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When I was a child there were two books I wanted desperately to hear before bedtime. The first was Goodnight Fred. This was a favorite because the grandmother in the book comes out of the telephone to visit Fred and Arthur, her grandsons. I, too, thought my grandmother lived in the telephone and could come out and visit whenever she pleased.
Then there was The Clown of God. This book, written by Tomie De Paola, is about an Italian boy named Giovanni who juggles. He juggles for food and a place to sleep. He spends his whole life juggling and has one fancy trick called “the sun in the heavens,” in which he juggles colorful balls. The last ball he throws into the air is gold like the sun. Then one day he drops the sun in the heavens and he stops juggling. He goes from door to door begging for bread as he once had done as a child. Now that he’s an old man, people don’t care about him. The book is filled with Catholic references. By the end of Giovanni’s journey he ends up at a church for a big religious festival. He has fallen asleep in the church and when he wakes there is a big procession for the statue of the Madonna and her child.
When everyone leaves, Giovanni notices that the Madonna’s son is frowning. So, Giovanni puts on his clown makeup and does his most famous juggling trick in front of the statue. As he throws up the golden ball he shouts, “For you sweet child for you!” Then he drops dead in front of the statue. Two monks run in and find him lying dead on the floor. One of the monks looks at the statue in shock. The statue of the boy in the mother’s lap is smiling and holding the golden ball.
It isn’t surprising that I chose to build my life with a man from Mexico who grew up poor, Catholic and happy. I pretty much looked all my life for Giovanni and found him in Adrian. Instead of juggling, Adrian cooks. He also knows how to enjoy the simple things in life. We have a roof over our heads and we have food in our bellies. We have work. We have a healthy baby girl. These are not small things.
As a child I did not grow up poor. I didn’t grow up Catholic either. I grew up Jewish and most of the time I was happy. I expected more because I was given more as a child. I grew up with big dreams and high hopes and plans. I planned everything. I planned what shoes I was going to wear with what shirt. I planned what job I would have, how much money I would make and whom I was going to marry. I planned to have a baby no later than 25 years of age. I planned to own a house and a summer house by 30. I planned to keep in touch with all of my closest friends from nursery school, first grade, camp, junior high, high school and work. Sometimes, God has other plans. Actually, all of the time God has other plans.
I am 35 years old. Adrian and I live in a one-bedroom apartment in Midwood, Brooklyn. Helen Rose, our little one, wakes up every morning smiling at us from her crib. In our apartment there is a hamsah hanging in our kitchen and a Virgin of Guadalupe in our bedroom. There is a menorah in the living room and a prayer to Jesus in Adrian’s wallet. Good Night Fred and The Clown of God are a part of Helen’s library. These are our riches.
Life surprises me. Growing up Jewish I wish I could say that my most inspirational book was A Tale of Two Seders or Snow in Jerusalem. This is not the case. The book that most inspired me while I was tucked in under my puffy quilt with my Scottie dog wallpaper was The Clown of God. On my journey through Judaism this makes sense. When I began working in restaurants I was most inspired by the kitchen workers, most of whom had left their own countries in search of a better life. In school, I am most inspired by the students who hold down two jobs and have families or the students whose first language isn’t English but are getting an education and getting A’s in every class. I am inspired by the human capacity to overcome struggle.
I feel that people often tend to see goodness as a religious quality. But goodness is a human quality. Goodness is often compared to gold. It is this quality I wish to pass on to my daughter. Having an interfaith family is challenging. It challenges me every day to be more open and aware. It makes me ask questions and urges me to listen. It stops me from making plans and lets life lead me.
My favorite page in Tomie De Paola’s Clown of God is when Giovanni is still a young man and he makes his money juggling. One day he runs into two monks on the way to town. He shares his food with them and they begin to chat:
“Our founder, Brother Francis, says that everything sings of the glory of God. Why, even your juggling,” said one of the brothers.
“That’s well and good for men like you, but I only juggle to make people laugh and applaud,” Giovanni said.
“It’s the same thing,” the brothers said. “If you give happiness to people, you give glory to God as well.”
I wonder if my mother knew while she read me that book that it would take two faiths, not one, to convince me of God and God’s many beautiful and unexpected plans.
Last year, in the “Community Voices” section of my local paper there was a column written by a woman about the proliferation of yard signs in her neighborhood proclaiming “God lives here!” She said that often the behavior of her neighbors displaying these signs was far from divine.
Recently, I recalled this column as I noticed the “He is Risen!” crosses beginning to appear in my neighbors’ yards. I knew many of these people held close their belief in Jesus and acted as he did–they reached out to families new to the area, they befriended the friendless and cared for the weak. But others, behaved in ways that weren’t really in line with Jesus’s actions.
They argued with each other about the cutting down of dead bushes between properties, escalating the fight to the point where lawsuits were threatened. They disregarded neighborhood speed limits and drove at dangerously high speeds when children were leaving for school in the morning. They failed to clean up after their pets but got angry when others left their dog’s waste in the park. They fought about who should and should not have access to neighborhood common areas and green spaces.
But residents with crosses on their lawns weren’t the only ones acting in ways that were inconsistent with their religion’s values. A number of people with mezuzahs on their doors behaved similarly. Neither Jesus nor Moses would have been particularly proud.
While I was bemoaning the unneighborly behavior, I remembered other actions by neighbors that were the embodiment of shared religious values. There was the family that invited a neighbor for dinner when her husband was out of town. A man who found at the gym a water bottle that belonged to a woman from down the street and returned it to her. A young woman who moved in with an older, single woman to care for her. A mom who found a neighbor’s dog that had gotten out and ensured that the pup got home safely. A teen who retrieved my son’s basketball from the pond in our park.
Tattooed and ghoulish looking, and dressed in dark clothes, the teenager appeared to be an unlikely savior. Yet, he turned out to be the personification of loving-kindness.
As my son and I struggled to find a way to get his ball that was moving further towards the middle of the lake, the teen approached with a friend. Our dog went up to them hoping to get a pat. We said hello and returned to trying to get the ball. Suddenly, the male teen walked into the cold, murky pond toward the ball. It was then that we noticed his shoes on the bank and his rolled-up pants. He grabbed the basketball and returned it to my son.
For a moment, we were speechless. My son and I thanked him over and over, and asked if there was something we could do to show our appreciation. The only thing the teen wanted in return was to pet our dog for a minute. Then he and his friend walked away. I was certain we had just encountered Elijah.
According to Jewish legend, the prophet Elijah, who is destined to wander the earth as a heavenly messenger, appears to individuals in many guises. He arrives to guard the sick and newborn and to help the hopeless dressed as a beggar, scoundrel, peasant and now, possibly, a goth teenager. He reminds us not to judge someone’s godliness by his or her appearance or a symbol on a lawn or door. Rather, he shows us that a person’s goodness and adherence to the principles of their faith is revealed through deeds.
After lamenting the ungodly behavior of her neighbors, the writer of the “Community Voices” essay, said that God did live in her neighborhood through the right actions performed by some of the area’s residents. She said, “Deeds outrank yard signs.” The encounter with the would-be Elijah provided a similar reminder for my son and me–actions trump dress.
This Passover, when you open your door for Elijah, think about how you and your family can walk in the prophet’s ways. Then do it, because actions speak louder than words.
My 9-year-old son, Sammy, was bursting to tell me something after his robotics class the other day. I assumed it was about his class activities, so I was surprised when the first thing he told me was this:
“I was working with my partner to design something in a computer program and I made a mistake. I said, ‘Oh, jeez’ because I was annoyed that I needed to redo my work. My partner says, ‘Don’t speak The Boy’s name in vain!’ I looked at him like he was crazy. All I said was ‘jeez.’ I didn’t say Jesus or Jesus Christ, but that’s what he thought I meant. I also didn’t understand why he used ‘The Boy’ to refer to Jesus.”
I have to admit, I was as dumbstruck as Sammy, and I rolled my eyes at this only-in-the-Bible-Belt moment. When I shared the story with my husband, who was raised in a Christian home, his reaction was the same. Neither of us had ever heard anyone take offense to the word “jeez” or use “The Boy” to describe Jesus. Our Christian family and friends have always used “jeez” in the same way that Sammy did–to express surprise or annoyance.
I never imagined that we might have to censor a word that we felt was simply an innocent expression of shock or frustration. I could think of many other four-letter words that Sammy could use to express the same emotions that I’d never want to come out of his mouth.
But I’m also a Jew. I know that words can have negative and hurtful meanings. I reconsidered my give-me-a-break response.
Maybe Sammy did say something offensive. Maybe “The Boy” is a common way to describe Jesus. I decided that since we live in the Bible Belt, I had better find out. I headed for the dictionary and computer to see what I could learn in hopes of preventing us all from making any more offensive remarks.
Various dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster defined “jeez” as an interjection used as a mild oath or introductory expletive used to express surprise, astonishment, disappointment, etc. All of the entries noted that it was a euphemism for Jesus first used in the 1920s. I understood why Sammy’s partner thought using the term was taking the Lord’s name in vain.
I also found a discussion on LDS.net, a site affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ about whether or not to chastise a person for saying “jeez.” Some commenters believed they should because Mormons are taught to avoid the use of any sensitive words or similar sounding substitutes in speech including gosh, dang, shoot, jeez, etc. Others felt that they should only admonish people when the words are said with intent to offend.
One person said if the speaker does not consider the word “to be a shortened form of taking the name of the Lord in vain, but instead” considers it a nonsense “exclamation then there is” no reason to chastise.
But someone else pointed out that all substitute words are offensive including gee whiz, geez, goodness, and jeepers because they are based on the offensive word. After reading the debate, all I could say was, “Oy vey.”
Regarding the use of “The Boy” to refer to Jesus, I found nothing. There was a religious school lesson plan on the LDS website called “Jesus Christ was a Child like Me.” The purpose of it was “to strengthen children’s desire to be like Jesus Christ by increasing their knowledge of Jesus’ childhood.” Maybe that’s where the term came from. Or maybe it came from the idea that Jesus is the Son of God. In Trinitarian Christianity, God is referred to as “The Father.” Since “boy” can mean “son,” it follows that “The Boy” could mean Jesus.
After spending a good portion of the day trying to understand the reaction of Sammy’s partner, I decided that you could go crazy trying to scrub your speech so that no group is offended. Since that is nearly impossible to do, especially for a child, it made me ask: Where do we draw the line? How do we, with our limited knowledge of every religious, ethnic, and cultural group, know what is and is not disrespectful? How do we, in a hypersensitive environment, prevent ourselves from being forced into silence by our fear that we might offend someone?
I don’t know the answers. But I do know that I don’t want my child to be afraid to speak.
I’m not going to tell Sammy never to use the word “jeez” given the context in which he used it. But I am going to reinforce what we’ve taught him about offensive speech: don’t use stereotypes, don’t use speech that attacks an individual or group on the basis of a trait or characteristic, don’t use language to disparage or intimidate, apologize if you unintentionally offend someone and learn from the incident.
In the meantime, I told Sammy that the next time he gets annoyed or frustrated in class, just say, “Oy vey!”