What Would Superman Do?
Originally published October, 2006. Republished February 9, 2012.
This question has been posed to me; "Has your interfaith heritage been more of a positive or a negative for you, and why?" I must say that I know it has had both a negative and positive effect so far in my life.
My father was a secular Jew, angry at the war (World War II); unforgiving of the Holocaust to the point of total, irreparable separation from God. He lost a faith which was tenuous at best. My mother was an Irish Catholic. As a little girl she asked the priest, "Do animals go to heaven?" The priest chose to tell her that they don't. And he lost her there and then. She would never return to organized religion.
Raised as I was in a very moral and compassionate family, there could be no mistaking the presence of something greater than us, than my parents, at work through them. They didn't see it at the time but they were showing me God constantly. God was of no faith or gender but I saw Him in the Charlie Chaplin films my father took me to when I was five. God was in the warm unconditional love of my mother. God was in and around everything I did until I was taken out of the warm cocoon of parental protection and thrown into the inevitable, public school. It was there that my own brand of faith would be tested and tested again. This testing has never ended.
When I was 4 years old my Auntie Margaret made for me a complete Superman suit. A poster-size photo of me standing with clenched fists at my hips hangs in my father's room. He, Superman, would be my idea of God--an idea that never left me and helped me course through the roughest waters of my life. By the time I was 6 years old and Superman: The Movie came out with Christopher Reeve, I knew that if I hadn't seen God, I had seen the best notion of him the Western world could manufacture.
Superman. He was unflinching in compassion, honor, strength and loyalty. To this day I still ask myself, "What would Superman do?" Not what would Jesus do. Not what would King David do. It gave me hope that people would believe in the purity of Superman. The simplicity. No one I knew was religious. Some friends did go to church occasionally. The few Jews I did meet were quite secular. God, as creator, wasn't an issue in the Bortnick house. So my faith that people believed in something as uncomplicated as Superman was my proof that God was here and watching and didn't mind that some people, some children like me, had to learn ethics, honor, decency, compassion and faith from a pop icon.
My father played Beethoven's Ninth Symphony when I was 10 years old. He didn't know (or he might have) that I found God in it. God's language. God himself was in that symphony and I listened to it hundreds of times that year.
I had to find God in art and I did. My father had no idea that he was giving spiritual teachings to me through Arthur Miller, or Beethoven, or the Japanese prints that hung in our living room; but that is where I found God. God simply was not attached to any faith and the only way to see Him was in the wake of His own creations. This was a most positive effect. Art, great art, is God.
The positives of my parents' "faithless" house far outweighed the negatives in the long run. I did have to endure an inordinate amount of anti-Semitism as a child, and a Jewish upbringing would have helped. I wanted one. I asked my father for one. But he wouldn't set foot in temple out of pure laziness. He didn't see the importance of believing because he was so angry with God. I only had to look to Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, or On the Waterfront and, of course, Superman, to see the works of God. My God had a sense of humor. He wasn't responsible for the Holocaust. God wasn't responsible for the kids who bullied me for being a Jew--not caring that it was my father that was the Jew. I was just a kid.
When I have children they will be raised as Jews. This is in honor of my father and perhaps to make up for the gap of faith in the family line. I don't believe God sent his son to us. I have studied Jesus Christ but see him as a prophet, not a messiah.
In the end, my interfaithness was positive because God's works, his people, became my faith. No rules or dogma, save my father's stern words, "Be a mensch!" That is all I've ever tried to be.
And my search for God goes on.