Errand into the (Jewish) Wild

errandintothejewishwild

While participating in a ritual inspired by Native Americans, I became attuned to the spirit world of my own religion.

by Beth Kissileff

At age 17, as a senior in high school, I went on a school-sponsored trip from my Bronx, New York-based prep school—a kind of modified Outward Bound program to the New England wilderness of Vermont. Not many of us have the chance to go on an “errand into the wilderness” like this to discover who we are. (The famous book on the American Puritans, Errand into the Wilderness by Perry Miller, discusses how the soul of the American nation was forged as it went forth from England to the New England wilderness.)

As part of this program called “Searchers,” I was expected to survive on my own for three days at a campsite by a river with fresh, clean water. I can’t summon all the details of what implements I was permitted to take with me or what items were forbidden. I know I had a tarp and a sleeping bag, and I believe a limited number of matches, for I recall making a fire. For entertainment, we were permitted a journal. The only book allowed was a Bible. This was the pre-cell phone era, so those could not have been banned, but I do recall discussion of whether or not to bring a Walkman (again pre-iPod days). We had an orange flag we could put up if we needed help; a teacher would come once a day, inconspicuously and without communicating with us, to make sure that the flag was not up.

The most adventurous among us was famous for having killed and eaten a squirrel (or so he bragged to the rest of us). I’m not sure what weapon might have been used to dispatch the animal; did we have rope and a Swiss army knife? For myself, the only thing I consumed during those three days was water from the spring. I felt strong and powerful that I was able to survive on my own without needing much from the outside world.

Without outside resources for entertainment, and with time to be on my own, exclusive of external stimuli, I had 72 hours to think about who I was and where I was going at this pivotal time as I readied myself to graduate high school and leave home. The idea behind this trip was based on the Native American concept of a vision quest, which is defined by Wikipedia as “a rite of passage which helps a child find a life direction, perhaps by contact with some kind of vision or dream, to attune the child to the spirit world.”

My clearest memories of this three-day period are of attending to my physical needs and writing. After providing myself with shelter by building a structure to sleep in out of leaves and sticks, I built a fire to boil and cleanse the water and then wrote in my journal.

However, when I woke up in the morning, I felt a need to pray. Alone in the wilderness, I wanted to reach out to something beyond myself, to connect. I did not have a siddur with me, but from memory I recited the Birkot Hashahar, the morning blessings. I lingered on the first one, “who has given the rooster the wisdom to distinguish day from night.” Not generally being forced to awaken at dawn, I enjoyed a new understanding of the importance of daylight. I was pleased to be able to draw on my own resources to recite the prayers from memory and also surprised myself with the deep need I felt to recite them. I did not normally pray on a daily, or even weekly, basis at this point in my life. No one was there to notice or check up on my devotional activities.

So, on my vision quest, I became attuned to my own spiritual needs and my desire to connect to the Jewish tradition in a deeper way than I had up to that point in my life. My parents had been active members of the havurah movement, and of a synagogue, and certainly would welcome any Jewish involvement on my part. But as a teen, one of our tasks is to sort out the things we want for ourselves versus what our parents want for us and what is expected of us.

Being on my own in the most concrete way possible, I came to realize that connecting to the world through Judaism and Jewish rituals was tremendously important to me, without the influence of my parents or anyone else. Up to that point in my life, I don’t think I’d felt a powerful need to pray. On my own in Vermont, I could have made up my own prayers or rituals, but what I most wanted was a connection to Jewish prayers and a Jewish God. While on a ritual inspired by Native Americans, I did become attuned to the spirit world, that of my own Jewish spirit. I’m not sure what I thought I’d discover before I went on my quest, but I have spent the past 25 years, since that spring of 1985, deepening my attunement to my own Jewish spirit.

About the Author

Beth KissileffBeth Kissileff
Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis and has completed a novel. She has received fellowships from the Corporation of Yaddo, the Lilly Endowment, and the Humanities Center at Carleton College for work on her second novel. She has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College, and Mount Holyoke College. She spent two years studying Jewish texts in Jerusalem.

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