The passing of Christopher Hitchens has caused me to look intensely at my life and to examine some of my earliest memories concerning religion. Consequently these past several days my daily adventure has criss-crossed the trail of recollection leading to my childhood and has led me to a puzzling landscape of long ago. Sadly I have come to realize that so many key memories are like peaks lost in the clouds or are, more similarly, like unrecoverable bytes drifting in cyberspace from a damaged hard drive. I feel like a historian who has to do research on a time where the documents no longer exist and the people who could possibly reveal pertinent information have perished. Even so, the challenge remains the same, namely to glean from the few memories a semblance of truth without judgment.
I assembled a list of questions to help me with the task, which included when I first knew I was Jewish and did I ever truly believe in God. It would be simple if the genesis of my Jewish identity were attributable to one poignant moment, like the recollection of my mother showing me the mezuzah on our doorpost, or on a particular Saturday morning standing next to my father at the temple as the Torah was carried about the sanctuary, helping him touch the scroll with his tallis. Yet this is not the case. Judaism enveloped me gradually and seeped uninvited into my consciousness. Its presence almost totally pervaded my family's social and cultural activities and, like oxygen in the air, I breathed it in automatically.
I don't know when I learned the imperative to believe in God, but at an early age would have professed that I did. I had heard the word in the English translation of Hebrew prayers which were recited and had sensed that this figure played an important role in evaluating the high moral Jewish life that was expected of me. Although I misbehaved a lot, I so much wanted to be understood as a good boy. Believing in God felt obligatory in order to achieve this goal. My first vision of God came while lying in bed before falling asleep. I saw a tall, kindly man looking at me who I thought was God. Only later I realized the face was that of the father of Peter Meyers, a friend who lived across the hall. I suppose many children have similar fantasies. Christian children may have been instilled to see the face of Jesus, but when I asked my son about his first vision of God, he narrated that he had also seen a familiar face, except it was the face of the man he knew from the tail of Alaska Airlines planes. To this day I still feel the compulsion to believe, but not necessarily the conviction.
Another question I sought to answer was this: When had I become aware of Christians or Gentiles? Early on, I sensed and learned by listening to my parents' conversation that non- Jews were superficially friendly, latently dangerous, and quite different socially from Jews. Also there were many more of them than us. One of my first memories was of the nursery school to which my mother took me. It was housed in a spacious playroom attached to a Baptist church. As soon as she left I felt abandoned and sat for hours pushing wooden block trains around waiting to be picked up. Feeling like a captive in an ominous building with strange windows, odors, and spires, I knew this place belonged to Gentiles, not us, and it awakened a certain angst which I can still feel today. Also Hyde Park, on Chicago's South Side where I lived, was located near many run-down black neighborhoods. Whether riding with my mom on the IC elevated train to go downtown, traveling by car to my father's sign shop, or looking out the window of streetcars or buses, I saw what was then called "colored people" who, above all, looked scary to me and who also were definitely not Jewish. In fact, I began to believe that I belonged to a family and group that was special and smarter than others and that my sister, cousins, and Jewish friends appeared to feel the same way. I remember never wishing to believe in Santa Claus or having a tree. If anything, I may have thought that Christmas time seemed like a season of weird, silly behavior for others, although I enjoyed the catchy melody of Jingle Bells.
I would be remiss if I didn't relate when I first became aware of anti-Semitism. My parents, who were Holocaust survivors, clearly didn't want to frighten me with gruesome personal stories which, in part, they strove to forget. Nonetheless, on many a Saturday evening, my parents entertained other Jewish couples in our livingroom to discuss the painful past. I was allowed to listen for a while, but then was sent to bed. I understood so little, but was intrigued by the energy level and earnestness of the talk. I would creep out of bed and lie out of sight in the bedroom hall to listen. I heard words like Hitler, Nazis, Roosevelt, the Pope, Catholics and Protestants. Eventually my eavesdropping was discovered and I was ushered off to bed. I knew something bad had happened to Jews but it took place somewhere else, at a different time, and I felt reasonably safe. Likewise on my 5th or 6th birthday, my Uncle Paul and my father started me on my lifelong hobby of stamp collecting and because my parents spoke German, stamps from Germany took on a special importance. I remember sticking into my book little pictures of the bad man I had heard about, Hitler, and attaching a colorful series of stamps embossed with swastikas. These stamps took on a special value to me, as if by hinging them to pages I insured that they couldn't hurt me.
I have struggled to recall when I was first exposed to direct anti-Jewish sentiments. Like children who have buried memories of abuse, there must have been some catalyst which first generated the festering fear of man's cruelty that I still experience today. I know that actual derisive comments by mean-spirited classmates started when I was a pre-teen in Junior High, but by then I had already felt a much greater malevolent, albeit subtle, threat planted in me. It manifested itself as an internal voice that quietly urged me to accept Jesus and Christianity as the true path and reject traditional Judaism. It is possible that the wife of the caretaker of our building, Mrs. De Baer, was a zealot. I think one day she found me playing in the garden by her apartment and told me of the importance of loving Jesus, but I can not be certain. In any case, as an emotionally vulnerable six- or seven-year-old, I lacked the ability to respond. Many other important non-Jewish adults delivered the message in a myriad of ways that it was wrong to be Jewish. Even on television, while changing channels I came upon evangelists preaching to a public which included me. I understood little of what was said, except I felt threatened, almost terrified, by a deep voice in me that told me I was supposed to listen, betray my roots, and give myself up to an obvious truth. Consequently I would rapidly change the channel. Even today I still feel hounded by the voice and therefore have developed a visceral repugnance when I see crucifixes, churches with inane messages marketing faith on their readerboards, Christian bumper stickers, fish car ornaments, or signs attached to trees telling me to "believe" and be "saved." Some evangelicals with whom I have spoken have claimed self-servingly that, what I began to hear as a child is in fact the true voice and love of God. I also have been told that certain coincidences in my life were actually spiritual omens being revealed to me. One thing I do know for certain is that this alleged offering of love which started when I was a child generated both anxiety and guilt throughout my life. Today I see the voice as a virus or a poison embedded in my system which my will has combatted unceasingly all these years.
After reading Christopher Hitchens it seems easy to agree that religion is based on dangerous myth from a more primitive time of human existence, and that it robs people of doing genuine, righteous acts. He suggests that a secular world based on honesty through science and reason is preferable and more applicable for our times. Tonight I ask myself if would I be willing to forfeit the value of the fond childhood memories of my father on Shabbat tearing off pieces of Challa, putting salt on them and, like precious stones, handing the twisted bread to my mother, my sister, and me because I know that the idea of the ceremony is really based on nonsense. Is it worth the sacrifice in order to paint life accurately in logical tones?
It is growing late and my inability to resolve this issue in my mind is beginning to feel toxic so that further consideration best be postponed. Instead it may be time to calm myself and listen on Pandora radio to Vivaldi's exquisitely beautiful Baroque music and sense through its inspiring continuo the praise of God who is forever turning the wheel of the universe. Then again, I could watch the evening news.