The Ish Factor
What was I thinking? I’d agreed to do stand-up at a “Faith Jam” at an Islamic Temple. The show brought together the prayers, music, and comedy of Muslims, Christians, and Jews. And I was the Jew. But I … Read More
But I didn’t think of myself as a Jew, much less the Jew. I thought of myself as a yogi who grew up Jew-ish. Which was like being a Jew but a lot more vague. I felt vaguely oppressed. Vaguely alienated. Vaguely like having a nosh. A nosh, the quintessential Jewish meal, is not even a snack. A nosh is an open bag of chips you stick your hand into every time you pass through the kitchen. Or take kibbitzing. It’s not a conversation about something specific. It’s just talking. Kibbitzing is constant if you’re Jewish, even in synagogue, which, by the way, is like church except it usually has a removable wall that can make the room bigger or smaller. Depending. A vaguely sized room.
I always envied my ic friends. Catholics, so strict and clear. Confessing every little thing, then total absolution. Even agnostics were clear—about not knowing. I envied ists too. Taoists, Maoists, Buddhists, Baptists. Clear and strong and fisty. Not slippery and fishy like isheys.
I was an ish who longed to be an ist or an ic. But I was never comfortable with ans: Christians. Americans. Republicans. There’s something scary to me about an an. Almost too clear, too “I am.” So declarative and knowing. So certain that they believe. Which made me uncomfortable.
Maybe because I am Jewish. Judaism is the only religion that doesn’t require you to believe in anything. And belief was like an elective my family hadn’t registered for. It never came up. Morality came up. Kindness came up. What we would have for brunch frequently came up. But these things didn’t make me Jewish any more than believing in God would have. The Jewish God would like you to believe in him, but it isn’t required. Possibly because he is within you, literally in your DNA, so he is you. Or possibly because he is so complete he doesn’t need you. Which would be very Tom Cruise of him.
Then, in the midst of a walking nervous breakdown, I found myself in yoga. The ultimate goal of yoga is to still the mind in order to connect with “unbound consciousness,” but it’s not a religion. You don’t have to believe in unbound consciousness to connect with it, the same way you don’t have to believe in air to breathe it. But you can’t be a passive yogi; you do have to practice.
In order to practice, I had to figure out what kind of yogi I was. I started by figuring out what kind of yogi I wasn’t. First, I wasn’t a Bikram yogi. Bikram’s the hot yoga. The yoga where you do exactly the same poses, in exactly the same order, at exactly the same room temperature every single practice. Which just seems fascistic. And “fascistic” is an ic and an ist which is just too much for an ish like me.
For a while I was doing ashtanga—the Madonna yoga—but I had to break up with ashtanga after a debilitating hamstring injury sent me to dozens of healers, including a Chinese acupuncturist who told me, “Jewish girls, so spoiled. Better never have baby, you can’t take the pain.” Oh we can take it, I told her. But we take it with a lot of whining and noshing.
Finally I found the therapeutically helpful, and very joyful, anusura. After the injury healed, I decided it had been a blessing, because otherwise I might not have found this yoga—which I loved. And then I got annoyed. Why couldn’t something bad just be bad? This ambivalence resembled the most ishy part of my Jewishness—to never accept an idea or event at face value. Why does bad also have to be good? And when there is something good, why am I always suspiciously looking for what’s bad? It’s so Jewish!
But being the Jew had to involve more than just this ishiness. So I tried the process of elimination to figure out what kind of Jew I was. Orthodox? Too orthodox. Conservative? Too conservative. Hassidic? Not a good fit with the yoga. I grew up as a Bagel Jew but now, post Atkins, that’s out. I do get a lot of Jewish e-mail, so I’m kind of a Digital Jew, but that seems too lonely. Then online I ran into the Jewish Renewal movement. I was intrigued. I love new things! Even, despite all its goofiness, the New Age.
I’m a New Age Jew, I said to myself, trying it out. I liked the picture. One where Sh’mas and sun salutations peacefully coexist. But it also felt kind of schizophrenic. The New Age guru Ram Dass wrote a book called Be Here Now. Post-Holocaust Jews say “never forget.” Be here now; never forget. Be here now; never forget. What if I turned it around? Never forget that you’re here now! I could be comfortable with that as my slogan.
And I could put something to remind me of it on my altar, which, I admit, is just an intention away from being a shelfful of tchotchkes. What is a tchotchke anyway? Kind of sentimental, kind of decorative, kind of useful, kind of dusty. Dust itself is very ishy. Somewhat dirty, a bit ethereal, downright schmutzy. A mysterious substance that’s made of everything.
That’s not a bad description of me, either. I’m a moon-calendar-living, tantric-yoga-doing, numerology-system-using, six-sensory-perceiving, non-genetically-modified-food-eating, Ganesh- and Shiva-worshipping, witch-trial-remembering, conscious-of-in-and-out-breathing, chakra-energizing, bell-playing, angel-card-picking, I-Ching-throwing, Daily-Ohm-and-Daily-Guru (as well as Daily Candy) email-getting, mantra-singing, yantra-looking, haiku-writing, subtle-body-tuning, thought-is-action-thinking, conspiracy-theory-believing, astrology-with-a-grain-of-salt-reading, vortexes-in-Sedona-vacationing, pendulum-swinging, hum-hearing, love-living, truth-seeking, third-eye-seeing, meridian-aligning, Christ-loving Jew. A “Type A” free spirit, working hard to let the wind blow me where it will.
I'd somehow been blown back to Judaism, and it seemed only right to reread Genesis, where it all began. I picked up the 1985 translation by The Jewish Publication Society, and discovered the most widely known translation of Genesis is pretty far off. One reason is that the original is only written in consonants. The vowels are all conjecture. Like my name might be Beth or Bath. Or Both.
And in this new translation, at the end of the first day it says, “An evening and a morning, a first day”. Not the first day. A first day. Kind of vague. But kind of great. Great in the “it’s always a new beginning” way. In the “we can’t really ever know the actual beginning” way. In the “the only real beginning is the beginning of beginningness” way.
Discovering Genesis's ishiness was comforting, but with the Faith Jam looming, I found myself still picking at my own ishiness like food at someone’s shivah. I wasn’t hungry, but there it was. Finally, I did what I always do when I’m trying to figure out something big. I put my subconscious on mull and took out a Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle. One clue had me stumped. “–like,” three letters. First letter i. Ill? Ion? Imp? Ink? Ish? Ish! “-like” is ish. I laughed out loud, because how often are you on an ish-quest when ish is an answer in the NYT crossword puzzle? Like never. And this puzzle was explicitly making the connection, which I’d been missing, between the idea of like, which I love, to ish, which I don’t.
I’d forgotten about like. I love like because it doesn’t imply uncertainty; it implies comparison. It’s two things at the same time. Like came into the English language in synchronicity with particle physics, which says that particles aren’t really things at all, but “tendencies to exist.” They aren’t things, they are like things. Particles are ishy.
And as scientists made this discovery, like found its way into the English idiom. Like, it’s just blowing my mind that particles are like…ish.
And then I got it. Ish is a true expression of non-duality. It’s something and not something at the same time. Ish was what I was trying to understand in all my yoga classes. In all my meditation work, in all my hours at the Bodhi Tree Bookstore. Ish is it! And I felt vaguely excited, vaguely illuminated, vaguely like having a nosh. And utterly, specifically Jewish.
Related in Jewcy: Tamar Fox likes yoga. Also, she can kick your ass.
Related elsewhere: Listen to Beth Lapides perform a version of this story, alongside more Jewish comedy, at Un-Cabaret at Audible.com.