This post is part of our month-long series featuring different ways that parents of various religions have talked to their kids about God.
It wasn’t until I was asked to contribute to this series that I realized I had never spoken with my children about God. Or so I thought. Sex, yes, doubtless too soon and too often. Death, yes, memorably. But God? I couldn’t remember. So I asked my kids.
Miriam, our 13-going-on-28-year old, simply said, “Probably not,” then returned to reading her book (David Copperfield? The latest installment in The Clique series? You can never tell.) Ben, our 16-year-old guy’s-guy-and-proud-of it, had a vague recollection that some conversation had taken place, somewhere, some time. Maybe. “I think you told us we could believe whatever we wanted about God, and you would support us,” he said. “But then again, that’s the kind of thing you would say,” he added. I was still patting myself on the back for my parenting skills when he asked me for a ride to the mall, and it wasn’t till I got there that I paused to admire his highly effective flattery.
The conversations with my kids made me think of conversations with my own parents, and I realized that in not talking to my own children, I was carrying on a family tradition. Intellectuals, and proud of it, refugees from Nazi Germany and Brooklyn who carried us from college town to Ivy League redoubts, they had not a scrap of religious sentiment about them. They identified as Jewish matter-of-factly (how can you grow up in 1930s Hamburg or under the shadow of Ebbets Field without thinking yourself Jewish?) We were bundled off to Reform services at the High Holidays or fed Aunt Netty’s cabbage soup. But Jewishly, much less religiously, that more or less was it. I never thought about God; I never missed thinking about God; I never even thought about thinking about God. It wasn’t that God was dead in some Nietzchean sense, or missing, or absent. It was just that the question never came up.
Until after, I remember now as I write these words, a tragedy struck our family.
My little sister, 3 years old and clearly on her way to becoming as bright and sassy as Miriam, was killed in a ludicrously tragic accident. Of course, my parents fell completely apart. My brother and I felt helpless, sad, numb, trying to go about normal life when such a thing was manifestly impossible. And as we watched our parents’ marriage deteriorate, then die, then be followed by the horrible rituals of divorce, I started to develop an intense interest in things divine.
I started to read the Bible cover to cover, not really making sense of it–yes, I read every single begat aloud, and even made it through some of the weirder portions of Leviticus–and I found myself wondering as well about the existence of some intelligible entity in the Universe. I was too old then to picture it like the bearded, patriarchal God in the Golden Book Bible, which my parents had given me in lieu of religious education, and of course the Bible I was reading at night had no pictures in it, so I really had nothing concrete to go on. And my parents were too out of it to even begin to have a conversation on theological matters, matters which, of course, they had no equipment to deal with at the best of times, and no wisdom to offer at these, the worst.
My religious fixation reached a climax when, having been shipped off to a progressive boarding school in Vermont, as if Princeton, New Jersey, weren’t bad enough, I broke away from the crowd on a field trip to some ridiculously picturesque New England town. Knowing that no one would miss me, I wandered up a hill, past a church, and into the graveyard behind it. I decided that was the proper place to have a conversation with God, which, I understood from Fiddler on the Roof, people like me had the somewhat unique ability to do. So I stood in front of a grave and asked him–or Him? Or Her?–to plant some kind of explanation in my brain for the horrible, horrible thing he (He? She?) had let happen. I wasn’t asking for a sign, a portent, much less a burning bush or the parting of the Connecticut River. Just for a thought, or a momentary insight, or even just a soothing feeling that might ease my brother’s and my pain and restore my parents to me, as the neurotic pains in the ass they had been rather than the grieving mad people they had become.
There was nothing–no thought, no insight, no palliation. Just nothing.
I paused, and waited some more. Again, nothing.
One more time–it was in the Bible, people always had to do things in threes before anything could happen. But yet again, nothing.
I didn’t know what to do. Clearly, the God option wasn’t working, but I was darned if I had any idea of where else to look, what else to do. I thought a bit, then decided that since it was cold, and since I was tired, it was time to walk back. But before I left, I took out a bandana from my backpack–these were the 60s, we went everywhere with bandanas for some reason–laid it down in front of the grave as a kind of a peace offering. Then I trudged back to my raucous teenage schoolmates, ready to flunk out of that cockamamie school, go off and graduate in a public school, go to a university and become a professor, and a parent, all in my own way. And to pray to whatever entity that is out there that my darling children, so innocent of the evils that can befall them, will be safe in this vale of tears and, occasionally, joy.
So when I wonder why I have not had a conversation with my kids about God, I suppose it’s because I simply wouldn’t know what to say. Except to tell them what I feel in every fiber of my being: that I thank God every day that I have never had to.
Jonathan Freedman teaches English, film and Jewish studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has also taught at Yale, Williams Oxford, and the Bread Loaf School of English. He’s working on a few intellectual projects right now, and also as a chauffeur and soccer dad to his two kids, whom, he is happy to say, take him totally for granted.
To read all of the post in this series, click here.