What would Jesus think? I wonder as we inch forward along the Vatican's crowded maze of gilded corridors and rooms. Our tall, blonde tour guide explains tirelessly in her melodious, cultured Italian accent the significance of every Raphael and Caravaggio. Would Jesus view this excessive treasure as a measure of his followers' adoration, or would he admonish the Pope how hard it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?
When we finally arrive at the Sistine Chapel, I'm counting on Michelangelo's famed ceiling to transform my cynicism into awe. I'm also dying to sit down—my feet are killing me. The benches along the two side walls of the chapel are full, but there's enough space for one more rear end on a couple of wide steps towards the front, where a group of school children sit. Separating from my husband and daughter, I claim the spot and look around.
Amidst the chattering din, tourists take pictures with slim digital cameras, their arms fully extended as if hailing Caesar while a female voice insists over the loud speaker that talking and taking pictures are not allowed, and young guards in red uniforms scurry about shouting, "Uscita." ("Get out.") Disneyland, I think, has its crowds more under control.
I look up to search for the finger of God reaching towards Adam's, sensing vaguely that the back of my head is grazing something thick and cordlike. A second later, someone is yelling in Italian. I straighten my head to see who: a guard, in front of me, pointing behind me to a life size painted wooden sculpture of Jesus on the Cross.
Embarrassed that my head was touching the rope which separates the statue from the rest of the chapel, I jump up and tell the guard I'm sorry. But he shouts louder and faster and waves his arms around. Defensive that my apology isn't enough, I tilt my head towards the children next to me, as if to ask why he isn't demanding that they get up, too. He yells something about bambini.
My daughter Hana, in Rome for the spring semester of her junior year in college, stands a few feet away, looking like she wishes I wouldn't cause a scene.
"Okay," I say to the guard. "Enough."
I expect him to kick me out of the chapel with an "Uscita!" But he only glares at me, then turns around and walks off.
Hana approaches. "Mom, shine it on."
She's right. I should. He's just a silly, officious jerk. But I feel like running after him, tapping him on his gold-buttoned shoulder and spitting in his face the same words I heard my grandmother hiss some fifty years ago: "A fire on ze."(You should burn.)
Back at our apartment, I put up my feet and attempt to fathom why Grandma Geller's curse rose up like hot acid in my throat. Did I feel unfairly accused of offending the sacred image of Jesus? Or did my oblivion to the statue indicate long held, darker feelings towards Christianity that have been triggered during our week of sightseeing? For while I enjoyed the Borghese Gardens, the Piazza del Populo, The Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon and the Forum, it did give me pause to learn that the Coliseum was built by 20,000 Hebrew slaves; that the synagogue in the Jewish Ghetto wasn't built until the early 20th century, after 2000 years of persecution against the Jews in Rome; and that it's the Jewish Museum's mission today to teach Italian school children that despite Michelangelo's sculpture of Moses, Jews do not have horns.
I was eight when I peeked into my friend's parents' bedroom on my way to play in her backyard and saw a dark brown cross mounted on peach floral wall paper above the double bed, a nearly naked man nailed to it, blood dripping down his sad face and oozing from his punctured wrists and ankles.
"Who's that above your parents' bed"
My friend's ash blonde curls bounced as she descended the steps leading into her yard. "Jesus," she said without turning her head, as casually as if he were a member of her family.
I wondered how her parents could fall asleep every night lying beneath such a scary thing. I felt lucky to be Jewish. We didn't have anything like that in our house.
I was mildly defensive about my religion two years later, when, on the first night at Girl Scout camp, two tent mates got down on their knees before getting into bed, rested their elbows on their cots and put their palms together. One of them, a long dark braid trailing down her back, asked my girlfriend and me in an accusatory tone why we didn't kneel and pray, too. I explained that we were Jewish. She eyed us suspiciously. I felt unjustly accused and decided she was dumb.
Being angry at a Christian, however, didn't occur to me until six months later, when my father drove my mother, brother and grandmother up the North End to see Christmas decorations which were taboo in our house, although my father, in order to attract customers to his men's clothing store during the most potentially profitable month of the year, allowed red and green balls to lay on fake snow in his display windows; scallops of silver and gold tinsel to hang above suit racks; and Bing Crosby, piped in from the hi-fi in the back office, to croon about chestnuts roasting on an open fire.
I averted my gaze from the nativity scenes the same way, per our Rabbi's instructions, whenever we sang Christmas carols at school, I only mouthed phrases like "the little Lord Jesus" or "...our dear Savior's birth." But since the rainbow-colored bulbs outlining the roofs, windows and snowy lawns of the post war bungalows had no religious significance, I allowed myself to delight in them. When I pointed out a particularly cheerful Santa to my grandmother, who sat next to me in the back seat and who had said nothing about the reindeers, the mangers or the magi, she narrowed her eyes behind the spectacles resting on her high cheek bones and muttered, "fire on ze."
I didn't need to know much Yiddish to understand her. Not singing "Christ the Lord" was one thing, wanting Santa and these houses to burn was quite another. What about the people who lived in them? Did she want them to burn, too?
Grandma Geller had immigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts—she pronounced it Nev Bedforchd, the "ch" a guttural sound—in 1921 from the tiny village of Byan, Poland, where she had lived in a one room farmhouse with her husband and five children. (Her sixth child, a fourth son, was born in New Bedford a few years later.) My mother, the second oldest, told me many times about the Russian soldiers during World War I who stormed into their house in the middle of the night and kicked them out of their beds so they could sleep in them. My brother Billy (who insisted he heard it from my mother, who insisted in turn that she never told him any such thing) told me how those same soldiers, or maybe different soldiers on a different night, took turns raping Grandma while her children looked on; how Grandma locked eyes with her children while the soldiers assaulted her, as if to say, Look at me. I'm living through this. So can you.
Whether or not this story is true, Grandma Geller, who adored America immediately upon her arrival, carried across the Atlantic her experiences in Poland which forever colored the lens through which she saw Gentiles, or, as she called them with varying amounts of disdain, "Goyim."
But was it my duty to hate them, too? Why would I? I was living in the land of the free and the peaceful, snug as a bug in a rug in the middle of the 20th century in a middle class New England neighborhood of extended Jewish families in which the few gentile families who lived among us seemed happy enough.
Even the specter of the recent holocaust didn't scare me. Yes, my parents refused to buy German products. And yes, the sermons from our Rabbi warned against assimilation—look what happened to the German Jews who considered themselves Germans first. And yes, there was Uncle Velvl, a short, stout man with a handsome face, booming voice, and hands so strong that it hurt whenever he pinched my cheek. He had lived in a hole in the ground in a Polish backyard for two years during the holocaust. But whatever horrors he had experienced, including the murder of his wife and children, his brother, sister-in-law and their children, he not only survived the nightmare, he subsequently thrived—remarried, became the landlord of several triple decker working class houses, spent winters in Miami and was crazy about America, his pet parakeet and life itself.
When I left the confines of our neighborhood two years later to enter junior high, where Jews were a small minority, I soon learned that it took only a friendly attitude to be accepted. In high school, I got the Brotherhood Award not only because (I like to think) in an effort to be popular, I said "hi" to every student I passed in the corridors in between classes, even those whom I dimly recognized; but because, despite my early conditioning, I saw everyone as essentially equal.
In college, I hated how the fraternity system striated and segregated the student population by class and religion. I lasted less than a year in a Jewish sorority, chronically uncomfortable with the nouveau riche suburbanites whose bobbed noses looked all too alike. By the time I graduated, the sixties were in full bloom, and my tribe had become all those under thirty who were ready to challenge convention. When a Midwesterner named Moses whom I met on a nine month back packing trek from London to Jerusalem offered me his heavy gold crucifix to wear for protection on my travels, I blithely wore it around my neck for several weeks until I lost it in Athens.
For years after that, as a modern dancer and choreographer in New York and Los Angeles, I was no less conventional or bound by my Jewish identity. And I have never been clannish. To this day, some of my best friends are Episcopalian.
And yet, it seems that Grandma Geller managed to embed her rage in me that night up in the North End, and like a land mine left over from a previous war, it has been waiting to explode if someone were to step on it the wrong way.
The morning after our Vatican tour, we take the train to Naples and drive along the Amalfi Coast to Positano. Relieved to spend the weekend in this peaceful fishing village with its sun baked orange, red and golden houses hanging off its hillsides, I welcome the respite from Rome and my ruminations.
That afternoon, an hour before we take the ferry to Capri, I knock on the door of Hana's room to see if she's ready. She's wearing a bright orange dress with a green and white checkered kuffiyeh around her neck. She bought it in Amsterdam during spring break and showed it to us when we first got to Rome. It was the newest fashion, she said, so pretty and so warm.
I reminded myself of the Bedouin dress I had bought in the Old City of Jerusalem at 23, not much older than she is now. I didn't connect it with the rockets fired from Lebanon to Kiryat Shimona, three kilometers north of the kibbutz where I lived and worked for three months. If my mother had objected to my buying it, I would have considered her narrow minded and provincial.
But now that I see the kuffiyeh around Hana's neck, I have to say something. "Listen, I know that for you this is just a trendy scarf, but to daddy and me, it can be interpreted as a statement of solidarity with the Palestinians. And even though we are not unsympathetic to their cause, most of them consider every Jew their enemy and want them dead."
"That's ridiculous. This has nothing to do with that."
When Hana turned seven, although I hadn't been to temple for years except on High Holidays, I told my husband that I wanted to join a synagogue so that she could receive a Jewish education. Perhaps from the role model of my own childhood, I wanted her to have a clear religious identity, even if she rejected it someday. When, a year before her Bat Mitzvah, she wrote in a school autobiography, "I am Jewish on both sides all the way back," I thought I had done my job.
But when she was a junior in high school, as I stood in the doorway of her bathroom while she brushed her teeth, washed her face and passed a round moist pad over each eye lid to remove her eye makeup, she turned to me and said, "I've decided that all organized religions are bad. They cause wars."
I was struck by her insightfulness, that she saw the problems inherent in being suspicious of people different from her. "You're right...that's true." My husband and I had raised her to respect 'diversity,' were pleased when at three, after we asked her which "Susie Secrets" doll she wanted—the blonde blue eyed version or the African American one—she lifted the latter off the shelf at FAO Schwartz and said, "She's prettier."
But then words from a more vestigial part of my brain spilled out: "Just don't forget you're a Jew."
"Arrgh. I'm never talking to you about this again."
"I'm sorry. I can't help myself."
Four years later, shortly after arriving in Rome, she told me that she'd seen enough churches to last a life time, that she hadn't realized how 'Catholic' Rome was, that her 'History of Medieval Rome' was a history of the Catholic Church, and that she chose to write her paper for the course on "Jews in Rome," which turned out to be the history of Jewish persecution in Rome. I guess she still knows who she is, I thought. It didn't keep her from wearing this kaffiyeh, though, did it?
"Do me a favor. Don't wear it around me."
"Fine," she says and whips it off, her face tight with anger.
The three of us ride the ski lift up the mountain in Capri, each of us in our own chair, dangling our feet above vineyards and gardens, turning to wave at each other like kids on an amusement park ride.
At the top, immense grey cliffs drop sharply from blue skies into the Mediterranean. We get a drink at the sole small cafe. A group of Hebrew speaking tourists sits at a table next to us. I say softly to Hana, "They must be Israelis."
"Good thing I didn't wear my scarf, huh?"
I don't care if she's being facetious. But I do ask myself why I feel so compelled to remind her over and over again: You are a Jew. You are a Jew. You are a Jew. Whoever you associate with, identify with, in the end that is who you are; and the world will see you and treat you as such. Am I afraid that she won't be safe unless she knows who her enemies are? Or do I simply want to keep her in the fold?
I recall the flight home from Israel when I was 23. An elderly Greek/Israeli woman sitting next to me asked how I had liked living there. I said that I had felt comfortable, that maybe I would return in a couple of years if by then I hadn't created a satisfying life for myself in America.
She leaned in closer and pinched the skin of my forearm. "See this flesh," she said. "It is the same as my flesh."
Her passionate statement of kinship both thrilled and threatened me. Just as I had sensed in my Uncle Velvil's assault on my cheek the hunger of a childless father for young flesh between his fingers, I felt in this woman's pinch the urgency to claim me as one of hers. Something in me pulled away. I was determined to define my identity for myself. Why can't I let my daughter do the same thing? Am I afraid that if she strays from the tribe, she will end up too far from me?
Several months later, I attend a funeral for a friend's mother in a golden-stoned Spanish style Catholic church in Santa Monica, California. After my friend delivers a moving eulogy; and a soprano sings a few hymns, her voice resonating beneath the gentle Romanesque arches, the priest invites all those wishing to take Communion to form a line leading up to the altar. Just as I think, that would not be me, he adds that this church recognizes other religions and that if we are from another spiritual tradition, we are welcome to come forward and receive his benediction. "Just put your hand over your heart. I will not offer you a cracker. I will only say a blessing."
While I consider whether to accept his invitation, a Jewish friend in the pew in front of me turns around. "What do you think?"
The priest seems genuine. Who am I to spurn a blessing?
"Let's give it a try."
As we approach the altar, I worry that the priest won't see my hand over my heart and will offer me a cracker. I will have to shake my head and say no thank you, and the moment would be awkward for both of us. When it's my turn, however, he doesn't miss a beat. "May God grant you serenity," he says, reminding me of the benediction our Rabbi used to give the congregation at the end of Sabbath services when I was a child.
And yet, I can't help but wonder what he really thinks about those who don't believe that Jesus died for their sins. Doesn't he think that they will spend eternity in hell? Isn't that why Christians are so eager to convert—why the Jehovah Witnesses ring my bell so often; and why, when I was twenty-five and had a fight with my boyfriend in Berkeley, stormed out of the house, got as far as the corner, sat down on the curb to hear the yearning voices of a gospel choir spilling out from an Ephesian church, a stout woman, a big black straw hat atop her head, held the front door open and said, "Why don't you come on inside, child?"
My eyes red, slumped over in my t-shirt, jeans and sandals, I must have been the picture of someone in need of saving. "No thanks. I'm okay right here."
"Jesus loves you, you know."
"I know he does," I said. "But he loves me whether I'm sitting in there or sitting out here."
And I still believe that. Wouldn't Jesus, be he teacher, prophet or the Messiah, love me whether I'm a Jew, Baptist or Muslim? I have trouble with the line, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me (John 14:6)." It implies that Christians have a lock on the truth and that the gates of Heaven are barred to everyone else. Aren't all religions different means of connecting with the divine? I once asked a friend who, although born Jewish, converted to Christianity after she married a Christian, if she really thought that every Jew, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, etc. was going to end up in hell.
"I understand your point," she said, but she didn't back down. When I asked her husband the same question, he said not to worry, that we'd all get another chance to accept Jesus when he came again at the end of days.
Hana tells me over the phone from New York, where she's lived since graduating from college, that a young couple approached her in a book store and asked if she were Christian.
"They were probably trying to convert you."
"I told them that I was brought up Jewish, but if I had to say what religion I am, I would say that I'm a Buddhist.
"You're a Buddhist now?"
She's been meditating since college, which I have encouraged—I've been meditating for decades—but I didn't know she was shifting her religious identity around. I recall how I explored Eastern religions when I lived in New York in my twenties, read books by Alan Watts and Ram Dass, spent a weekend in an upstate Ashram with Baba Muktananda and another in the South Carolina retreat of Meher Baba who looked in photos like my father who had passed away when I was twenty. I remember an older cousin, after hearing about Meher Baba, saying to another family member, "We've lost her."
"That's okay. There are plenty of Jewish Buddhists. They call them 'Jubus.' Now if you told me you found Jesus, I'd tear my hair out of my head."
The next day, I have breakfast with Sally, one of my closest friends and Hana's godmother. Although Sally can trace her ancestry back to the Mayflower and could, if she cared to, be a member of the D.A.R., she converted to Judaism from Presbyterianism a dozen years ago because her husband Mark is Jewish, and they were already bringing their children up as Jews.
She asks me what's new with Hana. I tell her that she's interested in Buddhism.
Then, because weŝre so close, I tell her what I said about tearing my hair out of my head.
Her blue eyes widen with disbelief. "You said that?"
Will I ever learn to think before I speak? "I'm sorry."
She looks down. Her mouth twitches to the side.
"I've hurt you."
"I'm not hurt. I'm disappointed and a little insulted. It's like Mark. Whenever he watches a baseball game on TV, and a player crosses himself at the plate before a pitch, he waves his hand in disgust and says, 'Aaach.'"
I stifle a smile. Mark's grandmother and mine could have been friends. "Mark and I were children in the 50's, (Sally is 12 years younger) weaned on the holocaust."
"I understand that, but I still find the position trauma-based."
Sally's a psychotherapist; hence, I guess, the clinical term. Still, how can she reduce 2000 years of persecution to one big post traumatic stress disorder? "It isn't just the holocaust. Anti-Semitism has been intrinsic to Christianity from the beginning. We were Christ-killers from day one, then infidels, then greedy money lenders, then non-Aryans—always, in one way or another, 'the other'."
"I never heard anything anti-Semitic in my church. My minister was very liberal. My grandparents were anti-Semitic and racist, but my parents were not. I was brought up to believe we are all one."
I picture my mother standing in front of the mahogany dresser in her bedroom nearly forty years ago, white with frustration because my brother, Billy, then a junior in high school, was in love with a Protestant girl.
"What if she converted?" I asked my mother.
She shook her head. “Lisbeth, you can take a ham and you can say a blessing over it and you can call it kosher. But it's still a ham. "And I hear her now: You see? What did I tell you?No matter how many Passover Seders, Hannukah parties or Break Fasts Sally has made over the years, she still can't see the world as a Jew.
Along with an inner voice of righteous indignation, insisting that my attitude is justifiable, I hear another one telling me that if I care about resolving this conflict, I must try to see things from Sally's point of view. So I make myself imagine how she feels: For the sake of her husband and their family, she left her own religion for his and considers that conversion an act of broadmindedness, flexibility and generosity. And what does she get in return, from him and from me? Reciprocal acceptance? Respect for her liberal non anti-Semitic parents and their religion? No. She gets snide remarks.
"Maybe it's the entitlement of the persecuted," I concede. "The Palestinians feel the same way about the Israelis, and African Americans about rednecks."
She nods. "That helps—that you see it that way."
We've restored harmony, but what I haven't told her is that I actually do feel "entitled" to my attitude, even in the contemporary pejorative meaning—an unjustified right to selfish behavior. Can I change that attitude? Do I want to?
For weeks, I ruminate: I agree with Sally that we are all one. If I care, then, about my personal evolution, not to mention the well being of the planet and mankind, why am I not seeing Christianity or Islam as just another faith rather than potentially hostile religions whose followers feel the same way about mine? According to the Kabalistic notion of Tikun Olam, we must rise above our own anger in order to assist God in repairing the world. The state of Israel has forgiven Germany for what it did. Why can't I? Why am I clinging to the morsel of bitterness against tribal enemies that I was fed as a child? Have I become my parents and grandparents? Or am I still fundamentally the dutiful daughter, afraid to separate from the tribe? Do I fear that if ever I let go of what was done to Uncle Velvila's family (not to mention six million others) that my ancestors would feel so betrayed that they would recite kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) for me from their graves even as I recite it for them?
Two months later, I'm sitting on a zafu, a small, black meditation cushion in a loft in New York's East Village. Hana, sitting on my right, has invited me, since I'm visiting her for a few days, to come to this meditation class with her. She wants me to meet her teacher, who she thinks is "very cool." He is. In his early thirties, with short brown hair, a sensitive, intelligent face and a quiet, impressive command of language, he's the perfect blend of New York hipness and Boddhisatva humility. I muse while I meditate that every young woman in the room probably has a crush on him.
A chime rings, signaling that meditation is over. I blink my eyes open. I feel calmer and more peaceful, a state which lasts for the rest of the night. I recall what Hana said when I asked her on the way to class why she is attracted to Buddhism: "It doesn't require that you believe in God. And it reduces suffering and increases compassion" How can I argue with that?
Two weeks later, I stand in synagogue on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when Jews fast and ask God to forgive them for every possible transgression, from stealing to speaking in a harsh tone. We are chanting "The Thirteen Attributes of God," according to which, God is all compassionate, merciful and forgiving. If God made man in His own image, I think, shouldn't we emulate and cultivate these attributes in ourselves?
Far more compelling than my interpretation of the prayer, however, is my experience of it. Every note of the minor key melody and every Hebrew syllable express a three thousand year old ache. This, I think, is how Jews sing the blues. Our voices transport me from where I am standing next to my husband and hundreds of other Los Angeles Jews to my childhood synagogue, where I stand next to my parents, who are standing next to their parents, the men wrapped in talisim (prayer shawls), some covering their heads with them, as though sheltering themselves in their private tents while they sway and beseech God in ancient Hebrew for whatever will give them peace. And our voices carry me further back in time, all the way to the foot of Sinai, where I stand among a people who are surrendering their hearts to a power we cannot see—"Adonai!, Adonai!"—but who, we fervently hope, can see us.
That I am a member of this tribe is as unchangeable as the color of my eyes. Whether I cling to or cast off Grandma Geller's curses at Christmas decorations or my father's abhorrence of German products or my mother's terror at the thought of one of her children marrying a Gentile, on this day, at least, I am home.
Hana is not standing next to me. Nor is she at temple in New York. She's so uninterested in Judaism and its High Holidays that she hasn't taken the day off from work. I wonder if her DNA will ever express itself in such a way that she will want to attend Yom Kippur services. What if this Buddhism business is more than a phase?
Over the next few months, I read books by Pema Chodron, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Jack Kornfield, a leading American Buddhist teacher. When my husband and I learn that Jack will hold a half day workshop of storytelling, teachings and meditation practices in a Methodist church in Santa Monica, we decide to go.
Before Jack begins, the blonde 50ish woman next to me excuses herself to stretch her legs, murmuring that she has too many childhood memories of sitting for long hours on uncomfortable pews; and I realize that most of the 600 people gathered here were raised as either Christians or Jews. Here we now sit, shoulder to shoulder, Jesus' image engraved in stained glass in the church's apse while we listen to the slight, balding, middle aged, Jewish-born Buddhist on the podium who suggests to us in a voice both ironic and kind, through guided meditations, amusing and poignant stories from contemporary thinkers and ancient sages, that we all know suffering and we all know joy, that we're all on this ride together and that the only way to get through it is with a heart open to our own experiences and each other's.
After three hours of listening and meditating and sometimes laughing with this congregation—if that is what we are—my heart feels gently but genuinely cranked open. I wish Jack could be my Rabbi. Maybe I'm a Jubu, too, I think. After all, I wrap a tallis around my shoulders every morning before I watch my breath for thirty minutes.
But whether I ever become a Bodhisattva or take another meditation class, I am reassured that I can be at home not only in the familiar, close quarters of a people who have wandered through deserts, wailed against a wall, endured pogroms and near annihilation; but also in a more open, airy space to which everyone is invited and from which no one is exiled. Perhaps I can make the distinction between honoring a tradition and protecting a tribe—remembering fondly how my mother circled her hands above the Shabbas candles before she prayed, while understanding the confusion of a ten year old Girl Scout who wanted me to kneel down and pray to Jesus with her. Perhaps I could re-envision the Vatican guard who reprimanded me a couple of years ago as a young man struggling to control a throng of tourists who were treating the place like an amusement park. At the very least, perhaps I could heed Hana's advice and shine him on.
Lisbeth Davidow’s writing has appeared in Pilgrimage, Alligator Juniper and Prime Mincer. Her essay, “Separation Anxiety” was nominated to be included in The Best Creative Nonfiction, Volume 2. She co-wrote Ryan and Angela, an original screenplay, for Universal Pictures and edited and assisted in writing Women in Family Business: What Keeps You Up at Night?