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A philosophy professor, a rabbi, and a brewery owner walk into a bar—
Old-style joke opener, I know…but seriously folks… Here’s what’s happening. Oh, first I have to give you backstory. Because there’s a backstory.
Charlie Thomas — philosophy professor, bandmate, good friend, frequenter of Jews & Brews as well as Shabbat evening davening — and I have been brainstorming or conspiring for awhile about the creative possibilities of sharing sacred stories and thinking about them in the context of an undergraduate college setting. And — bonus — Yash Patel, former student of Charlie, current owner of the Macon Beer Company (not an overt plug, but yes, really good beer), entered this brainstorm. (Praised be the gods!)
Fast Forward to Now
On Tuesdays and Thursdays at Mercer, Yash, Charlie and I explore sacred stories from the Hindu, Greek and Jewish traditions as we teach a class called The Gods Must be Crazy. What’s at the core of it all?
Stories. Deep down, beyond genetics (crucial as that discipline is), certain stories shape us, they function as a lens through which we view ourselves and others. For many Jews, regardless of their religious practice, stories from the Torah as well as Rabbinic literature resonate on a conscious or subconscious level. For Hindus, the same might be said about stories from the Mahabharata, the massive collection of sacred stories in Hindu tradition. In terms of Greek pagan tradition, we would look to ancient Greek myths to consider the interplay between the stories and the Greeks of antiquity.
And it’s also Personal
Each of has stories inside of us. Some of them say aloud about who we are, how and why we think and act in certain ways.
Here’s a core story, courtesy of my father, that will be in my pocket (more like in my heart) until my last breath. It’s about my Polish paternal grandfather, David. As a child I knew him as Zeideh Dovid. Like so many other Jewish folks coming to America he set foot on holy ground at Ellis Island. He traveled in steerage. Put another way, not exactly first class. When Dovid got off the boat he was disoriented and the doctor who checked him out thought something was wrong with him, something that maybe should bar his entry. So he drew a big chalk X on his back. I doubt that Zeideh Dovid had a clue about the meaning of the X. But a friend of Dovid apparently understood the implications of that X quite clearly, and — quick thinking and compassionate fellow that he was — this anonymous fellow villager came up to my (future) grandpa, ‘Dovid, Dovid, so good to see you!’ — all the while embracing Dovid in a loving bear hug that conveniently erased the X from his coat. And, many thanks to this villager who might as well be Elijah the prophet to me, I’m here in Macon, Georgia telling you about a professor, a rabbi, and a brewery owner walking into a bar.
Why is this story important enough to lodge in my heart? Because it’s about a stranger entering a strange land. It’s about the kindness that offered Dovid shelter from the storm. It’s about my father’s father’s father’s parents being strangers in Egypt. It’s about my emotional and ethical antenna being up when I hear the rhetoric that marginalizes the desperate immigrant. Without this story, not only am I another man, I doubt that I could conceive of myself in the absence of this story.
Conceive — through stories that are sacred for so many different reasons, we hear and tell and retell the stories and, through this contin-ual process, we give birth to who we are.
Questions (Why not?)
If you had to pick one, what’s your story? What does it really mean — what does it say about the way you look at the world, the way you think, the things you love or fear? Who else knows your story, and how does their knowing your story inform their relationship to you?
I hope this rambling tale provides food for thought, ideas that might come in handy — in a spiritual way. On the lighter side, sports fans: what ‘s your favorite sports story, and why do you love it? Maybe that could be shmooze-worthy fodder as we hang out together on February 3… On the deeper end, there’s the annual sleep-out at Daybreak. A few of us have the privilege to represent our shul as part of this fund-raising and consciousness-raising effort. Didn’t Jacob once sleep out under the stars, stone for a pillow, on the run from Esau’s wrath? What went through his mind that night? What other stories from our tradition might connect us emotionally with sacred work of Daybreak and Macon Outreach (to name just two of many homelessness and hunger related endeavors in our city)?
May we enrich each other through stories — funny or sad, mischievous or serious — may these stories open our hearts and bless our journeys.