Finding my religion, Life, Memories

I wouldn’t classify myself as a very religious person. That has bad connotations nowadays. Spiritual, yes. Religious? That’s relative. There was a time when religion was the only solace in my life. A time when going to Hebrew School allowed me to excel at something and gave me balance in my life. The stories, the learning, the knowledge, the positive feedback…I loved it. Especially the songs. Going to services. Leading services. It was one of the more fulfilling times in my life. I’ve always done my best to keep to my religion as much as I could, as much as I felt was appropriate—to the level that fulfilled me and fit with my thoughts and beliefs.

When I was 17 I went to college and really enjoyed the communal emphasis they brought to religion. In a group setting I really enjoyed the fact that I could share something I loved with so many other people. That I wasn’t made fun of for being spiritual or keeping to my own personal beliefs in what I did. If anything, people were supportive and admiring. The positive reinforcement really helped. However, I was also a little more independent by this time and it wasn’t all so necessary. I loved the rhythm I got into with things. Fridays I’d limit my class load, make sure I was home early afternoon, clean up my place, rest up, shower and listen to some good music, then dash off to services, and a free dinner.

Those Fridays made every week day bearable. It had always been that way. In high school I had looked forward to every Friday night with a yearning that started the moment I woke Monday and only increased as I strove toward my goal. Even in middle school, when Friday nights were reserved to family time, though at first I resented it (though only mildly), the feelings soon gave way to a reverence and respect to the night. Like the few other necessities in my life—books and music…Friday nights kept me sane.

It wasn’t always like this. When I was 8 years old, my grandmother died. That all sounds so simple. But it really was the beginning and ending of a lot of things for me. The beginning of religion, and (to buy into the cliche), the end of innocence.

I had been at her house. It was toward the end of summer. I remember this because my sister and I had just gone to Toys ‘R Us with my uncle. He had been promising us for weeks that he would buy us new folders for school. Sure, it was a little premature, but we were kids. We were excited and we wanted them now. I remember we got to Toys ‘R Us and I picked out a somewhat flimsy purple-ish notebook that was slightly poofy on the outside. It’s odd, I’d always recalled myself as a big tomboy in middle school. I wore such baggy clothing and sweaters into high school that I looked like quite the gangsta, when I had my hood on and teachers had me deliver something to an office, administrators would sometimes use a male pronoun, before realizing “he” was a “she.” I’d always taken this as a slight offense against my femininity, but later realized that I shouldn’t have given a damn. But I guess that purple folder proved that even I had my moments. Or perhaps there was a good reason for the change.

On the way back home we stopped by at my grandma’s house, a block and a cross-street away from me. I dashed into the house excited about the notebook. I don’t remember what I was doing, but I do remember I was in a side room, probably watching some television. I left the room to go see my grandma and pidgin to her news about my newest acquisition. (Unfortunately, she didn’t speak much English.) As I left to go over to the room I looked down the hallway and saw, her, my grandma. She was lying on the floor. She looked really bad.

Throughout the summer my grandma had been in and out of hospitals. She had suffered several strokes and had finally been permitted to stay at home in a hospital bed with a nurse attendant for a month or so. I distinctly remember trying to gain access to her hospital room, but not being allowed in except for once, because I was too young. I also shamefully remember making fun of her, years earlier, whenever she sat in our car because the seat would smell funny after she left. I don’t think she ever saw, but my dad did. Throughout the month that she was home with the nurse I would go over every afternoon and help the nurse wash my grandmother. I’d put salve on her bed sores and help the nurse roll her over in the bed. I thought about how weird it was that kids start off in diapers and when you’re really old, you end up in diapers. It was like growing up backwards.

When I saw my grandma lying on the floor that night though, I knew something was very wrong just from the glimpse of her face. My aunt came running out and said she was calling 911. I just stared at her. Then I told her I would call my dad and mom and tell them to come. I ran to the other room and got the phone. Back then the Internet had just come out, and my parents being big programmers had the dialup going. I remember calling and calling to try and reach my parents, but I kept getting a busy signal. I don’t even know what I would have said to my dad. “Hey dad, just wanted to let you know your mom, my Grandma’s, dying”? I guess you don’t plan for those types of things. I just wanted to reach him. I guess I was braver about death back then. Or maybe you can be braver about things you don't really understand. I tried every number we had, panicky.

My memories of these events are spotty, but what I do remember, I remember quite vividly.

The firemen, police and paramedics arrived shortly thereafter. The firemen left and I remember standing at the door while the paramedics rolled in a stretcher and their equipment. They ran into the back room where my grandmother was still on the floor. My parents’ car zoomed up shortly after. I don’t know how they knew to come, I hadn’t reached them, but we didn’t live that far away. My sister and I were shooed into a side room, told to watch television. “I Love Lucy,” one of our favorite shows was on. It was the “pie in the face” episode, where they have shower caps and uniforms on. I can even recall the very scenes I saw that night. One in particular.

But I didn’t want to be stuck in there, watching some television show. I snuck out of the room. No one was watching us.

I stood at the entrance to the hallway leading to my grandma’s room, where she was on the floor. I saw the fireman leaning over her, crouched down by her waist. He had this big white object on top of her chest and he was brutally jerking her body around with large amounts of electrical shock. I saw each shock go through her body, saw her body jump and quiver…and then fall still. Again and again and again. I don’t remember what I did then. I only remember my parents later taking my sister and I home in the car. Them telling us that my grandmother was dead. Telling us we should go home and finish watching “I Love Lucy.”

I couldn’t believe they had said that. I couldn’t believe this had happened. I just sat there stunned, silent, numb. I went home and turned on the television and stared at “I Love Lucy” for the next hour or so. Mostly because I didn’t know what else to do or say. Mostly because I was ashamed. I remembered arriving back home in the driveway, wondering why it was so silent, why I hadn’t even shed a single tear. What was wrong with me?

The next day my sister and I were dropped off at my grandma’s house. In a room full of strangers and lots of catered food. We just sat there and talked with this neighborhood girl who had been recruited by the adults to keep us busy. Later on I found out where everyone else had gone. To the funeral. They didn’t want us to see it. We were too young. I was old enough to watch my grandma die. But not old enough to say goodbye. It didn’t seem right. I hadn’t shed a single tear for her death. I remember going to visit their graves and suddenly becoming overcome with sadness for the death of a grandfather I never knew. But my grandmother’s death never fully hit me. I suppose not until I really thought about it, years later. Make it 12.

After her death my family became a lot more religious. As often happens. Before, we had gone out to eat on Friday nights. We were allowed to hang out with friends and go to parties. After, it was family time. No more. At first, like I said, I was resentful. But in the end, it became one part of the social fabric in my life. Something that I felt strongly about, which completed my own personal identity and beliefs about my self. A tradition I wanted to continue with my own family one day. It did me good—heart and soul.

But then, why is it now after a year in France, where I spent the first 9 months continuing this pattern, do I now go out on Friday nights. I eat out with friends, I go to parties, and I buy non Kosher meat.

I avoid my synagogue like the plague.

It's not that I've lost my spirituality. I just feel…spiritually challenged. I feel so very lost.

So much has happened this year. My faith in a lot of things have been shaken. I still have faith. But it is no longer as strong, unquestioning and uncompromising as it once was.

I despise the social responsibilities of relationships developed in synagogues. I go there to pray. To be close to G-d. To do my thing. Not to catch up on gossip. Not to catch up on the latest news. Not to get a free dinner or lunch. I don’t like playing the games that these things required. I just want to pray, have my peace…settle my spirit…and go on my merry way. Prayer is, to a certain extent, selfish. I despise the way synagogues in many orthodox communities require women to sit above or behind men. I feel demeaned. I feel like I am actively made passive, and forced to remain so. I want to be active. I need to participate in prayer. There’s no sense in pretending. In going to services I cannot find spirituality in and go through the motions of something I find is destroying my feelings toward religion.

But, I also wanted to stop lying. When people asked me how I was doing, how I was feeling. I was lying. How were things at home? How was my family? Fine, normal, the usual, I’d respond. Shitty, I’d want to say.

And here is the question that always haunts me. How can G-d let such horrible things happen in the world to such perfectly good people? Why is there so much poison and hatred and evilness in the world? Why are some people so cruel and selfish? Why must we all grin and bear it, keep on living and keep on lying.

I stopped because I didn’t want to keep living and lying. When I go back home, I hope the level of spirituality and closeness to G-d that governed my own personal life and brought me balance, comes back to me. I hope I can again be free and clear-minded about my feelings on G-d, on religion and on spirituality.

I want it back. I need it back. But not at any cost.

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