200. Piety and Mothers

Even though I’m frankly disgusted (but too tired to change) by my infrequent blogging, I surely want to say…. WOOHOO, I’m two hundred posts old! It took me forever, but the other side to this way of thinking is that quantity isn’t important at all. I went back and looked at some of my old posts, and am pretty happy with my little body of work. If you have a drink of something with you while you’re reading, raise a teacup or seltzer can to my modest accomplishment, won’t you? It means something to me to have created it.

I’ve been binge watching “Shtisel” on Netflix. It’s a very touching show about an ultra Orthodox Jewish family in Jerusalem. The episode I watched yesterday left me breathless at its profundity, and the places it took me. Be warned that there are spoilers. Also, CAVEAT: I have obviously not got any insider knowledge of ultra Orthodox Jewish life, so I am sure to have missed a lot of basic factoids and symbolism. I also don’t want to be using their ways of life to cast light on my own thoughts. That’s weird, and not fair to them. What I did do is notice some of the directorial decisions that made meaning for me as a viewer.

So the Shtisel men are religious scholars/Yeshiva teachers. But one of the adult sons, Akiva, is transforming into a painter. He keeps trying to (and is also being somewhat pressured into it by family) run away from his talent and promise. There are too many religious duties for a guy like him, and every step he takes towards the secular world and its freedoms is like a slap in the face to his elders and ancestors. In one cringey episode, Akiva wins an artistic award, and invites his father, Shulem, to the ceremony. Dad ends up dissing his son’s achievement and using the occasion to fund raise for the yeshiva he runs. I had to look away, it was too raw to behold.

Anyway, thanks to the ruthless butt kicking of a supportive gallery owner, Akiva (in Season Two) is doing the ambivalent advance-and-retreat dance, both building bridges to the career he yearns for, yet setting fire to those bridges whenever professional success looms. It is so frustrating to watch, yet if you have grown up religious and fallen in love with that path, you deeply relate. God is not a concept. God is everything we are; holiness is in every gesture, hope, and breath; and the secular world can seem like a dream that someone else dreamed–beautiful and electrifying, but separate and muffled. If, every step we take, we are striving to respond to a parallel conversation with divinity, we can dip into “real life,” sure, but it doesn’t feel so real. (If you are not fond of religion, you might say Yeah, that’s just dissociation. Fair enough. But you must do you because I am not debating this right now).

Yesterday I watched Season 2 Episode 12 (the season finale), and Akiva has finally agreed to have an exhibition of his paintings at a museum. He dithers about using a pseudonym, then makes a decision not to. During an interview on a talk show, he is asked about one painting of a mother nursing her baby. The interviewer aggressively conjectures about why an ultra Orthodox artist would choose such “Christian” imagery. Akiva maintains that he is not betraying his faith by creating this piece. But when he gets home, Shulem accuses him of making their family the target of horrified gossip in their community. How could he have painted his mother in such an indecent way, and etc. Not to mention that creating and elevating human likenesses is skirting too close to idolatry. More about that later.

To be clear, the painting shows no skin. It is the implication of breastfeeding which shocks. And the tradition of not publicly depicting a woman’s face. But symbols of symbols of symbols are important, to misquote V.S. Naipaul. In his book “Area of Darkness,” Naipaul wrote about his first trip to India, and how the symbolisms he had been led to expect as a diaspora Indian were vastly off center from reality. He made the pilgrimage to Amarnath to see the ice Shiva Lingam, only to find that the crowds had caused the ice statue to melt. But he noted that many pilgrims were excited just to be in the cave, and even the absence of the presence brought them joy. You can see why I thought of his phrase “symbol of a symbol of a symbol.”

Shulem ends up selling his burial plot which he had been so proud of–it would have placed his future remains between his late wife and his late mother (you can parse the Oedipal meanings on your own, dear naughty reader)–to his deeply annoying brother, and uses the money to buy Akiva’s painting. Then, oh, this part is so difficult to watch, he takes it home and paints over his late wife’s beautiful side profile. He hesitates, he agonizes, but he does it. Or he starts to, in blue paint. We don’t get to see if he actually erases her full face, which I find super interesting. It reminds me of Macduff’s son being killed offstage in “Macbeth.” Some things are too painful to witness. And, in the case of the painting, the crafted preciousness of an implied, off screen destruction also seems like a sort of idolatry. Why not? Matru devo bhava. I’m kind of hoping the painting will return in a future episode. Its meanings are so heavy and complex.

Back at the museum, Akiva’s fiancee comes looking for him. He has walked out of his own exhibition, and is sitting in a section of the museum that is a recreated synagogue–The Vittorio Veneto Synagogue, Italy, to be precise. Yet another symbol of a symbol of a symbol. Can we assuage our spiritual guilt through all these filters? People try every day. Sitting on the other side of whether deity worship is okay or not, I am fascinated by how the show has set up the painfully perfect conundrum. If even a slight deviation is wrong, then, when you transgress, you lose everything, and might as well embrace the whole of the wrongness. Freedom won this way is not free. It hurts like a mother.

I sat with how sharply this message pierced my heart. It doesn’t matter if Akiva’s painting is how he experiences God. No, actually it does matter. The very act of doing this work is seen as problematic. But creativity, if you are spiritual, comes from the same internal real estate that devotion does. And if your passion and ambition are cast as antithetical to your faith, you will always be sacrificing too much for something that defines you, no matter which you choose.

I extrapolated to parenting autistic and LGBTQ kids. Nothing has plunged me into a crisis of faith more. Yet it is not because of autism or LGBTQ identities. It is because of how access to faith community is so often conditional. If I accepted the narrative that my children or my family are pitiable, or the result of karma, I would still have a place in a spiritual community today. But embracing disability and LGBTQ identities in my children has turned me into a (less talented) Akiva of sorts. By making my own belonging conditional on communities accepting my kids, I have, in a sense, presumed to elevate their non-mainstream identities to the height of divinity. Not okay.

Do I believe that God doesn’t love my kids? Not even a little. But my ability to have faith in faith communities is shattered. And that can leave a person forever in conflict with their own head and heart and uterus and sense organs. If you have not read my poem “Disembodiment” in Post 196, I hope you will now. I cannot survive bringing pieces of myself into spaces. It is not survivable.

People like me carry on by creating meaning elsewhere. I am trying to. Do you know what it does to a person of faith to see how religion is wielded as a tool of exclusion and judgment and apprehension against their children? It hurts like a mother. Thus, I am erased.


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