment.
I did not tell my mother about that day in the snow until we were sitting side by side this past November, playing checkers in the cancer treatment center at the University of Chicago, as she began infusion therapies for the third time in eight years. While talking about my studies at Harvard Divinity School, she asked me what it was about early Christian thought that sparked my interest. I smiled and, for the first time, opened up to her. I told her of my experiences that day in the snow, of how studying Christian asceticism in college helped me understand the ways in which bodies speak. I told her it helped me learn, or relearn, how to listen to words of love in my self and in the world, and, in turn, how to lend a voice to these words. And now, having arrived at divinity school with a developing ability to speak from the center, from the heart, I have found a path, I said, that seems to be leading me back to Judaism.
“What do you mean?” she asked. I explained that as I listened and learned from my peers at HDS, I began to feel another stirring in myself that was pointing me in the direction of Jewish mysticism. In one of my courses I had read about the Ari, a sixteenth-century Kabbalistic sage, and I was fascinated by the ways in which acts of withdrawal, or “exile” into the self, were also acts of revelation in the Ari’s cosmology. For the Ari, the world began not with an act of creation but with Tsimtsum, an act of withdrawal. This act was a rupture, an exile, a “negation.” In this empty space, God formed from a residue of divine light ten shining vessels, which shattered when he tried to fill them with more light. These steps in the creation process are cases in which a fracturing, a rupture, yielded divine self-understanding by exposing some limitation.
I told my mother how moved I was by the conclusion of the story. After the shards of the vessels have scattered all over God’s creation, it became the job of the Ari and his circle to find the scattered sparks of light and to return them to their place in the divine substance, thus restoring the balance of the cosmos.
My mother smiled, and tears came to her eyes. “When we get home,” she said, “I have to show you something.”
When we returned from the hospital she led me to her bedroom closet and pulled from it a box of books on the Zohar, the Ari, and Musar ethics, which I had never seen before.
“I collected these books when I was young,” she said, “And now they help me in a new way. During the first time we went through all of this, I didn’t know how to speak what I was feeling. I have never known, really, how to listen to things that I am feeling, and so I never knew how to speak of them.” She then told me how the movie Hildalgo made her cry. The film is the story of a nineteenth-century cowboy who is able to cut through the confusion of a false self in order to find the voice of a “truer self,” which yearns to speak. She said that something of this story had always been true for her, and it wasn’t until she began to listen to her surgeon’s meditation tapes four years ago and to return to her love of Jewish mysticism that she began to understand why this movie made her cry.
“Cancer was—is—showing me who I am and how to embrace myself. It is teaching me how to listen to myself, my true self, and how to express the things I have never known how to speak and have always held inside.” And then she laughed and squeezed my hand: “I suppose the third time is a charm.” I squeezed her hand back and smiled. When she hugged me, I closed my eyes and felt her warmth. I imagined what a spark of light might have looked like the moment the Ari returned it home.
Lina Feuerstein is a master of theological studies (MTS) student at Harvard Divinity School where she studies histories of ethical formation in the literature of late antique and early medieval Christian communities. Before coming to HDS, she taught English, history, and religion at St. Paul’s School in Concord, NH.