My Faith My Way

My husband Ed and I and our family celebrated the beginning of the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah, with dinner at our home. I loved every one at that table so the evening was delicious.

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, is now just a week away; that somber holy day begins on the eve of October 7. On that night, Ed and I will light yarzeit candles for our loved ones who have died and I will recite one of the few Jewish prayers I remember from Hebrew school. Just before sundown of the following day, October 8, Ed and I will go to our synagogue for the Yizkor memorial service. We’ll whisper the mourner’s prayer, I’ll cry, Ed will hold my hand tight, and we’ll leave. It is always hard.

And so, once again I am compelled to reexamine my faith, or the lack of it. And when I do, I think back to one of our younger daughter’s many hospital stays throughout the six years of her illness.

Valerie had been hospitalized at Babies and Children’s Hospital in New York, this time in mid-September 1974 after surgery to remove her right lung because of metastatic bone cancer. The procedure left our bouncy little girl pain-ridden and cranky. Her eating habits were always poor but this latest assault to her body suppressed what slight appetite remained. So, when she wanted Oreos, I raced to the cafeteria — Oreos by choice, though any cookies would do, nutrition be damned.

In a rush to return to Val with the cookies in hand, I took a shortcut. And, as often happens with shortcuts, this one turned into a drawn-out route through the main lobby of the hospital. On that accidental tour, I passed the hospital’s chapel.

A weary-looking woman, her sweater stretched tight over a very pregnant belly, was walking through the doorway. Never noticing the chapel before, I slowed down and peeked in. A narrow line of ten or twelve polished wooden pews ran the length of the room. Up front stood an unadorned altar. The chapel lights, turned low, cast a hazy, quiet authority over the interior and forced me to consider, anew, all things theological.

Brought up as an Orthodox Jew, I had attended Hebrew school at a conservative synagogue in Connecticut to prepare for my Bat Mitzvah, the ceremony symbolizing religious responsibility for a Jewish girl. I rebelled when I was twelve and began to torture my father with an infinite number of complaints delivered in a whiny voice. He gave in before long and I was allowed to quit. No Hebrew school, no Bat Mitzvah.

I cracked a bit of Dad’s heart with that decision but it healed quickly. He loved me too much. Yet, whenever Bat Mitzvahs were mentioned, he’d look at me and shake his head from side to side, the religious slight bringing a sad smile to his face.

While not confirmed as a Bat Mitzvah, I held a fixed belief in God: my father’s God; the God of the bible stories I read incessantly as a younger child; and the God who answered all my prayers — if my father or my older brother Stan didn’t get there first. Naïve? Perhaps. But the bible stories I grew up on, in those beautiful, oversized, full-color books I read while stretched out on the living room floor, were food for a child’s thought. Add to that, an interminable religious service followed by a raucous holiday dinner with my aunts, uncles, and cousins squeezed in around a huge dining room table, filled the very air with love and warmth. Even a youngster is touched by that.

Moving from the many to the few, my immediate family, close-knit but small, included my grandmother who lived in the apartment across the hall from us. Her daughter Edna, my mother, had died at 42 when I was not quite 10 years old and my father, my big brother Stan, and Granny — my wonderful though lopsided family — doted on and nurtured me throughout my growing years.

When he was twenty-six, however, my brother was critically injured in a car accident, and remained unconscious in a New York hospital until his death six hours later. I prayed. Oh, how I prayed for his recovery, but although Dad and I were at Stan’s bedside throughout his ordeal, he never awakened. My brother was unable to hear our last goodbyes. That night, in that hospital, I lost my best friend.

Belief-altering? Oh yes. Stan’s death did that. And so, in a meteoric turn around, the believer within me vanished and I withdrew from anything based on faith.

In contrast, my family’s secular values had settled easily into place as did my ample supply of optimism and tolerance regardless of circumstances. I believed religion was no longer needed.

As time passed, despite a persistent uneasiness about my religious views, I came to trust in the best part of the individual. Set in motion one by one, and multiplied by the vast numbers of humankind, the essential quality of goodness resides at the core of our humanity. Reality sometimes denies this, I know, but I tend to ignore that.

At any rate, confidence in the individual core held sway over my father’s omnipotent, unknowable God. To me, that God, supposedly benevolent, often appeared to lack mercy. When questioned, Dad and others with a religious bent responded to personal and worldwide horrors with a sigh and the explanation, “It is God’s will.” I had never been able to grasp the concept behind that statement. A doctrine about individually controlled human behavior made more sense to me. I understood that.

By and by, in searching for further details to structure my earthly opinions, I came across the Hebrew concept of Tzedakah, a charitable conviction that includes a variety of practices from giving aid and money to offering a smile or a courtesy. It’s an obligation that rests on rich and poor alike and requires respect for everyone. Thus, we give of ourselves and get back from others, maybe twofold if we’re lucky. It’s beautifully circular, it sits at our core, and is not such a bad formula to live by, whether a believer or not.

Years later, with Valerie seriously ill, I knew I had tried throughout my life to be helpful to others, to be as humane as possible, and to give what I could, when I could. And so, after Val’s lung surgery, I found myself calling for — praying to?— someone, something, to give back to me, and deliver my daughter from her dreadful illness. Divine intervention? My father’s God? Fine. I simply needed it done.

And so, like a wartime soldier alone in a dank and dirty foxhole, the disbeliever in me stepped back, just a little, just in case, and left open the possibility of a tender force hovering above and around. Help, however, did not arrive.

We lost Valerie in 1976 when she was nine, and in 2001, our surviving child, Stacy, died at thirty-seven after a twelve year battle with breast cancer.

If asked, I would have replied that my position on religion had hardened even further. As it turned out, it had only altered somewhat. Times change, beliefs bend, and thoughts become carefully, if minimally, modified.

Today, I recognize that I am clearly in doubt about an omnipotent being watching over us, but no doubt exists in my mind that I will be together with my daughters, my husband, and all my loved ones some day. Furthermore, I know that my father is watching me from above in all instances religious or otherwise. Is that spiritual? Or is it personal history and Jewish tradition coming to the fore?

The Hebrew concept of Tzedakah, the Yizkur prayers recited on the holidays, the special yahrzeit candles lit in memory of Stacy and Valerie and our other loved ones, the dinners with our family celebrating the Jewish holidays, and my effort to ensure that they all happen — a need I am somehow unable to resist — unites me with my religion and connects me to a faith that although it curves away from my father’s orthodoxy, remains embedded in my psyche. I am comfortable with that.

Yet I am curious about that pregnant woman in the chapel; and my thoughts shift back to that day, but not for the first time.  I have wondered about her over the years as the questions continue to pop up one by one. Who had she been visiting: her sick child, a young relative? Did she have strong religious beliefs? What were they? Did those beliefs help her through the tough times? Or was the chapel merely a calm spot in a chaotic universe? I should have asked her back then, in 1974. 

                                                        Sue Goldstein


Suzann B. Goldstein lives with her husband Ed and a tree named Buster, (12/1/2010 post, A Half-baked Story About a Crazy Dog and a Nutty Squirrel. Source:  Sue is co-founder of The Valerie Fund, has her Master of Arts degree in medical sociology from Rutgers University in New Jersey, is a freelance writer and poet, and has just recently completed her memoir, Unexpected Lives.