“Faith is a knowledge within the heart, beyond the reach of proof.”
~ Kahlil Gibran
“You see, Mama, when you look at a rock you have to BELIEVE that it has all that beautiful stuff inside. You can’t see it, but you just KNOW that it’s there. Just like you know that God is there, INSIDE.”
~ Katie, age 6
I grew up without religion. I was raised by Jewish parents, both third generation Russian emigrants, but Judaism for us was far more like an ethnicity than a religion.
In lieu of attending synagogue we watched Fiddler on the Roof. Rather than studying the Torah we took trips to the Lower East Side of Manhattan for corned beef on rye and potato knishes at Katz’s delicatessen followed by marshmallow twists and rum balls from Russ’s and Daughters. There may not have been a Bat Mitzvah, but there were bialys from the Bronx, matzoh brie (rhymes with rye .. not to be confused with the french cheese) for breakfast, pickled tomatoes and homemade borscht in the fridge.
There may not have been Sunday School, but nearly every Sunday morning I woke to the tantalizing smell of fresh baked braided challa and the sound of my dad’s smooth, cantor-like tenor belting out “I am I said” along with his version of a rabbi – Neil Diamond.
Throughout the year, we celebrated whichever holidays promised the most fun and the best gifts. Christmas in my home was an ode to consumerism. Our house was decorated, the tree drowning in tinsel and boasting a glistening star on top. The gifts from Santa spilled into the next room. Easter brought a chocolate trail delivered overnight by the Easter Bunny, a delightfully mythical creature who apparently pooped candy. The trail started at my door and wound its way around the house. It was heaven. I had some vague recognition that the holiday had something to do with a guy named Jesus, but for us Easter was about sugar Peeps and Cadbury eggs.
We always joined cousins for a Seder on Passover and listened to the story of our history, but it always felt more to me like Thanksgiving than a religious observance. And really, it is largely a reminder to give thanks for religious freedom. It’s not so far off.
Some fifteen or so years ago, my then-boyfriend and I went to spend Yom Kippur with my dad and his wife along with his mother, his sister and her family. My aunt, uncle and cousins are relatively observant Jews and as such, they were keeping the fast that is such an integral part of the Holy Day of Atonement. We all sat around for a while, but without food there wasn’t a whole lot to do. You might have noticed in the first paragraph that our version of religion, of comfort, of love, of entertainment, well .. it all comes back to food. Without it, a family gathering just doesn’t seem to make sense.
After a couple of hours, my dad looked at his wife and said, “Oh, geez, Noelle, I just remembered! We have to take care of that thing at the hotel. Um, yeah, let’s go. We’ll be back soon.” He was long gone before anyone could ask what the heck he was talking about.
I looked at my boyfriend, hoping he’d follow along. “Oh my gosh. Thank goodness Dad mentioned that. I almost forgot. We have to do that thing too. So, um, yeah, let’s go. We’ll be back in a few.”
He followed me, completely confused as I high-tailed it outside. He was sweet, but never the brightest bulb in the chandelier. As we got into the car and peeled out of the driveway, he asked where we were going. “TO GET SOME FOOD!” I said far too loudly. We made our way into town and happened upon a McDonald’s. Without a lot of time, it would have to do. We ran inside and ordered like we had a tip on a famine.
And then I heard it. A deep, unmistakable bellow.
“JESSICA, WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING?”
This was no epiphany and that was not the voice of God. Close, but no. It was the inimitable voice of thirty five some-odd years as a middle school principal. The voice of a man who could make a grown woman feel like she was about to get detention for running in the hallways. My dad.
I looked down the counter, through the row of cashiers. And there he was, standing behind his own overflowing tray of food. He finished his thought, the bellow now mellowed by a jovial laugh. “You don’t pay for your own food when Daddy’s here. Get over here, kiddo.”
Twenty minutes, four double cheeseburgers, and a pact never to tell Grandma later, we were off.
So, while holidays may have had their place in my life, they certainly didn’t include a whole lot of religion and they definitely didn’t have anything to do with God. His only real role in my life was to fill in the blanks in phrases like ___ damn it and ___ forbid and there but for the grace of ___, but that was pretty much the extent of it.
Many people experience what they call a crisis of faith – a period in which they question their belief in God. A few years ago, I walked through a crisis of my own regarding my lack of faith. I realized that something was missing. Something big. It was during the Russian school massacre that it really hit me. I watched the parents of the children held hostage in that school. I imagined their anguish. Their raw, unmitigated agony. Days upon days they waited. Hundreds of them lost their children. How does one survive that, I wondered? Where does one find that kind of strength? How can you possibly make sense of that kind of unimaginable pain?
During the time of the seige, I took a call from a friend. She was exhausted. She had spent the last few days helping to care for a friend who had lost her four year old daughter in the family’s back yard pool. This time I asked the question aloud. How does one get through that kind of grief? How does a mother go on and find the strength to take care of her other children, herself?
Her answer was simple. “She has her faith.”
It hit me that day. Belief, faith, the feeling that there is something out there that is bigger than us, that there has to be more than what we see – that was what was missing. It was a big realization. And it was the first step (or perhaps more accurately the first recognizable step) in my journey to find faith.
I came to a place where I decided unequivocally that God – in some form – would be a part of my children’s lives. That they would grow up with the comfort of knowing that there will always be a presence in their lives far greater than their imagination. That although they are always responsible for their actions and for shaping their destinies, that there is an unqualified love for them in the universe. That somewhere inside each of them is a space for peace and grace. That their very existence, in and of itself offers proof of the divine.
I still stumble through the specifics. I still envy those whose faith is unshakable and who have found or grown up with a particular dogma that works for them. I still try on the language, believing that, much the way the process of learning language does for Brooke, the understanding and the meaning will follow the form. That the spirit will infuse the ritual, the routine, the words.
I fumble my way through, but I keep at it. Because I have faith that it will all fall into place the way it is meant to.
Oh, would ya look at that – maybe it already has.
ed note .. I ran this by both Dad and Grandma before ‘going to press’. I had formal reassurance from neither that I would not be grounded as a result. I plead for leniency on the grounds of being a relatively good daughter and grand daughter and loving them both to pieces. Um, please? Besides, Grandma – Dad paid, so it’s like totally his fault.