In the spirit of telling stories that help us understand our own Jewish journeys, I’d like to share one of mine:
It was 1965 and I was in Mrs. Rosensweig’s first grade class at Charles W. Henry School in Philadelphia. I was six and a half.
Mrs. Rosensweig was standing at the blackboard with her pointer when out of the blue, the classmate seated next to me whispered in my ear, "Ellen, do you believe in God?"
It was a question that could throw you – especially at six - but around that time I had been asking my parents about God. We were not a religious family, nor did we hang out in organized religious circles. Ours was a mostly secular life punctuated with some Jewish holiday observances (Passover) and some non-Jewish ones (we had a Christmas tree each year as well as Easter egg hunts.) Ideas about God were most likely to come from my parents. But when it didn’t, I was moved to ask them, "Do we believe in God?”
My dad told me to ask my mom. My mom said that she just wasn’t sure.
And so, having done the research, I felt justified in responding to this classmate by answering truthfully, "I’m not sure, but I don’t think so." She took my answer and turned it into a game of Telephone, whispering to the girl next to her, "Ellen doesn’t believe in God, pass it on."
All the excitement brought Mrs. Rosensweig to my desk. She demanded to know what was being said and would I share it with the rest of the class. And that’s when the little interviewer beside me blurted out, "It’s Ellen, Mrs. Rosensweig. She says she doesn’t believe in God."
Remember, this was the early 1960s. Mrs. Rosensweig had a number of choices that day and unfortunately for me, she leaned in closer, and using her pointer for emphasis, said in front of the entire first grade class, "Ellen, if you don’t believe in God, how then do you explain how you got here this morning? How do you explain how the trains and cars go? How do you explain how the universe was created?"
I’ll never forget the sensation of every first graders’ eyes boring through me as Mrs. Rosensweig made an example of me that day, railing on and on, making my confusion about God only more so and not allowing me the chance to speak or have my questions answered. She gave me the impression, at a very impressionable age, that if you were honest about how you felt about God, or questioned God’s existence at all, you would probably get a public tongue lashing.
I believe that that very day, I laid my muddled feelings about God to rest. It wasn’t worth it, I thought.
Twenty-five years later, it was my daughters’ questions about God, the afterlife and the soul that rustled up those deeply buried memories of a young girl who never got her questions answered. I knew one thing - my children were going to have their questions explored.
And explore we did. When my daughters were the age to begin religious school, we joined Beth Emet. After a few months and too many questions from the girls that I simply couldn’t answer, I felt a tug to venture into the building and take some adult education classes for myself.
Back then, in the mid 1990s, Rabbi Eleanor Smith was teaching a workshop on God. There in the Weiner Room, I discovered that I was not the only one who had ever questioned God’s existence. Moses had too. As had others in the room. I was reminded that history is full of people who argued with God and no one was ever struck down dead from their questions. The questioning and disagreement often led to enrichment.
The gate to the subject of God finally opened, now longer guarded by well-meaning, but misguided teacher with a pointer.
I was a woman on fire, burning through books and study, hungry for more. And so began a rich spiritual journey, among which led to an adult bat mitzvah and teaching religious school, that I like to think motherhood set me on.
Or was it Mrs. Rosensweig?
Prompt #1: What turned you to or away from God or Judaism?
Prompt #2: What brought you to the doors of Beth Emet?
A version of this piece was originally published in “Views from the Home Office Window,” by Ellen Blum Barish (Adams Street Publishing, 2007).