© Arlene Goldbard 2003
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue; And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them…Numbers 15:37-39
Two women share a park bench, sipping hot tea from paper cups, dazzling their eyes with autumn leaves. This is their first fall in Seattle. Naomi, the elder, having lost her husband Eli two years earlier, found herself rootless in Chicago, longing for her old chevre in Seattle. A dozen years before, she and Eli had left the Northwest in pursuit of opportunity — that is, the chance for Eli to cure his mid-life crisis by working himself to death, which is how Naomi now thinks of it.
The younger woman staring at a liquidambar leaf as if deciphering a text is her daughter-in-law Ruth, who has never been west before. Ruth is the widow of Naomi’s son Leon, who died while Naomi was still saying Kaddish for Eli. Naomi shudders to think of that terrible year. She had been certain Ruth would want to return to her own family in Ohio, to re-launch her young life. But as soon as Naomi mentioned moving, Ruth had begged to come along. Tell the truth, she hadn’t needed to beg very hard. The companionship of a loving and loyal daughter-in-law has helped Naomi to heal, and she hopes her presence has been a help to Ruth. But not even the sweetest consolation can repeal loss.
“Oh!” sighs Ruth, running impatient fingers through a tangle of curls the color of the deepest red leaves. “What is with this Jewish Renewal business anyway? I am so tired of having to explain everything.” Ruth is making an adjustment to this new life, but it isn’t always easy. She has just come from a frustrating debate with Naomi’s cousin-by-marriage, Boaz, who also happens to be Ruth’s employer. She can’t quite decide whether this turn of events was a matter of luck — arriving in Seattle at just the moment Boaz needed to expand his staff — or of charity, Boaz creating a job to fit her need. She suspects it was charity and tries to work with a diligence that will make her suspicions irrelevant. But after work, chatting with Boaz before they go their separate ways, the limits of her pliancy emerge.
“I tried to explain about eco-kashrut, how protecting the earth is more kosher to us than buying over-processed white-sugar white-flour food with a hecksher, but I don’t think he gets it. I told him we’re having a service and lunch this Saturday, and he actually said he wasn’t sure he’d feel like going! Boaz, who’ll davven shacharit, mincha, and ma’ariv at the drop of a hat! Every time I talk to him, that’s how it goes. It would be so easy if I could mean exactly what he means when I say ‘dinner,’ or ‘Shabbos,’ not start a big tzimmes every time.” Ruth stares into the wise brown eyes of her mother-in-law, saying more without words. The women share unspoken knowledge that Ruth’s feelings for Boaz do not stop at gratitude. “Why can’t we just do things the normal way for once?”
“Stop the presses!” Naomi announces to the flashy trees. “Ruthie wants to do something the normal way! Look, tatelah,” she says, “look at your life.” She begins to count on her fingers: “You go to an ‘alternative’ health clinic, you eat organic food, you’re a convert, you picked up and moved halfway across the country just to be with your old mother-in-law…. Whereas my dear cousin Boaz, whom I love like a brother, who had the big heart to give you, a total stranger, a job, Boaz has never been an alien. He didn’t choose his life in the same way. He goes to the shul where he was Bar Mitzvah’d. He has his ways of doing things. He’s respected in the community. He’s not a young man. When you’ve lived in different places, seen other ways of living, then you understand that these things are choices, but Boaz hasn’t learned that yet. If he did, he still might decide to do the identical things,” Naomi muses, considering the possibilities, “but it would be a choice.”
Ruth holds up her hands, already defeated. “So how’s he gonna learn? I’m supposed to teach him?” Suddenly, Ruth brightens, shoots her mother-in-law a smile. “He listens to you, Naomi. He worships you — he wants to canonize me for looking after you, and I don’t want to spoil it by telling him it’s you who really looks after me. Like I said,” she repeats, “I’m tired of having to explain everything.”
“Get used to it,” says Naomi, who enjoys thinking of Ruth in the role of Jewish saint. She performs one of her full-body shrugs, speaking volumes. “We’re fringe people.”
“Say it loud,” Naomi declares, fist in the air, “I’m fringe and I’m proud. Fringe — you know, out there on the edge, exploring the frontier, innovating at the periphery, pushing the envelope — fringe.”
“So this is good?” Ruth looks mildly interested. Even though she seldom fits in, Ruth likes to imagine herself blending seamlessly into her surroundings. She isn’t inclined to make being on the fringe a point of pride.
“Is it good?!” Naomi shifts into high gear. “Don’t you remember, it’s in Numbers somewhere, and again in Deuteronomy: ‘You shall put fringes on the corners of your garment,’ with a blue thread. It’s a mnemonic device, a reminder. The tzitzit are there on the corners of your tallis as a mindfulness practice.” Naomi seems delighted at having retrieved this Buddhist turn-of-phrase. That East-West stuff always hooks Ruthie and the multitudinous ambivalent Jews who feel most comfortable with precepts that are shared by other faiths. It reminds her of patients who aren’t satisfied until they seek a second opinion. “We are to the Jewish people, my dear daughter, as the tzitzit are to our garments, a reminder of holiness, a reminder of the Divine spirit.”
“That’s not bad,” Ruth allows. “Boaz might even go for that.” She begins to plan exactly how she’ll sneak it into their next conversation about Shabbos. He won’t be able to resist asking if their congregation still does group aliyot, just to hear the astounding answer — just so he can have the pleasure of responding in horror to the very idea that the honor of coming up to the Torah could be shared with anyone who happened to be walking by, even Gentiles. “C’mon, Bo, ” she’ll say next time, “you’ve known Naomi and Eli forever. Our family, we’re fringe people — you know that by now.”
But just as Ruth begins to bask in this imagined moment of mutual comprehension, Naomi throws a monkey wrench into the dream-works. “Of course,” says Naomi, examining a flame-colored leaf she plucks from the dirt, “not everybody likes to be reminded. Some people might even see it as nagging, hearing that commanding voice say ‘Remember!’ every time they look at their tzitzit. Some people might find us annoying, the way we’re always claiming a true connection to essence — the true spirit of the Shema, the deeper meaning of Jacob and Esau. ‘These fringe people,’ they might think, ‘why don’t they shut up already?’”
“So it’s not wonderful after all, to be fringe people?” Ruth drains the dregs of her cup, lets it dangle forlornly from a limp hand.
“But it is,” Naomi insists, “even for the ones we annoy. Because when they look at us — women rabbis and scholars, men and women davvening and dancing together, new music, gay marriages — even though they say ‘meshuggenah,’ the fact of us still forces them to think in some tiny corner of their minds, ‘So why do we use exactly the same tune for Adon Olam every Shabbos and where did that melody come from, was it handed down by God at the creation?” Contorting her face into the human equivalent of a thunderbolt, Naomi barks out the martial cadences of the ‘traditional’ melody, one of those 19th-century Mitteleuropa things. “So regardless of whether they think we’re chutzpahdikh to the max,” she concludes, “we still fulfill our prime directive as fringe people, to always remember the Source, and never let ourselves go on automatic. And by the way,” she adds, “if Boaz is so appalled by all this, why does he keep starting with you? Why not just drop the whole topic?”
“Mmm,” says Ruth, cautiously encouraged. “I can almost see that working,” she muses. “I’ll remind him of how easy it is to get annoyed in Torah study when someone comes up with a really irritating interpretation, but how later, you’re glad because it made you think. I’ll suggest that our annoying qualities are actually endearing.”
Naomi grins, nodding. “There you go,” she says. “Except…”
“Except what?” Ruth wails. “I’m getting whiplash.”
“Except the other thing about fringes is that they’re messy, and they get tangled. I mean, why is it that people keep asking for a definition of Jewish Renewal, and they never seem satisfied with the answer? Jewish Renewal includes too many conflicting tendencies for people who want to avoid tangles. We’ve got the politicos, for whom every text is an incitement to revolution, even if you have to turn it and turn it and turn it until you’re dizzy. We’ve got the meditation folks, whose mission impossible is to get Jews to quiet down. We’ve got the ecstatics, who want to help us fly. At every Kallah, there’s a line of bearded frummies outside the tent shuckling over their little ArtScrolls, and across the way, a very mixed minyan is doing yoga versions of the Hebrew letters. And you know what, sheyneh maidelah? I love each and every one of them, because no one has any other motive than to get close to God. If you want to show off your new clothes or meet people who can help you get ahead in business…”
“Or find a partner?” Ruth interjects.
“Well, I admit we’re working on that one.” Naomi mentally lines up all the unattached-and-looking members of the community, trying for hitherto overlooked matches. “But still, a shul like ours isn’t the one you’d join for the side-benefits. You’d have to be attracted to spiritual inquiry, davvenology. Out here on the corners of the tallis, we’re committed to research, but in a lot of shuls in the middle, they do the same thing the same way every time — the ‘right’ way. You can see why we’d drive them crazy.”
“I can,” Ruth admits, “I can. So I guess being fringe isn’t really all that great, in the final analysis.”
“Don’t be so sure about that,” Naomi advises her daughter-in-law. “Fringes have another quality: they’re decorative, no purpose other than to adorn, to beautify.”
“Please,” beseeches Ruth. “Please don’t treat me to another rehearsal of your theory that God is an artist.”
“And I can prove it,” says Naomi. But before Ruth can protest, she’s back on track. “Let’s just stipulate that Jewish Renewal has added to the stock of beauty in the world, okay? Liturgy, music, art. Half of the shuls in America are doing Renewal music and don’t even know where it comes from.”
“You’re right,” says Ruth, recalling a particularly beautiful Elohai Neshama she learned the previous week. “Fringe people have a lot of creativity, and everyone needs that.”
“Maybe,” says Naomi, handing Ruth the flame-colored leaf. “But maybe not. There are Jews who think we’re sugar-coating the tradition, tarting it up. They think all this attention to beauty is frivolous, why are we wasting our time out on the fringes, when we should be right in the middle of the tallis, the strongest part — where they are. What was good enough for my grandfather, etcetera.”
Ruth buries her face in her hands. “Fringe people,” she mutters.
“Don’t despair, Ruthie, I’ll tell you something. They say that every soul is born with a unique mission, some tikkun that can be performed by only that particular soul. Maybe when the world was smaller, a single soul would have been brought forward as the blue thread in the tzitzit, to deliver a powerful reminder to the whole Jewish world — the Baal Shem Tov, some would say, or in our own times, maybe Reb Shlomo, Reb Zalman, Reb David. But even tzaddikim have to deal with the confusions of being human — contradictory thoughts, unwanted feelings, false starts, dead ends. Their souls are as torn as anyone’s. But that’s private, their battles were fought privately, silently in the middle of the night, or loud at the edge of an ocean, calling God to task.
“Nowadays, things are different. We’ve entered a democratic age. The spark, the mission that might have been entrusted to one soul has become too large and urgent for any single person to carry. Instead, God has divided it into manageable little sparks, and a whole flock of imperfect vessels carry them. But there’s a penalty. Instead of experiencing our mishegas in the dark night of a solitary soul, we are forced to act it out, collectively.”
Naomi gazes at the trees, letting her eyes fill with scarlet, rust, and gold. “Sad things happened to you and me, my darling, but out of that, something brought me back here to be with my people, to be in it together, and whatever it might mean, there’s some reason you came too. So we might as well enjoy it. There’ll never be a winner, or a right answer, that much we know. The holy thrill of it all is in the struggle for renewal — the search, the contradictions, the visions, the leaps of faith. Something in that attracts my handsome cousin Boaz too, or he wouldn’t keep bringing it up.” Satisfied, Naomi sits back and begins to fish in her handbag for the car keys.
“Wow!” says Ruth, “it’s like all of us, working together — shelshelot neshamot, the chain of souls — we fringe people are on a mindfulness mission, the big tikkun.”
“Yeah,” Naomi agrees, dangling her car keys in front of Ruthie’s face. “But tatelah, don’t tell Boaz that. He’ll think we’re nuts. Why don’t you sing him that beautiful new version of Ma Tovu? Bide your time, that’s my advice, and work your way up to the mind-blowing stuff.”
Ruth gives Naomi a kiss on one rosy cheek. “You’re getting cold,” she says, “time to go. Don’t worry. All that you say to me I will do.” She smiles at her mother-in-law. “Want me to drive?”