The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Introduction (this is long)

I'm an IT professional, specializing in health care technology. In my past, I have been a roadie for a rock band, a published poet, an uchi deshi (live-in martial arts student) for an aikido sensei, an editor, a teacher, a Doctoral student in pure mathematics, a sarcastic video store clerk, a house painter, a sandwich maker, a camp counselor , a yacht club land activities manager, a project manager for a doomed project, and a t-shirt vendor in a Grateful Dead parking lot. I've been all over the world, and all over the USA.

I was born into a secular Jewish family. I have been a Quaker, a Unitarian, a Wiccan, a Taoist, and a Thelemite before learning about the religion of my birth and taking Judaism seriously. My mother's mother's side of the family have been secular Jews for five generations. My grandmother has a letter from her grandfather where he met a Hasidic Jew on a train, and asked him a myriad of questions about Judaism, because he knew almost nothing about the religion. My mother's father, on the other hand, was religious, and was a Freemason. He was a surgeon, and was a pillar of his community. He founded a synagogue, and was one of very few Jews in 1940s Massachusetts to be invited by Christians to speak at their churches. He studied Torah and Talmud, and died five years before I was born.

For most of my father's family, Judaism was cultural, a matter of protection rather than of faith. My late great-uncle Morris became very religious later in his life, but he seemed almost an anomaly. My late great-uncle Paul was a Freemason, but I did not know this until a few months ago, when his daughter showed me his Mason's ring.

Both of my parents are B'nei Mitzvah, but both quit their religious education, and along with it, their religious devotion, quite soon afterwards. When I was ten, I was given the option of either Hebrew School or pee-wee hockey, and I chose pee-wee hockey (I was a goalie). I never considered Judaism, even though I learned a fair amount of Kabbalah while studying Aleister Crowley. The ten s'firot were the first ten words of Hebrew I learned, except for the Yiddish Hebrew I picked up from my extended family: mishpachah, mazal, mitzvah, etc.

In my twenties, I read Tom Robbins' Still Life With Woodpecker, in which he advises that, rather than run away and try some flavor of Eastern spirituality, disaffected Westerners would do better to find the spirituality of their ancestors. I knew that some day I would probably become a religious Jew, decades before it happened.

As it was, I found aikido and mathematics, and lost them both, leaving a serious vacuum in my spiritual life. I earned my black belt in January 2000. I earned an MS in pure mathematics in May 2002. While aikido is grounded in the body, it is very spiritual, and while pure mathematics is rooted in the mind, it too can be very spiritual. I worked on Riemann Surfaces, which are locally two-dimensional, but sit in four-dimensional space. Spending hours every day mentally in four dimensions does something to one's perception of this mundane three-dimensional world. Working in complex numbers makes real numbers seem limited and small. Aikido teaches about the true nature of conflict, and how nature handles conflict in ways that are sometimes far gentler than the way that humans handle conflict (and sometimes far crueler). The shore does not resent the sea, even though the sea acts upon the shoreline relentlessly, changing it, shaping it, sometimes obliterating it completely. Meditating upon how one can be gentler makes one perceive levels of gentleness inconceivable to most.

I stopped my aikido training when my responsibilities at graduate school became too intense. By sacrificing my aikido practice, I got a 4.0 GPA at school. I went on to a PhD, which I worked on for two years. My Master's advisor was a fierce polymath, an astonishing mind with an intense curiousity for all aspects of math and physics. He would often give an hour-long proof in a lecture without ever looking at his notes. He had a ruthless sense of discipline, giving 45 minute quizzes with only 15 minutes to finish them. I adored him. I found nobody remotely like him in my Doctoral program, and I despaired. I struggled through two years, and became horribly depressed. In my program, I could find nobody who saw math as spiritual. There were a few students who were adept, but none were inspired. There was too much pressure to specialize, too much hostility between the pure mathematicians and the applied mathematicians, too much childish nonsense that was totally undignified. By the end of my time in my program, I was absolutely miserable. I gained weight, became a recluse, and fell apart.

After dropping out, I stumbled through a bunch of teaching jobs. I taught at a pre-Civil War military academy in the South, a school for emotionally disturbed rich kids, my mom's old boarding school. I edited math textbooks, and later math websites, but all the while I was thirsty for a meaningful life. During a span of unemployment, I switched my computer to Linux, and taught myself some basic computer skills. Enough to get an entry-level job as a healthcare technology analyst. I paid off my debts, and finally had breathing room to take spiritual inventory.

I had gained 100 pounds above my leanest adult weight. I had pre-diabetic symptoms, was having fainting spells, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, and was deeply unhappy.

Around this time, I read a book about Reconstructionist Judaism. I found it challenging, but it didn't really hit the nail on the head for me. I then found a book by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Jewish with Feeling, and it deeply resonated within me. Reb Zalman described a religious life that was deeply spiritual, and yet totally livable. Flexible, funny, affirming, inclusive, contemporary, without the rigid dogmas of more Orthodox Judaism. I viisited six or seven synagogues in the area, and found the one I currently belong to, run by a student of Reb Zalman's.

Around the same time, the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts was airing the controversial "Ben Franklin" television commercial. Just previously, my grandmother had commented that my late grandfather would have been proud of my recent religious choices. Watching that commercial, I knew I wanted to be a Freemason like my grandfather. I did a web search. There were two lodges in my town, but only one had a website. I called the lodge secretary, and met with him that weekend in the lodge. He showed me around, and gave me a history of the lodge. When he showed me the diagram of the 47th Problem of Euclid on the Eastern wall, I was hooked. I petitioned the lodge, and was entered, passed and raised the very next time the lodge offered the degrees.

Since then, I earned my 32nd degree in a Scottish Rite one-day class. I imagine that the Royal Arch and the Shrine are in my future, but not too soon. I want to work in my Blue lodge, and earn the Scottish Rite degrees I missed. I would love to participate in the degree rituals, should I be found worthy to do so.

I have lost nearly 50 pounds in the last year, and then regained 15 around the holidays. Since I lost my job two weeks ago, I have been in the gym every day I can. I intend to join an aikido dojo when I reach 200 pounds, if I can afford it. I take longer with my shacharit (morning prayers), and have even started minchah (afternoon prayers) on the days where I'm not too busy. I go to every Lodge of Instruction, and will be giving a talk at the May 2009 Lodge of Instruction, at my lodge, on the 47th Proposition of Euclid, and its Masonic meaning. I don't expect to be unemployed for very long, but I might have to settle for a staffing position instead of a permanent position, at least in the short run. The economy is in a shambles, but healthcare technology may not be as bad as other sectors. I'm deeply grateful for how fortunate I am in this life, and thank God every day for my blessings.