We had just finished talking about the real meaning of 911. It was a child’s version but still, it was enough to open her eyes. I think for the first time in her short 8 years on this planet she realized her own mortality. She also realized that having a daddy who is in Law Enforcement is scary. I tried my best to elevate her fears by saying things like, “Daddy has gone to lots of training and he knows what he is doing. Besides, do you think God would let him get hurt?” To this last statement my sweet and suddenly not so innocent girl replied, “But God let 911 happen mommy!”
I never responded to that comment she made. I did not know how. Perhaps I did not know how because at the time that same thought lived in the back of my brain. Way back there in the place that I visited many times after that horrible day. The same place I revisited when my son Jay was first diagnosed with Autism.
“Why is this happening? How could God let this happen? Why is God punishing us?”
My niece recently wrote an incredible post on her blog that went viral. I mean tons and tons of folks read it. It was called The Ultimate Rebellion and it talked about her journey, her faith. I envy my niece. She is a beautiful, talented and extremely intelligent woman who has chosen to devote her life to God. She gave up a $65K a year job after graduating college so that she could go to Israel and live in a yeshiva and study Torah. I admire her for this. I also and I can’t believe I am saying this; I hated her a little for this.
The more Jewish she got, well the less Jewish I felt and that made me feel bad, guilty. I am married to a gentile. I don’t keep Kosher. In fact I enjoy eating cheeseburgers and pork fried rice is one of my favorite things. I don’t belong to a Temple or even a JCC. I never had my bat mitzvah nor do I speak or read Hebrew. And yet, I have always considered myself to be Jewish, and a good Jew at that. I do my best to teach my children the Jewish way of life. Even though we may have a Christmas tree my children know they are Jewish. Just ask them, they will tell you.
I was mad at my niece for making me question my JEWISHNESS. I even went so far as to enroll in JNET. I would get help, study more and learn so that I could be a better Jew. Somehow I believed that being a better Jew would make me a better person. Being a good person was all it was about too. After all we all know that Bad things don’t happen to Good people. If I tried harder, God would reward me. He would help me be a better parent to my kids, especially my son.
The first day my study partner called me I asked her, “What does it mean really to be a Jew?” Silence on the other end. So I asked again, “Is there criteria? It has to be more than just maternal birth right. Is it how much I study? How well I practice? What I teach my children?” Silence still on the other end. Determined to get some type of answer, validation that I was a good person, that everything was going to be alright, I tried a different approach, “People tell me all the time that God knew I was strong and therefore that is why he gave me a special needs child. If I had a quarter for every time I have heard God doesn’t give you anything you can’t handle, I would be rich. Do you think God punishes people for not doing what he wants? Is that why bad things happen?” This quiet woman on the other end of the phone finally said, “The fact that you are asking these questions, confirms that you are a Jew!” I didn’t get it. I never called her back.
This brings me back to my daughter’s comment… I hated that I did not have an answer for her. I hated that I have asked myself the exact same question many times in the past 10 years. I hated even more that I kept using the word HATE!
No longer wanting to feel trapped by this I decided to dig for a way to answer. Never did I think I would come full circle. You see I found an answer, and it came from a book written none less than by a Rabbi! A Rabbi who happens to have a last name that is just one letter off from my maiden name…coincidence, I think not!
Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People after experiencing the loss of his oldest child to progeria, a rapid aging disease. Here was a book that was written by a parent who had endured the worst kind of suffering, the loss of a child. And he was a Rabbi. If something bad could happen to him, then it could happen to anyone!
Rabbi Kushner talks about how he no longer holds God responsible for bad things. “I can worship a God who hates suffering but cannot eliminate it, more easily than I can worship a God who chooses to make children suffer and die, for whatever exalted reason.” He goes on to make this extremely important point that just resonated in every ounce of my being, “Bad things do not happen for any good reason which would cause us to accept them willingly. But we can give them a meaning. We can redeem these tragedies from senselessness by imposing meaning to them.” I had my answer for my daughter and 911.
But what about my son and his autism? What about my feeling of not being Jewish enough? And what about my harsh feelings for my poor niece?
First off God did not cause my son to have Autism. Besides his autism is not BAD! Autism doesn’t define my son any more than saying he has brown hair or hazel eyes does.
Which brings me to my Judaism. Just like how I use the word autism as an adjective instead of a noun, I will refer to myself for now on as being a Jew in the NOUN form instead of as a verb. To me it is not something you can do. It something you are! Judaism is more than just a religion; it is a philosophy, a set of values and traditions. It is a link to my past and a pathway to my future. I get what the woman on the phone meant now. It is about not being afraid to ask questions and even more so, to hear the answers.Whether or not I eat bacon or let my kids have a Christmas stocking, doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t define who I am and what I stand for.
If nothing else, my son has taught me that there is not just one way to look at the world. There are tons of ways; no one better than another. Just different.
So no longer am I mad at my niece. I am so proud of the person she has become. I respect her decisions and her beliefs, and I pray that she will be able to do the same for mine. She is not any more Jewish than I am. I am Jewish Enough for me!