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Saturday, May 16, 2009

Angels vs. Demons


I had no idea that the existential struggle of good vs. evil began at age five.

Sure… I overheard, and sometimes participated in typical kid conversations about all sorts of interesting moral issues. Some examples include:

-Good genies vs. bad genies (depends on the color of the rug they are flying on, evidently);

-Superfriends vs. the Hall of Doom (had to correct the cartoon induced misunderstanding that ugly = evil);

-Good banana trees vs. bad bees (who set up nests in the flowers of said trees in our yard – setting up an interesting conversation about whether there is good and. bad in nature);

And the ever popular:

- Why do we have so much money and other people don’t?

On these issues, I had plenty to say. And I thought that by talking freely about these things I was/am providing the kids with a good ethical foundation for their lives.

So I was completely unprepared when Jaden and Rowan began to articulate their views about God and religion.

See, I am an atheist Jew. I don’t believe in God. But I believe in Jewish culture.

In order for me to stay connected to my Jewish culture I decided long ago that I need to participate in the important religious ceremonies and perhaps even say and repeat words that I don’t necessarily believe it, but that keep me spiritually connected to my ancestors and my heritage.

And yes, I realize that this is an oxymoron of sorts. But it represents 41 years of negotiation between my upbringing and my inner-self and I am frankly quite comfortable with it – for me.

But the problem is the kids. What to teach the kids?

I firmly believe that they need some sort of progressive Jewish education – similar to what I had. During/after that they can then decide for themselves whether or not they believe or in God and all the other various associated moral and ethical issues. And if it turns out Rowan is really at heart a Zoroastrian, so be it.

So then the second problem… we don’t live in a place where I can give that to them. If we were back in the US it would be easy. I would shell out big bucks for Sunday and Hebrew School and they would get properly indoctrinated and I wouldn’t have to do a thing other than hold a Sedar or two and save up for the Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. But here they are just about the only Jewish kids they know, and I have been remiss in teaching them because, well… , I don’t really believe any of the religious part. Up until recently, Jaden’s and Rowan’s religious education consisted of the cartoon movies Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and the Prince of Egypt, and lighting candles and eating latkes at Chanukah. (Well… not only… but you get the drift.)

Rowan started the search for answers when, after watching the Prince of Egypt just before Passover this year, she asked me why God would do such a horrible thing as to kill all the first born of Egypt? After all, she said, Moses and God were trying to get Pharaoh to stop doing bad things, so why did they do a bad thing themselves? Why would God kill babies?

At first I was beaming from ear to ear, since she stumbled upon the ultimate existential question of all Western religious thought. And at such an early age! But then I panicked. In order to answer this question I had to talk about God. And this talk about God led to lots more questions about God… like: Where is God? Is God a boy or a girl? Is God good or bad? Does God know I’m here?

I tried to do my best answering these questions without telling her that I didn’t believe any of it, but it was very hard for me. I felt like I was lying to my daughter. I couched my answers in statements like “Well we are Jewish, and Jews believe that…” But it wasn’t good. It didn’t feel right, not right at all.

It was not long after that I realized that most of what I was saying wasn’t quite getting through in any case. I overheard Rowan having a conversation about God on the swing set at school, insisting that God lives in Egypt and nowhere else.

(What the F? She’s having conversations about God at school???? I’m thinking I need her to spend more time with our Danish and Dutch friends who also come from atheist stock.)

A few weeks after that, Jaden and Rowan came home from a play-date with their lovely Kenyan friend talking about Jesus and, well, the apocalypse. This very sweet boy lives with his grandparents here in Dar and the family seems very involved with a born-again Christian church. Clearly, someone had been telling stories… and after this event… I heard lots of tales about things that are completely abhorrent to my personal beliefs. For Christ’s sake, the crows were evidently going to be punished by God for killing smaller birds. And God, as it turns out, was watching our every move to see if we were good or evil and rewarding or punishing us accordingly.

And this, my friends, was a big wake up call.

I tried the handy, “Well, we are Jews, and Jews believe…”

But this time it didn’t work. My noncommittal generalized responses couldn’t cut through the (evidently) very passionate beliefs pitched by their friend. Jaden insisted to me that I was wrong and his friend knows better. It was actually the first time that I couldn’t get them to believe me over someone else. It was sobering.

I stuck the Prince of Egypt back in the DVD player so I could have a minute to think and attempt to begin the re-education process (even though perhaps it wasn’t an idea re-education).

Truth is I’m stumped. I feel like I’ve somehow missed the boat – and if I don’t swim out and climb on NOW the kids are going to develop worldviews that risk being fundamentally opposed to mine. I’m perfectly prepared for this to happen when they are emancipated adults (OK, after 13). But I’m not prepared to cede my influence at this point in their lives. I just have to come up with a way to do it that feels authentic to me.

Does this mean making Friday night Sabbath dinners? I don’t think so. That would interfere with our regular Yacht Club night – which is an important family ritual, too.

But I do know that I have to find a way to create more meaningful moral/ethical Jewish-oriented lessons out of our everyday lives even though this might mean exposing them more to the cruelty of the world I have protected them from for the past five years.

Because we are so isolated from the rest of our cultural community I am the only one who can do it. I hope I’m up to the task, kenahara.


Matzo ball soup from Passover

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Top 10 Semi-Lame Excuses Why I Haven't Posted in Six Months

10. I Have a New Job

Back in September I left AED/T-MARC and took a job with Jhpiego – an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University. The new job comes with more pressure, less time to blog from work, and a new boss. And although she happens to be a good friend, she also reads this blog, and I guess I’ve been a bit shy – not to mention completely balled over by work – to post during daylight hours.

9. I Have a New Drug

The stupid indispensible BlackBerry Pearl has taken over my life. I work from bed, I work while the kids take drama class, I work poolside, and when I’m not working I’m reading CNN, the NYTimes or TMZ on the stupid little machine that now rules my life.

8. I Have a New Creative Outlet

Facebook is my mistress. I use her or abuse her at my whim. She doesn’t require me to entertain her with thoughtful stories about life as an expat in Tanzania. And although sometimes I ignore her completely, thanks to the stupid indispensible BlackBerry she calls me like a jealous lover, all day and all night. I can’t seem to shake her.

7. I Have a New (Old) Weekend Activity

For those of you who remember when my beloved Sea Cliff Hotel burned down… well… 18 months later (and one big insurance check – although I have my serious suspicions about the “accidental” nature of the fire) the Sea Cliff has reopened for business and the kids and I can be found every Sunday holding court with good friends and an interesting cast of international characters like Canadian soccer teams, Ghanaian princes, and South African hunters.

6. I Have a New House

But actually… first I should say that we were homeless for about two months. I decided to move to a slightly larger house with a much much larger yard (more than an acre) but the house wasn’t ready yet and my old landlord decided to kick us out before we were ready to leave. So the kids and I stayed with Jane and family for about five weeks, and we stayed with Laura and Carl for about two weeks, and we house sat for another three weeks (during which time I am positive the kids and I had the Swine Flu – I promise you – it came to Africa this past flu season before it made it to Mexico). It was a tough transition but completely worth the wait. It is a great house for us – high ceilings, three bedroom/three baths inside, and an extra 5 bedroom Swahili-style house on the property that now is a laundry/storage/nanny house. The yard was essentially strewn with construction debris when we moved in, but thanks to friends with green thumbs, gardeners with the patience to plant grass one blade at a time (seriously that’s how they do it here), the rainy season, and the amazing growing power of tropical plants our yard is turning into a lush paradise giving us fresh bananas, papayas, and flowers daily. Unfortunately, paradise comes with snakes. One fell off a tree and onto my security guard’s head just last Sunday. Jaden, who was in the yard working with the gardener at the time, helped kill it with a shovel. Ah… the life skills my children are learning here on the equator.

5. I Have a Newfound (Unfortunate) Love for the TV

During the first 2.5 years I lived in Tanzania I rarely turned on the TV at night. I’d come home from work, play and eat with the kids, and then sit at my dining room table and work/recreate on the computer. Now, because of the configuration of the house, and the fact that Rock of Love, Dr. 90210, The Girls Next Door, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars and a few British programs (like the one where hundreds of guys are auditioning with Andrew Lloyd Webber – over several months a la American Idol - for the opportunity to be Joseph in the new West End production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, or the British version of Nanny 911 which uses the same British nanny as the American show) are on every night I find myself more and more gravitated to the boob tube. I know I should be embarrassed confessing this to you. But after a day of being the boss at work, it is nice to be completely mindless in the evening, blog be damned!

4. My Kids Have More Interesting Social Lives than Me

And there are two of them and only one of me. Like all 5 year-olds they have busy social schedules that require some level of parental involvement and carpooling. Rowan is loving karate and takes it three days a week now. Jaden has a series of best friends with better toys than him and therefore requires out-of-house play-dates. With this new emphasis on friends I’m also finding plenty of challenges. Of Jaden’s two best friends, one is a Kenyan born again Christian who has been talking with Jaden about Jesus and also divine retribution (like the crows that are evidently going to hell for killing/eating smaller birds). The other best friend is a lovely Tunisian Muslim kid who tells stories about good and evil genies and magic carpets. I tried adding stories about Passover into the mix, and I think some of it sunk in. I overheard Rowan adamantly correcting another friend that no, god isn’t everywhere. God lives in a bush on a mountain in Egypt!

3. I Have a New Love of Parenting

Well perhaps I shouldn’t call it new. Parenting continues to grow on me – and for the past year or two it has really begun to flourish. Even 5 years into this parenting experiment I still sometimes wake up with a start that, holy shit, I’m actually responsible for birthing these amazing kids. Don’t get me wrong – I also suck at it. They still end up in my bed by 3 AM every night despite my best (ok, half-hearted) efforts at preschooler sleep training). And they don’t particularly like it when I plant myself in front of the computer in my off hours. In a bid for some sympathy/time I bought them each their own learning computers. For about a week they would sit next to me on my bed (where I do must of my computing these days) and work on their very noisy computers while I tried to get work done on mine, but alas, they have seen through my plan and are now back to demanding my undivided attention. And in a new development, I don’t much mind turning off the computer and devoting myself completely to them instead.

2. This Blog Was the Victim of Antisemitic Hate Mail

During the Israeli offensive against Gaza in December/January I started getting some threatening Antisemitic responses to some of my older posts about the Jewish community in Dar. When I looked online at my sitemeter I could see that during the course of several days hundreds of people in India, Pakistan and the UK were reading my Jewish-themed blogs. I talked to some friends (and later officials) at the US Embassy about it and all agreed that since no specific threats against me or anyone else were being made (even though the comments felt pretty offensive to me) there was nothing anyone could do. I thought about it long and hard and decided that although there was likely no real threat to me, there was an outside chance that there could be to some of the people and places I write about (like the Israeli restaurant that serves as the center of what little Jewish life there is here in Dar) and so I took down my blog for about two months. I know that some of you tried to look at my blog during that period and couldn’t find it – and this is why. A few months ago I put the blog back up and everything has been quiet since then – until now at least.

1. I Haven’t Had Much Need or Ability to Procrastinate

And although I love communicating with the outside world (you), to do it I need time and lack of motivation to do the million other things on my list. Truth be told, I’ve also been intimidated by my own established bar. Up until now, pretty much every blog post has been a three page essay with a coherent start, middle and end. It is a high standard to meet when you are busy and not procrastinating much. So… my new promise to you (and me) is that I will try to start posting now even when I just have a few thoughts to share – and not a fully developed enlightening story. In return, I need you to please give me feedback. It isn’t much fun to put a lot of creative energy into a post only to get one or two comments when I know that many more people are reading the blog. So… I’ll keep posting if you keep commenting and hopefully that will keep me up late at night – it is after midnight now – or make me turn off Britain’s Got Talent so I can tell some stories about the Mahlers on Safari in Tanzania. Deal?