The Religion

Us v. Us

Last week, the Islamic center in our city received an anonymous letter in the mail. It said that Trump should do to Muslims what Hitler did to the Jews in the 20th century. The fact this has happened, let alone that it happened here, and in 2016, is nothing short of jaw droopingly disgusting.

Just a few weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine chastised (honestly, she very nearly mocked) me for expressing concern about anti-semitism in California because, after all, we are a blue state. We live in a deeply “blue” area in a deeply “blue” state, and yet, our Islamic center received that piece of hate mail. It turns out that invisible veil of blue doesn’t really do much to keep hate out.

Our mayor wrote a letter proclaiming support and the community has been amazing. There didn’t seem to be a lot we could do and then a few days ago, a friend of mine coordinated a trip for us and our kids to visit the Islamic center (two trips actually, more of them are going tomorrow). And that happened today.

Prior to the trip, Elijah and I sat down and drew a few cards for the kids there. Just little notes about how we were happy to have them in our neighborhood and that we hoped our cards would make them happy. And with cards in hand, we went today for a visit. We met with several of the people there and then they brought us over to the pre-k class.

We opened the door and found a class of 12 adorable 4 year old boys, all just like my son. They were doing an art project with their teacher, just like my children do each day at school. The teacher, who did not know we were coming (the leader of the Islamic center did), warmly welcomed us in, included our kids in their project and before we could even take a breath, my boys and our friends kids were blending, seamlessly, in with the boys in the Islamic preschool. Because, here’s a news flash, they’re just kids. Their names might be a little different, they pray a little differently than my kids, but they all like trains and trucks and Lego and books. Because they are all kids.

I want to belabor this point because it seems like not everyone understands this fully. The families at our Islamic center are totally normal people. They’re literally us, just a few blocks down the road with a different religious symbol on their front door.

That’s the thing that seems to be getting lost among conservatives, these are just people.

They’re not scary.

They’re not devious.

They’re just people.

They’re just Americans.

They’re just families like mine who are trying to raise their kids to be good people. They’re just families who happen to be born into or chose a different religion than we did. And unfortunately, a terrorist group across the globe bastardized their religion, in very much the same way the KKK has bastardized Christianity. It doesn’t make all Christians racists and it doesn’t make all Muslims terrorists.

While I was in the classroom a little boy built an airplane out of Lego and when I told him I thought it was a cool airplane, he, a little frustrated, corrected me that it was a “jet airplane.” This probably sounds silly, but it struck me because it is an exact conversation I have had with Elijah numerous times.

These boys were just like my boys and it made me feel even worse for their parents. The fear they must feel for their safety and the safety of their children, even in a “blue” state, even in two thousand freaking sixteen, even in a country with a first amendment right to freedom of religion, must be tremendous.

Our visit today didn’t change anything. We don’t need pats on the back for going because it was literally the least any person could do in this situation. But we do need to continue to tell people, especially those who want to sign Muslims up for a registry, those who believe we should refuse to accept Muslim refugees who are dying by the THOUSANDS, running from the very terrorist group we ourselves are fearful of, that these children are just like theirs. That hating them, that ostracizing them, that marginalizing them, is wrong in every way. And if we allow this to happen, if we throw away the first amendment out of unfounded fear drummed up by a neo-fascist president-elect and a conservative media that is so untrustworthy with the truth it cannot be aired as “news” in other countries, we are destroying the very fabric of this country.

If we can’t see that those 12 boys and their families are more like us than they are different, and if we can’t teach our children that, then it doesn’t matter who is president. Because we have set ourselves on a course to repeat the mistakes of fallen republics the world over and no single president can stop us from our own self-destruction.

The War on Chanukah

(Before you get your pants in a knot, the title is totally not serious.)

When we decided to raise our children with Judaism as their religion, a lot of people asked me if I would miss celebrating Christmas. I probably said no, which wasn’t and still isn’t entirely true. There are a lot of things that I miss about celebrating it- the splendor of a decorated tree, Christmas carols and other things, but by and large, I enjoy celebrating Chanukah. And what I miss about Christmas I get to experience when I visit my family.

My husband has wonderful memories of Chanukah and I am thrilled to share his traditions with my kids. That said, I am finding that it is really a lot harder than I thought to not celebrate Christmas, but not for the reasons I expected.

Elijah attends a Jewish preschool. He doesn’t watch television with commercials and he is literally never away from us. We have not discussed Christmas and have talked about Chanukah extensively with him. And yet the other day when we were talking about Chanukah, he listened intently and then looked at me and said, “yea, and then it’s Christmas!” I was shocked because I couldn’t figure out how he even knew that was a thing. And then I started to look around.

Christmas is just…it’s everywhere. Every store and shopping center. The downtown area of our city. Our neighbors houses. And please do not misunderstand me, I do not, in anyway, mean to imply that this is wrong or that people shouldn’t be openly celebrating. Please, by all means, decorate and celebrate and enjoy yourselves. I just don’t think I realized before now how entirely pervasive it is.

Chanukah is not as significant of a holiday in Judaism as Christmas is in Christianity, but even still, I’ve been surprised by how challenging it has been to make it a celebration for Elijah. He is, of course, enticed by the presents, but I think he misses a bit of the magic that kids get from Christmas. There aren’t any Chanukah specials on Netflix or Hulu, there aren’t any movies that center around Chanukah (that are appropriate for kids anyway) that glamorize the holiday, so it’s been hard to make things feel festive. There aren’t trees or grand decorations. We have our chanukiah, a few banners, some white lights and presents. It’s just not quite the same as a tree and decorations in the front yard. Not worse by any means, just not the same.

I am still thrilled to raise Elijah and William as Jews, I’m thrilled to belong to this community (as a non-Jewish person) and to celebrate these centuries old traditions. I hope that in time, we will build memories that overcome the lack of glamor. And I hope that Christmas won’t seem like something they’re missing, but rather they will be excited to celebrate Chanukah and find the magic in it without all the fan fare and decoration.

The Great Beyond

I grew up as a pretty observant Catholic. We attended church nearly every Sunday, often even when we were out of town (much to my great frustration, usually). We said prayers before dinner, I could recite all the prayers from mass in my sleep and occasionally basically did. I was comfortable in the Church, until one day when I was not. These details are relatively unimportant and my reasons for leaving behind Catholicism are complicated, but they were important to me and the short version of the story is that I’m no longer Catholic.

These days, I don’t really identify as anything. My child will be raised as a Jew, like his father and his father’s family. He will be welcome to observe whatever religion he wants to when he is older, but he will be raised in Judaism. I love Judaism and would some day like to be considered a member of that religion (since I am not technically in any way part of the cultural part of it), but for now, I’m…nothing. And lately I’m finding this troubling.

I’ve been having big thoughts. Big thoughts that make me feel very small. The meteor that hit Russia has kind of pushed me over the edge a bit, but probably not in the way that you’re thinking. When I read that there are fragments in space that are hundreds of light years away and hundreds of thousands of miles from earth, I feel small. It sets off this cascade of thoughts. I begin to think about how humanity has existed for thousands of years. For millennia people have roamed this earth and then they have died on it. They just ceased to exist.

It’s not that I never considered that some day I would die. It’s not that I’m having anxiety attacks at the thought of it (well fine, I am, but that’s unrelated to this particular conversation), it’s that I find what happens next to be worrisome. I was raised in a religion that had an easy and simple answer to life after death- heaven, hell, purgatory. The end. I just believed it because I was told it was the truth. And since leaving the church, my faith has wavered.

I want desperately to believe in an afterlife. I find the idea of taking my last breath on this earth and that being the true end to be breathtakingly scary.

I don’t understand how a soul can simply stop existing. I don’t understand how that happens. I cannot fathom it in my small mind. I get that I will die, but what will I feel? I know this sounds terribly self-involved, but how do I know that the world even continues on after me? When I take my last breath will I simply fail to feel anything?

This is not sounding quite the way it does in my head, but I’m having trouble processing what I think happens after death. I feel like the stakes of the belief processes here are so high because this is eternity that we’re thinking about. Because the idea of not existing is so incomprehensible to me that I feel like I must believe in something more. Like I have to believe in an afterlife just to quell my fears.

I was speaking with my husband about it last night even though he isn’t a terribly religious guy. He’s rather unsure of his beliefs, but he’s not one to ponder troubling things (a life skill I wish I had). I think ultimately I realized that I would rather believe and be wrong when there’s nothing more to do, than not believe and be either wrong or right. Because not believing comes with facing this fear every day and believing means having hope of something more.

The bottom line of this is for me is that I need guidance. I am a person who needs religion. I need communities of people to help me feel more secure in my beliefs, to help me feel like I’m not alone in my fears and rituals. I cannot continue to try to wade through life without a compass the way I have the past several years. Yes, going to temple on Friday nights is an inconvenience. The closest one is more than 30 minutes away, without traffic. Packing all our stuff and the baby will be a pain. Dealing with said squirmy baby will be a pain. But I think I need it. I think my soul needs more than what I’m giving it right now. And I think that I will be happier for it.

I may not find all the answers for what I’m looking for, or ever feel completely secure in what I believe, but I need to believe something because facing the future without faith is harder than I ever imagined.

Malnourishment of the Soul

I’ve been trying to pinpoint the void I’ve been feeling. It’s not a new one, it’s been there a while. It’s just grown bigger lately and is getting more difficult to ignore.

I feel malnourished in a figurative sense. And I think I’ve finally figured out what’s missing.

I’m not an overly religious person. I have previously been a frequent church/temple goer, but the times I have missed a service here or there have never been the end of the world. Last year at New Year’s I told my husband that I wanted to resolve to go to temple more often because after moving back to California we just never settled back into the routine we had been so fond of in New Orleans. Since that day we have gone to temple exactly 1 time and it was to our old temple in New Orleans.

We haven’t gone for a number of reasons. Laziness, busy schedules, not having a temple we like and being afraid to try a new one. Regardless of cause, we just haven’t gone. And I think it is what I am missing in my life right now.

I have faith. I am sure of what I believe, I am confident, but I miss many parts of being active in my religion. I miss walking out each week with a message to guide me. I miss a sense of community that is involved in Temple. I miss the prayers, I miss the way that I feel like I can breathe there because I am where my soul needs to be.

I miss that. That is the void.

We have found a new temple to try. It’s about 30 minutes away, which is the same distance as the one we’ve gone to in the past. It promises to be as open minded as we like our religion, but also savoring the traditions that are important to us. I have no way of knowing if we’re going to like it. But we’re going to try.

I will not promise that we’re going to make it tomorrow night. Thankfully the service is late (8pm) so we should both be out of work, but there are a lot of unknowns in life right now, so it may not be this week or next. But we will find our way back soon. I want to be active in my faith again. To feel less small and more supported. To feel like I have purpose back in my life.

I know many of you don’t understand this and that’s okay, I sometimes find religion exhausting myself. But when I’m in the right place, I find it nourishing in ways I cannot describe. And I am looking forward to that fulfillment in my life again. It’s been too long.