My 14-year-old daughter Noa has physical disabilities and learning disabilities. We spent much of her early years in waiting rooms of doctor's offices, waiting rooms for physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, vision therapy -- the list goes on and on. In the waiting rooms there were kids with cancer, kids with cerebral palsy, kids with autism, kids with amputated limbs, kids who had been born prematurely. In their daily lives these kids stood out, they had developmental delays, they were teased, they were picked last for every team at P.E., and some awful teacher was always burying them in the back row of every school performance. But in the waiting rooms no child stood out, no one was special. Everyone special was normal.
Noa has spent her life embracing differences as normal. And she also has known the sting of being left out and mistreated because of her own differences.
This summer Noa signed up for a creative writing class at our local library. When I dropped her off on the first day, I saw that there was a Muslim girl in the class wearing a hijab, the Muslim head covering, who looked quite uncomfortable and shy. When I came to pick Noa up at the end of the day, I saw her and the Muslim girl, Amara, sitting together and giggling. They had already exchanged emails and cell-phone numbers.
One day on a field trip Amara turned to Noa and asked, "Why aren't you like other girls? Why haven't you asked me about this?" She was pointing to her hijab. Noa said, "'Cause I already know what it is." Amara said, "But kids always ask me about it." Noa said, "Well, if you'd like me to ask you about it, I'm happy to." They both laughed.
Noa told Amara that she was Jewish. "Cool," Amara replied. Noa added, "And my mom is a rabbi." "Way cool!"
Ramadan began. I could hear Noa talking to Amara on the phone. I heard Noa asking, "Aren't you hungry? Aren't you just dying for a Snickers bar or something?" Amara said, "Well, yeah." More sweet laughter.
Week after week Noa and Amara shared their writing. They wrote stories about cool kids and cliques, and they wrote about teen love, broken hearts and loneliness. They wrote sci-fi fantasies about a futuristic Los Angeles. They wrote about peace.
Their interfaith dialogue consisted of, "Hey what's up? What kind of music do you like?" They talked about crushes and boys. They shared their favorite songs. They compared notes on their favorite TV shows. Glee was at the top of their list.
In her final essay for the class, Noa wrote, "Sometimes I wish that I could be an ordinary girl. ... I am never going to be one in the crowd. ... My life was always about doctor's appointments and therapy. ... Now I see who I truly am. ... I am not perfect, I am beautiful in my own way. ... I have disabilities, so what? The great thing about people like me is we are always different. ... Nothing can hold me back ... because I am not an ordinary girl -- I am way better. I am Noa, the extra-unordinary girl!"
We are all different. And we are all the same.
In April I sat down with Pastor Joel Osteen to talk with him about faith and hope and who can get into heaven. He said to me, "Naomi, I don't judge anybody else. ... You know, I don't believe in telling one group who can and can't go to heaven. I believe that's up to God." I asked, "So do you think it's possible that our God, the God of the universe, might have an equal plan for all good people?" Joel replied, "I believe that any of that is possible." Of course on the Internet there were Christians who condemned him to burn in hell for making such an inclusive statement.
Over the summer as Noa was taking her creative writing class, I was reading a book called Fingerprints of God by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. The book delves into the world of transformative religious experiences. One paragraph stuck in my mind and remains with me still: "I had noticed in my reporting that the people who experienced mystical states tended to drop religious labels," Hagerty wrote. "One thing they often rejected, however, was an exclusive claim to Truth."
Summer is over now. Noa and Amara's class has ended. A fall chill is in the air. And with it, the prospect of new colors. And a new fall season of Glee.
Yes, we are all different and the same. And I believe a true religious experience is one that leads us to see our differences as variations on a theme, variations that make the whole even more breathtaking and beautiful. Like fall leaves on a bright October day.
Rabbi Naomi Levy's new book Hope Will Find You is just out. She is the founder of NASHUVA: The Jewish spiritual outreach movement.