Back when I was old enough to remember, but still so young that I can’t pinpoint the exact moment in time, I was asked by a teacher about my religion.
“I’m half Jewish and half Christian,” I proudly told her, to which she responded, “You can’t be both.”
I explained that my father was Jewish and my mother was Christian and that since I was born, we (sort of) celebrated both Chanukah and Christmas. This conversation could never happen in a public school during the 2000s, but apparently during the ’80s it was fair game.
“If you were standing in the middle of a train track and a train was headed your way, you would have to jump one way,” she metaphorized to a human who didn’t yet have an inkling of what a metaphor even was. “So which are you?”
The closest answer I would have to that question for the next three decades was neither. Most of my life, the concept of religion was as elusive as the institution of marriage; it was something I witnessed over at a friend’s house every now and then, but nothing I had any personal experience with.
My disposition was complicated: the Jewish faith didn’t really accept me, as they believe religion is carried through the mother, but how could I be a Christian with the last name Ornstein? Though my father considered himself a Jew and cringed at the name Jesus Christ, he refused to attend services or expand his practices past lighting a few candles on the menorah and trading gifts for Chanukah. My mother was pretty much the same when it came to Christianity, though a few times we attended services at a hippy Unitarian church, where at the end, everyone would hold hands and sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.”
My parents, who tumultuously split up when I was 5, were both alcoholics in “recovery,” though neither bothered to attend 12-step meetings because they were “cured,” my mother through her marijuana maintenance and my father was simply “too smart” for “those people” and could do it on his own just fine.
Needless to say, my upbringing was far from traditional and I pretty much lived alone from the age of 14 on. I spent the formative years of my life floundering, raising myself with little guidance of any sort. It was a very dark and lonely period of my life. While other people my age were learning about the importance of hard work, responsibility, and self-respect, I was numbing my pain with alcohol, drugs, money, and men. I didn’t believe in God, not in the slightest. “If there was a god, then why would BLANK BLANK BLANK,” would become a barroom conversation that I exploited to the max.
The concept of God was really introduced to me when I landed in rehab at the age of 21, which I might add, was my own idea. An important part of the program is coming to believe in “a power greater than yourself,” which for many people who stagger in, broken and beat up by life, is downright near impossible. It’s like God 101; they encourage you to start small and keep it simple (one person I knew used a Gumby doll). I chose the ocean, because it made sense to me that if I stood in front of a wave and tried to stop it, I couldn’t. My first year of recovery, I would walk down to the ocean every morning and pray to something I didn’t really understand, because they told me to “fake it ’til you make it.” For whatever reason, it calmed my mind and made me feel at peace.