At the 2014 Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion

I returned to Israel a few days ago, after attending my first AAR Annual Meeting, which took place this year in sunny San Diego, on the southern coast of California. For those who are not familiar with this yearly conference organized by the American Academy of Religion, I should note that it is the largest gathering of its kind, containing about 1,000 academic sessions, receptions and other events with an average of 10,000 scholars in attendance !!!  Many researchers I know therefore shy away from it and prefer to present their papers only in smaller scale conferences, devoted to specific sub-themes in the study of religion. While I enjoy such intimate events immensely, I do warmly recommend attending the AAR Annual Meeting to all those interested in religion and spirituality.

I arrived at San Diego after a long (long…) journey from Israel, which included a flight to Los Angeles (with a stop over in Zurich) and then the southern bound Pacific Surfliner train service. When traveling to or from San Diego, be sure to sit on the ocean side to get some fantastic views of the Californian coast. I stayed at the local HI youth hostel, a clean and hospitable establishment which is situated right downtown in San Diego’s historic Gaslamp Quarter. I expected to be the only scholar in residence, surrounded by 20-year-old backpackers, but many of the people staying there were presentong at the conference and, like me, could not afford a room at the local Hilton, Hyatt or Marriott.

Next morning I arrived at the nearby San Diego Convention Center – a huge complex of meeting rooms, exhibit halls, ball rooms and what have you, which also serves as home to the annual Comic-Con International Convention. The center was buzzing with thousands of academics, chatting, hurrying up the escalators to various sessions, or browsing through the titles at a gigantic book exhibition. I took advantage of the generous conference discounts, and bought some interesting titles, some of which I had my eye on for months: Paganistan: Contemporary Pagan Community in Minnesota’s Twin Cities, by Murphy Pizza; Witchcraft and Magic in the Nordic Middle Ages, by Stephen A. Mitchell; Pagan Family Values: Childhood and the Religious Imagination in Contemporary American Paganism, by S. Zohteh Kermani, which deals with second-generation Pagan kids growing up in Pagan families; and an anthology on Modern Pagan and Native Faith Movements in Central and Eastern Europe, edited by Kaarina Aitamurto and Scott Simpson. Goodie, Goodie, Goodie !!!

As one of less than a handful of Pagan Studies scholars from Israel almost all of the academic materials I use come from abroad, and particularly from the United States. It therefore made me very happy to meet some of them at the conference for the first time – Chas Clifton, Wendy Griffin, Sarah Pike, Jone Salomonsen, Sabina Magliocco, as well as Aussie Doug Ezzy. Like a typical fan boy I brought copies of their books with me, which they were kind enough to sign… We continued to hang out together in and between sessions, and on one night headed to a special Pagan Studies Group dinner at a local Italian restaurant. Chas Clifton, who co-chairs the group, had kindly bought me dinner at a nice Korean restaurant the night before 🙂 There was also a lovely little reception at the Grand Hyatt held by the AAR’s New Religious Movement’s Group and Nova Religion, the Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, in which I, again, met good friends and colleagues – Manon Hedenborg-White, Fredrik Gregorius, J Gordon Melton and Catherine Wessinger. I also met Francesca Tronetti, who writes a PhD dissertation on a female monastic Goddess community in the Catskill Mountains called the Maetreum of Cybele, Magna Mater.

And there were also the academic sessions – one thousand of them, with dozens taking place simultaneously at any time. Luckily, the conference’s app – which included all the information on sessions, presenters, visitors and book exhibitors – made it easy to find your way around the different building and construct your own agenda. I started my day with a helpful rountable discussion organized by Publishers Weekly on turning one’s dissertation into a book. Then I hopped between lectures at the Pagan Studies Group session on ‘The New Animism‘ and the Religion and Science Fiction Group session, which contained a presentation on the material culture of sacred and hi-tech weapons in Joss Weadon‘s The Avengers. Then came a fascinating ‘Wildcard Session’ on Folklore, Religion and the Supernatural, with a talk by the wonderful Jeffrey J. Kripal, David Hufford and Sabina Magliocco.

The next morning featured a lovely joint session of the Pagan Studies, Gay Men and Religion, Lesbian-Feminist Issues in Religion, Men, Masculinities and religion, and the Religious Conversions Groups. It contained a talk by Leigh Ann Hildebrand (Graduate Theological Union) conversion to Judaism in the United States by people who self-identify as LGBT, queer, linky, non-monogamous or polyamorous. Fascinating stuff!!!  There was also a presentation by Rachel Morgain (Australian National University) on gender exploration in the feminist Pagan tradition known as Reclaiming, in which I learned about new trans./queer deities called ‘The Mysterious Ones’. Philip Francis (Manhattan College) gave an interesting talk on the role of sexual experiences in deconversion from Evangelical Christianity. I was amazed by his description of one interviewee who, as he achieved orgasm during the first time he made love to his girlfriend, became consumed by guilt and fear because he thought that the amazing feeling he was experiencing was actually his eternal soul living his body and that he is damned to everlasting hell….

My own presentation later that afternoon focused on the Israeli Pagan community and the discourse maintained by Israeli Pagans on questions of community-building and the attainment of religious rights. Israeli Pagans, I maintain, may employ a community-building discourse, but at the same time they constantly fear the perceived negative consequences of public exposure. They see the bond between (Jewish) religion and the state in Israel as a main factor in the intolerance and even persecution that they expect from the government and from Haredim (“Ultra-Orthodox” Jews).

Monday contained a good session by the Western Esotericism Group on the subject of ‘Lived Esoterisicm’, followed by a continuation of the New Animisn session by the Pagan Studies Group. On Tuesday Morning, just before I headed back to San Diego’s train station, I caught Michelle Mueller’s great presentation on sacred BDSM among Contemporary Pagans. Yummy !! 🙂

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