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With My Bare Hands

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I had to leave. I just couldn’t stay for one more minute. Here were my friends, or at least people I know and like, up on stage performing a Christian rock concert for Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t not stand and not clap and not sing along to one more song.

Maybe I should back up a little. My father died a few months ago.

Maybe I should back up a lot.

I graduated from kindergarten to the first grade of the prestigious Buckley School for boys in Manhattan’s Upper East Side in 1984. Up until then, Buckley was more or less like every other kindergarten. Sure, it was all boys and we all wore the same navy blue polo shirt, but at that age those things didn’t really register. Especially because we didn’t know what we were missing. All we did was build with blocks and play at recess and enjoy nap time.

First grade was where all of that changed. Polo shirts were exchanged for button-downs, ties, and sport coats. Nap time and the building blocks were replaced by math class and social studies. We moved from the Hubbell Building, which only houses the school’s athletic facilities and the kindergarten classes, over to the main Buckley building. For the first time I realized that we were a part of something bigger. We were now the lowest class in a ladder that stretched nine years above us—an entire lifetime to a first grader.

Buckley is a Protestant school. That’s not to say that it is a parochial school. There are no nuns, no religious classes. But Christianity is a guiding principle of the school. Quotes of bible verses are embedded in the plaques that line the halls, carved by boys who graduated years ago. Every Friday we held assembly in the large hall in the basement. We would stand with our hands over our hearts and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. We would sit with our hands folded, heads bowed, eyes closed, and say the Lord’s Prayer.

“Our Father, Lord in Heaven …”

No one ever taught me the prayer.

“Hallowed be thy name.”

I’ve never read it.

“Thy kingdom come.”

I have only heard it …

“Thy will be done.”

… whispered by a hundred boys and men …

“On Earth as it is in Heaven …”

All absorbed into my sponge of a first-grade mind and repeated without thought or question. Just fit in.

Now might be an appropriate time to mention my Judaism. Not that it was a very big part of my life yet, nor is it really now. We only went to synagogue for the High Holidays, not the weekly Sabbath services. We did not have Shabbat dinners in my home. My mother is from Israel, which ironically is simultaneously the primary destination for the most religious Jews from around the world and the birthplace of the most secular Jews in the world, she being the latter. My father came from a conflicted Orthodox Jewish home in Great Neck, New York, and then later Brooklyn. He attended Yeshiva, which is the Jewish answer to parochial school. I suppose he must have done well because he went on to Cornell, a prestigious University, and continued along the path to a successful career. Nonetheless, my father never told me much of his Yeshiva years, and they are now a sealed mystery.

Every December, the first and second grades of the Buckley School perform the nativity play. (For those not familiar, this is a theatrical depiction of the events leading up to the mystical birth of Jesus Christ.) This was a group activity that all of the students participated. Unbeknownst to me (until many years later), my father took issue with this. He had a private meeting with Mr. Walsh, the stiff-lipped principal of the school. Walsh embodied all of the rigidity and stature that Buckley stood for. For all I knew he could have been a direct descendant of B. Lord Buckley himself. I only went to his office twice in my eight years at Buckley (quite a feat for a class clown), and I like to imagine my father sitting in one of those blue velveteen chairs looking across that humongous mahogany desk into the eyes of that demi-god and telling him he didn’t want his Jewish son performing in a play celebrating the bastardization of his own faith.

Mr. Walsh had a point, though. There were about forty of us in each grade—a total of eighty boys who would perform in the play, including several other children of Jewish parents. Keeping me from participating would isolate me, leaving me out of many hours of a group activity and perhaps even making me a target for abuse from the other boys. So my father proposed a solution.

I participated in the play. I think I was a shepherd or something. Or maybe a sheep. I had no lines and minimal blocking. But I attended rehearsals and played my part, completely unaware of how close I had been to missing all of it.

As Christmas approached, I was getting excited for the show. One morning as I tied my tie, which I’d only recently learned to do and was still fumbling with, my father knelt between me and my reflection. He fixed my tie for me and told me that he would be coming in to my school today. I don’t remember thinking that it was strange—just happy and excited. In fact, the rest of the morning I couldn’t wait for my dad to show up, and right before recess, he did. I skipped my juice and cookies to welcome my dad to my class and show him around, introduce him to my teacher, show him my desk. Recess ended and Mrs. Gillespie announced to the class that our special guest, Jason’s father, would be teaching a special class. I was floored. My dad? A teacher?

Dad opened his bag on Mrs. Gillespie’s desk and took out twenty dreidels and what seemed like a thousand chocolate-filled gold coins. He spent the next hour teaching us about the Jewish holiday of Hannukah, what it means to be Jewish, and the Jewish children’s game of Dreidel, which is a spinning top that is effectively used for gambling those precious chocolate coins.

I also learned that these kids, my classmates, had no idea what he was talking about. They loved the chocolate gambling. But they didn’t get the whole bit about Festival of Lights or that the parents of that baby born in the manger in our little play were Jewish people, and that was why they were being persecuted, and why they were shut out of inn after inn. I learned something else. I learned that I was different. That my costume wasn’t the shepherd’s frock—it was the button-down shirt and the tie and the sport coat. My role was to play an ordinary kid.

“And give us the stay of our daily bread,”

To participate.

“and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

To cover my heart and pledge my allegiance.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

To fold my hands and bow my head and close my eyes.

“For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever.”

I have nearly no memory of the nativity play, my first time on stage. Strange for a professional actor. I remember rehearsals being fun, and I vaguely remember the excitement of my parents coming to see the play. But much clearer in my mind is the day my father came into class and taught me that I am not the part I play.

My views on religion have developed over the years and have been influenced by many things. Some study of theology, some history. Much pot-induced philosophy. My Bar Mitzvah. My parents’ divorce. My own marriage and divorce. Most recently the death of my father.

I am not a religious man, but I do believe in God. I believe in God, but I do not believe in religion. Not Christianity nor Judaism nor Islam nor the countless sub-sects and offshoots. (Admittedly Eastern religions fall outside my sphere of familiarity.)

Religion is a tool. If you have to take a bolt off a nut, you might use a wrench, or pliers, or a power-tool … or even your own bare hands. If you look for answers to why you are here, or why someone else is gone, then you might also use a tool. Religions are instruments that were invented by our forefathers when they sought answers. Those instruments have millions upon millions of handprints on them. They have been adjusted to fit the hands that have held them. They have been bent and broken and mended. They have been bought and sold.

To sit in that theater and have someone tell me to stand up, to put my hands up, to let God into my heart … Telling me about my relationship with God.

I’m not wearing the sport coat anymore. I’m using my bare hands.



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