Atheist at a Funeral: A Contemplation in Four Hymns

Heaven1. “Be Thou My Vision”

During the first hymn, which I′d never heard before, I practiced sight-reading, trying to anticipate each rise and fall in pitch as I studied the hymnal. It was an absorbing mental game, a relief from thinking about the last time I saw Helen, when she had been twisted and slumped and barely responsive. Up a third, down a third, down a third, crap. Focus! By the second verse I gave up and sang by ear, following the pianist and the well-practiced congregation of Presbyterians. By the fourth verse, I had it.

High King of Heaven, my victory won,
may I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
still be my vision, O Ruler of all.

As we rustled back down into our seats, adjusting skirts and suit jackets, I realized I had no idea whether Helen would have sung such a hymn sincerely, to God, or whether she would have sung for the pleasure of it, as I had. I had known Helen all my life and yet I did not know whether she was a believer.

She did celebrate Christmas; I could vouch for that. Christmas Eve at her house was a treasured ornament of my (Jewish) childhood: we kids sitting on the carpet by the pretty little tree in the parlor, the grownups settled around us on sofas and chairs. We each got a Bible passage to read, and I was terrified I’d have to read the word “Selah,” which I sort of knew how to pronounce but could never make sound natural, like I meant it. Christmas at Helen’s made you want to mean it. The presents were modest, the decorations more loving than lavish, and when we sat down in the dining room to eat, the candlelight gave her laughing eyes an extra sparkle.

2. “On Eagle’s Wings”

The next hymn sounded familiar, especially the chorus, which had the push and swell of a diva pop song. I bided time through the verses for a chance to sing at full voice.

And he will raise you up on eagle’s wings,
bear you on the breath of dawn,
make you to shine like the sun,
and hold you in the palm of his hand.

It wasn’t just Christmas. I always thought of Helen and her husband Jim as the best of Christians—kind, loving, learned. This church we were in—their church—was known for its good works, and Helen was an active member. But did she believe the Bible was the Word of God or a work of literature, like her beloved Faulkner only maybe not as good? Did she believe in God? In Heaven? Did she think, as she took her last breaths a couple of weeks before, that she would soon be seeing Jim again?

I could ask one of her daughters, couldn’t I? Maybe not the one I knew to be a practicing Christian—the one who had chosen the hymns—but the one I knew best, who’d stayed in my hometown. I looked among the mourners and found Karis’s face. But she was weeping and I had to look away.

3.  “We Shall Overcome”

I could not sing the next hymn. I kept trying, but my voice kept breaking into ugly pieces. This one I knew, of course; it had already worn a groove in my hopeful liberal heart. It also reminded me of Helen. The first political discussions I remember hearing were between Helen and my father, two progressive Democrats who managed to find plenty of room for debate. Just a couple of years ago, bed-moored in a facility, she still read the Washington Post religiously and lit up at the chance to gripe about House Republicans. That was my husband’s gift to her, on our infrequent visits. Better by far than flowers.

We are not afraid;
we are not afraid;
we are not afraid today.

I gave up trying to sing; I cried instead. I cried because she was gone and because, though I had loved her, I hadn’t really known her. I cried because it didn’t occur to me until she died that she taught me—without ever lecturing me—what a woman could be. She was an intellectual, a reader, an activist, a traveller. She was radiant. She made a lovely home, liked a stiff drink, relished a good argument. And boy, could she tell a story.

Helen had been 88 and ill, her dying past due. But still, how was it possible that she no longer existed? I looked around the light-filled church, and cried for everybody in it. For all of us humans, burdened with the knowledge of death, doing everything we can to bear that burden more easily. Trying for millennia to make it make sense. Trying—with giant contraptions of mythology adorned with poetry and rules and songs—to make death not permanent, not true.

Religion is beautiful and touching, when you think of it that way: a massive, communal labor of invention.

4. “Amazing Grace”

For the last hymn, I pulled myself together. I loved this tune, and when did I ever get to sing it for real? I could do that now. I could add to this fragile fiction for a few minutes. I could lend my voice to this heart-breaking, age-old attempt to make the end not be the end.

And when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil
A life of joy and peace.

As the song came to a close, the pianist dug into a crescendo. He hadn’t done that before, and it surprised me. But my voice followed joyously, and I was, for a moment, consoled.

Slave Trader. Murderer. National Hero?

Columbus coloring pageThis is how, years ago, I demonstrated to my children the concept that Columbus Discovered America: I stood up, turned away from where they sat eating dinner, turned back, and—with an arm raised in triumph—declared, “I have discovered this table!” And then I sat on my daughter.

Sometimes I think I would be good at homeschooling.

I’d be good at the subtext part, anyway: teasing out the flaw in the idea that a place isn’t “discovered” until Europeans discover it.

The text part, well . . . I’d have to look that up. What I vaguely remember from my childhood was that, after an arduous journey, Columbus, the first European to cross the Atlantic, landed in North America, shocking the folks back home by not falling off the edge of the world they had presumed flat.

Half a minute of internet research reveals that, almost 500 years after Leif Eriksson had first crossed the Atlantic, Columbus made it not to North America but to the Caribbean Islands (which he thought was Asia), and everyone back home had known since Aristotle that the earth was round.

1492? Yes. But was the ocean blue? Doubtful.

Ten more minutes of internet research put me off my breakfast. Columbus presided over and/or perpetrated the worst stuff you can imagine people doing to other people. Selling native girls (I mean girls—9 or 10) into sexual slavery. Cutting off the hands of natives who failed to produce their quota of gold dust. Burning people alive for trying to escape, or sic’ing dogs on them, or cutting off ears, noses, legs. And I’m sparing you the gory details.

On the one hand, Columbus Day is but another example of a tradition that persists although it obviously conflicts with pretty much everyone’s moral system—including that of the people who promote it. How many elementary school teachers could even bear to read about the behavior of the man whose Xeroxed picture they annually ask their students to color in?

On the other hand, there’s hope. Public opinion does change; we do learn. Hawaii, South Dakota, Alaska, and Oregon do not celebrate the holiday. Berkeley, California, replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous People’s Day, and so did Santa Cruz, Minneapolis, and Seattle. New York State’s kindergarten curriculum now suggests that teachers at least “Explain that native people were already living on the continent where Columbus’s ships landed.” The high school curriculum recommends teaching Columbus’ voyage as a “turning point.” I guess you could argue that’s like calling the Holocaust a “turning point,” but still, it’s better than teaching the voyage as a triumph and the explorer as a hero.

An element of hero worship persists, however. New York City’s official celebration begins with a solemn wreath-laying at the statue of Columbus in Columbus Circle. And then there’s the parade—“the world’s largest celebration of Italian American culture,” according to the event organizers. This year, its 70th, the parade will feature 35,000 marchers and attract over a million spectators.

How much irrefutable historical evidence will it take to undo that?

I say, keep the parade. Keep celebrating Italian Americans. Just turn the whole thing around, and head south down Fifth Avenue to 23rd Street. There, at the entrance to Eataly, lay a giant wreath of bay leaves at the orange-Croc’d feet of a far superior exemplar of America’s Italian heritage: Mario Batali.

You’ve heard of Batali, right? He discovered olive oil.

Wishing You a Truly New Year


Photo by Matt Klein. Challah by me.

Every year in the synagogue of my childhood, we started our Hebrew lessons over again. There were too few of us to divide into two classes, so every fall, to accommodate the (doubtless) one new student, we’d begin back at the beginning with the alphabet, pronouns, a few basic nouns, and an article or two. Needless to say, I never got very far. Of “Rosh Hashanah” I can translate only the “Ha,” which means the; Google can do the rest: “Rosh” means head and “shanah” means year.

For Jews, it’s the head of the year again. If it’s not marked on your calendar, you can tell from the challah. Usually the loaves are straight—knotty with braided strands, tapered at the ends, but straight. For Rosh Hashanah, you make them sweeter and you make them round.

Judaism adores symbols. The noun “shanah” comes from the verb “shanah,” which means repeat. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the circle of life, the cycle of the year. Round and round, over and over it repeats: Grandpa intoning at the head of the table with his prayer book. Grandma dishing out her celebrated matzoh balls. My kids veering between respectful and silly. All the guests wishing each other “Shanah Tovah”—a good year—as they part. My husband at the front door reminding the kids to go back and thank Grandma before we leave.

We’d just gotten home when my daughter announced that she was 45% Jewish. I thought she was doing some complicated math involving the fact that her grandmother grew up Episcopalian and then converted, but . . . no. She meant that she felt about that amount Jewish. Jesse volunteered 0%—he can be a bit doctrinaire—and then, reconsidering, upped it to 5%. Presumably on account of the matzoh balls.

From a Jewish perspective, of course, Lena is 100% Jewish because I, her mother, am a Jew. In terms of education, participation, and belief, she’s none. She does not go to synagogue or Sunday school; she knows no prayers; she equates God with Santa Claus: two things her classmates believe in that she knows are pretend.

I get why I feel Jewish, despite my lack of belief. I was bat mitzvah, after all. I learned how to say “Mother” and “Father” and “I” and “you” in Hebrew class every year.

But what makes Lena feel Jewish? Could it simply be dinners like these, cousins’ bar mitzvahs, and the persistent and aggravating lack of a Christmas tree? Do kids just naturally want to belong to groups?

I may have underestimated the power of these forces. Still, at the head of the year 5775, I believe I can report that such power can diminish over time.

Back in April, Lena told me about an exchange with a friend who kept trying to bond with her over Easter. “I mean, really” she said that she said to this girl, “I’m Jewish—remember?” Six months ago, in other words, Lena felt so Jewish she figuratively slapped her forehead at the idea that someone wouldn’t know that essential fact about her.

Today, “45%.” I won’t try to do the fake math, but maybe her self-image is shifting slightly. And as I look back on Rosh Hashanah dinner, it strikes me that all of our percentages are changing.

We didn’t dress up as much as we used to. Adam wasn’t forced, or even asked, to wear a yarmulke. His father didn’t harangue him about going to synagogue the next day or try to get us to let the kids go. Because of my determination to be more vocal (and less equivocal), everyone at the table—both family and family friends—knew clearly where Adam and I and our kids stood on issues of belief and belonging, God and Torah. And, for the first year I can remember, nobody said anything to Noah (now almost 14) about when or whether he would be bar mitzvah.

Hebrew is a fascinating language; I wish I’d gotten farther along. I even have a couple of Hebrew grammars on my shelf from lapsed later-life resolutions. Most of the vocabulary is based on what they call triliteral stems, three-letter roots. For “shanah”—year and repeat—that root is shin, nun, hay. Which is the same as for the word change. Change and repeat and year, all essentially the same word.

I love that. The hands move around and around the clock face, unchanging, and yet, every time they pass the same spot, time has passed. Things have changed. So, yes, there I am still placing my round challah on the dining room table, still standing quietly while my sister-in-law lights the candles, still sipping the wine after the blessing. There I am, celebrating a Jewish holiday, the same way I have for years and years.

And yet, at the same time, I am gently but firmly moving away from religion, and leading my children away too. Seated around that holiday table, we may look like we’re back at the beginning again. But we’re not in the same place at all. The year is, in fact, new.

Shanah Tovah.


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