Finding Courage to Write about Faith

I used to duck conversations about religion. Write about my own religion? I avoided that, too.

Religion is a touchy subject in America. It’s a touchy topic within families. It’s just plain touchy to talk about religion whether you’re a Jew, Muslim, Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, or atheist.

I look back at 2011 and realize that it was the year when I found the courage to write more deeply and publicly than ever before about my own Jewish faith.

More than a decade ago, I set out to write a memoir about the havoc grief brought to my life after my 23-year-old brother was killed in a car accident in 1986. I wrote and finished the first version by 2000, then put my manuscript away as new jobs and life intervened. In 2006, at age 41, I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah and gave a speech about how Judaism’s structure for grief is powerful if we actually know about what the religion offers. Twenty years after my brother’s death, I finally realized what was missing – an understanding of my own Jewish faith. I also realized that my first draft of my memoir had almost no mention of what was now central in my life – my journey closer to Judaism.

The last several years, I transformed my memoir into a much different story – how losing my brother led me closer to my Jewish faith. My memoir is in the revision stage but closer to the finish line than before. How do I know? I look at my published writings this year and realize that I am finding a community of readers interested in the touchy subject of faith.

Here’s a look back at some of those writings, published in 2011:

  •   A Jewish Mom’s Dilemma: Should we compete with Christmas? I wrote this Perspective piece for the Globe’s Dec. 18 Sunday magazine. Readers commented online and sent in numerous letters to the magazine.
  •   Concerto of Words: Ostracism, Music and Faith. This excerpt from my memoir won third place in Moment magazine’s 2010 memoir contest.
  •   Jew Girl. Similar to Concerto of Words, but longer, this excerpt from my memoir won an honorable mention in the Tiferet literary journal’s 2011 nonfiction writing contest.
  •   Are Mitzvah Days an Excuse to Stay Away? As I draw closer to Judaism, I get more involved in various ways, including volunteering. I write about my ambivalence about one common practice – one-day community service events – for The Forward.
  •   Test of Faith. My own experiences of being the only Jew in a rural Ohio school system motivated me to pursue a story about how Wellesley Middle School is determined to teach its sixth-graders about the world’s religions. How might my school experience have been different, I wondered, if teachers had attempted to broaden our minds about the diversity of religion in America?

The Wellesley story required the most work, but many of the personal essays were tougher to write. Through childhood, I rarely spoke about my own religion because when I did, I drew questions I could not answer. Peers wondered why I did not believe that Jesus was my savior. I worked hard to not wear my religion on my sleeve as a teenager, as a 20-something, and even as a 30-something. In childhood, I knew little about my own faith. As an adult, I am still learning. But as a 40-something, I have grown confident enough to write what I do know and sense about my own religion. Sometimes, readers agree with my take. Sometimes, they do not. That’s fine by me.

Looking ahead to 2012, I hope to keep pushing the envelope in writing about faith. My goal is to neither proselytize nor divide. It is to educate, provoke thought, and maybe even inspire.

Do you write about religion in some fashion? What challenges do you face when you write about faith?

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