September 7, 2006
Finding My Own Way
I hear you snuck off to shul," my dad says. "Why?"
"It was Shabbes," I say. Then I realize that even if he understands the word, he'll pretend he doesn't.
"It was what?"
"Shabbes. Friday night. The Sabbath for Jews, when --"
"Yeah, yeah. So you're still mixed up in that?"
For six years now. Unlike the Tibetan Buddhist summer, the year of carrying a briefcase, or my entire first marriage, Judaism doesn't seem to be a passing fad.
"Religion is for stupid people," my father observes. "Didn't I tell you that?"
"You did," I say. "Lots of times."
"It's a crutch."
"If there were no religion, everyone would get along better. I wish it had never been invented," he says, now sounding a little desperate.
"I know. You're probably right." And he may be. On the TV news broadcasting soundlessly above his hospital bed, people are throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at each other for semireligious reasons. I've always wondered if this is what Mohammed or the ancient Rabbis had in mind. Nevertheless, I'm a religious person.
Indeed, it could be I need a crutch.
"So what the hell else is happening?" my dad asks, not for the first time.
He's trying to recover from a heart attack and the partial amputation of his foot, a few of the end results of the 50 years he spent single-mindedly wrecking his health. My sisters and I have been in and out of hospitals almost constantly in the past three years. We know the security guards, the parking scams, how to get doctors to call us back. Dad makes friends with the nurses and waits for us to bring in Chinese, or the deli sandwiches of his New York youth. (This isn't quite possible in Denver, but we try.)
We know the drill.
This time, he seems feebler. He no longer asks for the pocketsize vodka bottle. He doesn't remember the last time he wore garments that didn't tie up the back.
He's easily tired, but hungry for news of the outside world.
"What's new?" he asks, with a touch of urgency.
What can I tell him? Before sundown yesterday, I sharpened all the knives in the house. According to the Code of Jewish Law, published in 1924 by something called the Congregation Sons of Israel 30th Dinner Dance Committee, this is one of several hundred ways to prepare for the Sabbath. Unlike cleaning the house from top to bottom -- ha! -- the knife thing appeals to me. My Chinese cleaver took the kind of edge that falls through a ripe tomato like a guillotine. You could call this a blessing, especially if you like to cook, which I do. Or if your father, who prefers to buy only presents that plug in, bought you the very best Chef's Choice knife sharpener.
"I used your knife sharpener yesterday," I say, deliberately omitting the blessing part. This is a meager gossip item, but at least it doesn't force him to think about God, who has always pissed him off. You can be a Jew without believing in God, and he is -- the first-generation American child of Jewish musicians. He knows ten times more Yiddish than I do, cranks out vats of chopped liver, and makes generalizations about the goyim. Mel Brooks. Smoked sturgeon. Loud emotions. He's that kind of Jew. "Jew," as he has often pointed out, is a racial classification. If you are one, you don't get to opt out. So you're proud of it. Up to a point.
You stop with all the Jewishness when God enters the picture.
You put your foot down at peasant superstition -- the Orthodox Judaism personified by his grandfather, my great-grandfather Rabbi Moshe Baer Chatsianov. (After Ellis Island, he became Chotzinoff.) Moshe Baer stood against everything his children loved -- art, literature, politics, music. Life itself! Back then, at the turn of the twentieth century, you could either have all that, or you could have stifling, conventional Judaism. You couldn't do both. No one did.
According to this tradition, I was raised a born-again atheist.
This was our creed: Religion-who needs it?
I get a lot of questions about proof. My relatives see me as a reasonably intelligent person, so if I'm going to believe in something, I should at least be able to substantiate it. My sister Jenny brings up a story in last month's Newsweek about how the tendency to religious belief may well be genetic. She's willing to believe that my brain chemistry enables me to see something that isn't there, and if I want to do that, more power to me. She admires the no-nonsense moral code by which she believes we religious Jews run our lives. Also, she thinks religion can be good for kids.
Well, I'm not the Jew my sister thinks I am. I don't live by a stringent moral code. I don't have a heightened sense of right and wrong just because I've read the Old Testament. Furthermore, I eat bacon, sing Protestant hymns, and collect Zuni religious fetishes. Once I tried to refrain from driving on the Sabbath and got so stir crazy I almost lost my mind. Long before sundown that Saturday, I was behind the wheel of a minivan, headed for Wal-Mart. I don't care if anyone else wants to be a Jew, or what religion they are or aren't. It might be the first private thing in my life so far.
"That's farkakteh," my father decides, using a Yiddish word meaning "worthless," or, literally, "be-shitted." "And tell me one more time how you can believe there's a God when there's absolutely no scientific proof at all?"
"No proof," I agree.
I stopped caring about proof so long ago I have trouble making the connection between God and scientific inquiry.
I'm new to this, but here are three Jewish things I do: I say a blessing before dinner. We thank God for bread-not so much because it exists, but for the partnership it represents. God makes wheat, we turn it into bread.
I send my kids to Hebrew school. Every morning I read a little Hebrew myself.
I worry. The small, affluent town where I live has room for only one crazy/homeless person at a time. Last summer it was an emaciated young man in a pink quilted lady's raincoat. He suffered intensely from mental illness -- I could tell from the way his lips moved as he talked to himself, sweat pouring from his face on a hot summer day, still wearing that coat. He stayed only a few weeks. Where is he? What should have been done? Can you make a person take medication when they don't want to?
Jews are arrogant. God has told us it's our job to repair the world.
Jews are argumentative. If you're going to repair the world, you have to do more than throw on a patch -- and who can agree about what that means?
Jews think about food a lot. I should have at least fed that skinny, crazy boy.
Would it have killed me to keep a sandwich in the car?
My father will never be able to understand what happened to his proper atheist daughter, and I've quit trying to explain it to him. When I try to explain it to myself, this is the only image that works:
I was standing in an empty swimming pool. I enjoyed the empty space. There was a lot to do in there. I was somewhat surprised when a small amount of water began to trickle in through the cracks. The water is best described as an awareness of God.
Over a long period of time, more and more water accumulated until I could no longer touch the bottom and was lifted up. I've been floating ever since. Sometimes this gives me a stoned feeling. Other times I'm too preoccupied to notice.
People point out that there's no water in the pool. In fact, water is practically invisible -- a colorless substance that takes on the pigment of whatever it's around. I wish I could flick a wet hand at them, forcing a few drops to land on their skin, but the metaphor doesn't extend that far. Besides, why would I want to convince other people of anything? I hear God loves people who do that, but I don't buy it.
Nevertheless, no matter how much it looks as if I'm standing on a slab of concrete at the bottom of an empty swimming pool, I'm floating.
Robin Chotzinoff has written for the Denver Post, The New York Times Magazine and Food and Wine. She lives in Austin, Texas.
From the book, "Holy Unexpected: My New Life as a Jew," by Robin Chotzinoff. Copyright 2006. Reprinted by arrangement with Public Affairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.