Prayers to my Dead Grandmother

Religion is the hardest thing for me to blog about. I can write about sex no problem. I revel in the cathartic aspect of admitting all manner of embarrassing mom foibles. And yet when it comes to religion, I feel out on a limb. It’s still something that’s unsettled in my life and I have the unusual (for me) desire to please everyone. I want my atheist friends to think I’m smart like them. I want my Jewish friends to bat Yiddish colloquialisms around with me. I want my Christian friends to know I’m down with Jesus. I could go on…

I grew up in a world in which religion was a simple thing. My family and everyone around us was steeped in the Jewish ethnicity- its foods and prayers and customs and expressions. Neither of my parents lived more than twenty minutes from where they grew up. Holidays were crowded with family and the house always smelled delicious.

And then I moved three thousand miles away and married a Christian guy. And even before that, I was a religious seeker, struggling to find a spiritual community that made sense to me. I’ve felt close a few times- a Zen dojo in New York, a hippie temple in San Francisco, a Pentecostal church in East L.A… but in the end something always stuck in my craw and I eventually drifted away.

This comes up for me now because I just sailed through the High Holidays yet again without formally acknowledging them in any way. I did have a quiet personal moment, but I didn’t share in any kind of community.

I think my craving for some structured spirituality would just stay an intermittent yearning in my life if it weren’t for the fact that Judaism was so important to me as a child. I wonder if I’m slighting my own kid by not giving him a religious community. I don’t have a good answer, but I’m conscious of the question and I’m open to a solution that makes sense for our family. T’s new school has an Episcopal affiliation and he’s been really enjoying chapel, so that’s going to have to be enough for now.

When I think of being in an interfaith marriage, I remember the time Scott and I visited our friend Yoshi in Kyoto (that’s the three of us pictured above). I was having trouble telling the Buddhist temples from the Shinto shrines. Yoshi told me that there was no reason to draw hard and fast lines between Buddhism and Shintoism, because most Japanese people practice some mix of the two, with a dose of ancestor worship mixed in.

I told him that it seems like cheating. Like you should have to choose. It’s like calling yourself Jewish and praying to Jesus when you feel like it. And then praying to your dead grandmother when you feel like it. You can’t cover all your bases. Those just aren’t the rules.

He just looked at me, confused, and asked, “You don’t pray to your dead grandmother when you feel like it?”

Yes. I actually do. All the time. Lord knows she was opinionated enough in her lifetime, maybe one day she’ll weigh in with a clear answer. Until then, I guess I’m going with the Japanese model.

6 thoughts on “Prayers to my Dead Grandmother

  1. Another insightful post that touches on some issues I’m grappling with. We’ve yet to join a synagogue—or even attend a service—because the traditional temples don’t mesh with my social and ethical beliefs but the reconstructionist one seems like a gross perversion of the religion. My husband’s mom is Catholic so we literally light Hanukkah candles in the glow of her Christmas tree. While I’m in no hurry to figure out how we will present religion to my son or where I stand on things,I do mourn for him the fact that he will have to celebrate Christmas like the rest of the country, whereas I hold dear my memories of Chinese food and a movie on Christmas Eve.

  2. Japanese models are hot-

    As an interfaith family matriarch, and a ccreative, i remind you the rules are meant to to be bent, and borders should be explored.
    Dogma melts in the face of globalism…

  3. I have no idea where I would be today without my Jerusalem. Every religion needs a home. I can’t relate to buildings but I could relate to land and sky and old ancient earth. America is a melting pot. I highly recommend you read The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman. It was a beautiful book about the Jewish women of Massada. I love the idea of praying and talking to your dead grandmother. Just connect to ancient Jewish women. Organized religion is for organized boxed in people. You are too creative for that. My oldest son is into rebbi Nachman and my daughter is about to have a baby all in Israel. My younger kids watch spongebob square pants in hebrew..I think there are subliminal messages there.

  4. I think to be open to the question is the first step. I have a dear friend who was recently searching in much the same way as you. She has two young girls and as an interested and involved parent; she wanted to give her girls some sort of access to spirituality.

    As parents we are very aware of our children’s emotional & physical well-being but the importance of spiritual well-being has seemed to slip away quietly into the background. Perhaps it’s the reason why so many of today’s generation are searching? I don’t know but I do know that human beings are made up of three parts; body, mind & spirit and to deny one of these elements is to feel incomplete.

    I have my own personal reasons for the path that I have followed and that I encourage my kids to follow so I won’t go into rhetoric but I will say that religion will leave you feeling empty. We were made for relationships. If your search leads you to empty rituals and practised prayers; you will always drift away. It’s not real enough. Not meaningful enough. But if you look for a relationship with God outside of religion, you may find what you are looking for.

    Cheers to you!

    P.S. I am certainly not denigrating corporate gatherings (in fact, I think they are vital to continuing on a spiritual walk) only that it has to go deeper than warming the pew every Sunday 😉

  5. I have just stumbled upon your blog and I feel like I’ve found a new old friend. I have struggled too with finding the right religious community for me and my daughter. There are pieces of wisdom and ritual that resonate with me but perhaps not in the way a given congregation would expect of me and I feel like an interloper when I drop in for a visit. I tell myself that what I’m giving my daughter is space to ask the questions and I hope that is enough. Thank you for writing about the struggle.

  6. This is less philosophical – my grandmother (Jewish) fell yesterday and is yet to fully emerge from her anaesthetic – so her daughters/ grand daughters are all beginning to grieve her. And for a moment I began to grieve the lost opportunity to get all the answers, because like this blog observes, my grandmother was never lost for comment either – so why did I suddenly fear that loss. Was I not listening?
    The truth is that she was giving the answers and I was listening – she made me fiercely strong, kind and compassionate! She was enough that my mother, me, my daughter – we all have our heads on. Our hearts are engaged. What an awesome woman for the next three generations to be such women. I have previously handed that flame to my great grandmothers, but in truth this is the lesson. We learn it and we pass it on. Love. It doesn’t matter – so long as you learn it. Shalom – peace x

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