When Swimming Felt Like Prayer by the Forward

When Swimming Felt Like Prayer

Image by Anya Ulinich

Stepping into the lobby induces an overpowering sensory flashback: the distinctive metallic jags of Jewish synagogue art (where does that aesthetic come from, anyway?); the memorial flame flanked by chirpy fliers for simcha-space rentals and family services; the dim overhead lighting; the musty smell of carpeting and old books; the quiet, punctured only by the voices of preschoolers in some unlocatable room. I try to remember the last time I was in a temple. Some cousin’s pre-internet bar mitzvah, maybe, or possibly the wedding of a friend who now has school-age children. Being here feels disorienting, but unexpectedly comforting. How has it been so long, and why does it feel so familiar?

For a brief stretch of the late 90s, I was a Super Jew. Same old story: I went to Israel on a teen tour and came back Totally Changed For Like Ever. The potent combination of exotic landscapes, enforced togetherness and homesickness left me vulnerable to the messages the trip leaders shouted at us during our nightly prayer meetings: We are the chosen people, and here we are in the Motherland! The world has tried again and again to destroy the Jews, but we’re sure not going to let the lure of secular life do what Hitler couldn’t, are we? Now get back on the bus, we’re going to a disco!

I returned to my Chicago surburb, teeming with Reform Jews with names like Scott and Christina, and to my parents’ surprise, I asked to start coming with them to Saturday morning minyans and study sessions. I remember sitting there, bleary-eyed, wearing the rainbow-striped tallis I’d gotten as a Bat Mitzvah present a few years earlier. I was the youngest attendee by approximately 3 decades. Sometimes I was hung-over from going out to see my boyfriend’s band play the night before, but in spite of this (or maybe because of this?) I was stirred by the biblical tales, delighted by the debate-team antics of the Talmud. Studying Kabbalah informed my burgeoning sense of spirituality, alongside adolescent understandings of Tarot cards and crystals.

This Jewish studies phase faded along with the other crazes: the Tarot, the vegetarianism, the boyfriend in the band. Restless for change, I moved far from home; eventually I married a gentile from Iowa, who beguiled me with his mastery of non-Jewish subjects like mayonnaise and Fixing Stuff. Away from my family, married to a practicing atheist, finding community in literary circles, I’ve become what the leaders of that long-ago teen Israel tour dreaded most of all: secular to the point of completely non-practicing.

I do feel a little twinge that is part nostalgia and part homesickness during a High Holiday that passes like any other day, or on a Friday afternoon when I remember coming home from school to the smell of my mother’s challah baking. I try to explain to my husband: “It’s not that I want to be an observant Jew all the sudden, it’s just that when I was a kid I liked when we were getting ready to have the family over for a Passover Seder and the house would be all clean and I would slide around in tights.” It’s not quite what I mean but it’s how I can think to express it.

I started visiting this temple on the down-low, while he’s at his office and the kids are at school. It was for the least religious reason ever: I started swimming. A friend had given me a tip on this synagogue’s pool, which non-members could use for a small fee. I checked the Women’s Swim hours, rustled up my bathing suit, and took the plunge.

I like swimming though I suspect I’m not very good at it; pool visits involve removing my glasses and I’m so nearsighted that I’ve never actually seen anyone else swim, so I’m not sure how you’re even supposed to be doing it. Pools are dreamy, unfocused places to me. My functional blindness has the odd side effect of making me believe, like a child hiding under a blanket, that no one can see me either. I enter an altered state, feeling simultaneously outside of my life and deeply inside of my body. What is the meaning of life, I wonder underwater, and what is the meaning of MY life? I’m able to stop worrying ever so briefly about work or the kids. These chlorinated meditations feel like something familiar, almost forgotten — oh yeah, like prayer.

Ritual immersion in water is a key element of Judaism, as late-90s Super Jew me would have remembered much sooner — since biblical times the mikveh has been a place to regain purity after childbirth or a menstrual cycle; and modern mikvehs encourage people to immerse themselves to mark the end of one experience and the beginning of another.

To be underwater is to enter another world. I’m not the same me in glasses and yoga pants, checking my phone on the elliptical. These swimming times are times apart – the way Jewish holidays and the Sabbath once were for me. Especially in our hyper-connected lives, characterized by checking Twitter first thing in the morning and scrolling through Instagram while using the toilet (#RealTalk, people) – having some of this time apart is truly a tonic, an answer to everyday restlessness.

I haven’t worked up the nerve to explore the rest of the Jewish Center, and I haven’t gone to a service, or impulsively signed up for the weekly Hebrew class advertised in the lobby like I almost did one afternoon. But something about the familiarity has made me remember about being Jewish, about how it is after all a part of me, even if it is, right now, a submerged one.

Amy Shearn is the author of the novels ‘The Mermaid of Brooklyn’ and ‘How Far Is the Ocean From Here.’


When Swimming Felt Like Prayer

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