A Shoebox of Hyphens

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I’ve never doubted G-d’s existence, but rather His power to step in and alter bad behavior.

by Lois Greene Stone

Sitting in my maternal grandmother’s kitchen around age 7, watching her clip her fingernails into a cardboard shoebox, I told her I’d like a piece of paper and pencil, as I was going to write a letter. "Who will you write to from here?" She was not gentle as she closed the cardboard lid. Eventually, I knew she’d burn the fingernails, as she said she shouldn’t throw them out. I didn’t want to know why since I thought it was strange, and she’d probably scold me in Yiddish, which I didn’t understand, just for questioning her. She yelled at me for not saying the Sh’ma at the right hour in the morning, so asking why she just didn’t cut her fingernails and toss them in a paper trash bag would have me squirming.

I told her I wanted the notepaper because I was grateful to G-d for my family and wanted to thank Him. I fingered my glistening marcasite star that Grandpa had given me for my birthday, for which my parents had instructed me to write a thank you note. I wanted to thank G-d in the same way for blessing our family. Grandma informed me that I could never ever write that name by spelling it out, else the paper would have to be burned. She carefully showed me: G-d. "See!" she demanded. "That little line is for the ‘o’. You can never write His name." As with the fingernails, I didn’t ask why, figuring I’d ask my mom later.

So, that morning, I knew that G-d definitely was a man, and His name on paper was as important as fingernails that couldn’t be tossed in a trash bag. I figured He was as good and magical as the tooth fairy or Santa Claus or Elijah at Passover. I was growing up hearing "thank G-d" and "G-d willing" out of my parents’ mouths—more proof of His magic. Omnipotent and omniscient were the words I found to describe G-d in the prayer books during the High Holiday services. I was thrilled that each Yom Kippur, G-d would judge what was just and fair. I liked this idea of having someone I couldn’t touch, yet who could touch me and everyone else on the entire planet. And we’d all be like one big friendship circle because of Him.

The questions kicked in…

During elementary school, I wondered why, if there was a G-d who was just, he allowed students to say such hateful phrases to me just because I wasn’t Christian? Why did pogroms take place in Russia? Why did I hear whispers about Jewish people being rounded up and killed in Germany? Where was the omnipotent, omniscient Being at this time? How does one, with such power, see and know everything, yet not make people kinder to one another? I tried to reconcile having power with not using power. When I asked my Sunday school teachers these questions, they never answered. They would sometimes pretend I didn’t have my hand raised; if I stopped the rabbi after class to ask, he said he was too busy. I started to wonder… maybe the rabbi had no answers, and that is why he was irritated by my questions!

By high school, after learning the word allegory in English class, I decided that Genesis was an allegory. I mused about the Bible being a way to run society, and that the laws with ritual gave people a roadmap for how to take diverse groups of people and allow them to live together. The Bible also provided a set of standards to help with what cannot be understood, such as death being final. Yet, even with my new beliefs and skepticism, I still believed that heaven was ‘up’ beyond the clouds, and we’d meet loved ones who would be waiting when our turns came. G-d would do that. I still imagined a G-d who preferred love over indifference or violence.

Feeling particularly appreciative of my family during this time, I decided to write the letter I’d wanted to back when my grandmother taught me about eliminating the ‘o’ in a name. I propped myself up in bed, grabbed my fountain pen, and began: "Dear G-d… " I asked Him to bless my parents and grant them long lives together. I tucked the letter into my leather bound diary believing the All-Seeing would see it. A couple of years later, my father, age 45, had a fatal heart attack while lying on the living room couch. I was enraged… one request to G-d in my whole life&#8212not even for me&#8212and He refused to grant it!

Once my anger was assuaged, my beliefs changed again. I felt that G-d was not able to do everything we asked of Him, and that He must cry looking at his creations and seeing violence. For me to continue to accept G-d, I had to see Him as being confused about evil, as I was. I decided the question of who shall live and who shall die was based on nothing. I started believing that G-d gave man free will. Man chose to hurt, and the rally cry ‘in G-d’s name’ was to sanction actions. Humans were accountable for their own bad behavior.

Today, when a loved one is in surgery, I gravitate to the interdenominational chapel, clutch the Book of Psalms, and read an appropriate passage. When the surgery is successful, my thanks are to this Unseen, and I understand my parents’ saying ‘G-d willing’, or ‘thank G-d.’ In times such as this, I’m humbled. An incredible autumn day with leaves swirling off trees seems added proof to me that G-d exists. And I continue to believe that man’s free will has caused G-d to grieve. While my concept of the Unseen has somewhat evolved from my childhood innocence, my need is unshaken to have this meaningful Power be a part of life. I still must put a hyphen where the ‘o’ belongs.

About the Author

Lois Greene Stone
Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Her poetry and personal essays have been included in hardcover and paperback book anthologies. Collections of her personal items, photos, and memorabilia can be found in major museums, including 12 different divisions of the Smithsonian.

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