The Elephant in the Room

Ten Years as an Idol-Worshiper

Mira Zaki

I kneel before a statue of Ganesh, staring into the eyes of the elephant-headed god, tears welling up in my own. We’re at “Dance Church,” an ecstatic queer dance party in a yoga studio, with trippy music and heady conversation pulsing behind us. Overcome with grief, I take refuge in this corner to—I don’t know what—to pray, I suppose. Breathing deep, I feel into my troubles. I’m thirty-one and my life is a mess. I’m devastated by a recent breakup; I abandoned my career as an animator to try and finish a novel, which is going nowhere; I’m out of work, living alone, and contemplating suicide, lonely and heartbroken in New York City.

I’ve never prayed before. I don’t even believe in God. But before the statue, all else fades and my thoughts take on a crystal-clear quality, soothing and steady, as if channeling Ganesh, The Remover of Obstacles. Your life is so good right now. You are finding your voice, your path, and your community. You will finish that novel. You will love again. You will learn to heal yourself and others. You have risked much and suffered losses, but you are on your way.

I reside in the comfort of his message, surprised by its clarity and wisdom, even as I recognize it as my own. Desperation wanes, opening up to a glimmer of trust in something bigger than me. My breath fuller and head lighter, I return to the dance floor, sweating out my joy and sorrow.

*   *   *

Soon after that party I purchased a Ganesh idol for my home, consecrating a relationship with the god that had started in my yoga training. Years of yoga opened me up profoundly, revealing the anger and anxiety lurking in my body, calming my nerves and leading me towards a fuller, more courageous life. I’d read the Bhagavad Gita, learned about The Nature of Being, and cultivated a meditation habit. My studies and contemplations always came back to a central lesson—to love myself—which became my most important reminder.

In my yoga teacher training, while we learned the invocation to Ganesh, Om Gam Ganapataye Namaha, one young woman sat aside silently. An observant Jew, she declined to participate in chants that invoked a pagan deity. It hadn’t occurred to me, a secular Jew, that chanting might violate a commandment. I was born in Israel and given the biblical name Omri. Hebrew was my mother tongue. My family dipped apples in honey and lit Shabbat candles, but we never went to synagogue or tolerated belief in God. We were scientists and intellectuals, descendants of Holocaust survivors, and immigrants to America. My father had instilled in us a revulsion for religion, for religion led to his parents’ persecution. I internalized these ideas: God was nonsense, faith was foolery, and traditions were stubborn vestiges of our ancestors’ archaic ways.

Yet a personal spirituality was bubbling up within me, longing to express itself. I made space for the Ganesh idol on my meditation shelf, next to a collection of crystals, incenses, and oils. The shelf was now an altar, and I felt an awesome humility, inviting a god into my home. Soon, Ganesh was joined by a candle in devotion to Hecate, an owl to honor Athena, and a small statue of Horace, the Egyptian falcon god. I delighted in choosing my favorite deities from different cultures, as if hosting dinner party guests from far-flung corners of the world: here’s a Babylonian underworld goddess next to a Greek sky god, a Celtic faerie spirit flitting between them. Curating my neopagan practice in this way was a privilege; after my family was exiled by genocide and displaced by migration, I landed in the dominant culture in an age of globalism, free to access a variety of traditions. Questions of appropriation gave me pause, but I chose to work with foreign deities because that was the only path I saw towards spiritual well-being. In my private rituals I’d enter a meditative trance and convene a council, calling each guide in turn for their particular attributes: strength, creativity, justice, healing, protection—which were in fact aspects of my higher self reflected in divine figures. Ganesh, as is his place in Hindu tradition, always held the first seat, called in before any others. 

Pagan practices helped me survive depression and even thrive, blossoming as a yogi, writing daily, and connecting with the radical faeries, a community of queer healers, artists, and activists. As my personal pantheon grew, I never paused to consider why I hadn’t made room for Judaism on my shelf.

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*   *   *

While I was exploring Buddhist and pagan spirituality, my twin sister developed an affinity for our birth religion. She and I were deeply connected, entering the world together, sharing a room through our teenage years, and trying to make sense of growing up in a foreign country. In young adulthood, my sister suffered from panic attacks, and eventually returned to live in Israel, finding her way to the teachings of our people. Her panic attacks subsided as she leaned into Judaism, and she became more stable, healthy, and grateful to be alive. Her journey ignited my own curiosity. 

At age thirty-four, I signed up for an Introduction to Judaism course, hoping to gain a basic understanding and reconcile my ancestry with my spirituality. Learning customs that my parents never passed down, I rearranged my room, turning my altar to the east so I could meditate facing Jerusalem. I purchased a traditional wool tallis as a meditation shroud, even as I continued to sit in a Zen style. I bought a copy of the Torah, which sat on my nightstand next to Alan Watts, Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Diamond Sutra.

But one feature of Judaism wouldn’t reconcile so easily: the injunction against idol worship. I studied the Exodus verses in which God hands down the second commandment—Thou shalt have no other gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image—and wondered, why did He so despise idolatry? Why, when the wandering Hebrews bowed before the golden calf, did Moses and Aaron respond by slaughtering three thousand of their brethren? The text provided little insight, except to say that He was a jealous God, which left me scratching my head. Why was the All-Powerful-All-Knowing beholden to jealousy, that ugliest of emotions, if there were no other gods besides Him?

Confounded, I turned to modern discourses, which tended toward the idea that any image of our infinite God was an insult to God’s fundamentally unknowable nature. While I liked that notion philosophically, it didn’t explain the sheer hatred and gross violence that befell idol worshipers in the Bible. I was left with only an anthropological answer: As a matter of politics and self-preservation, the ancient Hebrews’ ruling class had codified their power with patriarchal monotheism, outlawing the worship of foreign gods and goddesses to preserve their own authority. They took extreme measures to root out the beliefs of neighboring pagan tribes, lest they face extinction by assimilation. I concluded that the second commandment was born of overprotectiveness and ethnocentrism, part of Jew’s pathological identification as a “chosen” yet perpetually victimized race. This was a direct affront to my democratic values, that we belong to a global community of equals. I was a human first and a Jew second (or third or fourth, after my queerness and my nationality).

The more I studied Judaism, the more it turned me off. The first two books of The Bible aggrandized deceit, theft, and rape. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people was rooted in a deep-seated xenophobia, as ancient as the Bible itself. Jewish orthodoxy rejected queer and gender nonconforming people, casting us outside its strict gender binary. In all these ways, Judaism drew hard lines between “us” and “them,” upsetting my desire for open-mindedness. Most of all, I resented the limits Judaism imposed on my spiritual life. I wanted my religion to guide me into mystery, to open a direct portal to spirit, not mediated by rigid traditions, nor hidden in the rabbit hole of rabbinical discourse. I envied the universal, unconditional love that Christians got through Christ, or the promise of enlightenment that Buddhists had in the Eightfold Path.

While I grew disaffected by Judaism, my sister leaned further in, affiliating herself with the Chabad-Lubavitch orthodox sect. I made efforts to meet her where she was, accompanying her to Yom Kippur services at 770 Eastern Parkway, the Lubavitch central synagogue, when she visited Brooklyn. I stuck out like a gentile, wearing jeans and earrings in a sea of black hats and beards, forced to sit separately from my sister. After services, a Chabad emissary lectured me on faith, pressuring me to wrap tefillin on my arm, while my sister smiled with expectation. I did it to humor her, but the arcane ritual repelled me, and at the end of the night I was happy to return home to my altar and my idols.

When she, in turn, visited my apartment, she gasped at my Ganesh statue, murmuring “Avodah Zarah” and shielding her face. I was relieved she didn’t notice the statue of Horace. What would she have thought if she saw me venerating a god of Egypt, our enslavers?

By age thirty-six, I gave myself permission to step back from Judaism. The next time a Chabad emissary stopped me on the street and asked, “Are you Jewish?” I said no. Though I was relieved to have avoided his shenanigans, a sharp guilt disquieted my heart. For even as I hated Judaism, I was still Jewish, and had betrayed myself by lying. 

Jews can be Jewish in a multitude of ways, but we can never become un-Jewish, even if we wish it, even if we declare it, even if we violate every last commandment. What did that make me? I settled on a middling answer: “I’m a Jew by ethnicity, not by religion.” The wool tallis I had purchased as a meditation shroud ended up giving me an allergic reaction, and I gave it away to a friend.

It would be years before I realized that this—wrestling with identity, questioning God, searching, tearing oneself away—was part and parcel with being Jewish. All along, I was another wandering Jew.

*   *   *

I keep finding my spirituality in nature and art, in queer community, movement, and breath. I visit temples venerating Ganesh and Buddha. I seek out chanting circles, sitting lotus-style and singing Kirtan—Hindu devotionals. At a Jaya Lakshmi concert, I take a hit of weed and let the high vibes sweep me into trance. The singer’s voice paints the room with light, unleashing tidal waves of color in my mind. We chant a song for each deity: Ganesh’s Om Gam Ganapataye enraptures me in a lighthearted embrace; Saraswati’s Om Shreem Hreem Saraswati Namaha fills me with sweet gratitude; Kali’s Adya Kalika Parame overwhelms me with terrifying might. I decide to reach out to the one deity I’ve never been able to contact. I call in the Jewish God, and hear an awful roar, “I am the God above gods!” He’s angry with me for sitting in Kirtan, daring to call Him alongside foreign deities. Quaking in fear, I hold strong, asking to know and understand Him. He repeats the phrase, but now he’s a court jester with googley eyes, doing cartwheels and sticking out his tongue, mocking my fear, or mocking himself. “I am tthe God above Godssth! I am tthe GOD ABOVE GODSSTH!!” He’s the world’s most frightening clown, and I have no idea what game he’s playing.

I’d never had a vision of the Jewish God apart from the childish picture of a white-bearded old man. I’d never engaged with Him the way I’d called Ganesh or Hecate. Here I’d attempted access and met a volatile, evasive response. I spoke to friends about the unsettling encounter, laughing at its absurdity while feeling no small amount of fear. Talking or meditating about it gave me solace, but no answers. Unlike with Ganesh, I had no image to latch onto, not even a name—and that, of course, was the point. This God left a calling card with no contact information. I tried “Hashem” and “Yahweh,” I tried “The God Above gods,” but prayers left me cold and unmoved. There were no voices in my head, no ecstatic shudders or eruptions of wisdom.

I followed my curiosity to Reconstructionist and queer-friendly synagogues. I found brief delight in blessing the Hannukah candles. I eked out bits of wisdom from the Passover Haggadah. These practices were fine, but they didn’t satisfy my need for deep connection, like pagan practices did. Still, my position—that I was an ethnic Jew with no religious ties—was no longer tenable. Clearly I was Jewish, and I was a spiritual being—could I be a Jewish spiritual being?

My family history raised the stakes on this question. When the Nazis persecuted my grandparents, they didn’t draw distinctions between religion and ethnicity. Inheriting that trauma, my father taught me that religion wasn’t worth the suffering it brought. Was his atheism clean logic, or a capitulation to our oppressors? I knew my own resistance to Judaism was colored by internalized antisemitism, and I was a crossroads—own my ancestral identity, or distance myself further from it?

My unresolved questions led me back to the Torah, figuring the source text deserved a through reading, cover to cover. Surprisingly I enjoyed Genesis and Exodus, appreciating the ugly truths in depictions of rape and thievery, and finding archetypes in the sweeping stories. Even Leviticus delighted me (a vegetarian!) with its depictions of animal sacrifice. The blood and guts! The smell of death! God Himself was pleased by the odor of burning meat? Fascinating! My own ancestors splattered entrails on the temple walls? Sexy! And perhaps a little pagan?

Then I got to Deuteronomy, the final and most terrifying book of the Torah, which said in no uncertain terms that idolaters were reprehensible traitors:

Your brother might say, ‘Let us go and worship other gods.’ . . . Do not show him loving-kindness or hide him. You must kill him. Kill him with stones.

That passage shook me speechless. In my nightmares, my own sister killed me for my transgressions. I pictured her hands around my neck, strangling me, or piercing my heart with a knife. I was a worshiper of the golden calf, slaughtered for his wrong devotion. I was Esau, a brother cast away for being different. I was Omri, a once-powerful king reviled for his sins of assimilation.

The Torah gave me an ultimatum: You can have your idols, or your Jewishness. But you can’t have both.

I’d done my due diligence. I read the entire Torah, hoping to redeem Judaism. What I found instead was a commandment to kill one’s own brother. And for what? For following his spiritual curiosity? The evidence was overwhelming: despite its rich history, Judaism was an odious tradition that condoned murder, patriarchy, and war. I was done with it.

*   *   *

In my 40th year I celebrate Beltane, my favorite high holy day, with my chosen family of radical faeries. We gather in the woods for a grand two-day ritual, celebrating love and nature, frolicking in spring’s new blossoms, and setting our intentions for prosperity. On Beltane Eve, we congregate in the Dead Faerie Circle, home to the ashes of queer ancestors from the AIDS years and since. We tell stories and shed tears for those we’ve lost. My friend, a spirited young Jewish woman, kneels over a set of twigs arranged in the shape of a six-pointed star. “Would you like to pay respect to our gay Jewish ancestors?” she asks me.

I decline her invitation. We ought to honor all ancestors, not privilege those in our ethnic cohort. And do I even have any gay Jewish ancestors? Statistically, they must have been there hiding, struggling with same-sex attractions in their Hungarian villages. But I don’t want to go there; Judaism is once more intruding on my pagan bliss. “I’m a self-hating Jew,” I explain, with equal parts derision and pride, fully expecting that my friend will share my disdain for our loathsome religion.

Instead, she’s appalled. She respects Judaism, and identifies with it proudly. “It’s my purpose in life to love all aspects of myself,” she says. “I can never be a self-hating anything.” With my own words reflected back at me, “self-hating,” I realize that I’ve violated the first, most fundamental lesson of my spiritual journey. In that moment it becomes clear that I may no longer deny my Judaism; I must make peace with this identity I had not chosen and could not discard.

With renewed solidarity, I remember I’m not the first Jew to face such questions, but only one in a long history of self-denial, self-questioning, and even self-hatred. Like so many before me, I had inherited the destiny of Jacob, who wrestled with God on his wandering path, receiving the name Israel, he-who-wrestles-with-God. In my attempts to reject Judaism, I had gone and done the most Jewish thing one could do.

Night falls and the crowd clears, but I stay at the Dead Faerie Circle, kneeling before a waist-high rock adorned with animal skulls, feathers, candles, and crystals. Faeries have laid fresh flowers all around, as well as statues and illustrations, tokens to great Goddesses: Lakshmi, Hecate, Aphrodite, and Mother Mary. The idols give me comfort, but they’re distant and disconnected, for they are not mine. In prayer I ask, “These other Gods and Goddesses, they give their worshipers a direct, easy path. What about me, a Jew? What avenues does my God offer?” I receive a quick, clear response: Everything except the graven images. Lifting my eyes, I discover the vast negative space around the idols. The feathers. The crystals, the flowers. That imposing, majestic goat skull, lit by flickering candles. The wind itself, animating the whispering leaves. The moon above, its graceful luminance. My own tears and the beating of my heart. It’s all fair game. But you must never deign to know.

I see firsthand what I’d suspected: God is everywhere. Any claim of solid understanding, any attempt to delimit God, must be false. Jewish worship is a sacred process of getting closer to a profound immensity that can never be known. The more we approach, the more we glimpse, the more we understand we’ll never see the full face of that mystery. My pagan idols are beautiful portraits—specific expressions of divinity—but by definition they leave out the infinity of God.

After that gathering, my practice of calling in pagan deities fades away. Though I maintain a deep respect for Ganesh and mythology in general, I take the idols off my altar. I keep all I’ve learned from them, and redirect my spirituality towards meditation, movement, and devotion to the all-that-is. Ganesh is no longer a physical presence in my life, but he’s still an aspect of the whole, and I know how to call upon his wisdom without naming him.

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