Thursday, September 30, 2010

Faced with a Dilemma at 7 or 8... The road not taken

My best friend in childhood was Jewish.  Judy G.  She moved in a bit after we did.  Her family moved into her cousins' house about a block away from our house.  I was glad to see the cousins go.  They had tormented a dog so much that it would try to bite you, even though it was tied up behind a fence.  I used to walk many blocks out of my way to get to Judy's house, just to avoid that dog with its fierce teeth and scary bark.  My brother had been bitten.  That was enough to scare me.

At some point the dog went.  But Judy and her family stayed.

We lived on a corner.  So did she.  So did her grandparents, right across the street from us.  She had wonderful grandparents.  So I ended up with a Jewish Bubbi because of Judy.  And her grandparents - who welcomed me into the family, just as her parents did.  Only now... across the years and knowing things I never really knew then, do I realize they must have known, what I as a kid never knew.   I had a very strange mother (mentally ill, mostly keeping to herself, though she did her best and fed us nutritious meals and put us to bed all too early and made us responsible for household chores... which, if not done to her specifications ... well, let's not go there.)

Judy and her family kept Kosher.  They went to Temple.   Right across from my parochial school.  Judy was learning Hebrew.  Bubbi had a Hebrew primer, from which I tried to learn a bit myself.  But 7 or 8 was probably a bit early to try and learn a language on your own.  Besides... we had Latin.  Masses were totally in Latin.  Not that anyone tried to teach us or anything.... That honestly seemed a bit strange to me.  Especially when Judy and her sister (a bit later) were given so much instruction in Hebrew.  I was kinda jealous about that...

At some point the parents must have made a decision to allow Judy and I to celebrate each other's religious holidays.  Though I mostly recall celebrating with Judy and her family.  Jews had more holidays as I think about it now.  We pretty much only had Christmas or Easter.  But those were 2 days only.  Her holidays weren't only one day long.  They'd last a week at least!  It always seemed to me, as a small child, that Jewish children got a lot more from their religion than we did.   Ours required endless sitting in church... being forced to go to confession, to do endless rosaries, stations of the cross - truly it was excruciating boredom!  How I managed to survive that and end up with "faith" is beyond me!

So here I was in the parochial school.  Walking a mile or more each way.  With short legs...  While Judy and her sister were bussed to the public school, maybe half as far, only, as we had to walk.  Truly the differences between our lives were like night and day.  Now that I think on it.  From the vantage point of many years ago.

In some ways I think I practically got adopted by her family.  Many a time I went with them to visit relatives - all the way to Brooklyn, where they'd moved from, into the cousins house.  Or even out to the ritzy, woodsy setting, where the cousins had moved to.  So with Bubbi and Bubba (I think that's what we called him) and her family near me and the Brooklyn relatives and the cousins, it seems I was enfolded into this Jewish family.  And for all I know it's the reason I am sane today!

So as I say, at some point it must have been decided by the elders to allow me so much time with this Jewish family.  Even though the Catholic Church would likely have frowned on that.  Had they known.  Maybe my father would have frowned on that too.  But he was mostly at work.  Often arriving home long after we were in bed and leaving sometimes before we went to school.  Plus the traveling; he was often away on business for weeks at a time.

So I was blessed with this wonderful introduction to Judaism.  As a young child.  And what's amazing, I think, is how it happened and how much I was able to experience and benefit, especially given what I am about to relate.  For how I squared the two religions is a wonder to me!  Even now.

I was in the second grade when this happened.  With Sister Rose or Rosalie.  I can't recall, since I had two elderly nuns whom I dearly loved as teachers - with similar names.  One in the second grade.  Another in the 6th.  So... one name or the other was teaching me in the second grade.

Picture this.  At the time I am speaking of, Catholic children were made to curtsy to the nuns or to bow, depending on whether you were a girl or a boy.  Plus, we had to kneel for prayers.  During which time the nun could go around, making sure the little girls had uniforms which reached the floor when you were kneeling.  Doesn't make much sense for keeping your skirt clean, but the nuns had their reasons - even if we were only 7 or 8 years old then...

Ok, so first thing in the morning, every morning for years if you attended parochial school, after you'd had the morning prayers and pledged to the flag (mind you, we learned the pledge then without the words "under God" - imagine that!)...  Ok, so right after those two rituals, we had religious instruction.  Always first thing in the day.  Mostly it consisted of reciting answers from the catechism.  "Why did God make you?"  Stuff like that.  There were answers we had to memorize.  And recite.  Perfectly!  Well, I knew what it was to have perfection expected.  And the dire consequences that could follow in the absence of the expected perfection.  So believe you me, I knew my catechism!  Perfectly!

Now, mind you, it was never necessary to understand what you were reciting.  Oh, no!  Just as it was never necessary to understand what you had to say in Latin during the long, boring times when you had to sit in church.  Perfectly quiet!  Unless reciting Latin that made no sense... 

As I've said on other occasions, many things in my childhood left me puzzled.   And I became a pondering child...

So on this particular occasion we were actually learning about something in religion and not just reciting.  Like the times we learned Bible stories.  Moses.  The ark.  Stuff like that.  Well, this morning we were learning about Baptism.  We were told that Baptism, plus all the boring stuff we had to do because we'd been baptized, would ensure us of Eternal Life.  Once we were dead.  After being judged.  Something like Santa and Christmas.  Except it would be forever!  And seemed to require:  Perfection!

Ok, so it was made clear to us that only those who were Baptized Catholic could get to heaven.  Everyone else was going to Hell.

Can you see where this is going???

We were also taught how to baptize.  And we were going to practice it.  The girls were invited to bring their dolls.  And it had been explained to us that while Baptism was normally done in Church (in Latin of course!) we could, in an emergency, do it ourselves.  After practicing, of course.  And guess what?  We were actually taught the words for this:  In English!

So here I am.  A kid whose mother was swift and sure in her punishments.  Many a time... even many times when I didn't even understand why I was being punished.   (I now have a lot of compassion for what it must have been for my mother to be mentally ill, at home by herself - except for my baby sister, sometimes without a spouse for a weeks at time when my dad traveled.)  So, I was 7 or 8.  And naturally a kid gets to view God and the "punishment" that was always being warned (if you didn't obey God's expectations perfectly) as being like a "parent" - after all he was called Father.

So... what was to become of Judy?  And her family?  And Bubbi?  And all the relatives?

This must have seemed a huge burden and worry to me.  But I suspect I focused just on the beloved Judy.  My friend.  My same age!  Never baptized!

What to do?  What to do?

It actually made no sense to me to practice on a doll.  When there was Judy!!!

Don't worry!  It never got that far!!

I was a pretty verbal child.  And I must have been talking to Judy about this.  For all I know I'd been talking to her mother or Bubbi.  For after all, this was a huge, huge burden that had been laid on my shoulders by the beloved, elderly nun.  Who had no way of knowing my best friend in the whole world was Jewish!

In any case all of this must have gotten back to my mother.  Probably in a very compassionate way.  For my welfare and Judy's welfare.  And to prevent all hell from breaking loose.  Or whatever it might have caused....  For I simply have no recollection beyond the sense that I had to baptize Judy and the letting go of it.  Sort of like that time I got stuck in the mud.  Was that a screen memory for this dilemma?  I will never know.

Because I never did baptize Judy.  (Who later married a Catholic...)

Somehow, in my 7 or 8 year old mind, I must have arrived at a solution to the problem.  Maybe I did it by concluding that God, who I knew would forgive if you simply said you were sorry, was OK with it. (I'd been taught that the year before - even though the grown-ups never did seem to understand and punished you anyway...)  So I must have concluded that God would understand.  And on top of that I must have concluded that all these different religions were OK with God.  Someone might have helped me see that.  Or maybe it was clear to me by looking at that picture book of all the world's religions, the one where no matter which religion they had photographed, the people all looked earnest and pious and it was obviously TRUE for all of them.

And that has made all the difference....

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