A few weeks ago, I received a phone call from one of my spiritual teachers, a senior disciple of Sri Swami Satchidananda, whom I had immediately recognized and accepted as my guru when I first encountered him in the Summer of 1965. I was initiated by him in 2001 and received a mantra that I repeated daily for all these years. Yet here was Sary telling me I needed to adopt a new mantra, a prayer or praise and veneration for the fierce Hindu Goddess Kali. Here is exactly who I need these days, brandishing her ten arms, beheading demons and absorbing their blood, in a sari made from the skin of a Bengal tiger. She wears a belt of skulls and manifests her fierceness with a red tongue hanging from her lips. Creator and Destroyer, she is impeccable she catches their blood so that they don’t proliferate. Precisely who I need know after my diagnosis, six months ago of glioblastoma.
Of course of you may know that already in March I was diagnosed with glioblastoma multiform, an incurable, lethal brain cancer that claimed the lives of Beau Biden and John McCain among others. For what are those cancer cells proliferating in my brain but demons that Kali might attend to. I am more than happy to invoke and emulate her.
Kali is also an apt Goddess for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New YEAR, when we invited to cleanse ourselves of our “sins” (let’s call them simply problems) so that we may begin a new year refreshed and open to its renewal and sweetness. All this is represented by round challah, pomegranate, black eyes peas, dates and new fruit of the season.
And as I in invoke Kali today, I recall my own long history on the outskirts of their coalition that fought so hard to banish the Goddess.
As a young girl, I developed my own Rosh Hashanah ritual with my best friend, Deborah Salltz. Dressed in brand-new outfits (my only one for the year), we would set out on day-long walks, starting in our Brooklyn neighborhood by the waters of Gravesend Bay and ending on the grand leafy boulevard of Ocean Parkway. We walked to from our working class, largely Catholic neighborhood to a more middle-class, Jewish neighborhood where we would encounter whole families, also finely dressed, out walking.
Rosh Hashanah was our day of adventure and freedom, something we looked forward to every year and which we still fondly recall. I like to think that even then we were inspired by the Goddess., for although we occasionally stopped into synagogues, that was never the point. Judaism and the other Abrahamic religions and the cultures they spawned have paid dearly for their banishment of the Goddess. But it is not too late to reclaim the Goddesses in ALL THEIR GLORY.
It’s also worth noting that Kali’s nine-day festival, Navratri, falls at the same time as “The Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “May we be inscribed in the Book of Life!” Never have those words meant so much to me.
BIO: Joyce Zonana is a writer and literary translator. Her most recent translation, Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You, a novel about Egypt’s Jews, is available from Seagull Books. Her memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey was published by the Feminist Press. She is currently at work on a translation of Edmond Amran El Maleh’s Mille Ans, Un Jour, a novel about Arab-Jewish life in Morocco.