My father wouldn’t talk to me after I came home from work on Yom Kippur. He just sat on his favorite part of the couch with his lips pursed and his eyebrows furrowed while reading a book on Jewish literacy, as if that book would make up for my seemingly countless sins of 2021. When my family asked me why I ignored the rules on this holy holiday focused on atonement, I looked at them and answered, “because I needed to.”
I was discharged from the hospital a month before the aforementioned Yom Kippur.
A few months prior, my father walked down the stairs frantically and saw me studying organic chemistry at three in the morning. “Thank God,” I remember him saying softly with tears in his eyes. “I had a nightmare that you died in your sleep.” My subsequent smile did not show in my blank eyes as I told him that he shouldn’t worry before getting back to work.
Looking back, my father’s worry for my life breaks my heart but at the time I could not stop working because reflecting would have been too painful. I studied obsessively because I needed to, not because I wanted to.
After my 98% on my organic chemistry final and a few days of being unable to eat without terrible pain, my parents forced me to go to the hospital.
A possible heart arrhythmia and a stay in the ICU later, I was placed in the pediatric cardiac ward for two weeks. I made up my own prayers to beg the same higher power that I grew up studying in Jewish Day School, synagogue, and conversations with my Rabbi to prevent these infants from ending up in the large graveyard taunting me outside of my window.
After another frustrating doctor's appointment, clapping and cheering erupted outside as medical staff blocked the view of the hallway from the large window in my room. Curious, I rose from my bed to check what the commotion was all about.
What I saw was a young, skinny boy in the same light blue gown that I had neatly folded in my room. His bony legs, splayed open to fit into the wheelchair, were almost humorously long. And, most notably, his mouth was dropped open in shock as he set the telephone down on his lap. His mom, holding the medication that fed into her son’s IV, was crying heavily, thanking God.
When they sauntered through the halls as a family, both parents pushing the wheelchair in sync, we all whooped and cheered at the opportunity that this child was getting at a new life. When he passed me, I excitedly held out my hand to give him a high five. He stopped, looked at me with his big brown eyes, knees to his chest, and toothy smile, holding my hand in his own.
The fellow, a religious Christian, entered my room and silently stared at the wall. Breaking the silence, he turned his head and said, “Transplant was an extremely difficult rotation for me because while you do see lives saved like with that kid, you also have to understand that his new heart comes from somewhere.”
He stood up and left.
This experience made me go from someone who blindly accepted the thoughts of my religion to someone who was forced to stop and inquire. I wasn’t ready for Yom Kippur to get in the way of that, so I made a decision that I knew would hurt my father.
From that point until recently, I had been disconnected from my Judaism. I once even told my father that I “hate synagogue.” I saw religion as black or white, as a believer or a disbeliever.
The moment that changed everything for me was during the Passover seder in 2023. Passover is the holiday in which we celebrate Moses leading the Hebrew people out of slavery in Egypt to the land of Israel and receiving the Ten Commandments.
My father led the joyous service at the head of the table. When reciting the Ten Plagues in Hebrew, we customarily dip our knives into our wine glass for each plague and set a drop of wine on our dinner plate.
The knives carrying the first drop of wine, representing water turning to blood, clanked on each plate.
Drops two through eight represented frogs, lice, flies, death of livestock, boils on skin, hail, Locusts destroying crops, and darkness. Sometime around drop five, my littlest sister’s knife entered the wine glass with too much pressure, causing it to spill all over the table.
Everyone at the table just stared at me as I provided my explanation.
As the final drop of wine hovered over each person’s respective plates, as if they knew that I would provide commentary, my father asked, “What about the death of the firstborn?”
I told my father that not all of the firstborn Egyptian males, only a subset of children, had died since the Pharaoh was firstborn.
“Aha!” my father cried. “So God didn’t want to destroy a whole people, just enough to convince the Egyptians to free the Hebrews. God showed the Egyptians mercy!”
I could tell that he was getting ready to give a lecture on how merciful God is, so I spoke my mind again. Even though there were others at the table, I was now just talking to him.
After I was finished with my theory, I ducked my head because I was worried that I had not only disrespected my father, but my entire religion in front of family and non-Jewish friends. But he smiled wider than I had ever seen him smile. “Now you are thinking like a Rabbi.”
Jews, especially Jewish children, are taught to question everything. I just never thought that “everything” included Judaism itself.
From that point forward, I was hooked. I now attend synagogue and read the Torah just to see if I can take the stories and use science to make them plausible.
I believe in religion as the purest form of storytelling. For me, a person’s God is real to them because they believe in it, not because it is real in the physical sense.
For example, at the end of the 7th Harry Potter book, Harry has a conversation with Dumbledore in between the living realm and the afterlife. Harry then asks, “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”
Dumbledore responds, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”
This line by J.K. Rowling defines the evolution of my religious beliefs. Storytelling is an art that brings people together into tribes that love, hate, learn, hope, fight, and expand. It’s what separates humans, and I think that it’s the central theme of all the religions and the 18,000 different Gods throughout history. That’s how I rationalize my God when I pray, and it truly makes me who I am by connecting me with the culture that I love. And nobody can tell me or any other community, no matter which God or Gods they believe in, that what’s happening inside our heads isn’t real.