I'm with Jack

Michelle Madigan Somerville

 Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

The Kol Nidre service is long, comes at the end of a school day. I had to require that Grace and Jack accompany me to the temple on a mandatory voluntary basis.

"Do we have to?"

"It's the first night of Yom Kippur. You have to ask?"

"How long will it be?"

"Only about three hours."

Grace, fourteen, has little patience for much, but more than most children her age for the ritualistic. Not so her brother, eighteen-year-old Jack. He's not interested in religion. He never thinks about God. Yet since the day he was born, Jack has always had a kind of strange, holy countenance. A wonderful kindergarten teacher of his once described him to me (somewhat reluctantly—it was a private school, but she knew she was talking to a poet) as "a little holy man."

The prayer service begins with the Kol Nidre, which is intoned in Aramaic. It is not addressed to God and is not considered a prayer, but because it is so beautiful and suggests an expression of trust, somehow it feels like a prayer to me. Its words consider promises made to God, promises broken, and announce an intention to nullify them. Grace and I happened to turn and catch Jack smiling sweetly, swaying swooningly, davening improvisationally, afloat in his own private transcendence bubble. One of us whispers an irreverent joke: "Psst. Maybe Jack is the messiah!"

I confess I'm not big on the vogue my-autistic-child's-special-gifts way of looking at children with autism. That's a lot to put on a kid. Mostly, I see my son Jack as a regular guy who happens to have Asperger's, a disorder on the autism spectrum, who, underneath the distracting static din I imagine clutters his mind, is plenty intelligent. But I have taken note of Jack's peculiar gentleness, and his contentment with simple pleasures.

He gets angry and even tries to take a swing at his pesky little sister now and then. He hurls a vulgar epithet at his occasionally bossy twin—he's not perfect—but the young man does not have a grudge-holding, hateful bone in his body. That kindergarten teacher was right. He is something of a holy man.

Although my children were exposed to two faiths (my own Catholicism and their father's Judaism), we decided to raise them in the Jewish tradition. There were several reasons for this: My own admiration for Jewish culture predated even my decision to marry a Jew. My own faith was strong, but was characterized by an expansiveness which left space for experiencing God apart from Jesus. And I knew that, for me, raising daughters in a church in which women were not priests would have been something of a transgression. Furthermore, I didn't want to be responsible for taking Jews out of the modern world.

However, my children did experience the tension brought about by having one parent who wanted them to have a religious education, and another who was ambivalent about this.

I, a practicing Catholic, militated for Hebrew school, mandatory Shabbos dinner, b'nai mitzvah (whereas their father thought a Passover seder once a year, a cameo appearance at shul, living in Brooklyn, and having bagels and smoked fish now and then on a Sunday were adequate to establish Jewish identity). I wanted my children to know how to pray. I wanted them to identify as Jews. I knew that as non-Jews under Halakhic law, an extra push from me might make all the difference in this.

My daughters seem to grasp this. My eldest daughter, after finishing her first month at college away from home, texted me a photo of her lighting Shabbos candles in her dorm room. She knew it would make me cry. My younger girl has a militant temperament, a political nature, and an interest in things metaphysical.

The girls get it. The being Jews thing.

But through the years I have often been frustrated by my son's lack of urgency in identifying as Jewish (after all, he was my firstborn son, and I'd thought of naming him Moses!). Usually he says, "I'm both." Sometimes he says, "I'm half Christian and half Jewish," when the topic of Jewish identity arises at the dinner table. The rest of his family has jumped in on these occasions with talk of the difference between race and religion, discussing the Shoah and the complications Halakhic law presents, with its determination that no child of a non-Jewish mother can be Jewish without a formal conversion. We've spoken of my feeling that learning to pray as Jews was a way to carry the Jewish people into the future. We've called ourselves Irish Jews (I'm Irish). I have reminded Jack that one can't really be part Christian, that Christians are not born, but made, through baptism.

The only prayers Jack knows are Jewish prayers, and I believe he does think of himself as a Jew. But, over time, he has changed my thinking about his resolution to declare himself both. I now believe it is is a cognitive, apolitical, metaphysical expression of his transcendence. He is loath to exclude. To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, he's the messenger who forgets the message. He is both angel and message.

I love entering the temple with my son, taking a prayer book from the stack on a table, putting it in his hand, taking a kippah from the basket, popping it atop his head. When I sit with him in shul, I feel his holy energy. Jack hears music and rhythm in a way I can only describe as "deep." It seizes him fully, so that nothing else exists, and the divine tentacles of this energy seem tethered somehow to his autism.

He lacks ambition. He is not jealous. He does not covet. He does not care what he wears, or whether he is handsome or popular. He rarely dissembles. Sometimes he is self-centered, but his generosity astonishes. His cognitive disabilities hinder his ability to imagine the future, he is present here, now, and has to be reminded that there is a tomorrow. This is not unique among persons with autism.

Recently, I accompanied Jack to his physician's office to get his flu shot. We saw a baby there. Jack watched the infant intently, smiling. "You were just like him. With a bald round head like that," I said. "You always wanted to be picked up." Jack liked pausing to think of himself as a baby. People with autism have a lot of difficulty thinking abstractly about time. "You and I were so close," I said. He nodded in an oddly knowing way, with a "Mother-there-are-things-about-me-you-have-yet-to-learn" look in his eyes, and he said nothing. Messianic? No. Otherworldly? Yes. "What seems to be a stone is a drama," Heschel wrote.

Toward the end of college and shortly after, I sometimes used to work at the Catholic Worker on the Lower East Side in New York City near the Bowery. During their last week off at the end of summer 2012, I took my twins to work the lunch shift at the Worker. I knew my street-smart, confident Maria would manage just fine, but I worried about Jack. I thought he might be too clumsy a waiter. I worried that some of the men might speak harshly to him. Because he sometimes lacks the ability to read facial cues, I worried that he might say the wrong thing and wind up in a tight spot.

But Jack not only took to this work, he has asked to go back every time he is off from school. When summer came around, he couldn't wait to get back to that infernal kitchen–dining room off the Bowery to serve hot soup.

Walking through the world with autism is certainly no picnic, and my bright, charming, brave son has endured many tough and traumatizing breaks. When he was eleven years old (a small, young eleven), a much older boy—a big kid with a mustache, a developmental disability, and anger management issues—bloodied Jack's nose in his elementary school restroom. Two years later, in the presence of his teacher and with the knowledge of his principal, Jack was bullied on a daily basis for weeks and was afraid to report the incidents to us at home.

Those he had trusted betrayed him. Jack endured great scorn in solitude. I choose this word, "scorn," carefully.

In the aftermath of these incidents, Jack learned how to stand up for his own honor, he learned that often children have more honor than adults, and he learned how vulnerable he was. He learned fear, but he never learned hatred.

Now, Jack is an eighteen-year-old man who gets out of bed at 7 am every Saturday for a job that doesn't pay, and he loves it. He commutes from Brooklyn to Harlem to work in Gigi's Playhouse, a recreation center for children with Down syndrome and their families. The children are very young, and very cute, he says. I am not really sure what my son does there, but I gather he plays with the children and reads to them. It does not escape my notice that when he is in the company of these children he must feel like a man moving among baby angels.

Philosophers who believe in God—even the amateurs—seem to agree on one thing: that God is way too big to be parsed. No sect gets it exactly right. That's how I finesse my own bicameral relationship with God when I speak of God to my children. One finds a path and a reason to walk the path, not so much seeking to find God as to be found by God.

I began preparing for the sacraments in 1964 just as the Second Vatican Council was adjourning. I remember Latin mass—vaguely—and I remember hearing Jewish kids catch flak for killing Jesus. My mother's father loved listening to Father Coughlin on the radio. I bonded with my best college girlfriend over religion; my agnostic Catholicism, her unshakable Sephardic Judaism. I fell in love with a Jew. I fell in love with Jewish prayer and tradition. Those are not casual dalliances.

But for me, there has always been a great wall of Jericho between the two religious worlds. I resist December Dilemma-Jewish-Christian-Interfaith "reductivism." Hanukkah is a festival, and if religion is useful at all, it's useful all year-round. This is not to suggest that I don't enjoy crossing the theological bridge from time to time. I am not exempt from enjoying the idea that the Eucharistic blessing of the bread was originally a motzi, that the last supper was a seder, that the disposition of Jesus, as it relates to orthodoxy, is expressed in his willingness to work on the Jewish Sabbath, eat with Gentiles, and pray with women. But I find the co-opting of anything Judaic in the service of enhancing Christian worship intolerable. Indeed, I think it sinful.

When it comes to worship, I keep my brushes clean and canvas bright; I don't mix colors.

This means that when I lead my children in prayer on Friday nights, or when I do a rapid-fire summary of that week's Torah portion, I do it from a place in my consciousness that is, in a sense, a place of no Jesus. I recognize that some of my fellow Christians, Roman Catholics especially, might view this way of looking at Jesus as a kind of heresy. But if Jesus is God—if, at the eschatological finish, Jesus turns out to be the messiah—let's just say if—is not that God of which Jesus is part so infinite that he or she or it might reconcile all varying versions of who or what God truly is?

A year ago, my husband and I split up, and a month or two later I went to see the rabbi I think of as my rabbi. (Ironically, my husband went to the priest.) I did not go for counseling exactly, but because I was desperate and hoping not to lose the Jewish thread along with the Jewish husband. With my children suddenly traumatized by the breaking of our family, I wanted to feel that at least Jewish ritual and prayer was present enough for them—even without a full-on, Halakhic Jew dwelling on the premises.

The charming and witty rabbi queried me on my Sabbath endeavors. "When you say Sabbath, what do you mean?"

"Well, I roast a chicken, I get a loaf of challah, use a tablecloth . . ."

"Yeah, yeah . . . Okay. Chicken, challah . . . ," he said, giving off a faint, funny "cut to the chase" air.

"I don't ban the computer or iPods. Can't manage that . . ." He listened. "I use my mother's crystal . . ."

"You use your mother's crystal?"

"Yeah. It means a lot. Because it's Waterford Crystal, and because she's dead."

"Your mother's crystal," he repeated and nodded. I could see he liked the stemware part. It was an outward sign that I meant business. I went on to express my frustrations about my children's lack of knowledge of the Torah. I mentioned my shoddy SparkNotes mini-exegeses, how I'd try squeezing a few sentences about the portion in as my restless brats downed the blessed purple sucrose allowed only on Friday nights.

The Torah is in everything, it's everywhere, he said. Knowing I'm a poet, he mentioned looking for Torah in poems.

I came away feeling that this man who struggles (as most Reform rabbis must) with interfaith concerns and wrong-headed conversions had seen through me to the part of my soul that was a Jew in trouble, a Jewish mother longing to send children forth into the world knowing how to pray as Jews.

"Of course there's no place for Jesus," he said.

For me, this went without saying. I didn't need to hear it, yet I recognized how essential saying it was.

Jack doesn't notice the clothing of the guests he serves at the Worker. Whether they need a shower or smell like Ripple or talk to themselves, none of these things register. I've heard the guys get gruff with him: "Hey, kid, I said white bread not brown!"

But my son doesn't hear the ornery tone. He just hears the I am.

Having gained some success at staging nightly family dinners gave me the confidence to coerce my family into (a very loosely constructed) weekly Sabbath dinner. At ordinary dinner we discussed our obligations, as people with many gifts, to use our lives to make the world a better place. On Shabbos, I stepped up my preaching efforts, and tzedakah came up regularly.

In my Christian tradition, charity suggests the emulation of Christ. A Christian is called to do works of mercy as a means of being the Christ who reaches out to the Christ in others.

Tzedakah is obviously not that. Tzedakah is not charity. Tzedakah, as I have come to understand it, is giving because you are commanded to increase justice. I couldn't teach my children, who are not Christian, to be Christ to anyone—but I could teach them about their obligation to make justice through their gifts of time and talent. The message I have aimed to convey was very different from the Roman Catholic "charity" with which I grew up. "Charity" left one puffed up. "Tzedakah" is not an extra; it renders one, not more, but enough.

All three of my children are argumentative New Yorkers who regularly challenge my belief in God. "If we're Jewish, why do we have to set up for the Hope Dinner at your church?" "Why do we have to go to the holiday party with the kids we don't even know whose dads are in jail?" "Why do we have to help clean up after the Haiti dinner at the church?" "You're not even Jewish, Mom; why are you working at the temple?" They mouth off on these recurring topics, but rarely does one of them challenge the premise of tzedakah.

Because tzedakah is tzedakah.

As a person with autism, Jack has experienced the message of tzedakah in both capacities: as beneficiary and benefactor. So many people doing—living—some form of what could be called tzedakah have helped him to become the man he is today.

Jack knows what it is to be in need, to be vulnerable in the extreme, to be persecuted, to be an outcast. Jack knows what the plagues of Exodus are. All people with autism know what it is to wander, to be excluded. Jack has learned two messages about tzedakah: 1) It was his obligation to give. 2) It was the world's obligation to create justice on his behalf as a person with a disability.

Having been on both the receiving and giving ends of tzedakah, coupled with his overall genuine nature, has made Jack a natural at creating justice. He has little interest in commendations, less in having a fine reputation. Jack does not see guests at the Catholic Worker as "the other." He sees them as friends. He is entirely without self-consciousness when he serves the soup. He wants to do it because it is good. He knows that many have no homes, that they are men and women in search of food and a table. There's no ego in Jack's outreach. For him, it's tzedakah, not charity. He wants to be enough. He's the angel who forgets the message.

Not long after Jack began his summer stint at the Catholic Worker, his father decided to do a shift with Jack one day. "Hey!" one of the guests on line called out, to the Jewish guy in need of a shave, "Don't cut the line!"

Another called out, "He's okay. He's with Jack!"

Michele Madigan Somerville is the author of WISEGAL and Black Irish. She lives in New York City.

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