The Happy Heretic
I have been alternately curious about, obsessed by, or utterly disdainful of religion my entire life. I do not now, nor have I ever, believed in god. But the issue of god and religion has been born anew in my life recently.
A few months ago, I decided it was time to get sober. I’ve been a reveler and lover of inebriation most of my life. As a little girl, I would get high by spinning in circles until I fell down laughing and nauseated. I’ve loved endorphin-spiking thrills like riding roller coasters, runaway horses, and motorcycles. I graduated to pot in junior high school, and then beer, then cocaine in college, then back to just booze. After the pandemic closed me in, I increased my booze intake with impunity. No one can smell the tequila on your breath through a mask, and Zoom meetings are great for sneaking some vodka into your water bottle off camera. Plus, weren’t we all just going a little crazy in this crazy time? And what about all the wine-mommy memes? If all that didn’t give us permission to become lushes, I don’t know what would.
I started waking up in the morning having to read my husband’s body language to discern if we’d had an argument the night before, and to apologize for things I didn’t remember saying. And when my grandson point-blank told me, “Bubbe, I know you drink beer (it was actually tequila but I wasn’t going to correct him), but I love you anyway,” my heart sank. I’d thought I’d hidden my drinking so well.
I got to thinking that all this bludgeoning of my brain with booze was maybe not so healthy. And it certainly couldn’t be helping my writing, all the famous alcoholic writers notwithstanding, though I noted that most of my favorite writers are alcoholics in recovery. I decided I wanted to be more present for my life and the people I love. I started going to AA meetings via Zoom and right away, the problem of having a “higher power” cropped up. I cannot with clear conscience say the word “god” as needed in some of the twelve steps.
How do atheists comfort themselves and to whom or what do they turn when a course of recovering from addiction requires they look to something greater than themselves for help?
My parents agreed when they got married that they would not practice any religion in their home. When I was five years old, as my parents and I were driving through our Los Angeles neighborhood, I saw a big ornate building and asked what it was. My mother said, “That’s a church. It’s where people go to worship.” My father interrupted her; don’t get her started on that crap. Before I knew what they were, I figured out that churches were forbidden in our family. I believed in Santa Claus until my older brother spilled the beans when I was five, but I never believed in god.
As a small child, I was rebellious. Since I wasn’t allowed to go to church, I snuck off to mass with my Catholic girlfriend every time we had a sleepover at her house. I wanted to be just like her, and I followed her down the aisle, knelt, and ignorant of its meaning, enjoyed the body and blood of Christ “snacks.”
When I was little we had Jewish next-door neighbors, the Glass family. I loved them, and I spied on them incessantly. My bedroom overlooked their backyard, so I often skipped dinner and fogged up my window watching them have weddings under chuppahs, dance the hora, and play bar mitzvah party-games. I fantasized about being part of that family. Every Hanukkah, Mr. Glass would give me quirky presents, which I cherished: Shoes with springs on their soles, a hat that grew grass out of the top. Instead of eating the gelt he gave me, I would save it for years, until the gold foil became an urn for chocolate ashes.
When I was eight years old, not believing in god did not stop me from deciding I wanted to be Jewish. After my parents’ divorce, my mom, siblings and I moved from Los Angeles to the central San Joaquin Valley. I missed the Glass family. One day after school while I was home alone, I got out the phone book and looked for Jews. Not finding what I thought I was looking for, I dialed 411, the 1960s version of Google. I asked the operator for the number of the “Jewish place.” After some fumbling about on her end, she connected me to a local temple.
I told the woman who answered the phone that I wanted to be a Jew. She asked how old I was, and I told her I was eight years old. She asked if either of my parents were Jewish. I said no. She said I should have my parents call. I said they wouldn’t. They are divorced. My mom works. I continued to insist that I be allowed to be a Jew. I loved Hanukkah. I needed to be a Jew, please. She transferred me to the Rabbi. He was kind, but he said that my parents would have to bring me to the temple. I hung up and cried.
I spent many of my childhood summers in Georgia with my maternal family who were practicing Methodists. Except for having to get up early to go to Vacation Bible School with my cousins instead of sleeping in, which was my god given right during summer vacation, I loved it. The cool mustiness of the old church basement was a deliverance from the sweltering Appalachian heat. The wonderful smell of the glue and magic markers in arts and crafts, and story time with punch and cookies made up for the lost sleep. For those few hours every morning, I delighted in being a part of a pack of glue-sniffing, sugared-up kids.
The summer I turned twelve, not believing in god or Jesus or any of the outrageous stories in the bible didn’t stop me from suddenly insisting I be baptized a Methodist in the same church in the rural south as generations of my maternal forebears. The idea of being a link in the mitochondrial chain appealed to my lonesome adolescent angst. Since I was only visiting and I wanted an immediate christening, the minister made an exception for me. He let me memorize whatever I had to say in a few days, as opposed to going to proper Sunday school. My sweet, youthful fervor must have been convincing. With fanatical determination, I memorized the required lines to affirm I took Jesus Christ as my lord and savior, all the while thinking to myself, “I absolutely believe no such crazy thing.” After my baptism on that hot summer day, I finally felt like a proper member of my southern family, and not just the cousin from California-where-all-the-weirdos-lived. I was euphoric, enjoying Jell-O salad and sweet tea with my kin. But when I returned to California, Christian hymns and sweet baby Jesus were put away and forgotten.
I didn’t find out my father was Jewish until I was in my early 20s when a distant relative buttonholed me at a funeral. She seemed ancient, but was probably only a few years older than I am now (almost sixty). She had tightly curled grey hair, an adorable little gap in her two front teeth and rhinestone-studded cat-eye glasses.
“The family name,” she confided, steering me into a corner, “was Levi. Part of the family decided they wanted to join a country club that didn’t accept Jews, so they changed their name to ‘Lee.’ After that they would cross the street to avoid walking past the Levis who were their first cousins!”
I was thrilled. My dad’s secret, at least part of the reason he wanted nothing to do with religion, stemmed from the stigma of his side of the family having been cut from the herd. Things started to add up: the familial sense of humor, our tendency towards neurosis, and my childhood obsession with our neighbors. Thank god, I thought. I belong somewhere.
For the next decade I was too busy as a single mother and running my law practice to think about ecclesiastical escapades. But in my mid-30s, despite still not believing the bible stories in either the new or old testaments, I started going to the Reform Jewish temple in my town. After a few years I approached the rabbi and told her I wanted to be a “real” Jew. I shared that my father was Jewish, but hadn’t been a practicing Jew during my lifetime. She smiled, clapped her hands together and said, “Well, then. No need to convert. In Reform Judaism you are already considered a Jew if either of your parents are Jewish!”
My eyes traveled up her stuffed bookshelves to study the dust motes floating in the glow of the skylight. My cheeks got warm, and I told her that I’d been baptized as a Methodist when I was twelve. Her clasped hands fell into her lap. After a moment of silence she said, apologetically, “Well, then. Not so Jewish. But,” she raised a finger and cocked her head to one side, “God loves a convert!”
“That’s another thing,” I said, cringing. “I also don’t believe in god.”
She looked at me, her eyes never dimming, and said, “That’s okay. A lot of Jews don’t believe in God. We go over all that in the conversion class.”
One of the reasons Judaism felt like a fit for me was that for Jews, questioning and arguing about the existence of god and the nature of the universe isn’t just tolerated, it’s expected. As a practicing lawyer for 30 years, questioning and arguing is my love language.
After months of classes I had my formal conversion in the temple followed by the oneg, the post-services time to eat snacks. No one does snacks quite like the Jews. I’d definitely found my tribe!
As part of my formal conversion, I took part in the traditional mikvah. The mikvah was like a more intense form of my adolescent baptism. Instead of a drizzle of water splashed on my head by a man in black, I got completely naked and immersed myself in a body of water at the direction of a woman dressed in white. For the baptism, I had recited words I understood but did not believe, whereas my belief or lack thereof in the words I spoke at my mikvah was irrelevant, as I didn’t understand Hebrew anyway. My preparation for the baptism involved my first applications of lipstick and hairspray. Readying for the mikvah, I stripped, bathed, combed any loose hairs out and somberly trimmed my nails.
Being given a Jewish name, normally done in infancy, is also a part of conversion. “Kefirah” is the name the rabbi chose for me. It means “lioness” in Hebrew. When we discovered months later that “Kefirah” in Aramaic—a language that predates Hebrew—means, “Heretic,” or “Denier of the Faith,” my rabbi was aghast and apologetic, offering to choose another name for me, but I said no. That name is perfect for me.
It’s never been about god or religious doctrine for me. So other than the snacks, of which religious people seem to totally understand the necessity, why have I been curious about religion at all? Why, in light of my certainty there is no god, have I been drawn to attending mass, the Glass family, the baptism, and my conversion? The answer, I think, is because those things around religion comfort me—that, and my love of holidays, my need for a sense of belonging, and my thirst for tradition. Also, I like the idea of being on the side of trying to make the world a more compassionate place.
For most of my adult life I have observed and celebrated every holiday, secular and non-secular, indiscriminately. I am a whore for holidays. Christmas, Hanukkah, Passover, Easter, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, The Vernal Equinox, Arbor Day, and so on. They all mean something to me. They feel like fundamental framing on which to hang the fleeting days and seasons of my life. They help me make memories that would otherwise be lost in a crush of undifferentiated quotidian bricks. It’s not the religion behind any of these holidays that appeals to me; it’s the traditions with loved ones. The holidays give me an excuse to command the presence of my children and grandchildren at my table, the wearing of costumes, and the consumption of festive seasonal foods.
Given my history as a multi-sectarian dabbler and scoff-god, I hit a wailing wall when trying to figure out what I could use as a “god of my understanding” for my 12- step work. I asked around. Some of my fellows in AA use the words, “Universal Intelligence” or “Creative Spirit.” One person told me their idea of god has to do with the exchange of Co2…trees give us oxygen and we give them carbon dioxide and this interdependence is as close to divinity as she needs. Another said that water is his higher power…we come from the water, we are ourselves basically highly sophisticated bodies of water. These ideas seem to work for them, but now, freshly committed to a sober life, I had to ask myself, what do I believe?
There was a Jewish existentialist philosopher by the name of Martin Buber.. He wrote that god exists in what he calls the “I-Thou.” That is, god exists in the space where two beings encounter or communicate with one another. Buber describes the I-Thou as an authentic meeting of two beings absent of objectification or qualification. Neither needs anything from the other. Their encounter makes infinity and universality a reality as opposed to a mere concept. For my idea of divinity, I add another element. Humor.
For me, laughter is divine. When we tell each other things that bind us in mutual laughter, that’s where god (if such a thing exists) is for me. Some evolutionary biologists say laughter is a hard-wired physiological reaction to the neutralization of danger. A lion is chasing you. It falls off a cliff. You are so relieved that you laugh out loud. This serves as a release to your central nervous system and the “fight or flight” chemicals coursing through your brain. It also has a social component, that is, your roaring laughter alerts the rest of your tribe that the danger has passed. It’s apparent that laughter is social in nature. If you watched a funny movie alone, you probably wouldn’t laugh as much or as loudly as if you were in a theater full of other laughing humans. Laughter reinforces community.
My family has been amazingly supportive, but I was terrified of being honest with strangers in AA. I was welcomed with warmth and acceptance, but it was the laughter that redeemed me. One of my favorite things about being around other recovering alcoholics is the absolution I find when I can laugh at their stories about the shit they’ve been through, because I’ve been through it too. And, given the requisite passage of time, that shit is funny. When others admit out loud to the kinds of thoughts or deeds of which we’ve all been taught to be ashamed and keep secret, we experience recognition of ourselves, and a relief that the admission did not result in sudden death or unending horror. We laugh at ourselves when we laugh at the revelation. We feel that we are more alike than we are different, we feel connected, and therefore, no longer in fear.
The feeling of connection that is sparked by humor and celebrated with laughter is the closest thing I can think of to the grace of god.
Karen Gaul Schulman is a writer and attorney who lives in Los Angeles, California. She left her family law practice of 30 years to pursue a life of letters and play with her grandchildren. She is currently an MFA candidate at Antioch University LA.