On this Tuesday night, more than a hundred people have each ponied up fifteen bucks each to see the premiere of a one-man show I’ve created called **Religion Outside The Box**.
I’m standing on a stage, a portable riser, in Temple Judea’s social hall. It’s 2001, eighteen months since my last day working here as a congregational rabbi.
Rabbi Goor lovingly introduces me.
I stand on stage and open with a recounting of my childhood — “It all begins at Mount Sinai. I’m born there. Mount Sinai hospital, Manhattan, NYC, January 8, 1970.”
I act out being in the family car, in the back seat, with my sister, eating Burger King bacon-double cheeseburgers on matzah.
I tell charming anecdotes and interact with the audience for a little more than an hour.
In my finale, I relate the story of God telling Jonah to go clean up Nineveh, the Sin City of the Assyrian Empire, and how Jonah, not buying it, runs away.
“I am Jonah,” I say.
“I am Jonah because, even without knowing it at first, I was called. I am Jonah because when I realized that I had gotten a call from God, I retreated.”
I am Jonah because when God called me I insisted that God had contacted the wrong person. I am Jonah because after I got a calling, I got scared and I didn’t want to tell anyone. I was scared that my life would irreparably be changed if I told people that God — and I can’t really define what it is that I mean when I say God — spoke to me.
After all, I had at one time written God a Dear John letter to tell God that I was less than satisfied with our relationship, that I felt as though I was the only one willing to engage in open and honest in communication.
How could I have gotten a calling from God? I’m the rabbi who led an adult education class titled: God Is Dead and I Don’t Feel Too Good Myself.
I thought that telling people that you had a calling from God was tantamount to telling people that Jerry’s famous deli has a particularly good or reasonably priced pastrami.
Me? I got a calling?
Let me be clear here, no well-modulated baritone voice told me anything. It was more as though every atom of my being was letting me know what it was I was supposed to do. I can’t explain it much better than that.
God has called me.
I know this noetically. Noetically is a fancy word which means knowledge that is known, not taught. And noetically is good word to use at a time like this as fancy words can divert attention.
When you’ve had this type of experience — like when you know that the person you are with you want to spend the rest of your life with — it’s that kind of thing. And I had gotten that type of calling.
God — from what this rationalist and self-proclaimed heretic can understand — wants me to tell people that it does not matter what path they are on as so long as they are on a path. God does not discriminate based on religious upbringing or current affiliation. God wants me to tell you that what you did religiously as a child doesn’t matter. You are now an adult.
God wants me to tell you that having a membership to a church, synagogue, or Jewish Community Center does not count. God wants me to tell you that you have to take this whole religion thing into your own hands. And that that doesn’t mean being overly serious about it. God wants you to enjoy your life.
As far as I can tell, my calling is to be here right now, doing what I am doing. As far as I can tell, God, the universe, my soul – whatever you want to call it – wants me to be doing what I’m doing.
I’m supposed to be here preaching to you. I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m as rational as they come but from everything that I can tell, I’m supposed to be here right now imploring you to take a look at your life, asking you to take your life and your religious life into your own hands. This is what I’m supposed to be doing.
The audience is with me all the way to the end when they applaud loudly.
The Jewish Journal reviews the show:
Religion-Outside-The-Box is in a word, revolutionary. In it Mayer weaves a bewitching combination of Borscht Belt-style humor and Eastern Philosophy, gently mocking both himself and the audience while challenging the assumption that faith is a passive thing absorbed through rote prayer and what passes for tradition. (Think a Jewish Ray Romano channeled through Ram Dass).
The show takes a few interesting twists, particularly in skits like “God and the 50-minute Hour” in which Mayer acts the part of the Lord Almighty in session with a psychotherapist and in the more “interactive” sections (audience participation is a must to fully absorb Mayer’s philosophy).
The audience of about 150 people — not shabby for a Tuesday night in the Valley — took the 90-minute show to heart and appeared not only to have a great time but to have learned something as well.
I’m elated that what I’m preaching is moving people.
About a year later, I contact the Journal to tell them about my new ROTB show: Enlightenment: 100% Guaranteed.
“We won’t cover you again,” I’m told, “your stuff isn’t Jewish enough.”