Monthly Archives: January 2014

Church

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I went to church this weekend. Just not the normal kind.

When I was a sight-seeing child in Europe, churches were the salvation of my tired little legs. After dutifully examining the statue/triptych/stained glass of art historical significance, and before moving on to the next entry in the Blue Guide, I was permitted a few moments to sit in the cool interior and stare admiringly at the vaulted arches. I doubt I got architectural insight—and I definitely didn’t get religion—but I got rest and peace, and that was plenty.

I’ve loved churches ever since; I even yearn for them. The little white ones you pass on Vermont roads in the fall, the stately stone ones on rolling Virginia hills, the jewel-like chapels in Venice. And I have learned that the design of the apse or nave or cloister does matter, whether I care about it or not. Buildings affect how people feel. They can make people feel things.

A well-wrought church gives congregants both the sense of being at home and the sense of reaching toward heaven. Comfort and inspiration. Routine and transcendence.

Where does an atheist go for that?

I have been to a few get-togethers with atheists here in the Capital District. We meet at a bar or a coffee-shop or a restaurant; we fumble with ordering food or hanging up coats or finding the bathroom; we pull up a chair; we chat. It’s pleasant. And it’s really, really easy to stay home instead.

But there is a place that I go, at least two times a week, sometimes five. Its potholed parking lot makes me shake my head, but it also makes me smile, because it tells me I’ve come home. Its hard wooden benches are comforting, though not comfortable; its scuffed halls are filled with familiar kids and grownups, some of whom have known my children since before my children could read. I could leave my kids for hours without informing anyone and without worrying a bit. We pay to belong; we grumble about the policies; we feel ourselves fortunate to be there—so fortunate that we even try to get our friends to join. And we’re all there because we believe in something. Not God, in this case, but music.

I realized this not long ago: My children’s music school is my church.IMG_5960

Admittedly, although The Music Studio, housed in an old city school, feels solid and permanent, it is not a pretty place. The lighting is resolutely fluorescent; the wall-to-wall carpeting is institutional. It feels like home, not heaven. Routine, not transcendence.

But if you belong to The Music Studio, you get the heaven part too. Several times a year, we all dress up and enter a pretty little recital hall at the university, with balconies, red velvet drapes, plush chairs, and a Steinway grand instead of an altar. In front of the piano—just as at an altar—stands a big bouquet of flowers.

In that recital hall, my daughter first learned to be well and truly bored; a long Mass could not have done the job better. She doodles; she yawns; in her program, with my pencil, she assigns each performer a letter grade for fashion; she turns to me often to mouth the words, “This is so looonggg.” And yet, last year, when she had her first recital there—in an A+ outfit, naturally—she could not have been prouder or more solemn or more relieved afterward than if she had celebrated First Communion.

In that hall, my sons learned to act respectful and attentive and fidget discreetly (and make paper airplanes from their programs). At the end of every recital, no matter how well they played, they emerge into the large foyer for trays of sweets and plastic cups of lemonade, just like after services at church. And just as we would in a church social hall, we linger longer than necessary over store-bought rainbow cookies, basking in the fellowship, hoping for a blessing from one of the teacher-deacons or maybe even a word of particular praise from the priest herself, the founder of the school.IMG_5968

And as long my kid isn’t the one playing, I can relax in one of those plush chairs in “my” balcony, staring up at the chandelier, transported by the strange and undeniable power of music. How can something be so useless and yet so essential? How can a teenager, playing something written by another teenager 200 years ago, fill me with faith and hope? These are things I could feel and think about all the time—in my car, in my kitchen—but I don’t. I think about them here, in this beautiful room. Built by human beings—filled with human beings—reaching beyond their daily lives to touch something both universal and immortal.

That’s church enough for me.

Chocolate Betrayal

IMG_5941My kitchen is my kingdom, which I share with all the grace of, say, Napoleon after someone called him a pipsqueak and before Waterloo.

My mother’s kitchen is . . . also my kingdom. (Come to think of it, that’s exactly how Napoleon would put it.) When I descend with my army visit, my mother first serves me a ceremonial welcome dinner, and then surrenders the gas burners and granite countertops without a fight. Incredibly, she even sticks around while I complain about the number of half-sheet pans she owns (how am I supposed to work with just two?) or the fact that her mayonnaise is low-fat (what can a person even say?)

She doesn’t just stick around: she is the ultimate sous-chef. She’s capable and energetic, she takes instruction without complaint, and if you’re wondering why she stopped chopping onions, it’s because the onions are chopped and now she’s washing the knife.

And she never, ever brandishes that knife at me when I tell her she’s been making bacon wrong her whole life or that storing bread in the fridge is a dreadful thing to do and has got to stop. (Also, Mom, you have to get that knife sharpened.) In fact, when I’m not there, she now makes beans the way I do, and broccoli the way I do, and, of course, bacon the way I do.

So I didn’t think anything of it when I told her, casually, that I never made Mom’s Hot Fudge anymore; now I just pour hot cream over chocolate chips, stir, and call it a day.

It turns out that my mother’s culinary ego, presumed absent, had been stored in the hot fudge! The one recipe from our childhood that all three daughters kept and used, the one recipe in my little notebook that’s got “Mom” in the title. And now to find that I had forsaken her?

No, I did not get knifed. But she did look a little miffed. And that’s why I call this sauce Chocolate Betrayal. And why, even though Mom’s Hot Fudge is so much more trouble to make that it resembles actual cooking, I am posting that recipe too. The flavors are different, too, of course: it’s melted chocolate bar vs. melted fudge. You choose: it’s your kitchen. I wouldn’t dream of telling you what to do.

On Saying “No” and No More

(If you haven’t already, read here how I got myself into this mess. )

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Moses ScoldingYou don’t have to explain. That’s what I kept telling myself. Just say it’s not going to happen.

I had resolved to tell my father-in-law that his grandson would not be celebrating a bar mitzvah.

And I had resolved to tell him only that.

He knows well enough that we are not religious—that’s why he’s been bringing Noah up to his house to meet with a Hebrew tutor. And that’s why he didn’t even speak to his son or me (i.e., Noah’s parents) before deciding Noah was going to be bar mitzvah in October.

In other words, my “no” would be a blow but not a shock. And trying to soften that blow—with explanations, justifications, apologies—might simply confuse the matter (or me). I had to be clear.

So after a pleasant exchange about our chickens’ current egg production, with the kitchen counter between us, and with my heart pounding, I said, “It’s fine for Noah to be learning some Hebrew, but he is not going to have a bar mitzvah.”

His smile froze and his eyes narrowed. “What’s going on here?”

All my careful reasoning swirled through my careful head. All the things I could say. At best, it would be meaningless for Noah to celebrate a bar mitzvah; at worst, it’s dishonest. Noah can bond with his Grandpa in other ways. He can always bar mitzvah as a grown-up if he so chooses. According to Jewish rules, he already is “bar mitzvah” (son of the commandment)—just turning 13 does that.

And of course the most fundamental reason of all: Reason.

I’m not letting my son stand up in a synagogue to praise an imaginary being and officially undertake to uphold the laws of a people who worship Him—even though he doesn’t believe in the being or subscribe to the laws.

There is no scriptural law that says Noah has to celebrate a bar mitzvah; it’s a cultural thing. But the first of all the (613) Jewish laws is “To know that God exists.” The twelfth[1] is “To learn Torah and teach it.”[2] Obviously, I do not subscribe to these laws. And yet, I somehow still feel guilty for breaking them. In the face of my father-in-law’s disapproval, I really really want to explain myself, defend myself, exonerate myself. I’m uncomfortable being in the wrong, even if “the wrong” I’m in is actually right.

I remember once jogging with my father in Spain, and feeling terribly unnerved not because the street cops carried submachine guns but because the old ladies hissed with disapproval at the sight of my bare legs in running shorts. I was twelve. Later, visiting Italian relatives when I was a college student, I was deeply embarrassed when my cousin, an observant Jew, found me writing a letter on a Saturday; writing is working, and I wasn’t supposed to be working on the Sabbath. I still feel self-conscious if my father-in-law comes over during Passover while I am making the kids a not-matzoh sandwich.

That’s crazy, of course. There is no moral basis for these rules, and, since there is no God-who-disapproves-of-bare-legs-or-leavening outside of our collective imagination, there is actually no basis for them at all.

It is likewise crazy that—absent belief, absent observance, absent participation in Jewish life, absent parental input—Noah’s bar mitzvah should be the expected thing, and that not doing it requires an explanation.

It’s backwards. But atheists live in a backwards world, where there’s a special name for people who do not grant the existence of a creature no one can see or hear or prove exists. And we get used to pretending we do believe, or might; we get used to soft-pedaling our disbelief, or apologizing for it.

A backwards world.

Standing in my kitchen, I make the tiniest effort to set it right.

“What’s going on here?” he asked again.

“Noah is not going to bar mitzvah,” I said. For the second time and not for the last.


[1] Depending on whose list you’re using . . .

[2] The 613th is “To destroy the seed of Amalek.”