I am a Jew, of the utmost reformed category. I grew up in a Jewish household. I went to synagogue on the High Holy Days. I went to Hebrew school until I made my Bar Mitzvah at 13, when I became a “man”.
The Lord and Lady never ask my approval. I serve them as Priestess, I do what they ask. I would not have chosen my co-worker Yitzhak, Izzy, as my mate for the Bealteinne fires. But the choice was made above and beyond me. To my credit – I surrendered.
What is a Jew? I asked myself that often. Yes, I’d read the textbooks. I knew the dates, the places, the prayers. But what did it mean to me? Where was my place? A fire was smoldering, but wouldn’t catch. It was the struggle of a fire going out. So when she introduced the idea of the Bealteinne fires, I was all ears. Where did this fire burn? Show me, Charlie.
The first Bealteinne we worked together we were very enthusiastic in teaching each other about our very different Traditions. We would walk on our lunch hour, and that first spring I got a very general education about Passover and Izzy got a very watered down description of Bealteinne – minus the fires altogether. A season later we were walking on very different ground during lunch. I knew enough to say “Shabbat Shalom” on Fridays, and when to bring unleavened bread to share at lunch, and Iz had learned enough to comment on the moon phases and at least wish me happy solstices and equinoxes.
And then she appeared, looking like an orphan with a backpack and a rumpled windbreaker on some early spring morning. “I like you” she said, with gigantic green eyes and red elfin hair. No words needed. Just those wonderful green eyes and lashes that summoned forth the shadows of some forbidden forest. Something sleeping awakened in me. Jung would’ve said it was my anima, my inner female. “I like you”, I returned with my broad shoulders, my long legs, and the stubble that darkened my chin. She was so alive, so passionate in her beliefs, her Pagan path… so reverent in her respect for all of life, from her clients to the bugs and butterflies of our never ending walks. Show me Charlie…
I tried not to complicate my workplace. I tried not to admit a physical attraction to a man who called my tattoo a “pen-tangle” and thought the four elements were “animal, vegetable mineral and synthetic”. Iz did everything he could to deny that he was being haunted by some past life version of himself, Priest at Avalon maybe, or Bard at the King’s court… noticing the tides of his blood ebbing and flowing with no Yiddish expressions to capture or explain it. What a rationalist. What a thinker. We walked day after day for over a year, celebrating every season. “Who can figure?” I said to myself, in my best Yiddish impersonation. I know now, after that night of the Bealteinne Fires, that we had been puppets all along, Lord and Lady pulling our strings for over a year before They, and we, joined together in the fields.
She thought I was brilliant. Quite an aphrodisiac for an insecure solitary soul. I always hampered my every move with a crass and scolding “You can do better Izzy, you can do better”. My father perhaps, talking. Or maybe my whole culture, chanting in unison: “Do better, do better , do better…we are the Chosen People and we must do better!”. Ah yes, the guilt at not having done good enough, my Alma Mater. A graduate from the University of Not Having Done Enough.
Macrocosmically, we were the chosen of the Lord and Lady. Microcosmically, our attraction to each other was harder to explain. Walk after walk, talk after talk, I felt a magnetic attraction to a process larger than our incompatibilities. I was newly sworn as Priestess, but unable to share that reality in my professional work as psychologist. Iz was the least likely to understand me. But it was his very unfamiliarity with my Tradition that allowed him to see me as Priestess. This, in turn, allowed me to see myself as Priestess. And as Priestess, I saw in him both Priest and man – maybe more man than Priest, to be honest: the pull of his deep brown eyes, the suggestion of muscles under his dress shirts, the knot of his tie against his Adam’s apple, and his swarthy 5:00 shadow at nine a.m. Around his masculinity, my femininity resonated like a tuning fork.
Every six weeks or so I explained the current Sabbat to him, and if there was also a Jewish holiday he would teach me. We combined them into lunchtime walk celebrations. We called our blended tradition “Hebragan”, and Iz pronounced it with such a perfect Irish accent that I laughed with delight every time. But he was sad… empty somehow. Iz went through the motions, but without any inner spark. When I tried to talk with him about it he was evasive, and would always turn the talk elsewhere. I let him be.
My car seemed to drive itself to the Temple of my youth. I used to talk to God here. It was dark, and I was reluctant to enter and visit the ghosts inside. I walked instead around the back, to the fields behind. I was lost, yes. Spiritually, soulfully lost – walking in the field behind the Temple of my youth. Without goals, without faith.
It was the field behind Temple Emmanuel where my spiritual crisis culminated. I was thinking of Charlie of course, of her crazy faith, her beliefs as alien to me as my own Judaism. Only difference was she chose hers – something I don’t do. I don’t choose. I default. Into being a Jew and back out again. Empty and aware of empty.
I do not recall a time when I felt so alone as I did that evening. It was as if a night of endless proportion, of infinity, was descending upon the fields. And the silence was so overwhelming, so daunting. Was I losing my mind?
Recently I’d joined a Druidic grove, to compliment my Kabalistic studies. We were seeking a place to celebrate Bealteinne and initiate new members. I made a few calls, and secured us permission to use the big field and small forest behind the Temple Emmanuel, and our celebration was consequently held there, on Jewish ground. “All Gods are one God, and all Goddesses one Goddess”, it didn’t matter to us. We were grateful for the little piece of wilderness within the metropolitan city.
After initiations of the new members, and the traditional Bealteinne rituals of the Maypole, and jumping the fires, there was much merry making in the warm spring night. Mead flowed like nectar from the Gods as people broke into smaller groups and lit smaller fires to talk and sing and dance around. I sat for awhile with some pipers, lending my feeble skills on my wooden recorder, then wandered, blessedly barefoot, to the guitars and dulcimers, strumming and singing their Gaelic tunes. The drumming circle eventually captivated me and pulled me to the edge of the woods, by the abandoned Maypole. Congas, bongos, djembes and medicine drums pounded into the night, the rhythm so hypnotic, the night air so crisp and filled with the smell of mud and smoke and new grass. It seemed to me the most joyful celebration of life possible – a newly sworn Bard, a Priestess in grateful celebration of Bel, the bright one, Lord of the Fires. The music took me like one of Pan’s nymphs. I found myself jumping the various fires, past pipers and drummers, to the edge of the woods where our Maypole still stood, like a giant phallus, guarding the deep dark forest behind.
Weary, and burdened by the weight of my own thoughts, I walked blindly into the great field behind the temple. With each step I heard my heartbeat, throbbing. But then the internal became external as I recognized the sounds to be rhythmic, ebbing and flowing, fading in and out, distant but then closer. Drumming? Yes, it was the sound of drumming. How peculiar. My curiosity piqued, I walked faster into the field.
Aglow in the field, the brilliant orbs of small fires burned. Smoke curled upward.. Sweet sounds trickled through the night air. A dulcimer? A mandolin? Was some sort of gypsy caravan performing behind my Temple?
I strolled closer, trying to look nonchalant among the people dressed in all manners of ways. My instinct was to hide, and observe, but out of nowhere a girl in a peasant dress grabbed my hand and pulled me towards a small fire crying “Come jump with me!” and she began to run, pulling me. I jumped over the small fire with her and she kissed my cheek and was gone. What strange sect was this? Who were these people?! I found a hiding spot behind a large Oak tree, where I could watch this surrealistic scene. I was both captivated and apprehensive. Suddenly, I recognized the sound of feet, quick stepping over last year’s leaves, and a voice, humming, singing, chirping and giggling. I peered around the trunk and through the smoke and night I barely made out the image, silhouetted before the burning fires.
Was it…? Could it be…? It couldn’t be…
Charlie. Swirling round and round a great pole hung with streamers. Eyes closed, a blissful smile on her face. Her tattoo, the one I’d only heard of, the one that would forever prohibit her burial in Jewish ground, was glistening and glorious. Her torso was wet with sweat. I inched closer to convince myself that I was not dreaming. Yes, it was Charlie, dancing round and round in time to the music. Some kind of pagan hoe-down? She told me she worshipped outside. She didn’t mention it was behind my Temple.
“Shekhinah”, I whispered without thought, the divine feminine in my tradition, why remember that now, after so many years of forgetting? She was almost too beautiful to look at, and my heart swelled at her brightness. “Why, she is Shekhinah, and she is fire… she is all that I am not, all that I am missing….” I began unbuttoning my shirt, smiling.
“A Maypole dance – too perfect!” I exclaimed. I hummed and giggled, eyes mostly closed as I focused on the mud between my toes and the cool breeze on my skin, dancing towards the Maypole. I grabbed a ribbon and began to twirl around the pole, ducking, turning in and out, very pagan, very ancient and very child like. Stumbling for a moment, I opened my eyes to catch my balance and realized someone was watching me. It took two seconds for my rational mind to blow a fuse and shut down, because it took two seconds to recognize the watcher as Izzy. His eyes were sparkling. The firelight illuminated him from behind, and he said simply “Shekhinah”.
Somewhere along my approach to her, as the tongue of flame licked us both, from our toes to the roots of our hair, language became non-functional, and thus void. The fire, the pounding of the conga, the dappling of the guitar notes, my own heartbeat, these became our language, hers and mine.
Show me the Light Charlie.
As she turned fully to me, her eyes melted.
Is this happening? Am I dreaming? Show me… show me!
Then she brought her gaze full up my body, so slowly, then up the slope of my neck, around my ears, over my chin and to my fully parted lips. I saw her eyes glaze over then, as if she was venturing to some far off place.
She held her ribbon out to me.
He approached me then, and took up the ribbon. If ever I doubted the existence of magic, or of the Lord and Lady , the doubt was extinguished in the dance that followed. Round and round the maypole, over and under the ribbons, braided together as we twirled somehow in perfect grace….
After the fire… I started so many sentences in my mind that way, so many emails and letters to Izzy, all unsent… after the fire. The seasons have turned. Yitzhak took a new job months ago, and it’s been longer since we last talked. I spend my days at a much lonelier workplace now.
After the fire, I came back to myself, as if I had been in a drug induced black out, with only fragments of images to fill in the missing hours. In the shower that night, my muscles were sore, my body covered with mud and scratches, I had flashbacks, singular images and scenes… Izzy over me, me looking down upon him, the smell of smoke… Washing my face, I felt the sting of the soap where his stubble had rubbed me raw. I remember mud painted war stripes on his cheeks and chest, that bare chest revealed after so many months of wondering…shoulders so broad, hair so think and curly… I moaned and rested my cheek against the cool shower tile. “Oh Iz, what have we done?”
Clean then in my bathrobe, still stinging and sore, I sat before my altar. I lit a stick of Nag Champa and recited the Charge of the Goddess to sooth myself, much as I used to recite “Now I lay me down to sleep”…
“I who am the beauty of the green earth and the white moon among the stars and the mysteries of the waters, I call upon your soul to arise and come unto Me…”. I murmured the words, thought of my Grandmamma with her rosary… all Goddesses are one Goddess… “ For behold I have been with you from the beginning, and I am that which is attained at the end of desire.”
I lay my damp and throbbing head against the silk covered table and breathed deeply. What am I feeling? What am I feeling? I scanned my energy field and was immediately struck by an awareness of my own polarities, anima and amimus, combined into a third thing, pulsating and vibrant in my bloodstream. I shifted to my inner vision and saw that my aura was golden and radiant and huge, and that each chakra was wide open, a rainbow of frequencies harmoniously dancing. “Oh! This is a math thingy! The sum being bigger than it’s parts! Sin… Sinner… Synergistic!” I exclaimed to the empty room. Then I meditated in the warm glow of wholeness, late into the morning hours.
Faithful reader, whomever you may be and whatever drew you to this particular essay, I say: “ Believe in the Bealteinne Fires”! Again I repeat: “ Believe in the Bealteinne Fires!”
I could not then, nor can I now explain rationally the change that overtook me the night of the Bealteinne Fires. As Charlie told you, I was a thinker, a logician of sorts, rigid and well defended, forever stepping carefully and never on cracks.
I’d often wondered what attracted Charlie and I to each other. On paper, we were mismatched. But when you come within close contact to someone who is on fire, burning, you tend to follow, because slowly you remember that you are on fire as well. You smell the smoke and sometimes you see the glowing embers, and sometimes you hear the crackle. You learn that fire follows fire, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it. Charlie, the Elf, with the Green Eyes and red hair, was on fire, and I was too.
On the night of Bealteinne, we finally allowed our flames to touch. We saw the grandeur of our fires together, the Flame of Passion. We allowed its presence, and savored its glow. And in the divine moment of our flames blending, I realized Charlie was my teacher.
In the synagogue, the Torah is housed in the Ark. And hanging over the Ark, the Eternal Flame burns through the days and nights, always flickering, casting a pool of light. What does the eternal flame represent? In perhaps a personal interpretation, it is thus: God’s love is always present, and can never be extinguished. Throughout the ages, great Kingdoms of Evil have attempted to exterminate the Love, but repeatedly they have failed. But the other interpretation, gleaned from a night of reckless, wild, and wonderful union with flesh, soil, grass, and an enchanted field full of joyful Pagans, is that the fire burns within us. And we are free to burn alone, or with others. But the trick, dear reader, is to Burn. Remember: Burn!
We are alive.
Betz King is a bard, psychologist, Priestess of the Western Mysteries and humanistic journalist. She dances outside in Berkley, Michigan.
(Author’s note: any resemblance to persons either living or dead is the product of many lunchtime walks).