Category Archives: religion


             If one does not believe in God, one should probably think twice before sending one’s children to a synagogue preschool.  Yes, they will learn all the cultural shit about Purim and Passover and Shabbat.

            They will also come home talking about God.  A lot.

            The scene is bathtime.  All three slippery little people are in the tub.  Benjamin spies a speck of dust on the wall.

            “Mommy, what that?”


            “That black thing.”

            Mommy inspects, sees nothing.  “What black thing?”

            “That black thing.  That Lilah’s gina?”

            “Um, no sweetie.  Lilah’s v@gina is on her body.  It is where your p-nis is on you.”  I find it amazing, by the way, that he hasn’t brought this matter up before, as he’s been bathing with a baby girl for seven months.

            “Why, Mommy?” Ben wants to know.

            “What does Lilah have a v@gina?”

            “Yep,” he nods conclusively.

            “I know!” Zach pipes up.  This could prove very interesting; there is a damned good chance I am about to hear about X and Y chromosomes from a preschooler.  I wait.  “Girls have v@ginas and boys have p-nises,” he explains to his brother, “because God decided to build them that way.”

            Now, what the fuck?  We don’t talk about God in the house, mostly because we subscribe to the whole lotta hooey school of religion.  (And don’t go getting offended.  I don’t think other people are dumb for believing it, just like I don’t think other people are dumb for liking blue cheese.  It’s just not in my life.)  I guess the preschool talks about God, but I am pretty sure they did not explain human genitalia theologically.

            But, my curiosity has been aroused.  He’s been bringing up God a lot in conversation as an explanation for things, and I want to know exactly what he thinks he is talking about.  “Zach, who is God?”

            “He’s someone who lived in Egypt.  A long, long time ago.”

            So, there you have it, folks.  A long, long time ago in Egypt, a guy named God decided to give little girls v@ginas and little boys p-nises.

Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas

            When I was in my early twenties, my sister had a son.  My nephew was two or three years old when I visited them one year during what has come to be referred to as “The Holiday Season,” which is a euphemism for “The Season During Which the Dominant Religion (and Those Whose Families Once Affiliated With This Religion and Still Celebrate its Holidays) Try to Pretend That Having Christmas Trees in Public Buildings Does Not Violate the Separation of Church and State.”  My visit happened to coincide with a minor Jewish holiday known as Hanukkah.  It is a tradition at this time of year to give small gifts to children, so I brought one along.

            As is usual in the observance of Hanukkah, my sister was lighting her menorah every night for eight nights, adding one candle for each night.  This is done to celebrate the miracle in which God supposedly allowed a group of violent religious fundamentalists, known as the Maccabees, eight nights of light for the price of one night of oil.  She was also giving her son a gift each night, spreading out the gifts from all the relatives over the eight nights of the holiday.

            I was completely taken aback.  Partly this was because my sister has never been much of one for religion.  But partly it was because I had never before been in a house where gifts were given on all eight nights.  In our aunt’s house, where we lived for the second half of our childhood, gifts were all opened on the first night.  The family gathered in the den, surrounded by mounds of presents, and we each took turns opening gifts.  In twenty-eight minutes, there was wrapping paper everywhere and each of us had his or her gifts for the season.

            I assumed this was the way the holiday was celebrated in all families.  I figured that in the modern world, families were too busy to celebrate each and every night and that we were doing pretty darned well by at least remembering to light the candles every night.  So, when I saw my sister doing it the old-fashioned way, I was a bit awestruck.

            Over the years, my attitude towards this practice has evolved. We, too, celebrate each night.  There are no gifts the first night, as we give to charity instead for that one evening.  The rest of the nights, there are gifts, spreading out any from other relatives plus a few from us over the eight nights.  My friend, Caroline, once told me about a family that shares experiences each night: games, ice cream, whatnot.  I like that, too, but this really is the only time, other than their birthdays, that our children get new toys from their parents, and unlike the Maccabees, we are not zealots.

            To me now, the idea of opening a whole slew of gifts on the first night is a bit grotesque.  It smacks of consumerism rather than meaning.  It debases the participants because it really has nothing to do with the holiday and everything to do with getting new stuff, which is ugly.  But, more than that, it is about Christmas.

            To me, a Jewish household that has a single big night of gift-giving is aping Christianity.  This practice is akin to Jewish households that have Hanukkah Bushes.  I am not, of course, referring to mixed-faith households, in which each religion is recognized.  But ours is a fully Jewish household, and if we were to try to pretend Hanukkah is Christmas, it would feel a bit too uncomfortably like a certain famous Harriet Beecher Stowe character.

            I suspect that, as our kids get older, we will not celebrate every night together, just as we won’t have Shabbat dinner as a family every week.  But, I do hope we are wise enough to recognize that we are simply outgrowing a practice that is mostly for the kids and scale back, rather than giving a lot of gifts at once.  I hope we are all comfortable enough with our own heritage to not need to leech the trappings of someone else’s, a practice that treats Christmas and Hanukkah as though they are only about greed.

            Because, as everyone knows, the best part of Hanukkah is not the presents, the lights, the dreidels, or even the gold coin chocolates.  It goes without saying that it’s all about the doughnuts.

Living texts

            A year before we had Zachary, friends visited with a wee tyke.  The cringed as she pulled up and cruised around our coffee table.  “You might want to move that book,” they told me.

            “Why?” I replied.  “Books are meant to be used.  She won’t learn to love books if we keep taking them away.”

            This is a policy to which we have adhered, sometimes to our dismay as our sons ask us to read for hours on end.  One of the drawbacks of all that reading is a certain verbal facility that we could sometimes do without.  But, we stick to it.  Books are not sacred objects – they are living, functioning items that cannot enrich our lives if we are so worried about their physical being that we cannot absorb their magic.

            Unless, of course, the book is a sacred text.  You know, the kind of text that you can only touch the underside and outside, and you have to touch the words with a silver pointer because it is too holy for human hands.  Like the kind of text that is so revered that entire congregations stand up every time it is brought out.  Like the kind of text that the truly orthodox don’t let women touch because, hey, they might be menstruating and could defile it.  That kind of a sacred text.

            You know, like the Torah.  Then, I can understand if maybe people don’t want grubby little people getting too close with their snotty noses and their peanut butter residues and their propensity for tearing things.

            Which explains my surprise last week on Yom Kippur.  This was our first High Holy Days at this synagogue, and, due to the tiny new person in our house, we didn’t make it to a lot of the services.  Zachary and I, however, did go to the family service on Yom Kippur, sleeping Lilah in tow.  Near the end of the service, the Rabbi instructed all the families to bring their children to line one of the aisles. 

            What followed was like nothing I have ever seen before in all the Yom Kippur services I have attended.  After stationing proctors along the human tunnel and admonishing parents to keep a close eye on their children, the rabbis, the Cantor, and the preschool director proceeded to unroll the Torah the entire length of the aisle.  Yes, right through the passageway of rambunctious children.

            The children seemed to understand that this was not a moment for impishness or levity.  All their destructive urges had been left behind in their seats.  They stood there, two-year-olds on up to ten-year-olds with serious little faces, palms upraised to support the underside of the sacred scroll.  Not a single child that I saw even considered tearing, wrinkling, or running through, although the Rabbi’s wife did utter a horrified “NO!” at one point, which leads me to wonder if one of his daughters might have tried to touch the forbidden top part where all the words are.

            I am not sure if the children really understood what an extraordinary experience this was.  While this congregation does it every year, I have never heard of any other doing something as audacious as exposing their Torah to hundreds of germ-laden hands.  Their Torahs may be a little better-protected, but you can bet our kids are the ones who will grow up believing the Torah is a text to be inhaled, understood, and lived, not just worshipped from afar.

Next year in Jerusalem

            “Sorry, Mommy,” he offers. 

            “I know, baby, but you have a two-minute time-out.”

            “I’m sorry, Mommy,” he tries again.  But he is not.  He is not sorry the way I am sorry.  If he were sorry like a grown-up, he wouldn’t do it again.  If he meant the word the way I mean the word, he would never again spit or bite or push.

            But, of course, he is two, and two-year-olds only understand that they are sorry they got into trouble.  Hopefully, the word will be followed by the emotion, but it will most likely be years before he feels any real compunction. 

            I, on the other hand, am careful with my apologies.  I only make them if I mean them, if I will try to never again repeat the action.  That is why I never apologized to certain members of my family.  I was sorry they were hurt, but I couldn’t promise that I would never again voice the truth.  I was not sorry like an adult, and I refused to apologize like a two-year-old.

            I think of this now as I write my Yom Kippur post (writing it on Yom Kippur to post next week because I am just a little behind these days).  On Yom Kippur, we are meant to repent our sins, yet this year all I feel is gratitude for how much happier we are this year than last.  We are not in London anymore, we have a new and unplanned member of the family, and I feel like I have begun to hit my stride as a writer (although not as a published writer).  I even feel gratitude for the things that frustrated me last year, such as the chance to live in London for two years.

            But, because I am an obedient Jew, I am trying to muster up some sense of repentance.  I could be a better mother, a better wife, a better friend, I suppose, but that would require a fundamental personality shift, so it’s hard to be too remorseful about those things.  I could give more to my community, for certain, but it isn’t going to happen when I would need to hire childcare just to volunteer.  It will need to wait a year or two. 

            These are not excuses.  A year or two ago, they would have been.  But now I have come to a place where I give as much as I can and then forgive myself the remainder.  In return, I am growing and actually able to give more.  And, so, on this Day of Atonement, I find myself stronger and better than I have ever found myself before.  Instead of Atoning this year, I instead ask myself to keep on growing and learning and appreciating.

            And next year in Jerusalem – next year may all live in peace.

On this night (part one)

Part one of a two-part post.  Part two will post tomorrow.

            No matter how lapsed, no matter how agnostic, no matter how many Christmas trees and Easter egg hunts, there is one chant that every adult Jew knows.  There is a sentence that brings back a flood of childhood memories.  All we need to hear are those first few opening words, sung to the same tune no matter which branch of Judaism we fall from, and we are transported back to sitting on stacks of telephone books on a folding chair in someone’s living room, not quite tall enough to reach the kids’ table, unsure what to do with the empty plate in front of us, wondering when the next cup of grape juice will shoot down the pike.

            “Mah nishta nah…”

            “Why is this night different from all other nights?”  The preview question that leads into the Four Questions.  Four questions about the Passover Seder, the foods we eat and the way we sit.  Four questions traditionally asked by the youngest capable child.

            This year, Benjamin was still too young, and although Zach probably could have memorized them all in Hebrew, the cousin hosting our Passover Seder wisely suggested he just do the opening and the first question in English.  He cannot yet read, but he can sure memorize.  This is the child who has hundreds of children’s books memorized, presumably because he is not wasting energy trying to figure out the health care crisis.   We practiced regularly, and he knew his lines perfectly.

            “Why is this night different from all other nights?  On all other nights, we eat bread and matzah.  On this night, we eat only matzah.”  (Technically, not a question, but the inquiry is implied.)  We rehearsed this at the table and in the car, and he was confident in his ability to recite the lines.

            When the time came, J’s cousin turned to Zachary.  He was not ready.  He needed more advance warning.  There were twelve strange adults in the room.  And he wanted to know why he couldn’t have more grape juice.  But, instead of turning quiet or refusing to ask his question, which we would have handled by reassigning it up the line to the eight-year-old across the table, Zachary got hysterical.

            He wanted to ask that question.  He wanted to perform his lines.  He just couldn’t.  And he was furious.  Furious with me for being unable to arrange things to his liking, but mostly furious with himself for his stage fright.  He did not want the Seder to continue till he asked his question, but he could not find a way to ask it.  While his father frantically searched for the beloved Taggie, I offered to say it with him or to skip over it, but that just drove him into a frenzy of screaming.

            “You do not have to ask the question,” I told him, “but you do have to behave yourself at the table.”  Removing him only made matters worse, because he desperately wanted to be a part of the action, to play his role.  If only he could do it without people stopping to listen to him.

            Taggie finally arrived, and Zach calmed down enough to hear my voice.  “I’ll say it with you, OK?”  I figured I would stop before the last word of the first sentence, giving him a chance to fill in “nights.”

            “Why is this night different from all other…”

            Zachary remained silent, trying to compose himself and not able to process the agitation he was feeling.  Benjamin, however, had heard the lines rehearsed time and again.  He knew what came next.  From behind his grape juice stained lips came “NIGHTS!”

            Everyone laughed and clapped, which just made me feel worse for my older son.  His brother was the cute one, the performer, while he was the one who knew the answer but just could not get the words out of his mouth.  When the adults quieted down, I asked Zach a question.

            “On other nights, what do we eat?”  This he could handle.  It was not a recitation; it was just a question.

            “Bread and matzah.”

            “But what do we eat tonight?”

            “Only matzah.” 

             As the Seder continued and drowned out our voices, I hugged him, feeling that familiar racing heartbeat that was beginning to slow.  “You did it, Zach.  You said it.”  I wanted him to know we hadn’t moved forward at our speed; that we had given him space and he had done a good job.

            But we hadn’t really.  The world moves on past our sensitive child.  He is not shy, and he will talk to almost any stranger.  But groups overwhelm him by their very nature, and anytime he feels put on the spot, he recoils into himself.  And there is precious little I can do to help him.

Moral minority?

This one is for Catherine.


            Here in the UK, we get American television programs after a bit of lag time, so I must say the writers’ strike has had less of an effect on my television watching habits than it might have.  I am just now getting to watch the one and only season of Studio 60, and since I have enough energy for about 2 hours of TV watching a week, that one season seems to be sustaining me quite well.

            I can’t help it.  Bradley Whitford rocks my world.

            Despite the fact that the producers seemed determined to pack four season’s worth of developments into one season’s worth of shows, Studio 60 has some mighty fine, mighty smart writing.  Smart like The West Wing.  Smart like Sports Night.  Anyone notice a trend, here?

            I am a sucker for smart writing and good timing, which is why there is one line from the series that has stuck in my head.  Harriet, the devout Christian/late night comedienne, is arguing with her producer/ex-boyfriend, Matt, a more-or-less secular Jew.  These two characters are meant to represent the religious divide in America, yet, Harriet tells Matt, she does not even know who the two sides of that divide are and why they seem to hate each other so much.

            “Your side hates my side,” Matt tells her, “because you think we think you’re stupid.  Our side hates your side because we think you’re stupid.”

            That about sums it up, right?  The non-believer intellectuals think the believers are morons being led about by the nose.  The believing moral folk think the non-believers are soulless heathens standing on the edge of the precipice, about to fall into a pit in which they will burn in hell for eternity and into which they just might pull all of America if we’re not careful.  That is the divide, right? 

            Shit.  Yet again I did not get the memo until it was too late.  See, I do not fit into either camp.  I am definitely not a believer, but I like to think I am fairly moral.  And, while I like to think of myself as somewhat intellectual, I cannot seem to muster any enthusiasm for labeling people of faith as mindless sheep who cannot think for themselves.  Always the good sport, I tried.  Really I did.  Unfortunately, I have known a few too many real, in-the-flesh believers, and they totally blew the whole stereotype for me.

            To be fair, I used to espouse the notion that people believe in God (and angels and miracles and an afterlife) because they are not bright enough to question the “truths” they are taught in their youth.  I never would have expressed it just that way, but it seemed pretty evident to me that this whole God thing was a pretty big bunch of hoopla, so people who couldn’t see past it clearly had fairly limited vision.  I would hazard a guess I am not the only person ever to feel this way.

            But, as I have gotten older, it has occurred to me I, myself, take a lot on faith.  Global warming, for example.  I almost failed chemistry.  I know diddly about the process by which CO2 floats up into the sky, turns the planet warmer, melts polar ice, and is going to make our planet uninhabitable.  But, the scientists tell me it is so, and I believe them.  Why?  Because they are scientists and they said so.  How, please tell me, is that any different from believing what a priest says?

            I have chosen a system of belief because it makes the most sense to me.  But, because I am a bear of very little brain, I am not so sure I could argue for it in a room full of skeptics.  Put me in a room with George W., and I would fail miserably to convince him that global warming is for real and he has a moral responsibility to stop it.  Hell, I can’t even convince my husband to be worried, and I have a bit more air time with him.  I have taken a lot on faith, and I believe it fully, but I could never prove it.

            People are not stupid because they take God on faith any more than they are immoral because they do not believe.  We all take some things on faith, and just because you accept one system of beliefs and I another, I have no right to decide you are a lower order of thinker.  (Now, if you voted for George W. as the moral candidate, I take issue with your process of rational thought…)  By the same token, a lack of belief in God in no way makes me a less virtuous soul than regular church-going friends.  If we may, can we please save the label of “immoral” for the people who earn it: serial killers, animal abusers, and people who throw paper into the trash?

            So, much as I would like to belong to one clique or another, I am afraid I am going to have to sit this one out.  I just do not have the time to worry about whether someone else believes in angels and what that says about her IQ.  I am way too busy sorting my recycling.