Wednesday, June 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.