The One Constant

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While I sometimes faked my way through rituals, I always sustained my faith in G-d.

by Chanel Dubofsky

For a while, I was holding it together pretty well—and by "holding it together," I mean, "faking it," until what was going on on the inside resembled what I was hoping to make happen on the outside. I was praying, and most of the time—or perhaps only some of the time—there were moments when the words resonated, but not often enough. In my house growing up, we believed in anxiety. It was kind of like a religion, complete with ritual and superstition. After a while, I developed my own rituals—I worried about things well before they happened, in case they happened, so I would know I had prepared. G-d was a force called upon during times of desperation and fear: "Please let Mommy’s CAT scan come back clean." "Please let me get into college." The G-d I believed in as a kid, and as an adolescent, was based more on a need for control than on religion or spirituality. G-d was about having something to hold on to. The alternative was accepting that there was no mitigating factor between my family and disaster.

Disaster came anyway. When I was 19, my mother died, and our house was foreclosed on. I fled, unpredictably, from a place of ignorance about the notion of a Jewish God—short of being told that "He" is everywhere, resulting in me being a very paranoid, superstitious, and confused kid—to going to shul every Friday and, later, wearing only skirts and keeping kosher. My rush into observant Judaism was not about G-d. I think I knew that at the time; I don’t remember ever really talking about G-d. I talked about learning and Jewish community. While I behaved in an increasingly observant manner, I never brought G-d into it. It was never about what G-d wanted, whatever that was.

After a while, I realized that this version of myself—the kosher, skirt-wearing, Shabbat attending, chag keeping, Torah learner—was not sustainable. It reminded me of being 11 years old and admitting to myself in a hushed voice that I did not like the color pink, or boys; I liked blue, and books. The pink-liking, boy-lover wasn’t real. I had worked hard to make other people think that was me—I had even convinced myself—but it wasn’t. It would never be me. But at both times, it felt dangerous to be anything, and so I picked the one that felt the safest, which meant I chose the path that was more acceptable.

All this time, I believed in G-d. Even when it was the childish, flimsy, terrifying version of G-d that I can recall from my childhood, I believed. It was easier for me to believe in the G-d I could control through anticipatory anxiety, through desperate prayers in the dark or in the doctor’s waiting room, than in the G-d I believe in now, who, frankly, I don’t understand and can’t picture.

My mother dying didn’t chase G-d away from me—or me away from G-d—like it did my grandmother (who I believe, at best, had a tenuous grip on religion throughout her life). I had known for years that my mother would die, and I didn’t associate it with G-d punishing me, or her, or anyone else. It would have been logical to ask why we were the ones who had to deal with 11 years of cancer and financial trouble, but I didn’t. My mother, on the other hand, may have; she probably did. However, it seemed that instead of blaming G-d for the barrage of terrifying and uncontrollable things that were thrown at her, she was too afraid to let go of the idea that something was in control, and that all of these things were happening for a reason.

When I became an activist in my 20s, my thoughts on G-d shifted again. I’m not sure when G-d became political for me. When I learned about social justice and Judaism being inextricably linked, the idea of tikkun olam never really seemed to be about G-d (even though I’m pretty sure it was explained to me as having to do with G-d. Whatever.) I didn’t then, and don’t now, need G-d to be part of the reason for fixing the world. As far as I’m concerned, the world should still be righted, regardless.

In the last few years, I’ve become angry with prayer. For a while, I was saying the bedtime Sh’ma whenever I could, and it was kind of lovely. The thing about prayer is that I can do it anytime, but the more I paid attention to the words, the harder it became for me to connect. In fact, at a Rosh Hashanah service two years ago, I literally couldn’t make eye contact with the prayer book. I feel sorry for anyone who saw me at that service because I was so angry. I’m not sure if something inside me snapped, but something surged upwards that I couldn’t push back down. The language in the prayer book felt so antique, so inaccessible, so completely unbelievable, and I couldn’t give it any more attention. How could anyone, especially gender-identified folks, look at the prayers in this book, or listen to sermons in which G-d is continually referred to as "He," and participate in such an actively patriarchal space? (For the record, I would not be more comfortable if we were referring to G-d as "She." I don’t think the concept of G-d should be assigned a gender.)

To be honest, I’d always thought that secular and non-practicing Jews were lazy. Yet, here I am today: non-practicing … sort of. I realize now that when Jewish rituals were painful or meaningless to me, I just tried harder, or I looked like I was trying harder. I’ve come to see that you don’t have to do very much to have people think you are super observant. But I don’t want to fake it anymore by going through the motions. That said, I’m relieved my faith in G-d still holds. For so many years, I thought that if I were to be secular, it would mean I couldn’t believe in G-d. I see now that it’s not true. I have also come to peace with the fact that I can’t describe the G-d I believe in; it’s enough to believe at all.

About the Author

author_chanel_dubofskyChanel Dubofsky

Chanel Dubofsky writes at Role/Reboot, The Forward, and Gender Focus. She is the creator and editor of the Marriage Project, an interview series about marriage in imagination and reality. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

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