Cantor Jessica (Fox) Epstein
This August, I drove back and forth to the far southern Outer Banks by myself. It was the accomplishment of my summer. Before this, my farthest solo trip had been to Cape Cod, which is a mere five or six hours – no big deal. This was the summer I passed my own personal mental stamina test.
I should confess that I come from a long-line of distance drivers. My great-grandfather, David Schwartz, used to load up the Packard and take his wife and his three daughters from New York City to Mexico, California, or the Grand Canyon. My grandfather hated to fly, so in his prime he drove from Boca to wherever we lived: Delaware, Illinois or New Jersey. He had a habit of breaking every couple of hundred feet, for no apparent reason, which made it difficult to ride with him without throwing up.
My mother is the inheritor of these sacred driving genes. She’s good for distance and for any weather. I think she was a trucker in a past life. She drove sixteen hours straight from Princeton Junction to Champaign, Illinois to take me to college, twice a year for five years. She wouldn’t let me drive. She liked it too much. Our ten-year-old, 150,000 mile, light-blue Ford LTD station wagon was her baby. We had a goodbye ceremony when it finally died. From her, I learned the trick of not stopping. You stop for gas and coffee only. Grab something to eat in the car and get back on the road. Don’t lose momentum. My older brother has driven cross-country. This spring, my little sister drove from Chicago to Montana, down to Colorado and back to the Windy City.
So this August, it was finally my turn to take up the family tradition.
I went down alone to an island on the far southern Outer Banks. I don’t want to tell you the name, because you might want to go there. And, I confess, it’s fun to be anonymous. I told the locals I was a music teacher. They don’t know from cantors down there. I drove down in two days, stopping at tourist sights along the way, but I wanted to drive back in one. I estimated it would be about eleven or twelve hours, depending on the weather. I wondered if I could do it alone. Did I have the gene? Did I have the sitzfleisch?
What kept me going was the joy of the newly seen. I was able to attain the sort of Zen mind that can only be achieved by remaining immobile while moving – it was like an alert trance-state. Driving north and south on the DelMarVa peninsula, there were shacks and abandoned houses, farm-stands selling tomatoes, little kids selling shrimp for 35 cents a pound, flea markets, fireworks for sale, smelly chicken processing plants and brown, stunted corn so dry I wept for the shame of it. There were volunteer firefighter bar-b-ques and all-you-can-eat church suppers. I liked the signs that said, “Welcome Home Mrs. Barbara” and “Hermit Crab Races.” But most of all, I liked the church signs.
I always look for signs and symbols. I used to meditate on the black and white subways signs that read, “Do Not Hold Doors.” What was the universe trying to tell me? What should we hold and what should we let go? Where was the conductor, the oracle to clarify the hidden meaning in this pedestrian sticker? I can’t help it. I look for signs and wonders because they are there. Once in the subway, I noticed that someone replaced the signs that said, “Air Conditioned Car, Do Not Open Windows,” with identical-looking signs that read, “Karma Conditioned Car, Watch What You Do.”
What harm can there be in looking? After all, are we not obligated to thank God for the miracles before us morning, noon and night? Who’s to say what that miracle may be? You have to notice a lot of things to see a miracle. In Blake’s words, “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” Or maybe just more interesting.
After a few hours, I started writing the church signs down as best I could without killing myself or anyone else on the road. Luckily there are lots of stoplights on Route 13. As the messages accumulated I began to see them not only as cheap proselytizing, but as a part of a delivery system with a message that transcended the medium. For a moment, I felt like Pynchon’s Oedipa Maas. In “The Crying of Lot 49” his heroine discovers (or does she?) a “network by which X number of Americans are truly communicating.” She believes she might have stumbled into “a real alternative to the exitless, to the absence of surprise in life, that harrows the head of every American you know…” Was I on the same post-modern journey or was it just the really bad coffee?
Mile by mile the church signs urged me home. Some made me smile. Some made me wince. In classic post-modern style, ultimately the message was the message. Not what they said – but the fact that they existed. It mattered that someone wanted to try and tell you about faith as you flew by at 55 miles per hour. This wasn’t virtual – it was real.
Frankly, I don’t feel annoyed or threatened by Christians proclaiming their faith on signs. You have the choice to read them or ignore them. These humble signs didn’t scare me, quite the contrary – they heartened me. We live in world where people of faith have too long been silent. We live in a time where irony, detachment and a fervent desire to be “hip” have cleansed American Jews of our religious self-esteem.
There’s a sign between exits 8 and 9 of the NJ Turnpike advertising the fact you can, “Learn Hebrew in 5 hours.” One, it’s impossible. Two, it is pedantic and uninspiring. Is that the best we Jews can do? We have a sign on the front lawn on Broad Street. I want it to say something catchy like, “No date Friday night? Come here!” “Got Schav?” or “Shake Your Lulav, Baby!” There are plans to take the sign down – and we might as well. It’s sort of sad the way it sits there empty, with nothing to say to the world. I guess we’d rather be silent than look like our church neighbors who at the very least advertise the time of their services. Our sign also has several bullet holes in it. One night some kids drove by and shot it up. That’s another good reason to keep it. There was a time Jews weren’t so welcome here. But I think we can move past our fears and post our own proclamations of faith, with a little Jewish humor, of course.
After 9/11 signs rose up boldly over New Jersey’s labyrinthine highways. They said, “We will not forget,” “I love NY,” “United we Stand” and “God Bless America” in bold red, white and blue letters against the gray winter sky. Knowing they were there gave me strength. I felt like I was part of a country where someone cared enough to spend tons of money to say something most of us were feeling, and put it somewhere where we could all see it. It gave me a little lift. These church signs, as I headed home, did the same.
Here are a few:
“God desires his children to prosper.”
(This one was next to a falling-down ramshackle church in a dirt poor town.)
“RU Saved? If not, directions inside.”
“No husband has ever been shot doing the dishes.”
“Love is an action verb.”
“Those on top of the mountain did not fall there.”
“America Bless God.”
“Lovest thou me or ZZZZZs?”
“Turn from evil and do good.”
As I crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel and headed north, lightening and thunder loomed to the west. I could see the storm on the horizon moving fast. The wind was fierce. Things strapped to people’s minivans started to fly off in the cross-wind. Cars missed the debris by inches. The tattered flag attached to my back window flapped relentlessly and my bike rocked back and forth in the straps holding it down. Lightning flashed all around me, but I grit my teeth and turned up the country music. The smell of sand, sea and mosquito repellant lingered in the car. My skin was burned, my hair blond from the sun. I glanced at my scribbled words of faith. The summer was over, the storms were gathering. Pitch-black clouds loosed sheets of hard rain onto the bridge and the road. I silently vowed for the ten thousandth time to make sure my next car had four-wheel drive.
My mind was suddenly quiet and empty. I had an epiphany. What God had been trying to tell me was not on the signs near the road – but on the road itself. The words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav came to me unbidden: All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is not to be afraid.