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Me and God


I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with God all my life. I cannot remember when I first heard of him. We humans aren’t born with an innate awareness of deity but must be taught whom to worship and how and, for the curious among us, as I was, why. Hebrew School, which I attended after regular school for six years, from the age of seven until my bar mitzvah, gave me my first formal introduction to God: the God of the Old Testament, of the Jews. Those seeds fell on fertile ground; by the time I was ten or eleven I had a profound relationship with God.

Sadly, that relationship was based on desire: on what I wanted God to give me. This isn’t how worship is supposed to work: you’re supposed to love God for the sheer delight of loving the deity, and not as part of some quid pro quo. But try to explain that to an eleven-year old. What I wanted, back then, was to grow in height. All my friends were shooting up like beanstalks. Not little Stevie. The sadness that engendered, I can still feel today; possibly it’s the seed corn of the sadness I’ve felt all my life, although there often were perfectly sound reasons for the other sadnesses. Suffice it to say that being short made me profoundly sad.

And so I prayed. And Prayed. And Prayed, with Gethsemanean intensity, every night before drifting off to sleep. “Please, God, let me grow an inch by morning.” Alas, the penciled height jots on the post of my bedroom door never exceeded 5’5”; God either did not hear my prayers or, in a spiteful mood, chose not to answer them (although, as Capote reminds us, answered prayers may be their own curse).

As a result, I suppose, of that rebuff I stopped believing in God. No, that’s not quite right: I was angry with God, and so I stopped talking to him, but I still believed in him. Over the years, there were flickerings, here and there, when the old God—my Hebrew School God, the patron of the Jews—crossed the threshold of my mind, at least enough for me to talk to him again. But I cannot recall any prolonged period of belief, although, intellectually, I always found the act of faith interesting food for thought. Such a uniquely human thing; so ubiquitous throughout history. Suddenly, in 2005, along came my first book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River,” and what was that on page three? “Dedicated to God.”

How do I explain that?

By then I’d met, and fallen rather head over heels in love with, a young—all right, a very young man I’ll call Ezra, because he is today a rabbi in a Chasidic Jewish order, married, with who knows how many dozens of children, as befits these fruitful multipliers, and I would not want him (or his wife) to read this. No, nothing ever happened between us. I have always had too much taste to cause unseemly scenes, especially with men I like and admire for qualities other than their beauty. But when Ezra and I sat together, studying Kabbalah, he would write down the various letters of the Hebrew alphabet and explain their mystical meanings, while I heard nothing, thought nothing, saw nothing, save his hands and the exquisitely delicate, long white fingers that guided his pen, like Michaelangelo’s hands modeling David’s face. I see those hands now, resting lightly on the table of the café where we used to meet; and I am tempted to say that they brought me back to God because, after all, who else but God could have created that infinite loveliness?

But that would be a stretch. It was not Ezra’s fingers that re-introduced me to God, although he did ease me into a two-year period of the study of Chasidism. Something else by then had occurred. Perhaps it was just the pendulum sweeping through its inevitable arc. I do go through epochs. Perhaps it was turning fifty and hearing—tick, tick, tick—Time’s winged chariot creeping up behind my left shoulder, the sinister one; or it could have been the Millennium, which always causes god-craziness among people. I’m not sure what it was, which is surprising, since you’d think that re-believing in God would have been prompted by something remarkable, hence unforgettable. But there it is: I don’t know exactly what brought me back to Adonai Elohainu, which is the way it ought to be. A mystery.

However, it was only a brief reconciliation, for by 2009, I’d ceased once again to have much use for the God who had ruined my life by thrusting me off to Bernie Madoff Hell. When I thought about God—which I did, in a philosophically contemplative way—I, the most rational of Geminis, found intellectually absurd the idea of a personal creator who took interest in my affairs. Also, as I’ve written elsewhere, by then I’d realized that my enemy was the evangelical wing of the Christians, and their constant blathering about God was…well, the friend of my enemy is my enemy: something like that. I suppose I could have, through some kind of mental jiu-jitsu, believed in a different God than the Christian God, but that seemed hypocritical, and still does.

So that was my most recent, and probably last, foray into the religion of my forebears. I certainly have no use for the rituals of Judaism, such as the Seder, although I understand their role in highlighting the value Judaism places on the family. But having no family, this is of no great meaning to me. And I’m bound to point out that it was my people, the ancient Hebrews, who invented homophobia: the concept that same sexuality is an abomination punishable by death, the only ancient peoples of the Middle East to do so, as far as I know. Judaism thus can take credit for making it impossible–until only very recently–for gay people to have families, unless, that is, they—we—are willing to live lives of lies.

A confession: I’ve always had a secret fascination, or a morbid fear—they’re similar–of becoming Christian. I notice crosses everywhere—a telephone pole, the way a pillar is intersected by a beam, contrails in the form of an “X”. So frequently does this happen that I sometimes wonder what’s up. And there are other things…

For instance, yesterday I was out for a walk and one of the songs on my iPod (of which there are thousands) started playing. Walker Hayes’ Craig is an overtly Christian song, about a beer-drinking non-believer who gradually grows to believe through the intercessional love of a preacher, Craig, who wins his heart. It’s the only such song on my playlist (unless you include Dylan’s strange, beautiful album, Slow Train Coming). I loved Craig when I first heard it and was aware of the irony—and danger—of downloading it. Don’t get sucked in. But what are the odds of Craig playing just as I was passing the Roman Catholic Cathedral here in Oakland? The structure itself is ugly (to my untrained eye) but whenever I pass it—which is often—something happens inside me I can’t explain. There have been many, many unexplainable synchronicities like this in recent years; were I more suggestible, or less cynical, I might think that somebody was trying to get a message through to me.

But I’m stubborn. I think of Hannah and Her Sisters, specifically the scene where the Woody Allen character, Mickey, after considering converting to Hare Krishna during a life crisis, finally reasons with himself. “Who am I kidding?” he wonders. As do I, although, strictly speaking, the question is Whom am I kidding?

After all, one has a certain pride. One does not run to the nearest religion just because one is lonely. Jews are a stiff-necked people, it’s said, and New York City Jews are probably the stiffest-necked of all, at least outside of Israel, where they have to be stiff-necked because a billion Muslims would like to drive them into the Mediterranean. So, no, Stevie is not about to become a born-again Christian. Besides, just a week ago I sent a rather nasty email to an old friend—well, we’ve known each other 30 years. Charles is 62, a Black evangelical Christian, an Elder in his storefront church here in Oakland, and a helluva nice man. He’s been working on me (I mean, to convert me) all these years. We ran into each other while we were both on separate walks to get out of shelter-in-place perdition, and our conversation picked up right where it always does, with Charles quoting scripture and me, politely, refuting him in Socratic manner. I like Charles a greal deal, but when I came home I emailed him and said I could never associate with an organization that causes so much pain and suffering to gay people.

Were born-again Christians less mean and more accepting, I might—might—explore the possibilities. But really, Christianity has shot itself in the foot with its viciousness, and even the more reasonable strains—Unitarians, Episcopalians, Methodists—are tainted by association with their evil (I use the word deliberately) brethren. So I see the crosses and experience the synchronicities and wonder what the heck is going on. I expect I’ll live out what’s left of my life—three years? Four? Heimoff men don’t make it out of our seventies–in that twilight zone between non-belief and wonderment, until wondering ceases and either knowledge or nothing replaces it.

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