When I first met God I was sitting on an uncomfortable folding chair in a small loft in a small synagogue staring straight ahead and counting the lines on the wood paneling angled too close before me. I swung my legs a bit too much and a hand at my right side swatted them. I didn’t belong to the woman attached to that hand but that didn’t matter; a child in a synagogue belonged to all of the women.
I studied her. Her eyebrows were furrowed and covered in sweat. The small space, the closeness to the ceiling, and the extreme heat showed on her face and I wondered if her lips moved slightly because she was really saying the prayers or if she was recounting the people in attendance so that she could be sure she’d made enough cholent for everyone. Perhaps she was worrying about one of her own children and hoping they were in line with the what-to-dos or being swatted accordingly.
She caught me looking at her and raised her hand to swat. You don’t have to bruise me twice; I quickly turned the other cheek.
To my left was a soft white doily curtain. It hung delicate and limp from a skinny brass curtain rod. The intricate holes allowed only glimpses of life outside of the stifling loft. Through one hole I saw movement from far away and below me- small specks of black. Worried as I was about Mrs. Swat, I sat very still and quietly moved my lips in pretend prayer, but I trained my eyes on the largest hole I could find.
I willed them to see more. I tried to reach through the hole and pull some of what the men and boys were feeling up to our little attic loft. It was too small. I strained to see better. Nothing. Sweat streamed down my face and I hoped Mrs. Swat would think I was also worried about the food quantity.
I leaned toward the curtain. My fingers moved ever so slightly, itching to move it a tiny bit -if I could just move it a bit more- so I could see. More sweat. We could not use electricity on the Sabbath and even though I was too young to cover my head, the heat hung about each of us like a faithful shawl, making the temperature unbearable. It was as if God had turned off the breeze.
Then I felt it. The curtain was between my fingers. My eyes darted to Mrs. Swat.
“Twenty-one. Twenty-two. Twenty-three. Ah-main.” She was too busy to notice.
Sweat fell from my face onto my rebellious arm. Almost. I could almost make out a – and then the curtain was gone. I was no longer on the woman’s side. I was finally there, above it all, learning for the first time what all of the buzz was about.
I had moved it just the slightest bit, but the sound, the air, the possibility of something different- it took my breath away! How strange that a thin piece of fabric could block so much life.
I was enthralled. Below me a sea of black and white Tallises swayed in the heat as if on the Serengeti. They were wrapped in Tefillin, their beliefs, and the word of God, each keeping time in his own way. Great waves of faith and community rose off of their backs and filled the air with something for which I will never have the right word. I watched as some moved quickly and frantically, willing God into their life that very moment, while others were slow, methodical, and rhythmic. A few sang out loudly above the others, coming up for a musical beat, and then they were back to their own quiet hum. I was in awe.
Then I saw a face. It was my father. He was looking right at me and the long breath I was holding suddenly escaped me. I froze.
I should have dropped the curtain, sat back quickly, and counted the lines until the service was over. I should have done what I was told to begin with and not peeked into a world not meant for a Jewish girl. I should have done what was expected of me. I should have seen more surprise in his face after he realized I had broken the rules.
And then my father smiled.
A quick smile and then he was back to his prayers as if nothing had happened. I was confused. There I was breaking rules, his rules, His rules, and he smiled at me?
Swat! I was so lost in thought I had forgotten about that hand.
I dropped the curtain, rubbed my leg, and stared straight ahead. I didn’t need to look again. Suddenly the curtain couldn’t keep it back. The sound burst through and encircled me and lifted me higher than I already felt. It wasn’t God’s face I saw, it was my father’s, but it was all I needed to see.
My father is a man of dedication, responsibility, and hard work. Surviving both the Holocaust and the Hungarian Revolution, being moved to Canada as a teenager, putting himself through college, grad school, and earning a PhD from Stanford, none of this caused him to question his faith, question his dedication, shirk his responsibilities, or stop him from working harder for what he believes in. I thought for sure that I had just disappointed him beyond measure. But he smiled.
In that smile I saw something I had never considered about my father. I am always saying that apples don’t fall far from their trees… perhaps what I thought he wanted for me was all wrong. In that moment I realized that he wanted me to go my own way, bend the rules, and feel safe and free enough to take on the world in the way he was never able to do. He worked hard so that I could be tucked in with an American flag. He wants me to be full of possibilities of my own making. He wants me to be free to explore my gifts, which I surely inherited from him, without pain and suffering.
In his face I realized that I could be the gifted that so many others, millions of others, never survived to be.
Religion changed for me that day. I’m not sure if it was one particular day or a series of days just like it, but over time I realized that peeking for answers will always be my way. Religious Studies became a passion for me; and if I’m honest, faith has always been a struggle. I am a question person and there are many, many questions to ask. But everyone needs a place and I find myself constantly in the proverbial loft peeking through and seeking the Serengeti. It may not be the face of God I saw that day, but it is the face I remember, and the face in which I find comfort and strength.
Today I decided to make God’s face the Portrait of Gifted because it seems to me that all religions are a series of memories and experiences which we must sort through to find our home. As gifted children and adults, we tend to evaluate them in much the same way as we do all information and it can be overwhelming and confusing. Overexcitabilities don’t stop at the door of religion and at some point there will be questions, anxieties, passions, and more questions. Religion can be a great comfort or a great barrier.
The electric hum, the buzz of a thousand power lines, the rise and fall of the dedicated singing out to God, these sounds will go with me everywhere I am. They are the sounds of my heritage, my past, and my future. My children, my father’s grandchildren, will be looking for answers someday, too, and when they look I plan to be staring right at them. And I will smile.