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The Jewish Thing

posted Friday April 8th, 2016

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This is a piece I read last night at Bar Flies, the monthly spoken word series at Valley Bar in downtown Phoenix. In the coming months I’ll write more about the girls’ b’not mitzvah (that’s what it’s called when there are two girls participating) and how the process is working specifically for Sophie. So far, so good. 

A few weeks ago, I took my daughters to a local synagogue for Friday night services.

We don’t typically ring in the Jewish Sabbath at a house of worship. Bacon and eggs at the International House of Pancakes is more like it, followed by a hard crash on the living room couch.

But here we were — a little late, dressed up and awkwardly juggling prayer books meant to be read back to front (because Hebrew is read from right to left).

I didn’t realize I was singing along with the prayers until my younger daughter poked me.

“Hey mom,” Sophie stage-whispered, “how come you know the words?”

“Well,” I whispered back, “a long time ago, I had my own bat mitzvah and–” I stopped, noticing that we were drawing stares, and not only because Sophie had insisted that we sit in the center of the front row.

Sophie is 12 (12 and five sixths, she’ll quickly tell you; she turns 13 in May) and she has Down syndrome. People stare.

My older daughter Annabelle — who is almost 15 and therefore wants nothing more than to be invisible — shushed us both, and we all turned back to the service.

Afterward there was cake and fruit and we chatted with a nice family – a mom, a dad, and two girls about my own daughters’ ages.

“This must be hard for you, doing it all on your own,” the mother clucked, motioning to Sophie.

I looked at her, confused. Then I got it.

“Oh!” I said, laughing. “I have a husband. He’s just not here tonight.”

I toyed with telling her the truth, that earlier in the day I’d invited Ray to come along to synagogue and he’d quickly declined, announcing he was quite certain he’d be turned into a pillar of salt if he dared to step foot in a house of worship.

Instead I stammered something about how he had to work late.

I am fond of telling people that I have a mixed marriage. Ray is a Republican (well, more of a Libertarian), and I am a Democrat (ok, sort of a communist). He likes to camp, I prefer hotels. He is pro-gun and pro-cat. I am neither. He has a PC, I have a Mac. He likes Game of Thrones; I watch Girls.

And he was raised Catholic. In my own defense, I swear to God – or, you know, whoever’s up there – that when we met, I thought Ray was Jewish. You would have, too. We were in our mid twenties, he was an ad salesman at New Times with dark curly hair and glasses. He grew up in Queens! HIS LAST NAME IS STERN.

So kill me. I assumed.

One Monday morning, not long after we’d met, Ray asked what I’d done over the weekend. I told him that I went to my cousin’s bat mitzvah.

“Bat Mitzvah?” he asked. “Huh. Is that for a boy or a girl?”

FUCK.

In the end – rather, at the beginning – it really didn’t matter, because Ray had given up Catholicism long ago and I wasn’t much of a Jew.

I am not sure when he stopped believing – if he ever did believe – but by the time we met, Ray had amassed quite a collection of fossils, which he kept around the house to show to the children of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who came to the door.

I remember my own moment quite precisely. I was in first grade, at religious school, in the middle of making a paper mache replica of the torah when suddenly, it hit me like a bolt of lightning:

“We are doing all this shit for that God person everyone keeps talking about.”

I chuckled quietly to myself, shook my head, and went back to trying to wrap wet newspaper around empty cardboard toilet paper rolls, mostly because I knew that after that we were going to bake challah bread, and I was hungry. Also because I was 6, and did not yet have access to a car.

And so went my Jewish education. It was easier to go along than pitch a fit – and the food was pretty good.

So who cared that our religions didn’t match? Ray and I were married by a judge; our friends read passages by Pablo Neruda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. We walked down the aisle to both Led Zeppelin and Bach.

I like to think that Ray and I have made our own kind of religion as we’ve gone along. For all of our differences, we share a joint belief in more things than you’d guess: the Beatles; annual trips to Disneyland; that giant black dogs are awesome pets; that Rent is the greatest Broadway musical ever; that it’s important to stay up till 2 am on Christmas Eve, wrapping presents and chugging Bailey’s; and that our girls should be raised Jewish.

Up until the kid part, we made it work without much effort.

One night, when I was about six months pregnant with Annabelle, Ray and I were out for pizza and talk turned to religion. I had been avoiding the topic for years. What if he’d changed his mind about the Jewish thing?

He hadn’t. We talked about what it meant to be in a minority in our hate-filled world, particularly our corner of it, in Maricopa County, Arizona. 9/11 was a few months off; we had no idea how hate-filled the world really was.

“I want our children to know they’re Jewish before someone else tells them they’re Jewish,” he said.

I swooned.

Putting the Jewish thing into practice proved more difficult. Neither of us had any desire to partake of organized religion beyond stockings hung with care and the row of candles in the menorah – and so we didn’t.

Until last fall, we still hadn’t come up with a plan to get the girls any sort of formal religious education.

The closest we got was our annual Passover seder, the springtime dinner party held to commemorate the Jews’ exodus from Egypt. These seders have grown more irreverent as the years have passed. Last year’s theme was “Passover the Musical.” We sang some traditional songs; Annabelle played her ukelele; then Sophie and and a friend sang Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.” Ray played Metallica’s “Creeping Death,” his own nod to the story of the Jews’ exodus.

Sitting in our backyard with flickering candlelight and sangria (my version of the traditional, terrible Passover wine), surrounded by people we love, I felt almost spiritual. It was just right.

We didn’t need any more than this. Or did we?

With Sophie’s 13th birthday looming, I felt a decision had to be made. To bat mitzvah or not to bat mitzvah? We’d already missed the deadline for Annabelle. We were close to blowing it altogether.

I visited synagogues, interviewed rabbis, got into some fights on Facebook, and ultimately decided to go rogue. We hired a tutor and I’m calling this Our Year of Living Religiously. Most Sunday mornings the girls and I drive to Mesa, where they spend an hour learning prayers and asking questions. They now have Hebrew names. They’ve been to a Friday night service. We have made hamantaschen for Purim, an obscure (and really fucking hard to make) pastry for an obscure holiday.

It feels right. It’s not much, but it’s something. And both girls are loving it. They haven’t even started asking about the party – yet.

That leaves Ray. He had not partaken of any of our Jewish activities until last weekend, when we all traveled to Denver for my niece’s bat mitzvah.

My sister took a different path than mine. She married a guy she met at Charles Pearlstein in the Pines, the summer camp that all the Phoenix Jews (but me) attended when we were growing up. There was never any question about how Jenny and Jonathan would raise their kids. Kate’s bat mitzvah was lovely and traditional. And long.

Ray, Annabelle, Sophie and I lined up on a hard wooden bench at Tempe Israel on a crisp Saturday morning. The girls and I opened our prayer books, back to front. Ray’s book sat awkwardly on his lap. But he rose and sat with the congregation and he was wearing a tie – hell, he was THERE — so I could hardly complain.

A few minutes in, Sophie dropped her prayer book. It made a loud, embarrassing thud and before I could lean over to grab it, Ray had it in his hands. He whispered the page number to her, carefully helping her flip the right spot.

And when he sat down, I noticed he opened his own book.

“My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome” will be published by Woodbine House April 15. You can pre-order it from Changing Hands Bookstore and come to my release party May 1 or pre-order on Amazon. For more information about tour dates visit myheartcantevenbelieveit.com and here’s a book trailer.

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Tags: Filed under: Down syndrome by Amysilverman

2 Responses to “The Jewish Thing”

  1. Years ago, when the kids were little (we raised them with no religion, although they were baptized as newborns so my mom could sleep at night — I though this was the right thing to do until Abbie, as a 10 year old, asked me, “Who are Adam and Eve?” and I thought, hmm, maybe my mom is right about there being *some* value in a religious education/I take my catechism for granted), we went to a bar mitzvah for a neighborhood boy. It was amazing, the first for my husband, and he leaned over to me during it and whispered, in total sincerity — he’s a country boy from west Nebraska — “Why aren’t we Jewish?”

    You know I am suspicious of all things organized except labor — but I LOVE that you and the girls are doing this and can’t wait for their big day.

  2. What a fantastic story! It serve as a wonderful example of how those with exceptionalities (I have cerebral palsy myself, especially children, can sometimes break down barriers others cannot.

    If you who read this feel so inclined, I would like for you to consider reading a short article I have written, about family members of mine who are attempting to attend a conference for their son, Caleb, who has CDKL5. Below you will find some information about Caleb and a link to the GoFundMe I have started for his parents to, hopefully, attend a CDKL5 conference. Thank you very much.
    Sincerely,
    Damon Bedillion

    CDKL5 is a rare X-linked genetic disorder that results in early onset, difficult to control seizures, and severe neuro-developmental impairment. It is an orphan disorder, with about 600-1,000 estimated worldwide; however, more children are being diagnosed as awareness of CDKL5 spreads. Eight-year-old Caleb cannot walk, cannot chew food, and is legally blind. The most prominent daily concerns for Caleb are his general safety, and his frequent seizures (with can range in number from 3-30 in a single day) and his weak immune system. Caleb was hospitalized in 2014, suffering from multiple infections.

    Because CDKL5 is so rare, Caleb’s parents need to be able to attend conferences on their son’s disability. It is imperative they are able to learn about vital treatment method from doctors and research, who are CDKL5, and network with other parents, whose child have the same disability. The family is busy welcoming Caleb’s baby sister, Joelle, who was born on April 22nd, 2016. That is why they are hoping to plan a trip to next year’s conference. They just need the funds necessary to make that hope a reality. You can contribute to GoFundMe I have set up for Caleb’s family at gofundme.com/285as2kc.

    Thank you so much, in advance, for your help.

    The site includes a categorical breakdown of the family’s budgetary needs for the trip.

    If you have any questions, please feel free to contact myself (I am Caleb’s uncle) at damon.bedillion@maine.edu or his father, Kevin, at, ksmall75@gmail.com.

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My-Heart-Cant-Even-Believe-It-Cover
My Heart Can't Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome is available from Amazon and 
Changing Hands Bookstore
. For information about readings and other events, click here.
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