Saturday, September 1, 2007


Reading this post by Velveteen Rabbi stirred the following outpouring of memories of my mother, my father, my childhood and youth.

When she was in her 70s, after having turned away from Protestant Christianity when she was in her early 50s, my mother was drawn to Judaism. For much of her life, she had had a distinct feeling that she had Jewish ancestors on her father's side of her family. Her father's father came from Stadtlengsfeld in Germany in the 1800s. She was raised as an Episcopalian in St. Paul, Minnesota, by parents who had married in a Unitarian Church in Boston.

Sometime between 1985 and 1987, she contacted the rabbi of a synagogue in Mendocino County, California and began a process leading to possible conversion. She shared with me her joy in finally finding a community of people where she felt she belonged and a religious tradition that gave meaning to daily life.

In 1987 during the holidays, she sent me a copy of THIS IS MY GOD, by Herman Wouk, inscribed "Happy Hanukkah!" In her letters and phone calls, she talked about the book THE JEWISH HOLIDAYS: A GUIDE AND COMMENTARY, by Michael Strassfeld. Over time I read and sent her a copy each of WHERE JUDAISM DIFFERS: AN INQUIRY INTO THE DISTINCTIVENESS OF JUDASIM, by Abba H. Silver and THE HEALER OF SHATTERED HEARTS: A JEWISH VIEW OF GOD, by David J. Wolpe.

My parents had been married in an Episcopal Church, and I was baptized in that Episcopal Church, although my father had been born into a Norwegian Lutheran family. When I was a very young child, my family attended Lutheran churches. I believe that my sisters were baptized in the Lutheran Church. Beginning in 1957 when I was 7 years old, my family began to attend an Episcopal Church where I was confirmed by the highly controversial Bishop James Pike in 1961 when I was 11 years old.

I almost didn't get to take my First Communion at my confirmation because just before I was to go up to the altar, I suddenly felt overwhelmingly sick to my stomach. Although I was able to go the altar and be given the bread and wine, I felt unable to return to my seat with the other children and, instead, walked down the aisle to the back of the church, opened the heavy doors and sat down on a bench in the May sunshine, feeling as if I was going to pass out. A kind and concerned woman followed me outside and commented that I looked "green." She suggested that I put my head down on my knees so I wouldn't faint. I felt miserable and ashamed of myself. Eventually my mother and some other people came outside, too. The service went on without me. I don't recall that Bishop Pike offered me any consolation or expressed any concern about me, although he did sign my new Episcopal prayer book, given to me by my mother and father.

I also recall that one of the boys in my confirmation class was always being teased by the other boys. The boys would say, using his name,
" ____________ did it!!!" They would repeat this phrase and laugh uproariously. The teased boy would smile in an embarrassed way. I related to him because that was how I reacted to teasing. The Sunday school teacher would tell the boys to stop the teasing. Years later I found out from my mother that one of the priests at our church had molested one of the choir boys. My guess is that it was that boy. What a strange memory.

Another equally strange memory is that of the Sunday when one of my sisters opened the side door to the sanctuary of the church as a woman was leaving. The woman vomited on my sister.

It was the tradition after the church service for the priests to stand at the door at the back of the church and shake hands with each member of the congregation as they went outside. I came to dislike this ritual, and eventually discovered that I could leave by the side door at the back of the church and avoid shaking hands with the priests whom I sensed didn't like me.

In 1967, when my father dropped me off at the college dorms at University of California at Irvine, his last words to me were, "Make sure to find a church." I didn't. That was the last thing on my mind.

In 1967, during my freshman year in college, I was horrified by a sermon I heard during the holidays when I returned home. Throughout my childhood, I had always daydreamed during the sermons and have no recollection of the content of any sermon prior that one. What I heard that day was the priest clearly stating that there was no hope for people who didn't follow Jesus. He said it wasn't good enough to just believe in God and that there was less than no hope for those who didn't believe in God at all. In that moment, I had the feeling I would not return to church again because what I had just heard went against everything I knew to be true.

During the following week I engaged in one memorable extended discussion with my mother, telling her why I no longer wanted to attend church. My memory is that this discussion lasted for hours. She told me that it might be a good time to talk with one of the priests about my concerns, rather than a time to stop going to church. I argued that I had no intention of talking with a priest. We argued back and forth. Finally she said, "Okay, don't go to church then!" An intense silence followed her words. I felt relieved and shocked at the same time.

Not long after that she stopped going to church. Eventually both of my sisters stopped going to church.

My father continued to attend church for a time after that. On the last Father's Day that my father went to church, my mother said to me, "Your poor father has to go to church alone on Father's Day. Why don't you go with him?" I didn't.

Not long after that my father stopped going to church.

I vowed that I would NEVER enter a church again. I had a recurring nightmare that I was in a church and that my mind would cry out in agony, "HOW did this happen? HOW did I come to be in a church again?" This wrenching dream came to me again and again.

Although I was married in 1976 by a Lutheran minister chosen by my husband who was not Lutheran, I insisted that the marriage not take place in a church. We were married next to a lake surrounded by mountains. To my dismay, the wedding ceremony ended with the priest asking for a recital of the Lord's Prayer. When we had prepared the ceremony, that was not part of it. I felt betrayed by the minister. A few years later I found that the Lutheran minister had left the church and become a real estate agent.

Imagine my horror in 1979 when Bob Dylan, my chosen spiritual teacher since I had been 14 years old, converted to Christianity. It was from Bob Dylan that I had learned about the I Ching and its wisdom tradition and that there were other ways of seeing the world than the one I had grown up with. During the years after I stopped going to church, I grew more and more attached to Bob Dylan. I didn't believe in God, but I believed in Bob Dylan. Around that time I began to read books by Thomas Merton because I read a magazine article where the writer said that he wondered if Bob Dylan had read anything by Thomas Merton. Through reading about Thomas Merton, I learned about Thich Nhat Hanh who was nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr. for the Nobel Peace Prize and Simone Weil, who spent time reading the Bhagavad Gita as well as having a conversion experience but who declined to be baptized.

I wasn't inspired to return to a Christian church but was inspired by Thomas Merton to continue reading about the experiences of people from all traditions.

Some years later, as my mother was contemplating converting to Judaism, I read an article where Bob Dylan mentioned TALES OF THE HASIDIM, by Martin Buber. I bought a copy and felt a distinct kinship with those stories, as did my mother. My mother loved the song, "Ring Them Bells," by Bob Dylan:

Ring them bells so the world will know / That God is one

My father was increasingly dismayed by my mother's path. Finally he gave her an ultimatum, saying that there were not going to be two religions in their household. My mother appeared to acquiesce, but she went underground with her beliefs. As far as I know, she celebrated the Jewish holidays in secret until she died of a sudden, massive, completely unexpected heart attack on the 6th day of Hanukkah in 1994, the day before my parent's 45th wedding anniversary.

After my mother's death, I found these words typed and glued to a piece of heavy cardboard on a wall in her bedroom:

I believe That God is One -- Spiritual Creator and Ruler of the Universe, indwelling all nature, and yet transcending it; near to man in all his needs, and yet beyond man's full comprehension. That man, while fashioned out of the earth, is nevertheless made in the spiritual image of God. That while he is bound by his physical and mental limitations, he is boundless in his moral aspirations and is free to determine his own spiritual progress through his own efforts assisted by the grace of God. That both body and soul are of God, and that the whole of man -- body, mind and soul -- is sacred. That all men are equal in their essential humanity and in the sight of God. That there is but one moral law for prince and pauper, ruler and subject, native born and stranger. That life is a good and a gracious gift from God. That the moral ills which exist in the world can be overcome, and that in overcoming them lies the true meaning and the adventure of human life. That an age of universal justice, brotherhood and and peace awaits the human race and can be hastened by the efforts of the human race. That there is divine retribution in ways and forms not always clear to man. That man's concern should be with life this side of the grave.

(from WHERE JUDAISM DIFFERS, by Abba Hillel Silver)

I also found these words from a poem by Kenneth Rexroth, written to his daughter. My mother had bookmarked the page and set the book in a prominent place, in what appeared to be a deliberate manner:

Believe in Orion. Believe
In the night, the moon, the crowded
Earth. Believe in Christmas and
Birthdays and Easter rabbits.
Believe in all those fugitive
Compounds of nature, all doomed
to waste away and go out.
Always be true to these things.
They are all there is. Never
Give up this savage religion
For the blood-drenched civilized
Abstractions of the rascals
Who live by killing you and me.

(from "A Sword in a Cloud of Light")

After my mother's death, my father searched for a church to attend. He didn't find one where he felt comfortable but began watching "Hour of Power" on television on Sunday mornings and felt himself a part of that congregation for a number of years until the day he died, St. Patrick's Day of 2003.

After my father's death, I had dream where I saw my mother running to greet my father as he ran toward her on the bluff above ocean where they had lived together for 25 years. In that dream I saw them experiencing a joy I had not witnessed in all my years as their daughter.


Loren said...

Thanks for sharing this, am.

I sometimes forget how complicated some people's religious lives are.

rbarenblat said...

What an amazing set of stories. I'm honored that my post sparked this; thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

You can find a lot more Rexroth poems and essays at


robin andrea said...

This is such a deep and rich exploration of your internal life, and the role religion and the church played in it. I was born Jewish, but have never practice any religion, ever. My parents were secular, and I will always be grateful for that. I love that Rexroth poem.

The Solitary Walker said...

Religion, eh? I love Merton, Weil and Buber. But I remain a devout sceptic. Waiting on God.