By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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The seniors lean on their baseball bats and watch us file in from track. I keep my head down, hoping to pass unnoticed. But still, he sees me.
“Christ killer,” he says, low under his breath like he is grinding a cigarette into the pavement. Then he smiles at the blond cheerleader next to me. His teeth are crisp, his eyes the color of dreams. He is captain of every team.
I know what he learns in church: Jews killed Christ. He knows what I learn in Temple: how to kill Christ and get away with it.
Actually I read a Bible story, have refreshments. Occasionally, I sneak up to the abandoned choir loft, and neck with a Jewish intellectual. A truly religious experience.
I know Temple is a place for mournful incantations, prayers, hushes, for thick music and powerful voices, for sacred Torah and interminable sitting. The eternal light implies God’s presence. But how, I wonder, can God be satisfied among overdressed coughing whispering people. I know from the Old Testament, God is not boring. Yet I am anguished with boredom. I am beyond drawing daisies on the inside of the Hebrew Union prayer book, beyond seeing how many words I can make out of “Passover,” I am past daydreaming over the cantor’s oldest son. I am praying the rabbi will finish and I will be delivered.
I know what they learn in church. When Angela invites me, I am ready to throw my heritage like trash from a speeding car to fit in with them. They shake my hands and smile like they are tiptoeing on needles. During the service, they hand me a questionnaire. I fill out every line, check every square. The preacher speaks like he is banging a gavel. The music is a heavy fish dragging through swampy waters. I doodle on the program and am relieved when they pass refreshments, a snap of cracker, a squirt of grape juice. Later, they whisper that what I ate wasn’t matzo, but the body and blood of Christ. Christ, crushed and rumbling in my stomach. Later, they tell me Angela got points for bringing me to church. I am the trophy from a losing team, stuck back on a dusty shelf.
What I read in the Bible is different from whom I pray to. I pray to a kindly face with a swirly beard like cumulus clouds. I pray when I am so scared no one can comfort, I pray to a burst of sunset, a swell of new grass. I pray in stairwells, misty fields, bathrooms, riding in the back seat on a rainy night. The words have little to do with church or passing the collection plate, little to do with Temple or refreshments in the social hall afterward. The words are born of guilt and generations, of the mysterious force beyond myself, within myself, that makes me hover over death, the force that links me tenderly, tenuously to life.
I am scared of the rabbi, fierce voice that thunders against evil; I fear the preacher, if you aren’t saved, you will burn in hell, hallelujah. When they aren’t scaring me, when they aren’t lulling me with lobotomizing organ music, then I am sleepy in my velvet seat donated in the memory of Pearl Goldman, I am squirmy in my wooden pew, in loving memory of Mrs. Agnes Watershed. I bounce invisible balls off the brick-walled hymns, I imagine chocolate milkshakes instead of repeating the Kaddish.
Be still, my parents warn. They send looks that stiffen the spine. I watch the congregation for sleeping, snoring, flirting, intent on discovering something to amuse me. God would want it that way. God would applaud my impossibly restless mind. I know, stuffed though I am in strict clothes and stained-glass rooms, that God stretches and smiles outside. God runs with the clouds, beams with the sun. I know God, unlike me, is everywhere. And I, save me please, want to see Him, to stand under His hugeness and understand the things I learn.
Years later, when I have been through it all, atheism, agnosticism, a touch of Buddhism, a posture of Zen, a pinch of Unitarianism, a hug of Unity, even a feather of Shamanism, I still don’t understand God.
Like I want children with straight teeth and clean hearts, I want to walk into a building and feel God. I want to look beyond deacons in the aisle, fussing over visitor’s cards, ladies on the Sabbath committee discussing caterers, mothers shushing daughters for interrupting, fathers scolding sons over programs transformed into paper airplanes.
I want God to touch my heart and make me part of Him.
I sit as before, wondering if the couple in front of me is happily married, considering what I will have for lunch. The moist, bored hands of my children make me sit up straight.
It is good for you, I tell them. Yet, fogged by Hebrew and Latin, drowned in hymns and bleached dry by testimony, I wonder about the things they learn.