Row House Fires: Religion in Brooklyn


Posted by Lisa on January 25, 2010

I’ve noticed that one of my internal processors seems to be stuck. I think it needs a break. I’ll post again when it’s had some recovery time. 🙂


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The Seventh Day

Posted by Lisa on January 13, 2010

My visit to the Kingsboro Temple of Seventh-day Adventists this past Saturday morning was a genuinely wonderful experience (give their lovely video a watch/listen at I’ve never in my life felt so welcomed in a church service! I sat down in a pew and a man came over to me to ask me kindly to join their Sabbath school group. I had to leave before they started their main worship service, but on the way out 6 or 7 people (every person I passed in the hall) looked at me sincerely and warmly, and asked if I would stay. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself! I wanted so much to respond to their love with my loyalty. But… I’m Mormon. I have loyalties to my experiences and covenants within my own faith, my own world. I choose to retain my LDS identity.

So, this congregation of people know how to love, and were confident and strong in their expression of it towards me, a stranger. And it’s interesting. This project of visiting, reflecting, and writing about other faiths has stirred a lot of questions in me, and has given me reasons for both belief and doubt. And, true to form, I left Saturday’s service feeling both bruised and strengthened. Bruised, quite honestly, because there are some things that are really important to me that I can’t find my way around—that I can’t understand (like always). Strengthened because the feeling of the Spirit and the confirmation of the Love of God in that meeting and with those people was plain and clear, just like it has been so many times in the past. I was deeply touched and encouraged by this group of believers who cared so much about loving a stranger, and I thought how beautiful it must be to be among a group of Christians who seem to so richly embody the Savior’s description of a disciple’s life in John 13:35.

And I guess rather than list my questions, I think this time I’ll just express my gratitude for a loving God whose works are beyond my comprehension. And I’ll also note that I believe that the fact that questions exist also means that answers exist. I’ve gotten so many of them in my life, which is why I remain loyal to  my faith. In fact, if you piled up all my questions and all my answers and tallied those two huge heaps,  I’m not sure how they’d compare in the numbers game. But if you weighed them, answers would weigh more. Which is why I stay. 🙂

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Beth Elohim

Posted by Lisa on November 11, 2009

Beth Elohim

Beth Elohim, Brooklyn

My friend Ned and I grabbed dinner and took the F train from Kensington to Beth Elohim for Friday night Shabbat services. We walked in late to a room lit with candles and warm lamps, and a youngish, friendly Rabbi talking with colloquial reverence to all the folks sitting in pews.

The atmosphere was lovely–candles, beautiful old (early 20th century) carvings of birds and ornament on dimly-lit wall panels, the smell of wood and hot wax and perfume. The congregation was mostly middle aged men and women, sitting in peaceful ones and twos throughout the room. And the sermon seemed just right; a blend of articulate, casual modernity mixed with a sense of Right Life, worship, divinity, Old Religion. I felt, like I often do in worship settings like this; a sense of companionship and familiarity. It was easy to feel like I belonged, and that I wanted to belong to these people, this faith.

After the service and lots of kind “Shabbot Shalom” greetings and smiles, we wound our way into the foyer for a Sabbath prayer and breaking of bread. The crowd was small enough that we stood out as newcomers, so a few men and women came to chat with us. They told us, in strong Brooklyn accents (and dark glossy hair and with wry humor) that this congregation was modern, reformed, and that many traditional Jewish boundaries were erased here. Mens’ and women’s roles are interchangeable, issues of homosexuality are non-issues, law is kept as it fits modern, progressive thinking.

Which gave me pause. I gave the rabbi my email address so I could pick his brain a little more about their boundaries of faith, but haven’t heard back from him. So, I get to think about it a little on my own, without a rabbinical corrective lens. Here’s the question I left with: which boundaries create holiness? I mean, at what point have you erased boundaries to a degree that all the religion leaks out? I don’t know.

It’s an especially interesting question, I think, given my understanding of Judaism as a particularly law-driven (boundary-defined) religion, generally. Boundaries create rooms that keep the “heat” in, that create an atmosphere that’s different from one you’d find in a courtroom or coffee shop or book club. And because it seems that every set of boundaries creates a different atmosphere, if a religion’s are at some point indistinguishable from the courtroom or book club, can a distinctly religious element still thrive?

Now, I say all this not because I think the congregation I attended on Friday had opened all the doors and let the heat out of their religion. I know little to nothing about their personal lives, their worship, and even their general beliefs. They were beyond kind to us, and seemed to care deeply about their faith. It just got me thinking. If “orthodox” is on one end of continuum (for any religion) and “liberal” is on the other end, at what point do you fall off the end of the scale (either end) and lose a sense meaning? And even that’s a poor way to look at it…it implies that one or another of those directions on the scale is more Godward than the other.

I’m look ing at the boundaries I’ve set in my own life–religious or otherwise–and considering what sort of spaces they create. Boundaries, defining lines, are powerful–they make things what they are, and what determine what they are not. I agree that religions often have destructive, unnecessary boundaries that create fissure rather than holy space.  But then, there need to be boundaries at some point if we are to call it religion…right? What are the boundaries, the defining lines, that push people Godward? What are the boundaries erected that make us worse individuals? Why do we disagree so deeply as to where appropriate boundaries are? By what criteria are we to judge which boundaries we aught to keep in place, and which ones to toss?  When are we justified in determining for ourselves what appropriate boundaries are, and when do we get them from other sources? And, I wonder, like always, what could be God’s opinion on all this. 🙂

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Back in the Saddle!

Posted by Lisa on October 25, 2009

Hare Krishna Holy Day

Hare Krishna Holy Day

After an insane summer (let’s all be honest with ourselves–we use that word too much, right? Isn’t life always “insane”? I still claim it…), I’m anxious to resume my exploration of Brooklyn’s finest!

I dragged a small handful of friends to a Hare Krishna holy day (Radhastami: in August (check out their temple at, and had an interesting experience.

There is a striking presence of lush sensuality at this ceremony. We entered a large room that smelled heavily of lotus and incense, brightly colored petals adorned god and goddess figures both on stage and in other places around the room, a man with fire on a metal plate came to us and motioned for us to pull the smoke from the flames into our faces and over our heads. Loud drumming and chanting was a constant throughout the night, and dancing and singing that would’ve tired out the sturdiest performer maintained intensity and dynamism for hours on end. I think I half-smiled half-gaped most of the night–the experience was religion in a flavor I’d never experienced.

Watching the participants–all dancing, all smiling, a few almost maniacally excited–and listening to the piercing, beautiful chant of the men behind the microphone brought me to the conclusion that people who don’t get these kinds of cultural experiences within their religion find outlets for them elsewhere–on stage, in bands, in “art”. But these were all artists! The was such passion, such feeling, such expression, such collaborative interaction. What many people (myself included) consider “art” is what these folks were doing simply as part of their community culture, their friendships, their worship! When did we start making a division? When did we start putting religion on one side and dancing on the other?

The most striking experience of the evening was something I don’t understand well.  After about an hour of dancing and chanting, a man dressed in what looked like priestly robes (different from the men dressed in orange and white that, it was explained to me, were monks who’d taken a vow of life long service and chastity) stepped onto the stage with a horn and blew it a few times. The crowd parted and a small deity figure bathed in flowers was taken up in someone’s arms and brought to the stage. It was like a shock or a tremor jolted through the audience: in a rush, people fell to the floor in awe, pressing their foreheads to the ground, gasping, praising. I stood there, not knowing what to do–participate in the ceremony? Decline to bow to a deity I don’t worship? I did the latter, somewhat awkwardly.  The interesting part was that wave of shock/awe that ran through us all (I felt it too). What is that? Divinity? Cultural conditioning? Both? It didn’t feel like the Spirit I’m used to–there wasn’t a comforting, clarifying or enlightening feeling. But there was that sensation of excitement and awe, and something a bit otherworldly.

To what do we attribute our religious experiences? What portion of what we experience is an outgrowth of our expectations, and what comes from a divine source beyond us? And should we even make a distinction? As human godlings ourselves, so much of what we experience seems to often come from a mixture of multiple sources.

My final thought: emotions are interesting things. We intepret them in many different ways, given our beliefs and experiences. It seems to me that foreign things almost always bring a feeling of fear or discomfort…they even sometimes feel wrong, simply because they are so unfamiliar.  But the more experience we have in other cultures (geographically, ideologically, or otherwise), the less we feel that sense of  “foreign” and the more likely we are to have the ability to see what our experiences are truly about, and the sources that might be contributing to those experiences. I believe. 🙂

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I can smell the clean

Posted by Lisa on June 28, 2009

The Cohens are my happiest Jewish neighbors. I knocked on their door the other day to shyly ask when I might come over (Vicki, mom from Tel Aviv, had invited me to “learn lots” about Judaism a couple weeks prior when she’d told me her kids’ names while touching them each on the head. They have great, gorgeous names that mean great, noble things, and I couldn’t understand any of them. I nodded and smiled of course). She opened the door, waved me in and sat me down at the table to open my primer on the life and orthodox religion of her family. She showed me the parasol she’d glued ribbons and lace to for the wedding of a friend’s daughter the next day (again, I smiled and nodded; wasn’t there a parasol with ribbons in the Fiddler on the Roof?). Her kids joined us one by one during the course of my hour-plus visit (5 of her 6), showing me what kosher meant by pointing out pictures of illustrated animals in a book, bringing me the kosher symbols on packages of cookies, explaining the difference between utensils that can be used for dairy, meat, etc. The boys point matter-of-factly to their side curls to show me where the razor must stop to keep the law. So many rules. So many smiles and laughs in explaining them all to me.

The thing that impresses me about the Cohens is that they are so happy. The kids are bright, confident, and relaxed, waving to me and smiling when they see me on the street. And there’s a sense of purity in them all. I thought as I sat there at their table with them, “There’s a sense of cleanliness I can almost smell here.” I have to think that it’s due, at least in part, to the way they live the law of chastity: marriages are arranged by a matchmaker, and couples don’t touch (at all) until they’re married. They do this to preserve, in Vicki’s words, a sense that the other person is the “most special person—a prince or a princess.”

That reminds me of a phrase of Vicki’s that’s colored the way I’ve looked at my life for the past couple of weeks. She said, “All our life is different, special.” She said it midstream, just after she’d explained to me the careful attention they pay to keeping the Sabbath day holy. She said it as it seemed to me (she could see it in my expression) that so many rules would be overwhelming. And she said it to get me beyond the dos and don’ts to the holy feeling above and behind all those particularities; she said it to help me understand that their happiness, that clean feeling that flushes through their conversations and laughter, comes from living the laws God gives them.

I look at my own life now and wonder if it’s different enough, special enough. Are the things I’m doing to create holy spaces effective? Does the way I personally keep Sabbath qualify as worship? I sat in church last Sunday and looked at my congregation, myself, through the eyes of my Jewish family. It was an interesting contrast; we are a casual people, and I am a casual person, in that light. The way I dress is acceptable to my LDS community, but immodest in theirs (and others in my neighborhood). In all standards (modesty, Sabbath observance, etc. etc.) I’ve found myself wondering where I fall along the continuum. And if a continuum, is there a sweet spot on that line that in God’s eyes transcends culture and geography? I’ve started eyeing calf-length black skirts…

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A Mighty Change of Heart

Posted by Lisa on June 22, 2009

The only Brooklynesque factor in this post is yours truly. But I gotta share.

I just talked to TJ Lindsey for the first time in 18 years. TJ (we called him “T”) was one of my favorite classmates in 6th grade.  We got in touch through Facebook a month or so ago, and I noticed his profile postings were intensely religious.  I wondered what kinds of experiences TJ had had to inspire him to praise the Lord so frequently, so openly. (I’ll admit, it’s something I admire; it’s one part culture, one part personality, and sixteen parts cowardice that prevents me from being so open about my religious beliefs. I’m just afraid of what people think—I’ve heard too many snide remarks [from my religious friends, no less] about bumper stickers and billboards that praise Jesus. That kind of openness isn’t on the cool list in modern America.)

So I was compelled by this peer of mine who seemed to care far more about praising the Lord sincerely than he cared about what people on Facebook might think of him. I hung up the phone around 1 am this morning, having just learned what kind of faith has to be shouted from the rooftops. He gave me enthusiastic permission to share his story.

TJ grew up in a Latter-Day-Saint (LDS, Mormon) family that was somewhat active, but didn’t really ever feel like he understood or connected with the Mormon faith. When his folks gave him the choice to opt out of church attendance at the age of 12, he took them up on it.  For the next 15 years or so, religious apathy was followed by hard-core involvement in hard-core everything, and TJ found himself in need of some serious help. So, he turned to his roots and started investigating LDS beliefs (he grew up in the Church but realized he really didn’t know much about the specific teachings), and ran up against some statements by Church leaders that he felt really troubled by.  Deeply discouraged, he simply let go of his pursuit of God and religion.

TJ’s brother passed along a Bible and Christian-themed sweatshirt at some point, and TJ took them without a lot of thought. One night sitting on his couch, he looked over and saw the Bible, and felt strongly prompted to pick it up. He opened to the book of Matthew, read every word, and felt a profound personal conviction that what he’d read was true. He kneeled, and told God that he wanted to know Him more than he wanted anything else, and what followed was something only a few of us experience in this lifetime: instantaneous and utter spiritual transformation.  That night his selfishness was replaced by a desire to serve God. His drug and drinking addictions taken away completely, immorality changed to a desire for purity and family; a man converted to (and saved by) Jesus Christ in a night.

I want to stop here and say that this experience brings me to tears. It brought me to tears when I told my mom his story this morning, and it moves me again as I write it, brief and simple as my retelling is. I’ve tasted enough of that same power to recognize a sense of familiar Presence as I think about TJ’s conversion experience. I am grateful to my core that God works with His children in so much love, so much mercy.

That night for TJ was about seven months ago.  He’s found a non-denominational church he serves in that feels like home, and has been blessed with a supportive group of believing friends, a responsibility to teach young adults, and a sense of calling to become a pastor.

So my thoughts center around belief (spurred here by TJ’s mention that there are those among his family and friends who won’t hear his story because it’s not Mormon): are there ideas within our cultures and/or religious traditions that might prevent us from understanding or believing an experience from the Divine that happens outside of the borders of our own belief systems? If I’m Mormon, is it a fair question to ask why TJ’s early investigations into Mormon doctrine don’t yield the same results for him as they do for me? If I’m Jewish, is it fair to ask why God changed this man’s heart through the Christian Bible, when I’ve just heard a similar conversion story from the man who sits next to me in Synagogue, converted to Judaism through the Torah? Could these boundaries of belief that may keep me from valuing other’s religious experiences serve a Godward purpose? If so, what purpose?

Looking forward to your thoughts.

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And the white shirts have it…

Posted by Lisa on June 13, 2009

A friend emailed last night, “I saw your blog post, and then went over to my (very Mormon) cousins’ place right after, and was greeted with this…”

Don’t have time to stay abreast of the latest trends in men’s religious wear? You’re safe purchasing (or gifting) the white dress shirt.

Mormon Shirts

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My friends,

Posted by Lisa on June 13, 2009

Bright whites, Hasidic neighbors' laundry from my bedroom window

Bright whites, Hasidic neighbors' laundry from my bedroom window

Welcome!  The title, “Row House Fires” is a stab at metaphor, and is the image of the light, warmth, and activity I see in my neighbors’ windows as I walk down my street at night. It also points to what I feel is going on behind those doors: hearty and vibrant doctrinal discussions, teachings, and precise ways of living. I heard a group of men singing a song (Hebrew? Yiddish?) on Jewish Sabbath a week or so ago that shook out onto the street and made me wild with curiosity. What are they singing about? What sort of strange, holy feeling is in that room? Does it smell like sweat? Smoke? The pages of the Old Testament?

I live in a particularly religious swath of New York City, and am deeply interested in why my boroughmates live, think, and believe the way they do. Down the street on McDonald, there’s a stretch of doors that opens on Fridays to long crowds of Muslim boys and men pouring down the street to prayer. Saturdays, the Hasidic families between Cortelyou and Ditmas leave in coolly dressed streams to attend worship. And we Christians finally trickle to church on Sunday mornings in our spotty ones and twos.  This blog provides an excuse to get nosy with some of these believers, to earnestly inquire about their reasons for religioning, and then to share those reasons (with mind blowing pix, whenever possible) with you.

I hope these perspectives will be catalyst for good and honest questions. I hope participants in any discussion will be both unabashedly frank and sensitively discerning. And I hope we’ll all be bent a little more Godward for these conversations.

So, no real fires (that I know of as I type this, knock on cold wood). Just a hearth-y invitation to conversation sparked by the fascinating faith and lifestyles of my fellow Brooklynites.  Expect posts at least weekly.


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