Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Destined to Choose

"The price we pay for having the freedom to choose (good or evil) is having to live with the consequences of other people's choices." ~ Sheyna Galyan, "Destined to Choose"

"Destined to Choose" by Sheyna Galyan is a truly wonderful first novel by a talented author. In it, we come to know Rabbi David Cohen, a Conservative Rabbi for a congregation in Minnesota. We experience with him the trials and tribulations of running a busy house of worship, balancing his work and family life, dealing with the counseling crises that come up and experiencing Cohen's personal angst that surfaces while trying to find answers to the major questions in life...as well as many of the smaller ones. Galyan tackled some gargantuan hurdles as she wrote this novel; it is approachable to non-Jews, educational for all readers and feels familiar to Jewish readers. The author has taken on the weighty issues of life and death against a backdrop of Holocaust (Shoah) survivors, as well interfaith marriage, pastoral confidentiality, Antisemitism, depression, and youthful questioning of one's background. In doing so, the author has created characters for whom I developed a true affinity and understanding.

As with any novel, I find it very hard to review it without comparing it to others. Initially, I began to see "Destined to Choose" in comparison to the works of Naomi Ragen and Dara Horn. Both of these women, who happen to be among my favorite authors, write from a Jewish perspective, and like Galyan, do not shy away from taking on challenging life issues using a Jewish world view. Like Galyan also, they do so with depth and meaning to every word. Although I was born into a secular Jewish family, I have been Episcopalian for most of my adult life. Reading books from a Jewish perspective has helped me to learn a great deal about my heritage and my own history. Additionally, I have learned to find a trail in literature to help me trace the path of my past. This past, of which I've known precious little, has been crucial to my understanding about who I am and where I came from. Jewish authors have written my past for me, leading me to the waters that nourish the piece of my soul that wants to learn more.

Additionally, I have to compare "Destined to Choose" to the "Harmony" series by Phillip Gulley. The Rabbi David Cohen novels will continue (God willing) and it is my hope they will become a series that parallels Gulley's fictional Quaker Pastor, Sam Gardner's ongoing struggles and life stories revolving around his ministry. Rabbi Cohen, like Pastor Gardner, have a cast of congregational characters I can't help but identify with. Having served on numerable church committees, I find parallels between the fictional small Quaker church in Indiana, the fictional medium sized Shul in the Minneapolis area and my own Episcopal parish in Maine. Both fictional places have caring, compassionate, funny, intellectual spiritual leaders, as does my own. All find themselves trying to be in the position of spiritual leader while being told, by their respective boards, to 'sell the church' to newcomers. I've sat through board meetings myself in which I could have taken dialogue, word for word, from either of these books and superimposed them directly into my own parish. What struck me, as I read both Gulley's and Galyan's work is how universal our experiences are in traditional houses of worship. There are going to be extremely difficult congregants who want to complain about everything. There are the inevitable loudmouths who gossip. There are those who are so resistant to change that their argument for not enacting new policies is "But, we've never done it that way before." There is also a sense of deep love, a passionate sense of community, an important view towards the congregational future, and a place of inspired spiritual learning. I smiled to myself, as I read "Destined to Choose", because I could have 'plunked' in my own church members for those who appear in the fictional synagogue. The similarities were striking.

Galyan's novel may have many similarities to 'real life' and to other novels. What makes "Destined to Choose" so unique is the fresh voice of Galyan's writing. She has a remarkable talent for weaving together spirituality, character development, educational asides and entertaining prose. This very 'readable' book challenged me to delve deeply into my own beliefs and ask myself the 'tough questions' regarding good and evil. Why does a loving God permit evil to happen? Is free will truly worth the pain it can inflict? Regardless of one's religious perspective, this is a novel that helps, not with the answers, but in truly Talmudic learning style, in teaching us to ask the questions...while still helping the reader find common ground. "Destined to Choose" is a wonderful book, and I look forward to the next one in the series.

Coincidental Calendar

But what minutes! Count them by sensation, and not by calendars, and each moment is a day. ~Benjamin Disraeli

We all have various dates that have significance for us. On a calendar they may have little else to document the meaning these junctures may have to the rest of the world. Yet, to us, a random point in the day book can bring back years, or even decades, of memories. We tend to find clusters of important events have all occurred around the same time. Perhaps these events are linked by the simple fact that we often experience the same celebrations on a particular date. On the other hand, seemingly random, but important, occurrences might take place, coincidentally, during the same span of time.

In my own life, the 4th of July happens to be my own hub of significance. While I've written about the preciousness of liberty and appreciation for our American ancestors before, I haven't mentioned that July 4th has always had a personally consequential point on my own calendar. Enjoyment of summer days, fireworks and personal freedom aside, I could easily tick off the momentous events that have happened around the 4th, both wonderful and dreadful. I have always said that Independence Day is my favorite holiday; there aren't feasts to cook (other than fruit and lighting the grill), there are no presents to agonize over shopping for, there are events planned by others (such as parades and fireworks) that I only need to attend. It's a day of cookouts, laughing with friends and enjoying the sunshine. July 4 also seems to hover around many of the momentous times I've experienced: I biked on a streamer laden be-ribboned tricycle with my cousins in my first parade, I went on my first 'date', in junior high, to an Independence Day celebration, I met my future husband, we moved into our first purchased house, we awaited the birth of our first child, people with whom we had much in common moved in close by and we brought our children to camp the first time. On the other hand, I was in a terrible horseback riding accident, I had knee surgery, my father had open heart surgery, I found out I was expecting (a pregnancy that I would later lose to miscarriage) and I was told I had cancer...all around July 4th.

I'm left with asking myself: is it because on the date of July 4th that these turns of events have happened, or is that I'm more aware of each one because of the holiday? Is it coincidence or is it perception? C.S. Lewis wrote, "What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what sort of person you are." I take this to mean that I do tend to attribute major events to July 4th because I'm looking for them. I happen to enjoy coincidence, happenstance and concurrence. Even if negative things happen to me, and around me, I tend to take comfort in kismet...both good and bad. Why? Why would I appreciate the saddest times in my life just because they land amidst a sea of fireworks? The answer is simple: these events, both the light and dark, give me a touchstone in knowing that I exist, that I'm alive and that I am experiencing all that life has to offer.

Louis Pasteur wrote, "In the field of observation, chance favors only the prepared mind." Serendipity is an awful lot like that. There may be coincidences all around us. We may simply not take notice of them if we aren't looking for them. If we go through life so intently focused on our own set schedule, we may miss these moments of opportunity...we may evade the infinite possibilities that await us; the chance to make a new friend, the ability to try a new skill or the blessing that comes with the unexpected. We might be overlook, disregard or eschew something wonderful in the fear that something negative might just happen in its place. Having experienced my share of both the light and the dark, I can honestly say that without the deepest despair in my life, the joy would not be able to shine as brightly. Conversely, without the memory of happiness and laughter, I never would have been able to transcend my own sorrow and fear.

Hanging above my desk there is a poster of Albert Einstein, under which the quote below reads, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." As for me, I may be ascribing more to the 4th of July in my life's coincidental calendar than truly exists. However, it's this very significance that leads me to look for opportunities. It may be just a date on the planner, it may simply be a time that I'm more relaxed and open to enjoyment. But, the 4th of July also reminds me to allow myself to be more intuitive, to be more compassionate, to look for junctures of good fortune and to think more expansively. If I look for coincidence, I'm far more likely to see it. If I've closed myself off, then I will surely miss it. Will a miracle happen? Will serendipity take place on the 4th of July? Maybe...maybe not. But, if it is far more likely for me to process it, to take note of it and to learn from it if my eyes (and heart and mind) are open.