Saturday, January 11, 2020

The Day I Left the Flock

Flock as in sheep. The supernatural Lord was no longer my shepherd. I found no external rod or staff to comfort me. Instead I began to grow my own. It all took place in what was formerly my father’s corner drugstore.

My father opened his pharmacy in 1929. He was located on a highly trafficked street with six apartment buildings across the wide thoroughfare and a subway stop close by.  A few years later the Grand Central Parkway replaced that road. It became a cavernous hole in the ground impassable to those in the apartment buildings and it slowly destroyed his livelihood. He gave up the store during the war years and it remained vacant, with Glasswax on the window for several years.

My father was, in my mind, a shaman. Deliberate over the torsion scale, quick with a cinder in the eye. He had a way of Being which aligned him with his customer/clients. They always had his ear. The vapors from apothecary jars had seeped into him. They offered assurance and a measure of herbs and fluid extracts direct from a garden of sorcery. When he dispensed a prescription it worked as if everything he believed in was contained in it and because he said so with a quiet authority.

What I’m describing was witnessed by me as a child but I’ve not had reason to alter my memory down through the thirty more years he lived. In fact his presence cannot be captured in mere words. I would now call it transformational.

In the summer of 1946 I had lately become a Bar Mitzvah. Doubt and Faith were already slow dancing in my head. The empty store was on my path to the schoolyard. I had just bought a first baseman’s mitt and soaked it in Neatsfoot oil the night before to soften the leather. So it was that I wore that mitt when I was stopped in my tracks.

As it happened the space was no longer vacant. It had become a storefront synagogue behind the white-waxed windows. A man in orthodox garb intercepted me. He asked if I had become a Bar Mitzvah and, if so, would I please come in to make a minyan. Apparently God didn’t bother with anything less than the requisite ten males. Females need not apply.    

I was appropriately fitted with a yarmulke and prayer shawl and probably lip-synched the arcane mumbles. The Torah had been housed just about where my father presided in a raised place between globes of colored water. As the other nine davened in that direction I swayed in honor of my father and sensed my own personal shepherd. I was smelling green pastures and was transported besides still waters. As for protection from evil or the shadow of death there would be no out-sourcing. I would be a pilgrim in the landscape within. I shall not be wanting. The actual raised to sublimity carries with it far more spiritual moments than any sacred scroll.

I left those confines and have rarely returned to what we call religion. The root of the word is to bind which evolved to a deep reverence dwelling on the divine. For me that divinity is within. Religion has nothing to do with edifice or prescribed behavior or ancient text. It is in the lift, the experience of oneness. Religion, the noun, is lost on me; I have only the adjective, religious. Yes, there are religious experiences and they're least likely to happen in a place of worship. That word is nearly exhausted in favor of transcendence which doesn't have the reach either. As for the flock, the congregation, I can only say Bah.

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