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Belief, or, How I became an Honorary Jew

 

 

 

 

Now a big rewind, all the way back to the Fifties, an era so distant that even from my perspective events that occurred then have a slightly dream-like and mythical air.

 

I was born into a family that had just become Methodist. In my town, (pop around 6000 souls) if you hadn't the grace to be born Catholic, there were two choices availiable, two white clapboard churches across the street from one another. One was Baptist, one was Methodist. We had become Methodist, as my mother once explained to me, because my father's family, who were urban people, had been Lutheran, and the Baptists were too small town and strict; no card playing on Sunday, that sort of thing. It was the first of many such compromises for my parents.

 

The Methodist church in those days was a nice middle-of-the road rural church, but the little boy I was could not have cared less about such subtle distinctions. I was passionately romantic about most things, and religion was no exception. I thrilled to such hymns as 'Are ye able'- Are ye able, said the Master, to be crucified with me? Aye, the sturdy dreamers answered, to the death we follow thee.. Well, it was between one World War and a Police Action in Korea, so you make allowances. Good thing I was too young to enlist and they weren't recruiting potential suicide bombers at the time. The family legend was that I used to take my bible to the dinner table with me- the book I remember had a red cover, so was probably just the New Testament, but still I would have been ripe for any kind of a crusade. Fortunately again, our Minister was far from the Fire and Brimstone kind ; what I remember of his sermons seemed mostly to deal with communiy matters and repairs to the Church roof.

 

I was also, from a very early age, an avid reader. To set the stage for what followed, you have to understand that my family was not, to put it mildly, a very literate one. No one paid the least attention to what I read, and when I discovered the folklore section of the library and started bringing home books about witchcraft and magic there was absolutely no one to discuss them with. At first, there was the thrill of the forbidden, reading about really evil people. Only as time went one, a different sort of picture emerged. I read 'Witchcraft' by the French historian Jules Michelet, a brilliant diatribe against the witch persecutions In Medieval Europe. Later, from my Mother, I learned that I was distantly related to a man named Cotton Mather, the puritan cleric who headed the Salem witch trials. Shock! Horror! My sleepy little small town Church was in fact little better than an arm of the notorious Inquisition itself!

 

It was no help that during this period I had entered Puberty and was consequently filled with yearnings that only the most broad minded would term religious. Now, some in my position would have simply become atheists- one of my classmates in High School so styled himself. I however was not one for namby pamby half measures, then or later. I decided I was a Satanist. I drew a life-sized portrait of Lucifer and defiantly tacked it up on my bedroom wall. What my parents thought I have no idea; probably like most parents in the fifties they assumed I would grow out of it. I made voodoo dolls, stuck them full of pins and hung them from the curtain rods in my room, and made a cover for Michelet's book that featured an upside down cross with a toad crucified on it.

 

Now, I have to admit that the closest I came to actually doing anything wrong was breaking into the town library one weekend to return an overdue book. In the world of my imagination, however, it was a different thing. There were no Goths, New Age Witches, or Neo Pagans to hang out with as none of these groups had been invented yet and I had missed Aleister Crowley and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn by a generation, but I wasn't for a moment going to let that stop me. I had been bilked and lied to, and I was having my own private crusade, striking back in the only way I knew how.

 

All of this could seem amusing and perhaps pathetic looking back, and perhaps it was, but the darkness growing inside me was no joke. It was at this juncture, when I was all of seventeen, that the local branch of the Explorer Scouts of which I was a member planned a canoe trip to Algonquin Park.

 

The park was a vast tract of wilderness in Central Ontario, a series of Glacier lakes separated by portage trails and more or less virgin forest. Most of the trip remains in my memory a blur of sunburn, paddling across deep blue lakes and making camp, carrying the canoes over rocky trails to the next lake and starting all over again. A blur, as I say; except for one particular morning.

 

I had woken up earlier than the others. It was that hushed time before dawn when sun was just lightening the sky, and a fine mist was rising from the lake behind me. On impulse, probably because I had been with a crowd of other boys for days, I decided to explore the portage trail we would be taking later that day. I remember scrambling over a rocky pathway trying to be as quiet as possible, and having to watch where I put my feet so that  I was actually at the shore of the next lake before I looked up and saw the stag. I can still see him.

 

The park was of course a game preserve, and equally humans were no big news, so there was probably no reason why he should have feared me. I didn't think of that. I stood frozen, up to my ankles in the shallows of the lake and we...looked at each other.

 

In my memory the moment seems to last forever, but it was probably only a short time before he calmly nodded his head, the wide antlers glinting, turned and disappeared into the woods.

 

While I've sat here, trying to find the words to describe how I felt at that moment, my cup of tea has gone cold and the clock on my bedroom wall that tells the phases of the moon has moved another notch towards the second crescent. So I will pass on, only remarking that once, many years later I felt something similar. It was in Venice, in St. Mark's Basilica at Christmas, during Midnight Mass. At a certain point in the service, they turn on the lights that illuminate the gold encrusted ceiling, and that whole vast gloomy mausoleum becomes in an instant a blaze of glory.

 

When I met my present wife for the first time, one of the first things she told me was that she was Jewish. This is, as those of you with Jewish friends may know, a multilevel revelation. It asks among other things, Is my being Jewish a problem for you ? It also draws a line, for Judaism unlike many other faiths does not actively seek converts. Being Jewish is not a simple matter of learning the dogma, but rather a whole social identity, a racial history, which the outsider may learn to appreciate but can never share. I liked that. I was weary of being asked what I believed and of being told what I should believe. It was a private matter to me, and I respected what I sensed was a similar privacy.

 

Our wedding was typical. We got a group of musicians with medieval instruments to play the theme from the movie 'Legend', the hall was lit with candle sconces I had designed along with the rings we exchanged. Then, at the end of the blessing, I took the glass goblet I had spent hours engraving with our flowers, a lily and a rose, wrapped it in a napkin and crushed it underfoot as is done in a traditional Jewish wedding, while the congregation shouted 'Mazel Tov!'

 

I did not try to convert but I figured having my vasectomy reversed was a fair exchange for not being circumcised; I was in bed for three days afterward. Over time I picked up some necessary Yiddish, as well as honing my sense of humor ( a necessary attribute for our marital repartee). My love of tools and fixing things remained a family joke – so goyishe, my wife would say whenever I rewired a lamp instead of going out and buying a new one like any sensible person. My wife's family were not Observant- that is, did not attend Synagogue, and my Father-in-Law was an atheist. When we lived in America, however, we observed Passover with him, and later on, after moving to Britain we celebrated Hanukkah every year as well as singing carols in church. My Autistic son can still recite the prayer over the Menorah, the nine branched candleholder, at top speed with one eye on the Hanukkah Gelt, the foil wrapped candies given out on each night of the festival.

 

One time I had to fill out one of those interminable questionnaires that asks for your religious affiliation. 'What do you think I should put,' I asked my wife.

 

'Tell them you're a tsdik goy,' she said.

 

'What's that?' I asked

 

' It means you're an Honorary Jew.' she explained, straight faced.

 

During the wedding rehearsal my mother is reported to have turned to the woman next to her, a complete stranger, and whispered, ' His grandfather must be turning over in his grave.'

 

The woman, who happened to be my wife's stepmother, replied sweetly, 'So is hers'

 

Tant pis, as the French say.

 

 

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