by Ronni Miller (Sarasota, FL)
“and it came to pass that everyone that sought the Lord went out into the tent of Meeting…” Exodus 33:7
When I first moved to rural Woodstock in the ‘80’s, I had just barely shed my role as a suburban New Jersey divorced wife and single mother. My three children had sprung the nest and were ensconced in colleges of their choices all over the country. What I discovered in the isolated, eclectic pine cabin that I had built, ringed by fields of hay and mountains, was the fledgling connection to myself and to my life as a writer. It would take many years for me to reinvent myself, and during that time, while adapting to the culture of fading hippies, I felt an intuitive connection to the Jewish services that were held nearby under a tent.
Discovering services down the road from the cabin and under the tent was, at first, daunting, even uncomfortable. I had been raised to be proper and staid, reflective and sorrowful in silence inside a proper temple of brick and mortar, and I tried to duplicate that kind of Jewish experience for my own children as I raised them. But my connection to a spiritualism beyond the words that I mouthed in English and Hebrew in that environment was watery at best. What I began to discover under the tent was an inner connection, a physicality of feeling that I had no words to express. Singing, smiling, even laughing and feeling a lightness of spirit, at first felt wrong at such a holy time, but gradually this way of celebrating became the norm that I yearned to experience. I felt connected to something ancient, and I was proud to be a part of such a bond. Yet by the following year when it was time to make plans to return, I again questioned the sincerity of my action.
When I sold my cabin of wood and glass in Woodstock, NY, packed my quilt, books and computer, and moved south for sun and warmth, I felt the need to make a pilgrimage north each fall to re-experience the interaction of a Judaism that spoke to me of ancient connections and rhythms, a living energy that mingled psychological, philosophical, literary and religious themes in a meaningful way that I had never experienced before in any other synagogue of stone walls and stained glass windows. It became an annual ritual that provided a beginning for the New Year, a ritual that helped me understand where I was in my life at the time, as well as shining a light ahead that would help illuminate my path when I had to return to my home in the south and cope with everyday realities.
That first year, as I drove north on the highway, I thought of Rabbi Jonathan who played his guitar as we sang and danced on the earthen floor. The Woodstock Jewish Congregation Kehillat Lev Shalem is, as their motto says, “the congregation of a full heart.” It is “an egalitarian congregation whose members range from cultural atheists to traditional Jews,” says Rabbi Jonathan Kliger, who was trained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, served as spiritual leader under the tent for twenty-six years, and is now Senior Scholar of the Lev Shalem Institute, a center for learning, creativity, healing, and spiritual growth located at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation. Was I returning for this experience alone, and how did that connect to the religiosity of a new year?
I’ve struggled for two decades to understand the true reason for my annual pilgrimage to the tent for High Holiday services. I know I’m seeking a connection, but a connection to what? Even though I celebrate Shabbat each week by lighting the candles and saying the prayers over the bread and the wine, I feel at times like I’m going through the motions for the sake of tradition. So I drive the twenty-five hundred mile trip alone, from Sarasota, FL to Woodstock, NY, searching for something deeper. And I look forward to the experience of emotional freedom and, if only temporary, a spiritual connection while sitting on a metal folding chair on the earth, sheltered from the elements by a white canvas tent, surrounded by fifteen hundred like-minded strangers.
In my struggle to define the truth for this rite of return, questions pile on questions. Is it just nostalgia to return to a place that had once been my home at a crossroads in my life? Is it the novelty of celebrating the High Holidays under a tent with dancing and singing instead of with the austerity and solemnity encased by stained glass windows? Is it because I desire to be included in a community that welcomes all people, Jewish or not, straight, gay, single and married, a community that openly acknowledges the power of expressing feelings and emotions? Is it because I need to confirm the person I reinvented — or began to reinvent — in this mountain community of artists where individualism is recognized, not scorned?
On reflection, I can say, yes, definitely, it is nostalgic to remember every thread and every morsel of a new life that I had made for myself in a rural rather than suburban environment, and where bear, deer and pheasant were my neighbors instead of people. It was where an eclectic cabin of pine with wide board floors and two story glass windows, surrounded by pasture and mountains, held treasured memories of a home I had built to declare both my choice of aesthetics, as well as my personal independence as a newly unmarried woman with three grown children. Yes, it had been exciting to continue to create my fiction in this cabin, which overlooked undulating fields of hay, as well as inspiring to recall the birth of the writing program that has sustained me financially on my future path.
This quest for connection on a deep level is a pervasive theme in my life, as well as in my fiction writing, and it is the power of this quest that draws me to the tent each year. The tent is where I feel the ancient and the modern connect. A few children and grandchildren have joined me over the years, and for a few hours it feels like we are home again, a family under one roof. We stand before the bimah to receive a blessing before the Torah is opened. Together we hear the shofar blown, the children standing on metal folding chairs to see over the adults’ heads, or astride their father’s shoulders.
I am on a new chapter in my life now as a widow after twenty years of a second marriage. In the past I haven’t been swayed by practicality. Imagination and desire have always trumped reality. Yet I know that this rite of return helps me feel cleansed and inspired to begin a new year. The service under the tent strengthens my religiosity and my spiritualism, and, after it’s over, I know I’ll carry these feelings, along with the words from Rabbi Jonathan’s sermons, in my heart and mind as I drive south again over interstate highways from the Catskill Mountains, past the low country of the Carolina’s, and into the flat terrain beside the Gulf of Mexico. This ritual of ebb and flow, this traveling up and back, comforts me. It provides a beginning for the year, a meaningful way for me to mark a distinction between the endings and beginnings in my life.
Ronni Miller, author of Dance With The Elephants: Free Your Creativity And Write and Cocoon To Butterfly: A Metamorphosis of Personal Growth Through Expressive Writing, among other published books, is an award winning fiction author and founder and director of Write It Out®, a motivational and expressive writing program for individuals of all ages since 1992. She teaches and lectures in the US, facilitates writing retreats in Tuscany and Cape Cod, and writes about her Jewish roots, feelings, memories and experiences in published books, short stories, essays, poems and plays for children and adults. In her private practice as a Book Midwife, she helps people birth their books. See www.writeitout.com for more information.