Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Like Losing My Religion

That was just a dream . . .
That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spot. light. I’m l
osing my religion . . .
REM, Low(Bootleg) Album            

A few days ago, I awoke from a dream to find myself here at the ranch, sun pouring across the mesa outside my window and finch traffic at the birdbath. The dream was one of those weird ones that signal the changes of seasons and even deeper changes in me. And as I sat up in bed, feeling not quite awake yet, I thought: It must be Elul. I have these numinous dreams rarely, and when I do it is at this time and this season.

In this dream, there were no transitions, just sudden change of scenes, as if I had been dropped into the middle of filming an ongoing movie. There are two parts I remember quite vividly, and the rest is a blur of impressions that faded immediately upon my awakening.

First, I am suddenly inside our synagogue, in the social hall, floating among people, and I realize that I don’t know a single soul among them, and then I see that their faces are all the same.
Later, I am in the parking lot, down on the level of the pavement, and I  was looking at  two outdated jeeps parked against the wall, one listing away from the other, and both sitting on their frames, no tires. The plates are tagged with dates in the 5750’s. I reach out to touch the jeep on the right, and instead find myself placing my open hand on a pile of clothes. I know that I need to pick them up, take them inside, because somebody there has need of them. As I lift each article, I notice that one item belonged to me once, a red skirt I wore at my Bat Mitzvah, and I fold it up because it doesn’t fit me anymore. . .

That morning as we had our morning coffee in bed, I turned to the Engineering Geek and told him that it was the first of Elul and that we had to think seriously about the upcoming Holy Days, and make some decisions. He nodded. He knew. We’ve been putting it off for a long time. I said that there are two issues, and I think need to be considered separately. The easiest is the issue of dues. The hardest is whether we should end our membership altogether and what we should do for the Holy Days.

The EG nodded. He said that we cannot afford the dues we are expected to pay. This is a problem we had thought we resolved in March of last year, three months after the EG retired from Sandia. We made a personal visit with administrator there to put our dues in abeyance until we could see how long it would take us to begin bringing in money with our businesses, and what it would be like to live on the pension and our investments out here at Freedom Ridge. But despite the arrangement, the synagogue kept sending bills for the amount we paid before, and at membership renewal, they continued our membership at the old rate. They have a policy, I have been told, that if members do not renew and do not formally resign, we are continued at the previous rate. I don’t know what happened to our arrangements in labyrinthine depths of the computers where such transactions are preserved,  but I think it would be fairly easy to get this resolved.

Before we resolve it, though, we have to decide the hard question: should we continue membership? Even to consider this is almost like losing my religion, like relinquishing that which reconnects me again and again to my own past, our past and that of the people Israel who gather, learn and pray in that place.

All of my adult life I have been a member of this synagogue. My children had all of their life-cycle ceremonies there:  her naming, his brit milah,  their consecrations, bat and bar mitzvah, and confirmations. At that bimah, I was called to Torah for the first time as an adult bat mitzvah. Under the chuppah there, I was married to the Engineering Geek. From that sanctuary, I had expected to be taken to my final rest in the Congregation Albert Cemetery. There, I have celebrated the festivals, observed the fasts, heard the sound of the Shofar, welcomed the Sabbath Bride.

And yet, much of the connection has been slipping away of itself, as the Reform movement has become less about religion—the reconnection of people with the longings of their souls—and more about politics. When did Reform Judaism lose the prophetic voice of ethical monotheism for ritual without reason? When did it substitute “social justice” for G-d’s demand to choose life and reject death, made directly from the Mountain alive with smoke and fire, the Bat Kol resonating down through the centuries and into each of us, penetrating to our very bones? When did it replace the call of our Rabbis* to learn and understand and choose what is good with dictates from the Religious Action Center, replacing the majesty of Law with social-democratic political policy?
*The capital “R” denotes the Tanaim and Amoraim, the founders of Rabbinic Judaism whose discussions and arguments became the Talmud, the teaching and conversation across time that kept the flame alive throughout all the years and centuries of exile and pogrom, crusades and holocaust.

For a long while, beginning with our dissatisfaction with our last rabbi and his use of a Yom Kippur Sermon to stump for Obamacare, we have wondered if we were losing our religion. We also recognized that giving our hard-earned money to a Jewish institution that idolizes a president, and advocates spending our children’s inheritance to institute a collectivist utopia in place of our liberty is immoral, and is tantamount to funding our own destruction.

Part of the purpose of putting our dues in abeyance was also to wait and see. At the time, we had an interim rabbi whom we found to be a spiritual leader; one who respected the difference and the boundary between Jewish law and transient political policy, and who understood that his job was to provide guidance for walking the Jewish way to all of us. But we knew that we were getting a new rabbi and we had no idea how he would be.

We have now met the new rabbi and we find him distant and not terribly interested in talking to us. Perhaps this is unfair, because with our move to Freedom Ridge, we aren’t there often, although we have made an effort to be present when we are in Albuquerque. I do not expect hugs or effusive greetings, but warmth and small talk would be nice. Even a friendly wave and greeting would be welcome. But the man seems cold toward us, and I cannot help but take it personally. I was hoping that the man who takes responsibility for our Jewish needs and ceremonies would be, well, at least a bit simpatico.

I thought perhaps I ought to make the first reach, so I “friended” him on Facebook. And there I discovered that we had gotten another “social action” rabbi. I have seen very slanted posts there, ones that demonstrated the less than tolerant and charitable “Vision of the Anointed”  of the left. The first one condemned the Susan G. Komen Foundation in lockstep with the leftist attack on that private charity because of an innocent decision about the best use of funds by its founder and board. The second accused the people of Colorado Springs of hypocrisy because many of them are conservative and support cutting the federal budget and taxes and yet their local and state governments requested federal disaster funds for them.

There are political arguments for why the good rabbi is wrong in both cases, but I did not use them. I  did make comments expressing my concern that these posts betrayed a one-sided view that was uncharitable in the extreme, and that placed ideology over individuals. I remain dismayed at this rabbi’s lack of discernment, jumping on two leftist propaganda bandwagons as he did, without apparent thought and with some malice. This makes me uncomfortable at the thought that this man is the one I am paying to be on call for me should we have a family tragedy or even a simcha, in order to provide us with the Jewish rites and comfort that accompany such events. It is not that we disagree with one another politically, so much as the way in which he has made blanket condemnations without much depth about people whom he does not even know, because of his attachment to his political ideology. I would be one of those people.

There are other issues and events, things that have happened very recently and over a longer period of time that make me feel that we may be formally members, but we really don’t belong at this synagogue. Ten years ago, I leyned Torah several times a year, something I love to do. I have not leyned once since Cantor Jacquie left, and we have not been honored with a call to Torah either, even this year, when we celebrated our 10th anniversary. Recently, my brother-in-law and my son’s uncle died suddenly and tragically, and although we informed the synagogue, and we drove almost two hundred miles to say kaddish, his name was omitted from the list.

I have written before about my discomfort with some of the ways in which our ways of thinking and being do not mesh with the prevailing climate of this synagogue, and I suppose that sooner or later it had to come to a decision point. And yet it is not an easy one, as obvious as the misfit of our square pegs and their round holes may be.

We have talked about it, the Engineering Geek and I, and although he feels it less deeply, he is much more vocal about the immorality of continuing to support a synagogue where he has to walk out of the political sermons year after year. He tends to joke about it, but as money becomes more scarce—like most ranchers our wealth is not liquid—he says he doesn’t want to throw away the good after the “socialist” bad money.

We have made no final decisions. But we have given ourselves two options for the Holy Days, neither of which will be to attend services at Congregation Albert. We may pray at home for one or both of the High Holy Days. We may visit a small, egalitarian synagogue in Flagstaff. Although it is affiliated with the Reform Movement, its size and location mean that it draws Jews from many different Jewish backgrounds. Also, the rabbi did not study at Hebrew Union College (the seminary of the Reform movement), and therefore may be less indoctrinated in the current political “religion” ideology that seems to emanate from it. We would like to find out. Although neither of us are particularly touchy-feely types, we can tolerate that so long as the focus is Judaism in all its history and grandeur, and is not wasted in the weeds of ephemeral political dogmas and doctrines.

I know that if I never belong to or never darken the doors of another synagogue, I will remain a Jew in culture and commitment. I will never bow down to idols, be they made of stone or ideology. I will always see the world through the Jewish eyes I developed through all these years at Congregation Albert. But even the small steps that we have made away from a congregation in which I have experienced all of the joys, sorrows and frustrations of being a Jew cause me to feel like I am losing my religion. 

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Summer Sabbath Days


Time here at Freedom Ridge has a different quality. One day slips into another as the season advances almost unnoticed, governed by the needs of people and animals, rather than by the calendar and clock.

Dogs wake us at sunrise, the horses call to one another on their way to the feeder, and cows come down the August green hillsides, loitering outside the corral, ready to be fed.
There is more than enough work to fill the days, and much of it is the work of the sweat of the brow. It is easy to lose track of the date on the calendar. but never the progression of the season, now marked by the explosion of wildflowers watered by the monsoon rains, telling us that fall is in the offing.

In the weekly round of work, there is never routine and one project leads to another,and news from over the mountains and far away comes to us on the invisible airwaves to our radio receivers and sweeps down from satellites to be made solid on our computers. Breaks come from necessary trips to town for supplies, for local news. and to see and speak to familiar human beings.

And for us, each week also progresses towards the Sabbath, which here takes on a timeless quality when the round of work and chores is interrupted and another week is ended with time out of time, marked by ritual and suffused with its own quality of living.

Here, nothing intrudes as it did in the city. The phone does not ring, the computer is not fired up, and the radio is not turned on, as we deliberately turn away from the inexorable march of information, much of which we don’t need any day, but certainly not on Shabbat.

Friday evening, the urgent voices from the outside give way to music, and the cool breeze off the mountains give life to the flames of the Sabbath candles, lit just before sunset, ushering in our own little sanctuary in time. In the morning we feed, we water, but no projects beckon. After a leisurely breakfast, prayer and study are the only agenda. As the heat grows towards afternoon, and windows are opened and closed to catch the breeze and shut out the heat, we appreciate the weekly ritual of the nap on the couches, the leather cool and soft and supportive.

Often I read and doze, choosing more contemplative books, and I gaze out the windows where the dogs snooze, catching a breeze on the porch. The Engineering Geek, guarded by the cats, begins an article in Sky and Telescope, but is soon asleep, and with the regular deep breathing from him and from the animals, I soon join him.

By mid-afternoon we wake slowly, deliciously, and taking out wine and Challah bread, make Kiddush and lunch on hummus and pita and cucumber and tomato. A summer repast, as the clouds build in the southwest, providing cover and a cool breeze that invite a walk and talk, and a sit on the porch swing at the cabin while showers make their music on the metal roofs.

Every week we find different variations on the theme of Shabbat, but the summer Sabbaths have a particular quality of ease and abundance brought about by the long, leisurely trip of the sun from east to west, the heat of the day, and the cool refuge of the porch and the house from the unrelenting light of the desert sun at zenith. It appears as if all of nature around us was only waiting for us to slow down and join with a summer afternoon’s leisurely being, there everyday, but only joined by us once in seven.

As the Sabbath afternoon slides into evening, often accompanied by early evening thunderstorms, we come out of the Shabbat somnolence, kindle light and welcome a new week. As the stars make their appearance and the lightning recedes to the northeast, that is when we catch up on a five year old HBO series, or catch a movie, the only use for our almost antique TV/DVD each week way out here, where the signals are attenuated by the canyons, cables do not reach, and our time filled with other things. 

At dinner, we re-enter the current or ordinary time, stepping in up to our knees, talking of plans for the coming week, laying out the progress on projects and contracts that give forward impetus to the ongoing round of ranch chores that will structure the days of productive work ahead. As eager as we were to leave the stream of ordinary time on Friday evening, so by Saturday night we look forward to returning to it, rested and ready. Another Sabbath replete with blessing now completed.

Shavua tov, we say. May it be a good week, a productive week. May our wealth and happiness increase, and that of the whole world.

Monday, August 6, 2012

August Cross Quarter Day


Already, it is the August Cross Quarter Day. This is the day halfway between the Summer Solstice and the Autumnal Equinox in the Northern Hemisphere. In the old calendar of Europe, it is Lughnasad and Lammastide—the beginning of the Chase of Lugh, the Celtic sun god—when the first harvests begin far north of the Equator. It is the beginning of the Fall season of old.

For us here at Freedom Ridge Ranch, we see the season beginning to shift. Even as far south as we are—in the horse latitudes—our elevation is high, and summer is fleeting. Here, on the west slopes of the Continental Divide, the hot season is already gone. With the start of the Monsoon in July, we saw the greening begin, with its cool nights, hot mornings and cloudy and rainy afternoons.

DSC00886 Now, as the daylight is noticeably shorter, we see chilly, misty mornings, with dew on the blooming sunflowers, and dripping down from the metal roofs of house and barn and cabin. Already, the Aspens begin to show yellow in the leaves, and the sun appears south of where it rose at the Solstice. The shadows are deeper. The season is changing.
Already, we have put the feather comforter back on the bed.

Here at Ragamuffin Studies, we have just passed the Fast of Tisha b’Av, a day of mourning for the loss of Temple and a going into exile. Last Shabbat, we began the seven weeks of Comfort, when we read Haftarah Nachamu –“Comfort, O, comfort my people, says your G-d.” Autumn is coming, and with it the New Year of Years, Rosh Hashanah, and the Season of Repentance, Renewal, and the Ingathering Harvest. The Wheel of the Year turns once again to its end and beginning, and in the seasons of our lives, we have seen the last child grown and graduated, moving out for a while to study and practice for the time when he will come back to run Freedom Ridge Ranch.

Blessed is the One who makes the years pass and the seasons alternate . . .

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Branding Day


This year we have two calves, one born in June and one in early July who needed branding. The little black one was a little bull, and the white one under her white mother is a little heifer. So last Sunday, with the help of three cowboys—who are calling themselves Adam, Hoss, and Little Joe—we had a branding.


The CIT—who is now ‘Adam’—got the cows together on Sunday morning when we fed them in corral. Except that three were missing. Lucy Longhorn, her steer from last year, and Freckles’ steer from last year. The guys were able to get Lucy Longhorn in, and we figured the young‘uns would come in sooner or later. In any case, we didn’t need them until it was time to dose them up with Ivermectin against parasites. This year’s calves were the stars of the first half. Since he is the most experienced, ‘Hoss’ was assigned to roping. The cowboys had moved the cows into the arena, and there, the roping came pretty easily. Just a few rounds, and the little bull was roped by the hind leg.

DSC00855 Immediately after he was roped, ‘Adam’ (left) and ‘Little Joe’ (right) ran in to flank him. One took the leg while the other lifted the rope, bringing him down on the correct side. ‘Hoss’ dismounted his, and ran in with the branding irons. Then ‘Little Joe’ cut the earmarks, ‘Hoss’ made the bull into a steer, and ‘Adam’ administered the Black Leg vaccination. After that, the little guy was given a fly tag in the ear and sent back to his mama. The calf was down less than three minutes. It pays to have several experienced cow boys. The little white heifer was down even less time as she didn’t have to be cut.

DSC00869 The most exciting part of the day happened after the branding itself. As they were branding, the charlaite (the color of cafe au lait) and the Black steers showed up, wondering what was going on. There was a great deal of mooing across the arena stockade as they greeted the herd and were greeted in return. But the cowboys with the help of ‘Hoss’s’ dogs had to bring them into the chute for the Ivermectin treatment. There was some fancy riding, as ‘Little Joe’ on the Paint and ‘Hoss’ on the Sorrel brought the Black around the corral several times. We got the Charlaite in, but the black ran around the hill. ‘Hoss’ roped him there, and then we treated him in situ. After the job was done, there was only one Rocky Mountain Oyster given to the dog, Tipy, who belongs to ‘Adam.’ Then it was back to the house for hamburgers—from a steer killed in 2011—and a nice cold one for the working boys.

This fall, we will be slaughtering the black steer and the charlaite born in February and March of 2011. In the spring, the little black bull born just before branding last July, will go, unless we decide to sell him as stud. That is the way of life on a ranch. The males are for food, and the females to get new calves.

This month, we will deciding about the direction of our herd. Our bull, Studley Do-right is getting old, and although we have none of his older female offspring here on the ranch, we think he might be getting past his prime. We may need to “ship” him (sell him) and get a new bull. We are also considering reducing this herd, and bringing in a new breed—possibly Dexters—which are smaller and easier for us to handle. This is a weighty decision, and however we do it, we will be saying good-bye to some of our cows. This is also part of ranching. It is not the easiest part, since we have very genteel cows. The matriarchs, Freckles and LB were hand-raised by their previous owner, and they have influenced their offspring.

We are living closer to the realities of life. Meat does not come from the grocery store. It must be born and raised and slaughtered. Animals are raised by humans, and their genomes preserved by humans, so that humans can eat them and sustain their own lives. We are part of it all, and it all happens here, where they are grass fed and grass finished. We thank them for their lives and their contribution to ours. We slaughter them with one stroke of a sharp knife, so that they don’t have time to fear. We treat them with respect.