Jun 17, 2009

Journeying to Judaism: A Square Peg

When I was a kid, my parents urged me to live by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” They bought me a Precious Moments bible at a young age; after all, we lived just minutes from the Precious Moments Chapel in Southern Missouri and spent many holidays visiting the grounds to see the work of the artist known for cute figurines and graphics in childrens’ bibles. I even attended a wedding there once. Even now, looking back, the artwork and the artist’s inspiration are beautiful, even if his book isn’t my book.

I don’t remember a single time that my parents attended church with me, unless it was a wedding of course. My childhood experiences in church were had with friends, actually. I went to vacation bible school during the summer with my friend Annie, and I remember one summer where the theme was something about Cowboys and the Wild West. I remember wearing a cowboy hat (that I had for many years after that, until I was in high school I believe), and helping make fresh ice cream in some wooden barrel, intermixed with coloring pictures of Jesus in cowboy gear. I don’t remember the message, I just remember that the ice cream was really good and the church was massive. This was in Southern Missouri, right there in the bible belt where the evangelical agenda swirls about as fierce as the tornados in Tornado Alley. Annie was incredibly religious, and everything her family did I remember was intermixed with a religious theme. She was one of my best friends, too. One of the six that I was attached to for the first 12.5 years of my life. One of my other friends, Kendall, was a Jehovah’s witness and despite their beliefs about holidays (there are none), her parents still showered her with gifts when the rest of us were getting them – all because she was a “good girl.” She left school during every celebration, too. I was always bummed that she missed out on the Valentine’s Day box contest. I won one year for “The Love Boat.” It was a classic three-tier box with a hatch that opened for cards to be undelicately shoved inside. Oy, that was a proud moment. But I digress! They say there is a friend turnover every seven years, and when I turned 14, I stopped talking to most of my Missouri friends. I hope they all are finding what they’re looking for.

When I was 13, we moved to Nebraska, and I also happened to fall into a religious group of friends. In Middle School I ran around with a crowd that belonged to a large church downtown that frequently had lock-ins and activities for the younger kids. One fall I managed to stay up 72 hours straight: one day was a dance, the next a lock-in, the next a sleepover. Those were the days. But I don’t remember doing anything religiously motivated at that lock-in. I just remember a friend chugging a bottle of Mountain Dew and subsequently hurling all over the rec room. In high school, my group of friends came from a variety of backgrounds: Protestant, Lutheran, Catholic. I learned early that a friend’s parents weren’t really accepted by the Catholic Church for one reason or another. I spent holiday services at different churches, and at one point I remember taking communion because everyone else was and I still don’t even know what it was that I did, but I remember knowing that it was wrong. One Ash Wednesday I went with friends and got ashes placed on my forehead and I remember thinking how weird and uncomfortable I felt. But it was pervasive around me – everyone was Christian, everyone was religious. Everyone with ashen marks upon their foreheads. It was how I rolled. I was the secretary of Fellowship of Christian Athletes and went on several “Weekend of Champions” adventures in Nebraska, including a trip in which I was “saved.” I was in Campus Life, where Jesus was presented through large assemblies on Club Day and it was more about having fun than getting or experiencing Christianity. I wanted so badly to fit in and feel the way my friends felt. That unbending faith that you didn’t have to worry about a thing because Jesus died for you. It was easy peasy. Just believe, and you’re saved. That’s all it took. And even that time, when I was saved, it was a lie. I didn’t believe it. I wanted to believe it. My entire life I’d wanted to believe it. But I couldn’t.

The last straw of my social Christianity, my trying to fit into the mold that was pervasive around me, was in college. I attended services with my friends, and I really liked them. The singing was powerful and intense, and the pastor was so hip and friendly. I remember during emotional services he’d call students down to pray at the front of the shul, if they were suffering. I stood there, wanting to go down, wanting to try, that one last time, to make it work. But I didn’t. And then the pastor confronted me at a dinner and handed me a copy of a book that is known for turning people toward Jesus. I put that book on my bookshelf and never looked back.

I’d spent my entire life attempting to fit into the mold around me because my friends were all devoutly religious individuals comfortable in their Christian skin. Whenever I’d bring up a controversial topic, wanting to discuss what scripture says about modern topics that need practical applications, I was shunned, given a bible verse, and sent on my way. It had never sat right with me, and my questions always were left unanswered. Christianity, in my experience, had become an easy out that I just couldn’t grasp. It would have been so easy to just believe, to put all my faith in a single idea, and let the rest of my life waft by. But that wasn’t my mold. So much of my unhappiness throughout high school and into college was supported by my never-ending attempts to make it work, to fit in, to force myself into the Christian club. There are so many experiences I could write about in my efforts to fit my soul into Christianity. Retreats, discussions, arguments, fights, lost friends …

These, my biggest problems in high school resulted in a deep depression. I tried hard to fit, but I didn’t. Anywhere. I was the Christian Girl in Academic Decathalon and Quizbowl, Math Club, but also Choir and sometimes Volleyball, Model UN, honors society. I went a variety of avenues. I attempted to perfect who I was. But it always came back to the search. The Big Search. I was helpless, hopeless, lost. I kept pushing the square peg in the round hole. I’d done it my entire life. It hadn’t worked, but it was an effort. It was something.

And then? Judaism. Out of the blue, the word was whispered to me in a conversation about beliefs and religion my freshman year. My knowledge of Judaism was the Holocaust, a topic covered by my 8th grade teacher Mr. Smith. I met a Holocaust survivor, I watched the movies, we talked about the catastrophe. But the Jews were a distant people and I didn’t know a single one. Eighth grade came and went and the Jews were never affiliated with anything more than the Holocaust. In high school, my junior year, we did Fiddler on the Roof – never a more distant musical topic for a group of Midwestern Christian kids. But we didn’t talk about Judaism, or why we were singing certain songs, or why the chuppah was important or why Shabbos was so special. I played Mottel’s mother, and that was that. He was 6-foot something and I was 5-foot something. It was implausible, and the musical was more about getting a chance to step out in my musical prowess than about the characters, the history, the story, of the Jews.

How funny to think that me, the little girl who delighted in ice cream at VBS in Joplin, Missouri, and the Precious Moments Chapel’s Christian Bible depictions, who tried her entire life to be a devout and serious Christian, would be at the doorsteps of Orthodoxy, stepping over a threshold of thousands of years of memory and tradition. Even in the six years that I have pursued Judaism, I still vividly remember all of my experiences living the way I thought I was meant to live. I remember taking my little brother and older brother to a Christmas service at my friend’s church – urging my parents to come with, but them denying attendance. I felt so proud then, bringing my little brother to something he’d never known about or understood (he didn’t grow up with the pressures that my brother and I did with friends and school).

But here I am. Still giggling about Jesus in cowboy boots, wondering if I grew up with Jews and just didn’t know it. Smiling, knowing that my children will be brought up with not only the golden rule, but a tradition deeply embedded in my soul. My children will have the right and will be encouraged to embrace what is truly true for them as my parents allowed for me. But at the same time, I hope that I can raise my children in a way that they will respect, connect, and cherish who they are as Jews, carrying on a tradition that their mother’s neshama traveled so long and so hard to give them.


Anat said...

In the fourth paragraph, you write that the pastor called the people who were suffering to come to the front of teh shul. I guess you meant church, but to me it shows that you really belong in a shul...

Shira said...

It's good to hear from another refugee from secularism - which is what I am. My parents did not believe in the value of anything religious and I was always fascinated by the religious people around me.

Ofir Hauptmann said...

RT what Anat said. The beauty of the word "shul" is that it implies that it is a house of learning. I don't think you see that in mondo Christianity.

shavuatov said...

This is interesting, seeing it from the perspective of someone who spent a very large portion of her formative years trying to fit into some form of Christianity. I think this is one of the many areas where the US and the UK differ. Nominally, the UK is a Christian country and the head of state is the head of the Church of England, part of the Anglican congregation worldwide. But in actual fact, Christianity features very little in the day to day lives of the majority of the people, even if they aren't adherents to another faith.

From what you describe, and from what I have seen, heard and read elsewhere, Christianity is big business in the US (and I use the word business deliberately). Perhaps I have just come across only a particular type of information and I don't mind being told that I'm wrong! But church camps, university Christian fellowships and so on - whilst I am sure they exist, they don't attract the same level of attendance and enthusiasm amongst the general population. If you ask the man on the Clapham omnibus (an old-fashioned term for an average man/woman in the street) he would say he wasn't of any religion (and here again, I exclude us 'minorities' from that observation).

It's interesting - Christianity in politics is shied wawy from here - if the Prime Minister waxes lyrical about his/her faith then it doesn't generally go down well. If your President does the same.... a little bit different, don't you think?!

Thank you for posting this :)


EYR said...

Loved it. Thanks so much for sharing.

gerim said...

As someone with a similar background of trying to "fit" into Christianity (though my mother was a somewhat religious Christian so I guess my story is a little different), it was very inspiring for me to read your story. I was always searching for the right place, and eventually realized that was Judaism!
I would love to read a post of how you came to Judaism...or is it somewhere in your blog archives? Link me!

Jack said...

I enjoyed reading this. It is interesting.

Anonymous said...

Brought tears to my eyes...

Chaviva said...

All of your comments have been so good to read.

@Anat/@Ofir Yes, you are right. Oops, hah. I won't correct it because, well, it's pretty accurate.

@Shira The cheese doesn't always stand alone!

@Rachel Yeah, I think religion here is unique to anywhere else, and at some points it can be quite scary. Have you ever been to the states?

@Gerim I'm so glad you saw a bit of yourself in the story. My general story that I wrote for the bet din in 2006 is on my sidebar there on the right, but I need to update it, I think.

@Jack Thanks!

@Anonymous Whoever you are, I hope they were happy tears, and not sad tears?

Mikewind Dale said...

You say, "Christianity, in my experience, had become an easy out that I just couldn’t grasp. It would have been so easy to just believe, to put all my faith in a single idea, and let the rest of my life waft by." I am reminded of the story of Rabbi - formerly Pastor - Asher Wade's conversion. In short, he was troubled by the meaning of life, and so he first spent several days poring through Augustus, where he found something to the effect of, "Believe in Jesus, and until you die, eat, drink, and be merry." Needless to say, this hardly satisfied, and his wife suggested checking the Bible. (Doh!) He opened it, and marveled; "This is great! Do this, and don't do that! Do this, and don't do that! This is amazing!" Then, he realized he was reading the half. And that's why he's no longer a pastor.

My mother similarly felt that Christianity offered too little in the way of purpose and meaning to life; she tells me that growing up, Christianity never quite sat well with her, but she didn't know why. She relates an argument with her mother (an Evangelical Christian, though she called herself one of the Plymouth Brethren), about whether one should help impoverished primitives first materially, or whether first spiritually - should one first convert them even if they'll die of starvation, or should one first satisfy their physical needs? My mother took the material route, her mother the spiritual.

Never understanding why she couldn't be a good believing Christian, my mother went to Jews for Jesus, thinking that if Jews can be convinced to become Christian (she of course wasn't fooled by the obfuscating propaganda of being a "fulfilled Jew"), all the more she can be so convinced herself!

Moreover, she thought, if the one-liners from Sunday school could be so powerful, imagine the whole chapter! So she studied, and discovered that the Christological interpretations are all taken out of context. (Interjection by myself: but are not Midrashic interpretations by the Rabbis also taken out of context no less egregiously than the Christian interpretations? I have much to say on this matter, and Rabbi Hayim Angel of Congregation Shearith Israel in NYC told me some profound things on this, but I digress.) So she studied the Jewish interpretation of the Tanakh - remember, under the auspices of J4J! - and eventually converted to Judaism.

As for her disagreement with her mother, let us note what Rabbi Israel Salanter said: "We tend to be concerned with our own material well-being and our neighbors' souls. But we should rather be concerned with our own souls and our neighbors' material well-being. For our neighbors' material well-being IS the condition of our own soul.)

Of course, since she had to go through all this travail to find Judaism, I've been spared all the agony, and my spiritual life has been relatively calm and uneventful.

(Except for the several months during which the Book of Daniel inspired some peculiar doubts in the authenticity of the Tanakh and prophecy. Luckily, academic scholarship helped me out of that quicksand. But I digress...)

On the other hand, I've had to defend the secrets of Castle Torah against...the evil forces of parochial myopia! (Nod to He-Man.) I only just realized how much similarity I have to the protagonist of Rabbi Marc Angel's recent novel, The Search Committee. David Mercado, the protagonist, grows up semi-Hebrew-literate in the traditional Greek Sephardi community in Seattle, Washington. Realizing his ignorance, however, he soon finds himself in a Haredi Lithuanian yeshiva in NYC. Suffice it to say, he experienced not a small amount of culture shock. (He also married a convert to Judaism from Greek Orthodox Christianity, but that's another story, a rather touching romance actually.)

So mazel tov, yasher koah, hazak u'barukh on all your spiritual endeavors!

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