Casting into the Waters: Symbolism, Spiritual Practice and Tashlich

Judaism has interested me for many years, probably due in large part to the fact that I was raised Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) and there’s a correlation between SDAs and Jews in how they observe the Sabbath (Friday sundown to Saturday sundown) and their dietary restrictions (SDAs encourage and promote vegetarianism, but those who do eat meat will typically shun pork and shellfish). When you grow up in a religious tradition that is a bit outside of the box, even among other evangelical Christian groups, it’s nice to feel understood in some small part by another religious group without having to go into long explanations. This is particularly handy when you talk to fellow Gen X’ers about why you are completely unfamiliar with Friday night TV shows and Saturday morning cartoons during the pre-VCR years.

The Chosen, Chaim Potok I also had an English teacher at my SDA high school who was part Jewish and he had us read The Chosen by Chaim Potok, explaining to us about Jewish traditions and holidays. Momcat and I ended up reading all of Potok’s novels and she, too, was very interested in Judaism. Pops had a colleague whose father had been a rabbi, so she would ask him a bunch of questions about what services were like, the reasons for certain traditions (she particularly liked the use of stones on graves as a remembrance).

I think it’s all these things combined that make me very aware when the Jewish high holidays start. Tonight marks the first night of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Jewish new year. I spent this morning reading about Rosh Hashanah traditions: the blowing of the shofar, eating round challah with honey, eating apples with honey, eating part of a fish or ram’s head. Not sure I would be up for that last one, but I do like the symbolism behind it.

It’s the symbolism behind many Jewish traditions that I find the most fascinating. I don’t recall feeling like it was okay to use or wear symbols of my faith or spirituality while growing up SDA. There were baby dedications in church, and full immersion baptism once you’d studied with your pastor, but iconography and talismans weren’t used or encouraged. I don’t remember any other symbolic gestures or rituals, and in hindsight I think I needed those to help me connect to a higher power.

During this morning’s research on Rosh Hashanah, I learned about Tashlich. The basic premise, as I understand it, is to cast your sins into a body of water. After the Tashlich prayer is recited, you shake your clothes as if to shake off the sins.

Tashlich, Tashlich prayer, Rosh Hashanah

Tashlich prayers (Image courtesy Chabad.org)

But here’s what really spoke to me about this tradition (taken from Chabad.org):

The goal of Tashlich is to cast both our sins and the Heavenly prosecutor (a.k.a. the Satan) into the Heavenly sea. And when we shake our clothes after the Tashlich prayer, this is a tangible act to achieve the spiritual goal of shaking sins from our soul.

Needless to say, the physical motions near the water and fish of Tashlich are not what grant us atonement. But if we pay attention to the symbolism and apply the sincere desire to heal our relationship with G‑d as portrayed in the physical demonstrations of Tashlich, then it serves as a crucial part in the process of repenting and returning to G‑d in purity.

When I lived in Southern California, I often went to the beach to look out at the ocean and have a talk with the universe about what was bothering me. Seeing dark, deep water stretched out in front of me, with no land in sight, was symbolic to me of how vast the soul is, how there is so much going on beneath the surface that I cannot even begin to fathom, but that as I dive down into the depths of my being I can find those parts of myself that need healing, bring them to the surface, then release them back into the water. Going to the beach to process was a huge part of my spiritual growth.

What’s clear to me in this moment is that what I was doing was a form of Tashlich: casting my troubles into the deep sea, letting a higher power help me release them from my soul. I found the symbols I needed and in so doing, I found the spiritual connection and inner peace I craved. And now, every time I go to the ocean, whether the Atlantic or Pacific, I know I can find it again.

Sunset Beach, CA – my favorite place to chat with the universe. (Image courtesy californiasbestbeaches.com)

Shanah Tovah to my Jewish friends, followers and readers.

Mix Tapes Revisited: Beach Music Montage

Today I was in the mood to listen to something different…something familiar yet still fun. That could only mean one thing: break out a mix tape.

Anyone born after 1988 may never be able to fully understand or appreciate the mix tape. Like many of my generation, the mix tape was a staple of my youth. My mixing experience started out by recording songs from the radio, and adding selections from my collection of LPs and 45s. After I got a dual cassette player, I graduated to tape-to-tape dubbing, which meant I could check out tapes from the library and make copies of my favorite albums. If there was just one song I liked, though, I could easily cue it up on the playback only side and record it onto a blank cassette.

Today’s tape was one I called Beach Music Montage. As you probably already figured out, the theme was music that I associated with the beach or with summer. I don’t remember exactly when I made it, but my guess is around 1988, based on the tunes listed. I went so far as to draw a little beach scene on the labels for each side of the cassette, and did a drawing on the track listing too.

The Beach Music Montage mix tape. Note the different colors of ink for each song.

The Beach Music Montage mix tape. Note the different colors of ink for each song.

Some of my favorites from this mix tape:

Side A

Funkytown – Pseudo Echo

From what Wikipedia tells me, this band was big in Australia, but the only hit of theirs that I remember was their 1987 remake of Lipps Inc. “Funkytown”. Today I had fun doing harmonies on this song.

Playing with the Boys – Kenny Loggins

This song from the Top Gun soundtrack didn’t make a huge splash, but I remember the scene in the movie where the song was playing: the guys were out playing volleyball, shirtless and sweaty and looking fine.

Heartbreak Beat – Psychedelic Furs

For some reason this song always makes me think of Key West. I was there on a family vacation in the summer of 1986, right after my grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary. Whenever I hear this song I flash back to being fifteen and full of angst and wishing I was legal so I could go to Sloppy Joe’s Bar.

Dover Beach – The Bangles

Off of their All Over the Place album, this song appeals to my English literature loving nature. What with the title referencing a Matthew Arnold poem and a shout-out to T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” near the end, it’s a lit major’s dream.

Side B

New Sensation – INXS

I wonder if I will ever reach a point when I can listen to an INXS song and not be mad at Michael Hutchence for being so damn stupid for killing himself. Their music is so fun and his voice is so amazing…dammit, now I’m mad again.

If This Is It – Huey Lewis and the News

Huey and his boys always did a good job with their music videos, and this song’s music video was no exception. I think I added this song to the mix because the video was focused on the beach.

Kokomo – Beach Boys

Nowadays this song might make my head explode, because it got overplayed when it came out in 1988. But the whole beach theme is pretty evident here, what with all the name-checking of Caribbean beaches. In the aerobic dance class I took back in the ’80s, we joked about getting maracas to shake while doing a cool-down routine to this song. One day a classmate returned from a vacation with maracas for several of us – and yes, we shook ’em.

Back on Holiday – Robbie Nevil

I had it BAD for Robbie Nevil back in the day. He looked like a bad-ass and he could sing. Sigh. Years ago I made up a storyline for a video for this song, but being all of 17 I didn’t have the resources to make it happen. So there you go.

What mix tapes do you remember fondly?

If you like what you’re reading, how about donating? The money will go towards the fees for a writer’s workshop this fall. (Read more here.)