Monday, March 28, 2011


What You Are I Was
(Part 4 of 9)

By Miriam Rosenberg Rocek

The non-machine related rituals I performed in the Temple were usually small sacrifices, fortunately none of the bloody variety. Most often it was a libation of water, oil, or wine, sometimes a burnt bit of food or incense. They were all written out, usually no more than a few per day, in the big spiral-bound calendar that my Predecessor passed on to me when I took the job. I noticed that all the gods seem to be operating on the Gregorian calendar these days, which at least kept the schedule simple to manage. I enjoyed the rituals, even if I didn’t usually know their precise meaning, and sometimes felt a little foolish performing them. Ritual had always appealed to me. It may not have been theologically sensible, but I liked the reinforcement of community and the open, easy demonstration of faith it generally seemed to represent.

Like the rituals, the Elder’s tasks with the machine required little in the way of religious training. It made me wonder why I had been chosen for the job, instead of someone with mechanical experience, since oiling, checking the springs, and occasionally replacing a rusted or fatigued bit of metal wasn’t exactly something I’d studied in divinity school. I learned, though, both on my own and under my Predecessor’s guidance. Once I’d settled in to the job, he came by the Temple about once a week, just to check in, or to bring a replacement prayer for the machine. Every few weeks I would examine each scroll for deterioration, and when I found one that had begun to fade or crumble with age, I would check the number on the spool, inter it in its proper resting place in the vast filing system in the Temple’s far darker and mustier sub-basement, accessible only via a rickety ladder stuck down a defunct elevator shaft, and inform my Predecessor over the telephone that a replacement was required. He would tell me how soon to expect him, and then would infallibly arrive with a new scroll, which, at first under his supervision, then on my own, I would wind around the spool before shoving the cylinder back into place.

He obviously did the writing for those scrolls himself – he always had inkstains on his fingers when he brought a new one – and I offered once to help him with the work, thinking that the meticulous calligraphy he must perform each time he wrote out a new scroll had the potential to be the closest I would ever come to actually putting the seminar I had once taken on sofrut to some sort of practical use. He politely refused my offer, and I did not repeat it. I took his answer as a tactful way of telling me that there were some jobs that the Elder was expected to perform, and others that he was not. I looked over each scroll before I put it in its place. Sometimes I could read them, sometimes not. Sometimes I recognized the names of ancient deities, sometimes there were phrases that echoed or evoked those of the Bible, the Bhagavad Gita, the Popul Vuh, sometimes I did not even recognize the alphabets in which the prayers were written, while other times the words were comprehensible but completely unfamiliar; prayers of religions I had never read about to gods I had never heard of. I studied those as carefully as I could, but with no context or guidance, it was slow going, especially since many of them were completely incomprehensible. It would take centuries to learn all of the prayers, all the more reason, I supposed, for a machine to do the job.

I commuted daily to the Temple, taking the El’s Red Line, then the bus to as close as I could get, then walking about a quarter of a mile through whatever grim weather Chicago had to offer that day. The Temple, for all its peculiarities, made a good place to study and work, and I got into the habit of bringing a few books or papers for when I had finished my tasks. A few times I fell asleep over my studies, and woke up to monastically go about my daily duties again, never once having left the Temple building. It would have been more worrying if I hadn’t done that about once a week at the university library when I was an undergrad, and it slowly became habit.

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I am a graduate of Northwestern University with a BA in creative writing. Since college I have worked as a nanny, and as a tall ship sailor, helping to sail old-fashioned, traditionally rigged sailing ships from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia. I was born in New Mexico, raised in Delaware, and currently live in New York City.


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