Wednesday, May 6, 2009

God 101

“Have you talked to your son about God yet?” someone recently asked me. Hmm, I thought, no I haven’t. I probably looked puzzled enough for the inquirer to continue, “What religion are you bringing him up in?” There was a long, uncomfortable pause and finally I said “None.” She didn’t give up, “Well, what religion are you? Jewish?” I just nodded (am I?) “Passover is coming. Are you going to celebrate it?” I nodded (liar!!) “At some point, you’ll need to introduce God into his life.”

That short discussion got me thinking…about many things.

Before I can set out to establish my son’s relationship with God, I had to figure out what mine was. Questions kept popping into my head. What religion am I? Well, let’s think about that one.
What’s Jewish? Isn’t it just my “nationality”? Is it not still printed on line #5 in my old worn out Soviet Passport? Isn’t being Jewish the opposite of being Ukrainian (at least back in the Soviet Ukraine that’s how it was)? Does the fact that I came to the US on the grounds of religious prosecution on a refugee status make me Jewish? Or does the fact that I’ve been called a “dirty Jew” since I was two years old count towards my Jewish-ness? Maybe it’s my name, which in Hebrew means “a happy song” given to me by my parents because it sounded Russian enough? Perhaps it’s my Yiddish nickname “sweet face” – shainer punim – that my grandfather gave me when I was born?

I tried to become more religious for years. Even went to the temple regularly, albeit a reform temple. Main reason – I wanted to be able to tell people that I am Jewish, without the longwinded explanation that came with the statement. My attempts didn’t work out, at least not yet – never says never, right? I had a hard time really connecting to the words spoken by the rabbi, maybe because they were in a language that was even more foreign than English. Oy, who am I kidding – I couldn’t even connect to the English words.

The only Jewish holiday I understand and appreciate (and follow) is the Day of Atonement – Yom Kippur. It’s simple in its profound meaning and requires that you are sincere about accepting and atoning for your sins. Check, check – got it!

Recently, my grandfather asked me “What kind of Jews are we? We don’t even know how to celebrate a Passover. Sweetie, do you feel Jewish at all?” I answered, “Yes. I do. You are Jewish and I’ve inherited your sense of humor. Therefore I am Jewish too. I laugh therefore I am …Jewish.” We laughed together.

What, I suppose, makes things even more interesting is that fact that I am married (happily, head over heels in love!) to a Turkish man whose relationship with God requires its own long thesis. What’s interesting though is that in naming our son, we used the Old Testament for references. After months and months of grueling debates we picked Adam to be our first son’s name. In the dictionary it said “This is the Hebrew word for a 'man'. It also literally means a "man" in Turkish. According to Genesis in the Old Testament Adam was created from the earth by God. A man of earth! What a message to the universe!

Well, all that is well and good. And being inquisitive, in a purely rhetorical kind of a way, is a healthy exercise, but it still didn’t bring me any closer to the original question. What will I tell my son about God? I had to begin somewhere. So, I started formulating my position on the whole “God question.” A sort of God 101:
  • Jewish or not, God and I are on the first name basis, except I often imagine him to be George Burns, just like in the movie “Oh God”. So, I guess my God’s name is George?
  • God and I have known each other for a long time. How do I know that? Well, for starters, we often understand each other without words. Sometimes it’s a breeze, sometimes it’s the subway train humming the first few notes from the “West Side Story”, sometimes it’s a white butterfly….Then, you know the feeling, you get comfortable with each other. You can voice your opinions knowing that you’ll be loved no less. So, I often voice my opinions…and they are not always pretty or even well thought out, sometimes they come with tears and begging. He always listens…
  • I imagine that instead of, or maybe in addition to, to the houses of worship, God lives on the internet. Seriously. I mean, I know that he is everywhere (do I know that for sure?) But the World Wide Web (how else could it be?) is where he receives his messages from humans, from our souls.
  • I regularly communicate with God through emails. Because I don’t know his exact email address ( I send my messages to someone who loves me. The email system always delivers them promptly and even confirms with a nearly divine conclusiveness “Your message has been sent”
  • When it’s more urgent, or I am simply tired and desperate, I pray. There is a special place in my home where I stand on my knees and speak to God (in my mind’s eye God wears a baseball cap, has large glasses and barely noticeable all-knowing smile). That place is in my kitchen. It’s sacred. It’s by the oven.
  • Sometimes I cry, then I always feel guilty about it. Sometimes my prayers are soft whispers. Sometimes I say “thank you”. Sometimes I just look up and say nothing at all. He always listens…
  • Even after all the years of spiritual studies, I still get mixed grades on my spiritual exams. Let’s be honest, I often fail them miserably (the same way I failed ESL – English as a Second Language  multiple times). Then I curse at myself, I scream inside. He is always patient. He always listens...
And after all this introspection, I gathered all my courage and finally decided to introduce God into a  conversation with my young son.

Me: “Hi sweetie, do you know what God is?”
Adam: “Yes! No! I don’t know, Mama, what is it?”
Me: “It’s too late now, but I’ll explain it to you tomorrow.”
Adam: “No, no, I want to know now!”
Me: “Okay, but you have to promise that you’ll always remember what I tell you”
Adam: “Okay!!”
Me: “God is love. The essence and the energy of love. Do you understand?”
Adam: “Yes Mama. I understand”. Thinking a moment. “Do you love me?”
Me: “Of course I love you. So much”
Adam: “Me too”, smiling sheepishly “Can we read five books tonight?”
Me: “No Adam two books and that’s it”
Adam: “No, at least four!”
Me: “Okay three”.
Adam: “Fine”
Well, that didn’t go so bad, huh? Nobody said “God 101” was going to be simple course.

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