Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Big Deal

Not long ago I was talking with someone I know about my exploration of Christianity (I hesitate to call it a conversion at this point), and she put to me the following question:

"You explored Buddhism and New Age spirituality without feeling uncomfortable. What is it in Christianity that's so different? Why are you so uncomfortable with this option? What's the big deal?"

In what follows, I attempt to unpack a coherent answer to this question. It's not easy, but I feel it's important to put this out in the public realm.

All my life I've been sheltered from anti-semitism. I've never experienced direct discrimination on account of my cultural background. Maybe a little insensitivity here and there, but nothing serious compared to how things used to be, in the not-so-distant past.

My grandfather remembers going to the Toronto beaches, where signs were posted that read: No Dogs and No Jews Allowed. A great-aunt was fired from her job because her father wouldn't let her work on the Sabbath. Just a few generations back it was difficult to get jobs, or get into certain schools and clubs, based on one's Jewish background. But that's ancient history! It has no bearing whatsoever on my life today!

Or does it?

All through my childhood and young-adulthood, the memories of anti-semitism that my relatives experienced were repeated to me over and over, until they were indelibly carved on my memory. My mother tried to prepare me for any discrimination I might be exposed to by warning me about all the anti-semites "out there" and conjuring up things they might say or do to hurt me. I was always made aware of any news item noting that a synagogue had been defaced, or gravestones tipped over in a Jewish cemetary. You could say that some of my relatives live on high alert for signs of trouble.

The reason for this is understandable. The Holocaust was not so long ago, and directly affected my family . I have heard it said that it takes seven generations to heal such a grievous wound, and as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor I can attest that this seems like a reasonable estimate.

I can never let my passport expire. I was told over and over by my mother that you have to be ready to flee at any time, because you never know when Nazis are going to show up and start killing Jews again. They could be amassing in underground cells as I write this, drafting plans for computer-controlled killing chambers and ever more efficient means of tracking who has a trace of Jewish DNA in their genes. I know that this isn't realistic, but still. I don't like letting my hand hang over the edge of the mattress at night even though I don't officially believe in monsters under the bed, and I will always keep my passport up to date, just in case.

Of course I could continue to go further back in history and never find an end to the tales of Jewish hardship. My great-grandparents came to Canada to escape the pogroms in Eastern Europe, for example. You get the point.

What it all adds up to for me is a small and quiet but determined paranoia. Overtly secular situations don't bug me, and that's where I've spent the majority of my time, so no problem. However, anytime I'm in a designated Christian environment, I've felt that I don't belong and that I might be forcefully rejected if anyone finds out that I'm a Jew.

(Also, if I find myself in an officially Jewish environment outside of my family circle, I feel that I might be forcefully rejected if anyone finds out how unfaithful I've been to the Jewish religion. I can't win!)

What it adds up to for a large part of my family is a fierce feeling of indebtedness to Jewish traditions. "We" (meaning people who lived and died before I was born) FOUGHT for our traditions. Millions of Jews died for these traditions. (That's the thinking, even though many of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were completely secular and assimilated.) There's a feeling that we must honour the memory of the dead, and justify the sufferings of the past, by keeping Jewish culture alive. If not, we're as guilty of killing our culture as the Nazis were.

Wow. That's some heavy guilt, isn't it?

As a teenager, I had an ongoing argument with my mom about my identity. I didn't want to identify as Jewish. She continually told me that I had no choice. My argument was that I don't practice the religion, and I don't believe there's a measurable genetic distinction between Jews and non-Jews, so if I don't want to call myself a Jew, I don't have to. Her argument was that the Nazis would have called me a Jew, because of my ancestry, and therefore I didn't have a choice but to accept that label.

Notice how she wanted to let the Nazis determine my identity. They do keep popping up to scare us, just like the monsters under the bed.

Back to my point: it's no small thing for me to face the question of my spiritual and/or religious and/or cultural identity. I don't believe I'll ever be able to untangle the question of how much I identify as Jewish. And it's not a light matter to switch my identity to Christian. I was raised in a pervasive atmosphere of keeping one's guard up around gentiles, because they can turn on you at any time. Gentiles are/were/can be The Enemy. Am I going to become one of Them?

(I'm not saying that this is rational. I only had one Jewish friend, growing up and presently. All the rest identified as Christian, or at least they celebrated Christmas. They certainly weren't The Enemy. I never promised that this would make sense.)

In Orthodox Judaism, if a member of the family leaves the Jewish faith, the rest of the family mourns for them as if they were dead, and then never speaks of them again. The convert has died, in the eyes of their family. My extended family wouldn't go that far, but it would be very bad if they knew.

All my parents (step and bio) know, and my sister, but I don't intend to tell anyone else, for now. Maybe not ever. I just don't know if it would be worth the hurt and confusion it would cause.

So there you have it. It's a very big deal, and no wonder I'm having an identity crisis. Do people from other backgrounds have similar conundrums? I'm curious to know how much you can relate.


Warped Mind of Ron said...

I can see your problem. My views on religion are twisted and very much my own device, but I don't see why you have to abandon on religion to embrace another. I've got a lot of views on this and it may or may not apply to you, but I think I may put together a blog on it as it will be lengthy. I hope you can reconcile this inner conflict.

Karen said...

Wow. That is some load to carry. I was raised in a very Polish/Italian area. I went to Catholic school until college. I didn't know a single Jewish person until college. And even now I have only one Jewish friend.

I cannot imagine the guilt that you are feeling. For me the Holocaust is nothing more than something I studied in school. I feel no more connect to it than I do the assassination of Lincoln.

But you have had that touch you personally. It is only natural that you question the path you are taking.

unsigned said...

That's tough. I wish you the best of luck sorting it all out. I have no issues with religion in my own life so I can't relate. But you do have my sympathy. Just follow your heart and do what feels right and everything will be okay.


jameil1922 said...

it's less about religion than about race for black people. for those who can pass because of their color, or those who can blend with the general population because of education are usually admonished to "not forget where they came from." it would take a comment just as long if not longer than this post to get into all that stuff (and i know yours was the abridged version). it probably takes longer than 7 generations to "get over it." i really can't see the pervasive distrust going away as long as a vast majority of people feel disenfranchised or see it in their families if not immediately effected.

Leighann said...

I've often wondered how many adults follow a certain religion because they WANT to or because it's EXPECTED of them because of family tradition.

As far as I'm concerned people need to follow the path that makes them feel the most comfortable.

Sparkling Red said...

Ron: I hope you do write about this subject on your blog. I'd like to read your views. I agree that sometimes religion can strangle spirituality by keeping people on too short a leash.

Karen: Thanks for answering my question. I have often wondered who I would have become if I had grown up surrounded by people of a similar background. I can't imagine fitting in. :-)

Unsigned: Thank you. :-)

Jameil: Yes, this was a very abridged version. How can one cram the influences of a lifetime into one post? I tried, but it pervades everything, so it's tough to figure out which threads to follow.

Leighann: That's a very good question. Some people feel upset with their parents for forcing them into a given religion, and others feel they missed out by not having a tradition to support them. It's very complicated.

Keera Ann Fox said...

This is one of those situations where I have nothing to offer. I wasn't raised with any kind of "point of view", meaning I never heard "us vs. them", ever. My grandparents had seen what damage dividing the world into "us vs. them" could do and never passed any of that on to their offspring.

My personal belief is that when you find that place where you are completely happy with yourself, a lot of these other issues will fade away.

Dianne said...

My grandmother was Jewish and married a Christian man. In Russia no less.

When they came here Nana was shunned by both the Jewish and Christian women. They never spoke to her, not even in passing in the stores or on the street.

She was a gentle and accepting soul. She kept her head up and smiled at all those miserable people. How funny that the Christians and Jews were united in their scorn of one little woman!

I believe it was where I first developed my disdain for organized religion and my belief that it divides more than unites.

I lived with Nana for a while in the late 60s/early 70s and the crap was still the same. Her friends were all the black women who came into the white neighborhood to clean and babysit.

The gift of this was that I have always felt comfortable everywhere. People have told me I have no religious/ethnic/national loyalty or identity. I disagree - I have a huge diverse identity :)

To directly answer your question - Nana was often afraid but said that fear was the true enemy so she just pushed forward.

San said...

When I first read the question from your friend about the difficulty of Christianity as opposed to Buddhism and New Age spirituality, at first I thought of how Christianity isn't as hip and politically correct. Then it hit me: THIS WOULD BE TOUGH for one brought up Jewish. Although I'm not Jewish, I have acquaintances who are, and yes, the Jewish identity is pretty strong for them too, and yes, it does have to do with the Holocaust. I've never discussed such matters with my Jewish acquaintances and you've made it much clearer for me.

Do I relate? Only to a degree. I was raised Christian and I have switched to a more liberal Christianity than what I grew up with, but it really hasn't drawn a boundary between my family and me.

I can see that that's difficult for you and I admire your courage in working out your own spirituality, your willingness to embrace what's really meaningful and profound for you. Few people do that and that's sad.

Sparkling Red said...

Keera: Thank you for writing "when" not "if" " find that place where you are completely happy with yourself..." Sometimes I still think in terms of "if". "When" sounds a lot better. :-)

Dianne: Your Nana is inspiring! Where did she find the strength to keep her head held high? People who have much less to contend with have been broken by the rejection of others. She must have had an amazing heart.

San: It's a pure miracle that Jesus came and found me. I wasn't searching anymore by that time. I had almost given up on finding anything more meaningful than the daily grind. I wish that I could pass on my experience to others, but I don't know if that's possible. It's so personal. I couldn't have imagined what it would be like until I experienced it for myself.

Dianne said...

sparkling - thank you for those kind words about Nana. I hope to post her photo and a bit of her story one day. She did have an amazing heart and I feel her with me many times - I literally feel her take my hand as she did all those years ago.

she had a very dangerous and hard life in Russia so anything people in America could sling at her was - in her words - "chicken poop"

Aurora said...

What if you stood up and said, I refuse to leave this family just because of your fears and history... could you do that? would it change any of them?

Sparkling Red said...

Aurora: That's a short question with a long and uncertain answer. The big question I ask myself first is, is the risk worth the potential for good results? So far I think not. But, we'll see...

Jenski said...

I was raised Christian and we often have Jewish friends at Christmas who are great enough to share Hanukkah traditions when the two holidays overlap. It does not occur to me that one organized religion is any more right than another for me, which is probably why I continue to use Christianity as my spiritual outlet.

I am glad that your parents and sister know. If you are comfortable observing all the family holidays as you are and feel that telling people about your exploration of Christianity would be a huge deal, it may not be worth mentioning. Was your extended family aware of previous spiritual exploration? If so, how did they react to those situation (even though it is not quite the same as the Judaism-Christianity 'thing')?

Sparkling Red said...

Jenski: I don't even remember if I told my extended family about my other spiritual explorations. Probably not, mostly because it would be a lot of work to try to explain it to them, and they probably wouldn't get it. It might have caused some grumbling that I was pursuing other paths, but it wouldn't have been devastating. There are some who would feel that my explorations of Christianity are an outright betrayal. It's just that much more loaded.