What would you do if someone close to you did not want you to write a memoir that involved him or her? Would you respect their wishes or would you forge ahead? And, if you did forge ahead, would their watching over your shoulder, metaphorically speaking, compromise what you really wanted to share?
I couldn't help but think of this while opening BJ Rosenfeld's The Chameleon in the Closet: A Conservative Jewish Mother Reaches Out to Her Orthodox Sons and reading the first sentence: "Our older son did not want me to write this book. The story is his, he insisted." And yet, Rosenfeld did forge ahead by explaining how her sons' religious decisions impacted the rest of the family.
I was intrigued by this story since it was about family members wanting more from the faith in which they were raised. Like so many of us, Rosenfeld and her husband gave their children a basis for belief -- nothing too difficult or over the top, which is often par for the course. No matter the religion, though, most of us know only the basics of our faith and go through the motions, sometimes not even understanding why. Yet, going by his Hebrew name, Zalman, Rosenfeld's oldest son began to challenge what he considered to be lackadaisical faith on the part of his parents. Initially, his mother took umbrage to his judgmental attitude while his father looked at it as just the phase of an impressionable college student. Even so, his mother did her best to respect her son's wishes by dressing more reservedly, not to mention uncomfortably in the summer heat, in Orthodox fashion, and creating a more kosher kitchen, one that adhered to the laws from biblical days.
While reading, I was reminded of when I went down a similar path, except it was as a fundamental, Bible-believing conservative Christian. I, too, was at an impressionable age looking for something more, something that made sense. I'd been raised in a home where Catholicism was the religion of choice, even though my mother intimated how much she missed her Methodist faith, having left it in order to marry my father. I went through the motions of making my first communion where I got to wear a princess-like dress and a few years later was confirmed, which is similar to a bar or bat mitzvah in the Jewish religion, but I don't recall taking it terribly seriously. I was required to do it, not just according to the Church, but, more importantly, by my father. It wasn't long after that I considered myself an atheist, even though I went to church every weekend. I didn't have an option. But, I suppose much like Zalman and his brother Chaim, who would soon follow, I needed something more concrete so took my mother's suggestion of reading the Bible, which was on our bookstand in the living room next to her copies of The Reader's Digest. Since it was The King James Version, I eventually got myself a copy of something a bit more accessible and read it every day. Soon, I was a born-again Christian and made the choice to be baptized. I not only studied, but taught the Bible. I believed anyone who didn't claim the blood of Christ would be going to hell and it was my mission to get them on the righteous path to glory. No alcohol was allowed in my home and I believed everything, including finding or not finding a parking space at the mall, was in control by a higher power. Who was that person?
My mother was thrilled; my father, not so much. He was insulted and hurt that I would question his religion, which caused a rift between us for a number of years. Yet, my faith was sincere, one I was sure provided the only path to a place called heaven. I did what I was instructed to do, at least according to the pastor of the Bible-believing church I attended. I'm sure this is how Zalman and Chaim approached their new-found belief system. Without a doubt, they are sincere and their mother, even if she found it frustrating at times, respected their desires. Actually, she did more than respect. She jumped through hoops for her sons as they immersed themselves in the Orthodox faith, one that appears to be exhausting in its requirements. And, I have to admit, if my children insisted I adhere to the many laws that their beliefs demanded, I would react pretty much as my father did to me. A rabbi who refuses to shake my hand because I am a woman is one who wouldn't get the time of day from me. A son who insists his mother follows his rules in her own house could use a lesson in compassion and humility. This is where Rosenfeld and I are different.
Still, I couldn't help but feel she was trying to justify her flexibility to the Orthodox way of life without totally selling me on it. And maybe this is because she was very aware that her sons would be reading her book. At one point, she tells the reader that Judaism does not discourage questions because Passover includes a recitation of four questions from a special prayer book. However, year after year the questions are the same with the same answers. For myself, over time, I too began to ask questions, but found the answers were unsatisfactory and began to do my own research. No longer am I a born-again Christian nor am I an atheist; rather, I consider myself an agnostic, because I simply don't know. What I do know is that no one truly has the answers and all we can do is find what's right for us without imposing our beliefs on others in lockstep fashion.
The Chameleon in the Closet is beautifully written while the last chapters feel rushed, as though Rosenfeld didn't want to have to look too closely at how dramatically her life has been changed thanks to her sons' determined faith -- obviously not a passing phase with Zalman dedicating his life to studying the Torah while he, his wife and their several children have now made Israel their home. As a parent, though, it's understandable that she is doing what is necessary in order to maintain a relationship. My hope is that her sons realize this, but my concern is that their faith would not be quite as tolerant, which leads me to ask: Who wants to serve that kind of god?