November 8, 2008
Thank you so much for J. and his brother, his mom and his dad. Thank you for sparing his life in the car accident and for leading him from darkness and into light. We pray that you protect him and keep him safe from harm, Jesus, because we know that this is a tough time. He's only a little boy and he needs to be strong for his brother; he needs your strength. Please, Jesus, allow him to be happy and healthy in this time of need. Stay with him and guide him in the way of your father, our Lord.
In Jesus's name,
My aunt and uncle uttered these words by my bedside after they had taken my brother and me under their wing shortly after what I refer to simply as the accident.
|Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. A screenshot from the 1987 animated television show. Wikipedia/ChuckyDarko.
In 1992 I was 9 years old and had just completed my third grade consecration at Hebrew school. Suddenly I was thrown into such a whirlwind of mishugas that it's difficult to explain in a thousand words. I'd rather not gloss over the details of that fateful summer so instead, I'll just jump right in. But in order to do this, you need to understand my background.
Though my father was born into an Irish Catholic family, he converted to Judaism before marrying my mother in order for them to raise their future children in a Jewish household. My parents worked extremely hard: my father worked around the clock delivering papers at 4 a.m., selling insurance full time and digging graves at night, while my mother taught nursery school by day at a local Conservative synagogue and waited tables by night. They were relentless in their commitment to each other and to having a family. They had a few laughs, a dog, me in 1983 and my brother in 1986.
And then, not unlike Brenda and Eddie from Billy Joel's song "Scenes from an Italian Restaurant," "they got a divorce as a matter of course … "
I didn't fully understand what this meant when I was only 7, but I knew that though Dad was living in a different house that he was still my dad, that I was still Jewish, and that both my parents loved me.
It was so natural to light candles on Hanukkah with my mom's family and then open presents with my dad's family shortly afterward on Christmas. Some of my earliest friends in kindergarten asked me if I celebrated both. I told them: "I only celebrate Jewish holidays, but I get presents on both." Five-year-olds have such wisdom. I knew not to feel comfortable on the lap of a fat, bearded man wearing silky red pajamas who tells me it's OK to ask for a toy despite the fact that I knew I didn't deserve one because I forgot to flush the toilet the night before.
Maybe that's the difference between Jewish and Christian guilt. Maybe not.
Regardless, this is how I saw myself as a little kid: Jewish. Mommy was Jewish, Daddy was Jewish because he converted and that made me Jewish--100 percent. I'd gone to synagogue with Dad on Saturdays, I ate lox and bagels like a big boy and I knew how to say the hamotzi.
And I still do.
But in 1992 my fairytale life fractured.
In May we had to sell our house or else the bank was going to foreclose. In June my mom's father died of cancer. In July, my father was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to prison. And if that wasn't enough, in mid-August my brother, my mother and I were on our way to the Bridgeport, Conn., JCC for the last day of summer camp when a speeding car slammed into my mom's convertible in a head-on collision; both vehicles were totaled. My mom was hospitalized for nearly six weeks while my brother and I slipped by with significant but comparatively minor injuries.
It was my father's sister who came to our rescue and took care of my brother and me. She invited us into her home with her husband and their three little boys. For four months, my brother and I went to school, ate our meals, wrote letters to our father and talked on the phone to our recovering mother from over an hour's drive away somewhere else in Connecticut. Though this short span of time apart from our parents was extremely difficult, the transition to living in a Christian household left an indelible impact on me.
My Jewish identity was just beginning to take shape at this time in my life. On my eighth birthday, Mom had gotten me my first mezuzah. Two months before the accident I received my very own siddur. I knew the Shema by heart along with the whole v'ahavta. I also knew how to write my name in Hebrew and definitely understood the difference between Judaism and Christianity.
Jews didn't believe in Jesus, the Easter Bunny, Santa or even the North Pole. Well, I knew the North Pole existed as a place but I was certain that a man and his elves did not live there. Just penguins and ice.
But during these four months, my brother and I were fed, clothed and loved no less than my aunt's own children. We were cared for in such a way that it still makes my heart ache with appreciation today.
At the same time, the religious difference between their family and ours made me uncomfortable. My aunt brought my 6-year-old brother and me to attend church services on Sunday, participate in "home church" on Tuesday nights and watch Thomas the Tank Engine instead of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I felt conflicted, even about the cartoons, because I wasn't sure whether what we were doing was loyal to being Jewish.
Reflecting back on this painful time, I have to say that we turned out better than okay. In fact, my early immersion in a Christian household is actually the reason I am so open and comfortable with talking about religion today. As a 25 year-old Jewish man, I've learned to enrich my life through service to others. My aunt and her family took us in because they had no other choice. It was the goodness in their hearts for which I will be forever grateful.
From my experience, I've learned to appreciate, accept and understand that all religions tend to serve the same purpose: they provide guidance. I have always been a Jew and my identity is as strong as ever.