Religious metaphor swan

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Image courtesy of epSos.de. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

 

I’ve spent a lot of the last few weeks listening to Sufjan Stevens’ “Seven Swans” album, thanks to Spotify premium and a friend who–after getting a tattoo of a swan–reminded me of the thing’s existence. It is a lovely album, spare and Christian-y in the way that Sufjan Steven’s things are. I’ve been listening in particular to “All the Trees of the Field Shall Clap Their Hands.”

The song title, like most on the album, is a Bible reference. Because I was raised a heathen and my Methodist schooling mostly served to teach me about Hindu holidays, I didn’t know the verse. Google helped me out–thanks, Google!–and provided Isaiah 55:12:

For you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands.”

Which is lovely. It is some Disney-level optimistic imagery. It is done justice by banjoes.

I’ve been thinking about the religious implications of the song this week, in part because I’m preparing to fly out of town for a cousin’s bat mitzvah this upcoming weekend. I’m excited to see the relatives, and pelt my cousin with marshmallows, and perhaps see what Nebraska has to offer.

Explaining my upcoming weekend plans has, however, led to multiple conversations about whether or not I am, in fact, Jewish. (Chapman is not, on the whole, a wildly common Jewish surname.)

My mother was Jewish but not religious in her adult life. My father’s parents gave up Baptism and Methodism early in life, and he wasn’t raised religious. My sister and I have Hebrew names, and were raised celebrating Hanukkah at Thanksgiving, Christmas at the normal time, and Easter as an excuse to stuff ourselves with candy.

When I lived in Tulsa as a child, I counted as Jewish as much as anything. I remember giving the Hanukkah talk to my elementary school classmates as part of some assigned holiday celebration walkthrough. No one could question it because–after a Jewish girl a few years older than me moved on to middle school–there were no other Jews (my sister excepted), as far as I was aware. I do remember jokingly identifying as a “Jewtheist” in sixth grade, and being very solemnly witnessed-to the next day by a classmate.

We moved to Atlanta when I was 12, and for the first time I interacted with no-shit, actually observant Jews (from reform to orthodox). I went to a seder hosted by my sister’s friends, I worked around my best friend’s occasional need to placate her parents by being home for dinner on Friday nights. I met other kids who were like me–products of mixed-faith marriages whose parents had settled on one faith, or both, or none at all. (It was, after all, Decatur.)

The week before the start of 10th grade, my maternal grandmother died. After that, Thanksmukkah more-or-less stopped, and most of my interaction with my mother’s family began to focus around their children’s bar or bat mitzvahs. By the time I was out of high school I quit trying to mumble along with the Hebrew that I clearly didn’t know and the melodies I hadn’t ever learned. I felt uncomfortable identifying as Jewish in front of friends who’d actually been raised practicing.

I hadn’t realized how much I’d quit doing it until this week, telling folks about my travel plans. Anyone who met me after college graduation has, for the most part, responded with very gentle questioning during which they try to ascertain whether I’m secretly Jewish, too, or if there’s some confusing conversion happening in my family tree. (I suspect folks are also trying to remember if I’d told them this before, as certainly that would be the response tossed out there by the Neverending Social Anxiety Monster.)

I don’t know what my identity will be like in that regard in 10 years. Certainly, if my musical tastes are any indication, I’m about 20 minutes from wandering off into some sort of bluegrass Christian environment. But I am looking forward to this weekend’s vacation.

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