I’m having an existential crisis and it’s all Katy Perry’s fault. Since I watched her spectacular duet with an 11-year-old girl with autism at a fundraiser last month, I’ve had no choice but to confront the fact that I’m completely failing my daughter when it comes to teaching her about her religion. Here’s how it all went down.
On a random afternoon when I was supposed to be working, I stumbled upon a link to Perry’s phenomenal performance with a girl named Jodi DiPiazza at the “Night of Too Many Stars: America Comes Together for Autism Programs" fundraiser. The act started with a sweet video of Jodi as a young tot depicting the challenges she and her family have boldly faced since her autism diagnosis.
It then segues back to the live event and there's Jodi, sitting at the piano and singing the opening bars to Perry’s hit song, Firework. Midway through the song, Perry joins her. Together, they rock it out in a way that can only be described as magnificent, even for someone like me, who normally cringes every time I’m forced to sit through a Katy Perry song. “Even brighter than the moon, moon, moon/It's always been inside of you, you, you/And now it's time to let it through.” Holy shit – watching that little girl perform so stunningly with Perry made tears literally squirt out my eyeballs and across the room.
When my kid got home from school later that day, we watched the performance together and, seeing my tears (yes, of course, I cried again), my daughter had a lot of questions for me. We talked about what autism is and why Jodi’s performance moved me. We also talked about the challenges that people with autism face. A few hours later, right before bed, we continued the conversation in the shower. “Why did I cry when I watched Jodi and Katy Perry perform?” I asked her.
“Because she had to get through hard things to do what she does.”
“What does she have?” I asked.
My daughter took a break from writing “I love you” on the glass door of the shower and looked up at me. She crinkled her nose, furrowed her brow, and worked hard to remember the right word. After a pause, she said tentatively, “Judaism?”
At that moment, I was very glad I’m on the fence about the concept of heaven. Because if I did believe there was such a place, I’d know for sure that my grandma, a 4’8” feisty Czechoslovakian who survived two heart attacks, colon cancer, and the Holocaust, was glaring at me and giving me the finger. She may have even been giving me the double finger.
And this, my friends, is how my existential crisis began. I’m not religious. I have no interest in being religious, no desire to become part of a religious community, and don’t even feel like celebrating any holiday that is based on anything that has to do or once had to do with a religion. But I do know that it’s important for my daughter to understand and feel connected to her heritage, which happens to be, oh, probably 99.9% Jewish. So my question is this: how do you teach your kid a religion you don’t even practice?
Without a non-observant, non-denominational, non-judgmental, non-believing spiritual leader in sight, I realize I have no choice but to take matters into my own hands. I’ve got countless hours of boring Hebrew school, Peace Corps in Poland, two stints in Israel, and a year of full-time Jewish learning in a yeshiva under my belt; surely I can teach my kid what it means to be a Jew.
We’ll start with language. As often as I can, I’m now dropping Jewish-y words into conversation. Just this morning, after leaving Yolk, a great brunch place here in Chicago, I looked at my daughter, who had leftover eggs on her face, and said, “Darling, let me get that schumukus off your cute punim.” She looked confused but followed the context clue of my recently licked thumb to understand that I was about to remove the schmutz that had gathered on either side of her mouth.
A few minutes later, I told her and hubby about my appearance on WGN Radio. I was really nervous but apparently had done a pretty good job, because at the end of the segment Bill Moller and his producer had complimented me and invited me back. To emphasize my surprise, I exclaimed to hubby and the kid, “And when they said that, I almost plotzed!”
Suffice it to say, hubby – who has not heard me say anything remotely Jewish in the last few years – looked at me like I was off my gefilte fish, I mean rocker.
Realizing that the language thing wasn’t going to cut it, I thought about the one holiday we do celebrate, which is Hanukkah. I’ll be honest: we didn’t begin commemorating this Festival of Lights, which is basically about how the Jews kicked everyone’s ass, until my kid was about four and her friend said, “Ha ha. I celebrate Hanukkah and you have nothing.” That’s all it took for me to speed over to Target and snag the first menorah and pack of flimsy candles I saw off the shelf.
As it turns out, my kid loves this holiday. She looks forward to it all year long. Her favorite part is when we sing the only song I know, which is a very flat and boring tune that my hubby says is worse than nails screeching down a chalkboard. We sing it every night for eight nights, dancing maniacally around the dining room table. Then, throughout the year, when other holidays roll around, we sing exactly the same tune. It’s our one-holiday-fits-all Jewish song. Come by my house on Rosh Hashanah or Passover, and I can guarantee you’ll hear a little voice singing off key about latkes when there hasn’t been a potato fried in our house for months.
Why even bother with Jewish stuff if you have no interest in religion, you ask? A big part of it is community. Who the hell needs Kevin Bacon; I can go just about anywhere in the world and know someone who knows someone whom I know. Just last week in Puerto Rico, I met a mom with two young boys from Westchester, NY. I mentioned that one of my sister-in-law’s best friends, who she met on a Jewish teen tour 20-ish years ago, also lives in that region of the world. All I remembered was her first name, Melissa. Not surprisingly, this mama knew exactly who I was talking about, as well as her kids. Let me just state again that I did not even know the woman’s last name. Now, you have to admit, that’s pretty amazing.
Which is exactly what I was thinking, until I discovered that this woman had an attitude the size of the mountain Moses schlepped up to get the Ten Commandments. Sadly, this made me realize that using religion as a starting point in a new friendship doesn’t always work out the way I'd hoped it would.
So now I wander, like the Jews of old did for 40 years in the desert, or so the story goes, to find a place for my daughter and me in the Jewish world. I’m looking for the Promised Land, one that allows my daughter to connect to her past in a way that doesn’t cloud her future. How does one teach a child about her religion? Is it through language, food, holidays, tragedies, victories, miracles, complaining, Israel and Seinfeld, or is there some other magical way that I’m unfamiliar with?
I’d like to know, if only so it doesn’t take a Katy Perry song to send me into a religious tailspin. Religious tailspin, hmm. ... Is there a cool Jewish-y word for that?
By Wendy Widom, Families in the Loop