“Mom, I don’t believe in God,” my daughter confesses to me in the 10th row of our conservative synagogue on Saturday, six weeks before her bat mitzvah.
We have spent weeks planning the reception with a Rock ‘n’ Roll theme. We sent out the invitations, created the website, pored over her dvar-torah remarks, and now she tells me she doesn’t believe in God!
For the last five years, we’ve faithfully attended Shabbat services, volunteered on the membership committee, and stocked the food pantry. I sent her to religious school, bat mitzvah tutoring for a year. She sang on the bimah at the high holidays two years in a row. When she confesses her crisis of faith, all I can think of is, “Where did I go wrong?” I have to wonder, have I even raised a Jew? Sure my daughter is born Jewish, but will she end up like like a nineties actor in some sort of dreadful romantic comedy saying, “Well I was born Jewish but I’m not really practicing”?
I tried desperately to get her involved in Jewish activities at my synagogue. But there were problems, logistical ones. If you brought your kids to religious school twice a week then you didn’t also show up on Shabbat because the kids that come on Shabbat were Jewish Day school kids. I was told by the religious school director that I should stop coming on Shabbat in favor or religious school. I told her she was nuts and kept coming on Saturday. So, was my daughter somehow attending the wrong permutation of activities to spark her interest in practicing Judaism?
But no, all such excuses fall short of the real reason. You see, I have struggled with my own faith recently. It wasn’t just one thing but a series of unfortunate events that lead to my own feelings of disconnection. But for my daughter, it turns out to be something I said in a fit of despair.
For the last year, I have taken care of an aunt who had cancer until she passed three weeks ago. In the final two weeks of her life, when we were passed hope of recovery but before casseroles and condolences, I sat at her bedside eight hours a day in a cramped dark room that smelled of antiseptic and another smell that I could not place, a sickening sweet smell that precedes death. Slowly the second smell took over, a little bit every day until she passed.
One of the nights that I had come home exhausted and depleted, I cried out loud in my room. It turns out my daughter overheard me. I was asking: How there could be a God that did this to someone like my Aunt who endured mental illness, abandonment and beatings by her father in a vile attempt to cure her of the voices in her head? She never had a real home and was shuttled to and from institutions for 60 years of her life. She never had a say in where she lived or who she lived with. Her money was never her own and she was never safe. And now as some grand final insult, she dies of cancer.
I was mad. And my daughter heard me. It rocked her faith in a benevolent Jewish God.
During my aunt’s final illness, I did reach out to my rabbi and the staff—but for one reason or another no one came to visit. Instead we had a dreadful “Rent A Rabbi” come by who wanted to sing Passover songs to my aunt. I told him she would probably prefer songs of the 60’s. We compromised one round of “Dayenu” and one of “Scarborough Faire.”
When it came time for her burial, my Rabbi couldn’t make it so we skipped the service all together. In the end it was just us, without a visible religious sign. We buried her ourselves, shovel by shovel till it was done, my daughter helping through every pile of dirt. I was so proud of her will to finish, even as my own fatigue set in. Then that was it. No shiva. No kaddish. No casseroles. We just went home.
I took my Jewish star off at some point on the way home from the funeral.
I have spent the last five years living as an observant Jew, going to temple, volunteering on committees, cooking dinner for the homeless shelter. I even wrote a Jewish cookbook, but I right now don’t know how I feel about my faith. And now my daughter has caught my condition. I don’t have anyone to blame but myself, of course. But now what?
I have a hundred guests coming for what I’ve started to call a “mock mitzvah” in six weeks. My daughter will go through the motions, the mikvah, and she’ll chant as the morning’s maftir. But will she be a devoted Jew after the relatives leave and the balloon arch deflates?