Thursday, June 12, 2008

Gimme that old time religion

I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with religion. Especially my own. What did it mean to be a Jew in New York when I was not kosher, did not attend services and most importantly, did not believe in God as others have defined it in our culture. When I was little, I had a morbid fascination with the afterlife, imagining myself in my single bed, lying perfectly still, as if I was in a coffin six feet under. I envied my catholic friends who seemed to have it all figured out. When their Grandparents passed away, they were sure they were up in heaven dancing with the angels. Sadly, I did not buy it. I shared my confusion with my Mother, telling her I was not sure I believed there was one God looking over us all. She sagely told me that being Jewish, had nothing to do with believing in God. And for her that was true. For her, and there after, for me, being Jewish was about a shared culture and history, it was about food and family and tradition. It was about remembering that we are survivors and never forgetting that there are those in every millenium who have tried to do us harm, to wipe us off the map, to extinguish the threat we somehow pose to them.

When I was interviewed by Maureen Reichart, my social worker, for Phoebe's homestudy, she asked me what I thought Phoebe and I had in common coming from two very different cultures. I said that the Vietnamese people, very much like the Jews, had prevailed against threats from outside forces. They have never lost a war, beating the Chinese, the Mongolians, the French and the Americans. As a culture, they are survivors, just like us.

So it was with all these thoughts in my head that I decided to make Phoebe a proper Jew. I want us to share an identity. I want to be able to say, when she asks, "what are we?" that we are Jewish. I didn't want her to have to think about it any further. As far as I am concerned, she can be anything she wants in this life. (except maybe a Republican, that might break my heart :) She can follow the Buddhism of the Vietnamese people, be an Atheist, or a Hindu. But as as far as the Jewish powers that be are concerned, as of last week, she is as Jewish as an Orthodox Jew.

With the help of David Woolfe, my parents and I took Phoebe to a Mikvah in a small house on the South Shore of Long Island. I was nervous all day, and kept questioning whether I was doing the right thing. The Rabbi, Stanley Platek, welcomed us warmly and showed us into the small pool in the basement of the house. The water was warm as I carried in my daughter and listened to the Hebrew words being spoken. In three dunks and a prayer it was all over. Phoebe, who loves the water, didn't seem to mind very much at all. She stayed in my arms and didn't cry. She seemed fascinated by the people around her, as she always is, and took it all in. In less than fifteen minutes, we were done. The papers were signed, the blessings were given and Phoebe Horowitz is now a true Horowitz indeed.

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