Dani Shapiro
May 3, 2007

God Is Not Great

Which is, of course, the title of the brilliant Christopher Hitchens’ new book about religion. It is also, lately, the ground zero of my deepest confusions as a mother. What am I supposed to teach my son about God? What do I do about the fact that I am, at best, on the fence when it comes to the spiritual life? My basic relationship to the whole notion of God is a lily-livered, poorly thought-through, pathetic melange of Buddhism, self-help, nature, the Hebrew songs and melodies of my childhood, the transcendence of great music, and little bits of my dead father’s voice that float around in my consciousness. I could have drifted along in exactly this stupor for my whole life if not for motherhood. If not for the fact that it is my responsibility to expose Jacob to the religion of his heritage–if only so that he can later reject it.

When I was Jacob’s age, I went to a yeshiva. I spent half a day learning in Hebrew, the other half in English. On Shabbat, the Sabbath, I went with my father to temple where I played with the tassels on his tallit, and listened to the passion in his voice has he swayed back and forth, davening. I spoke Hebrew so fluently I thought in it. When I traveled to Israel with my family, at the moment we disembarked at Lod Airport my inner life, my thoughts and random daydreams took place in a language I no longer can speak, nor understand. The language of Hebrew eludes me, much in the same way I am eluded by an understanding of faith, or of God.

But since we live in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut — the land of white Protestant people — since we live in a house with no mezuzah on the door, a house where my parents Shabbat candlesticks are on display on the dining room table only because they’re beautiful, old Tiffany ones, and satisfy my aesthetic desire for lovely silver–since if you saw us, my husband and son and me, riding the winding Connecticut hills, you might be forgiven for mistaking us for characters in a Cheever novel–I end up embroiled in what feels like a moral dilemma. My concern has grown over the last couple of years as Jacob has begun to ask questions. What happens when we die? he asks regularly. Where do you go? What does it feel like? And then, just last week, when Little League practice was canceled because of rain four times in a row: “There’s a man in the sky who’s making it rain.” A man in the sky? Where do we go when we die? How am I supposed to guide him through these questions when I myself don’t know how I feel about any of it. And as for my husband, it’s easy for him. He’s an atheist. End of story.

But for me, it can’t be the end of the story. The faith that I grew up with–that faith is inside me still, not as a belief in God but, rather, as a part of me that gives me a tangible access to my childhood. My father has been gone for more than twenty years–and yet, if I want to hear his voice, if I want to feel the way his short hair bristled against my small fingers on the top of his head, if I want to see his eyes–hazel-green and kind, as he gazed at me–all I have to do is go to temple and a door opens. Memory floods through, unstoppable. And that is the closest answer to what happens when we die that I ever get.