Originally published April 4, 2008. Republished June 15, 2011.
I have never been a fan of established religion. For a long time, the three major so-called "religions of election," Judaism, Christianity and Islam, had each provided me with plenty of reasons to keep me faithfully at odds with their adherents' insistence that God had chosen them above any others.
Even so, when at the age of 8 our son Daniel approached my wife Jayne and me to say he wanted to attend Hebrew School and become a bar mitzvah, I surprised myself with the readiness of my assent. From early on, typically at his prompting, I had engaged Daniel in occasional conversations about spirituality, concepts of God, heaven and hell and who on earth this guy named Jesus was. The truth is, I care greatly about these things, but was uncertain whether or how to broach them with a young child until asked. This is one way I came to learn how children can help us by helping themselves.
Most of Daniel's peers — a small circle of cousins on Jayne's side and most of his friends living on Manhattan's Upper West Side — were Jews. For Daniel, becoming a bar mitzvah was a continuation of what he knew. It was a way to live. I was happy for him. Little did I know the impact his decision would have on me.
My formal connection to the Roman Catholic Church ended when I stopped attending Mass in my late teens. Being a Baby Boomer coming of age in New York City helped. The cultural smorgasbord that was the 1980s — how else to describe an era that served up Boy George and "Just Say No" in one helping? — no doubt helped make me a genuine product of the Me Generation.
But if the light of my Catholicism had begun dimming well before then, another lamp was already lit, though just. Over three decades, driven by native yearnings and an eccentric diet of reading, I came to recognize, like some long-lost personal artifact, the intensifying glow of what I can only call my own intrinsic spirituality. Over the years, it had become increasingly clear to me that I yearned for a way to live that didn't begin and end with the discernible, but left room for a relationship with all that remained stubbornly mysterious, impenetrable and ineffable. Suddenly, or so it seemed, it mattered terribly that Jesus — about whom I'd heard a thing or two in eight years of parochial school — had lived and died a Jew. I had married a Jew. So it's little surprise that my earliest forays toward something that felt true to me should have led me gradually toward Judaism.
Maybe I was merely swapping one calcified institution for another. It hasn't felt that way. I grasped little of Abraham Joshua Heschel's God In Search of Man when I first read it in my 20s. But I recognized and responded to Heschel's honorable struggle, engaging the intellect and the spirit; a perfectly human project designed to confront what it means to be alive. It is a struggle we all face. Now it was time for me to help Daniel, who was seeking his own identity while growing up with a Jewish mother and an Irish Catholic father.
Daniel's first years of Hebrew school took on a pleasant, deceptively muted tone. Arriving home at night after a challenging day at work, I found myself replenished as Daniel recounted yet another Bible story he and his classmates had earnestly dissected that afternoon, or shared a rich anecdote gleaned from his devoted teachers at Temple Israel. Our choice of Temple Israel, the result of Jayne's comprehensive due diligence, placed us among a warm, welcoming congregation that combined mixed-faith families with a richly humanistic Reform tradition and inspired liturgy. I had attended many temple services over the years, but this was different. We were a family on our own path, but connected through a community. What's more, we were accompanying our son down a road worn smooth by countless others before him.
Okay, maybe smooth isn't exactly the word. Time passed. With his bar mitzvah date less than nine months away, Daniel still had 13 mitzvah projects to complete as well as Torah and Haftorah portions to memorize, and Jayne and I had to learn our own aliyahs. Meanwhile, we were busy organizing what was shaping up to be a very big party with lots of moving parts. Obviously, what Daniel had bitten off we would all need to chew. Thereafter ensued a semi-frantic must-do list sandwiched between the rest of life: arrangements with the temple, meetings with Rabbi David Gelfand and Rabbi Alan Londy, interviewing DJs, researching restaurants, clothes shopping, reviewing menus, and securing hotel rooms. With three months to go, March Madness set in. The nervous excitement in our home was palpable.
Among the most imposing tasks was compiling a guest list, which had begun to grow formidable. At the same time, Daniel had grown moody and increasingly testy with Jayne, his sister Liana and me. Finally, one Saturday afternoon, while wrangling with another potential seed of second cousins once-removed, an agonized Daniel blurted it out. He didn't want a very big event with lots of moving parts, least of all a disorienting mosh pit comprising dozens of classmates, family friends and distant relatives he barely knew of, let alone knew, converging in one room or, worse, on one pulsating dance floor. At last, the dark secret was out, and Daniel was relieved. The DJ and pulsating dance floor were out (to the bitter disappointment of Liana). A small affair, including a small posse of Daniel's friends, was in.
Daniel's agonized epiphany turned out to be the gateway to a transformative experience that touched everyone involved. My path on this journey took its own course. There were my parents, devout Catholics in their 80s. Whatever ambivalence they may have borne over my withdrawal from the Church decades ago was undetectable in their unswerving love for Jayne and their grandchildren. Still, I hesitated inwardly as I sidled up to them outside their apartment complex one hot sunny afternoon, the kids splashing in the pool, to tell them that Daniel wished to become a bar mitzvah. Their instant and genuine embrace of his choice — it was, after all, his — stunned me with its sincerity and grace, leaving me to realize how much I didn't know of my parents at this point.
Certain friends, some of them raised Jewish, felt moved to elaborate on their long-held apostasy, and in at least one instance I thought I detected a mixture of regret and resignation. These conversations allowed me to crystallize my own feelings and ideas about God and religion versus spirituality, the role of faith — "loyalty to an original response," according to Heschel — and the persistence of the mysterious, the ineffable in a culture obsessed with its own image. Some asked if I intended to convert. "I don't know," I would answer. "But I think this is a good thing for Daniel, and for all of us." I wasn't even quite sure what I meant by that, but it felt true.
I was traveling on instinct where Daniel's bar mitzvah was concerned; unconcerned for the first time in memory with what others thought, but eager to welcome them into the warm circle of our family. I knew that the road on which Daniel had set out on would, if he followed it, lead him to ask the same important questions about human beings with which I had been engaged throughout my adult life. This was not a mere vicarious frisson that stirred me on that splendid June morning last summer as we gathered in the cocoon of Temple Israel's sanctuary, illuminated by the love of family and friends. Daniel was my son, and now he had acquired dual citizenship as a son of the Torah. What I hadn't fully grasped until I stood with my family on the bimah — what none of us could have quite grasped till then — was that all of us had been studying for this day.