Colliding Worlds: Finding Hashem & Fancy Shawl Dancing
On my mother’s side, we have a Native American ancestor that lived in the 1800s. I don’t know her name, but a genetic test confirmed what I had grown up hearing about, even so - my experience with the Native American people goes far beyond being a product of assimilation.
My idea of religion, growing up, was pretty cynical to say the least. Although I had enjoyed going to synagogue with my aunt Estelle, and touching the Torah fascinated me, as well as the fact that food always seemed to follow - I had also been brought up with Catholicism because that was my mother’s religion. I am that dreaded patrilineal Jew.
Going to Catholic after school programs and sitting in church was suffocating to say the least. Although I appreciate the religion and the fact that my mother wanted to raise me with some belief in God, Catholicism wasn’t it for me. And when I moved from NYC to Honesdale, Pa after the 5th grade, Judaism disappeared from my life also.
Those years were what I like to think of as the dark ages for me, testing my strength as a human being and forcing me to become an adult overnight, despite my age. Life wasn’t easy. My mother’s alcoholism got worse. Our living situations became worse. My dad’s mental illness became worse. I even had to go through two winters without any heat because we couldn’t afford oil. My mother and I were living in the apartment of an old farmhouse and had to light newspapers in the fireplace just to keep warm. It got so cold that we could see our breath. My father, who lived in a nearby apartment (they were separated), was in the same situation financially.
As time went on, I tried to find God in other ways, writing and nature being one of the first things I turned to. And then something happened. My mother married a Blackfoot Native American when I turned 16, and I was taken to Pow Wows.
Going to these Native American Spiritual events showed me that God was right there the entire time all around me. Not only did the elders teach me these lessons, but so did the circle. Specifically fancy shawl dancing in the circle. There’s something about the beat of those drums, and the feeling of the ground beneath the feet as the shawl wraps around the body, that is - well - magical. It was fancy shawl dancing where I truly understood what it meant to be one with God. Where I felt God. Where the sky merged with the grass, my body being the equator. Even until this day, my heart yearns to go back to those years just so I could experience the circle one more time. Now I think I’d just feel like an outsider, because I haven’t been to a Pow Wow in almost a decade.
But it all had its purpose, because it opened me up to the idea that creator, Hashem, doesn’t just reside in the cold walls of a building.
Years later, when I started researching my dad’s side of the family, I realized that both the Native Americans and Jews have been through genocide and religious oppression, mainly in the form of Christianity. I also realized that colonizers tried removing both of our peoples from our ancestral lands - the Americas for Native Americans, and ancient Judea/Israel for Jews, also part of my genetic story, both now homes to a melting pot of cultures and peoples. This connection helped me to make the final move away from Catholicism and go back to my roots. My real roots.
And when I went to Israel on Birthright in college, I found that Hashem was there with me too: in the sunrise of Masada, the sting of the Dead Sea, and the touch of the Western Wall… Just as creator was with me in the circle when I was fancy shawl dancing all those years ago. If it hadn’t been for the native community’s influence on me during such a pivotal time of my life, I don’t think I would have the same relationship to Judaism that I do today. Native American spirituality opened my heart up to very similar Jewish beliefs, giving me the power to worship in my own way – even if I don’t go to synagogue every Shabbat.