Geneva anew


Today I took a great, self-guided tour (wandering, really) around Geneva. I started near the UNAIDS office where my friend works, and walked through the Botanical Gardens, along the lake into the heart of old Geneva. There I visited the St Pierre cathedral, followed by the extensive ruins excavated beneath. It is amazing how many times that site has been built on over the millennia. After that I visited the Museum of the Reformation, which I highly recommend if you are coming to Geneva. One really can’t separate the history of Geneva from the history of the Protestant Reformation. Geneva has been described at the Rome of Protestantism, and certainly after visiting this museum, one understands why. In particular it was fascinating to see how intertwined so many of the facts of the day were which allowed Protestantism to thrive, such as the (then fairly new) existence and use of the printing press. In the space of only a few years, Geneva took in so many religious refugees that the population of the city doubled, and the architecture of Geneva became one of much taller buildings (still needing to be inside the city walls for protection, the only place to go was up). After the museum, I headed down to the restaurant at the Bains des Paquis, a jetty that sticks out into the lake. There I met Michael for a quick bite, before heading over to the station to get a train back to Versoix. I was impressed how easy it was to find everything and get around and use the trains. That rumor about Swiss efficiency seems to be true. The weather could not have been more beautiful today, about 70 and sunny. You can check out the pics from the day below…

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Last Friday Night


Friday night I attended a rather odd and interesting function for gay Jews. The founder and group are attempting to integrate two very strong aspects in their lives, their Jewishness and their gayness. The form of this integration is the traditional Friday night shabbat dinner, but in a more fabulous, gay way. The events (this is the second one) raise money for good causes and this one in particular was to benefit the Ali Forney Center. Although the event is open to all, if I had to guess I would say it heavily leaned towards gay male Jews whose religious background was on the Orthodox to Conservative end of things. I was somewhat raised in this tradition (having been sent to a Hebrew school until 6th grade), and so the opening prayer (and melody) was very familiar to me from my childhood, and although I would not say it put me at ease, I still smiled a little at the connection to something so far in my past.

Anyone that knows me knows I have some complicated feelings about my Jewishness. As mentioned, I was sent to an orthodox Hebrew day school until 6th grade, had a bar mitzvah and then over the next few years slowly divorced myself from that group and sect. By the time I was 20, I was pretty done with religion of any sort.

I am Jewish, there is no removing it from me. It is a part of me and will always be. I would never try to erase it, it would be like trying to erase history. But what is my “Jewishness” composed of? Let’s start with the religion itself. Over the years, I came to realize that all the god stuff, put simply, left me cold. Despite the years of acculturation, I just never took to it. I have a theory (along with some others) that belief in a deity is partially genetic and innate, and you either feel it or you don’t. I (and most of my family to be honest) just never felt the existence of god, despite being awed by the universe and all of its natural wonders. To me, a belief in a deity is a belief in “intent” to the universe, a “plan” if you will. And because I lack this specific belief, I describe myself as atheist (others might use the term agnostic). And over the years I have come to refine that innate sense, to the point that religious ceremonies mostly seem silly to me, especially if they put an emphasis on pleasing a vengeful god.

Outside of that is the idea of  “community”, whatever that means. Growing up Jewish in Indianapolis mostly meant knowing every other Jew in the city, it is a bit of an insular community. And because my family moved away from the main part of town where almost all of them live, from high school onwards we were somewhat separated from them. I actually think this was one of the best things to happen to me growing up, and I attended a public high school with a much greater diversity than was found in the schools that community attended. This diversity was not just ethnic and racial, but just as importantly, socio-economic. This gave me a perspective that I value to this day.

Then there are the many cultural aspects of being Jewish, and I have to admit here to feeling a great connectedness to this part of my upbringing and heritage. This is what binds me to other Jews in the strongest ways. These are reflected in a huge variety of things such as foods, languages, humor, cares and thoughts about healing the world (tikkun olam), and deep questioning and debate around issues.

So putting it all together, I am both Jewish and non-Jewish at the same time. For better or worse, I am culturally that and always will be, even as I reject and refine other parts that hold no or negative meanings for me. I realize that my life has been a struggle to move towards the universal human values that bind and uplift us all. Values that transcend tribal instincts of any  group or sort whether they be religious, patriotic, ethnic or other.

Why, exactly, do you want to know that?


I was visiting NYU Medical Center earlier today for some lab tests my doctor had ordered for me a while back. During the intake, among other administrative questions, they asked me my religion. I was so taken aback by this question that, seeing the cross hanging on the neck of the man who was admitting me, I angrily blurted out “Atheist.” What I should have said was “None of your god damned business.” He backpedaled a little after my outburst with “You don’t have to answer this question, we just ask it…” and his voice trailed off.

So picking up the ball I asked pointedly, “Why, exactly, do you ask it?”

He replied with “They ask us to ask it, this is part of the new procedure.”

I told him that while I understood it was part of a procedure, I didn’t understand why they were asking it. For what purpose. He told me he didn’t know, and went to ask someone else, who also couldn’t tell me why they ask for this info, only that they were told to and we didn’t have to answer if we didn’t feel like it. That’s great I thought, except that now everyone in the room had plainly heard me state that I am a godless commie or whatever, and I wished I had at least said Buddhist, even though that is not a religion (any more than Atheism is, but that is how our culture views such things, alas).

I then started thinking about all the terrible ways in which this information could be used, and tried to imagine any legitimate reasons for having it. A quick post about it on facebook garnered the opinions that it could be used to either avoid lawsuits by not performing certain procedures (such as blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witnesses) or to aid in comforting the dying by calling their spiritual leader or something at the appropriate moment. I call bullshit on both of these. Far better to just ask people to list any procedures they don’t want, and who they want to be present should they be in the process of kicking it.

Far more ominous are the scenarios I could imagine that could disturb the impartial care that any patient should expect. Imagine a strong-believing Christian nurse needing to draw blood from a patient whose chart reads “Atheist” or “Muslim” (or “Satanist” for that matter). Or who perhaps feels it is ok to ignore the call of some and hurry to the call of others in the ward with whom she has more in common. Plug in any non matching beliefs between providers and patients and you have a recipe for all kinds of abuse, both subtle and egregious. These considerations should be completely off the record. By not even having such information, it is much less likely to be abused. I am not sure who hatched this plan to ask such information of patients, but it is certainly ill-advised and creepy, whether or not one declines to state.

Bad lesson for children (or anyone)


Having sort of run out of movies to see here, I agreed to go see Prince Caspian, the second adaptation from the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis. A quick check of the reviews showed it to be very well received, so I thought how bad could it be?

Pretty awful, actually. It was bad on so many levels. From the best to the worst: Special effects and art direction were decent, not great. Acting ranged from pretty good (Susan) to downright cringeworthy (Caspian). But the real standout for me in terms of awfulness was the moral of the story and plot (which of course are direct from C.S. Lewis).

Let’s take a look at all the ugliness:

– Super simplification of good vs evil. I happen to think this is a terrible lesson for children, that the world can be divided into black and white, good and evil, etc. I think it a great scourge in our society that we tend to vilify those we disagree with and forego civility.

– Cheap faith and a vengeful God. The moral of the story is that if you have faith in Jesus (the Lion), he will save you by destroying your enemies (in a quite violent way). It really doesn’t matter what the faith in question, if there is a central father figure who smites those who don’t believe in him, I find it problematic and a bad lesson for children (or anyone). I don’t think it serves human kind very well to think of God as a vengeful, anthropomorphic superhero, but I suppose this is part of the Western Tradition (make that the human tradition, I can think of a few Eastern examples as well).

– The Crusades (or Jihad). Along with the overly simplistic good vs evil is the religious crusade behind it. There is an orgy of violence in this film that is disturbing. Interestingly, in the couple of scenes of one on one combat among the major characters, they (the good guys, of course) are shown to be merciful, passing on killing when they have the chance. These same characters think nothing of slashing and killing everything in their path throughout the rest of the film, however where they happen to be killing nameless, faceless soldiers or other less elite creatures.

I’ve never exactly been a fan of Terminator style movies, but at least those leave out the religious overtones and moralizing. The disturbing thing when watching the Narnia movies is that you can totally see that this is how some on the religious right view the world. No room for nuance or differing world views. The rest of you are going to burn in hell, period. What a sweet message for the children.

Prayer as meditation


I go twice weekly to drop-in meditation at the Centro Budismo here in Mexico City. Today for some reason there was a significantly larger number of people in attendance, many of them new. At one end of the room there is a small altar with a statue, small plants, candles and incense pot. Someone will usually light incense and make a small incantation of some sort before the meditation begins, but this is never really a group thing. I have never really cared much for these alter things, they smack too much of iconography, idol worship, what have you. For me the perfect meditation space is one that is completely empty and quiet. But to each their own.

In any event, just before the meditation was to begin with everyone in their places, one of the new participants (a woman in her late 40s I would imagine) wanted to ask the group leader a question.

Motioning to the alter, she asked if we were going to learn to pray. The leader was a little confused and asked if she meant “meditate” instead. She said no, she wanted to learn to pray in the correct way, in the Buddhist way, here in the center. The leader said that while there were certainly structured ways to show respect at the alter (pray, in her parlance) that this was a session devoted to meditation, and we would be practicing that instead. She nodded, and we proceeded with the meditation.

When I left, I began having flashbacks to all sorts of experiences I had while in India . They say there are many paths to yoga, a word which means nothing other than union. A union of mind, body and spirit, a connection to the divine or an understanding of the nature of existence and being at peace with it. For some, the path involves intense study and philosophy. For others the path to that experience is more physical and more visceral, using the physical forms that we are familiar with in the west, such as asanas and meditation, to achieve this union. For others the path of service and helping others is what brings them in touch with the universe. And for some, it is in devotion and prayer.

I have never been a prayer person, and I doubt that I will ever be. The very idea of focusing on some sort of idol or image and praying to it takes me far away indeed from any trancending experience. It is too physical, there is too much earthy baggage. I tend to do better connecting to an abstract, formless universe where everything everywhere is of equal weight, at least spiritually. I don’t believe in a diety of any sort. All existence is equally holy, and there is little use for me personally in the idea of god.

That said, I can totally understand how for other people the idea of prayer and connecting with a diety might be their way to peace. And in some ways prayer can be very much like meditation in practice, though the focus is different. I was fascinated by this woman in the meditation though, who felt she was there for that kind of experience. That for her, with whatever background or upbringing she had, prayer was the path, and the thing she was most interested in.

Interestingly, the more time I have spent in Mexico, the more similarities I have come to see between the Catholic imagery and iconography in the churches and cathedrals here and the iconography and worship of Hindu deities in India. Both religions have large sets of figures to worship. Both have rather vibrant physical representations of these figures. And both have imbued each of these dieties (or saints) with specific powers or areas of influence. Both religions encourage praying to specific figures for specific purposes. The more I look at Catholicism, (especially as practiced in this part of the world) the less I see it having anything to do with monotheism. Everything is an aspect of the divine I suppose, just like so many of the Hindu gods are ultimately traceable to a single spiritual force known as Brahman.