By A L Katz
Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: I dropped from the womb an atheist. As grateful as I am to Hebrew School for “making me” the atheist I am today, Hebrew School really just put atheist frosting on what was already an atheist cake.
When I say I feel “born again”, I mean I think I understand what fundamentalist Christians mean by that expression. Like a sinner, I had lost my way, I had lost my faith: in me. Readers of my blog How To Live Bullshit Free might remember how that happened. I kept a “secret” from myself for 45 years. I refused to admit to myself that, in fact, I was sexually molested twice when I was 14 by the Religious Director at the large suburban synagogue just outside Baltimore, Maryland where my family belonged while I was growing up. I’m way on the upside of cleaning up the mess (thankfully). But getting here almost killed me. Literally. Three days before Christmas 2016, I came within literal inches of offing myself — an act of pure self-destruction.
A family tendency toward depression (maybe even bi-polarity) was exacerbated by events. And because those events were hidden — it was almost impossible to help me. But, I got lucky. Between a minimal dose of the mood stabilizer lamotrigine, copious amounts of THC and a magnificent therapist, I managed to cage my darkness.
Maybe the cage is around me. Some days it’s hard to tell. In either case, what’s important is my darkness could no longer get at me and whisper cruel lies into my ear about how I was responsible for all the shitty things that happened to me. All those dark, angry feelings flowed from that molestation; I blamed myself for it. Not so much for the first time as the second.
If I had said something after the first time, you see, there would never have been a second time.
It took 45 years of living and looking my mortality dead in the eye for me to overcome my 14 year old self’s self-loathing. I had to forgive my 14 year old self. He didn’t do anything. He didn’t.
But the moment I forgave him, that’s when I felt “born again”. I regained my faith in myself — as a person deserving of love and respect. My spirituality flows from deep inside me — same as with everyone else. I see a proof that I was born an atheist in that I never saw or used that molestation to justify my atheism. I understood intrinsically that religion and “morality” (decent behavior even) really have little to do with each other. Not automatically anyway.
In the same way that people of faith search for and find reasons for why things happen in their sacred texts, I found a perfectly good explanation for what happened to me in what wasn’t in those texts — anything factual. To be fair, the Pentateuch and all its accompanying texts — the entire New Testament too — wasn’t written as a history book. It wasn’t written as geology or chemistry or anything remotely scientific. How could it have been? The people writing it — in their defense — had no access to scientific equipment or the internet.
And they were writing poetry anyway.
Paul, when he came along, was justifying the new religion he was inventing based on the idea (not the teachings) of a popular guy he (Paul) took to calling “Jesus” (“Savior”) though his actual name was somewhere along the lines of Jeshua ben Joseph. The bulk of the NT is Paul writing to the nascent Christian communities spreading through Asia Minor as the Roman Empire heaved.
To Paul’s credit, he was one hell of a salesman. He pitched something like this: “believe in this Jesus guy whose story I’ve almost completely invented so it fits in with a complex prophecy from Jewish sacred texts about a Messiah and you’ll defeat death”. In a much simpler world, still in the clutches of magic and magical thinking, that must have been a powerful idea. Believe in Jesus & live forever.
You’ll notice — there’s not a drop of ‘Do Unto Others’ in it.
More irony. Paul and his church got rich off the sizzle while completely ditching the steak.
Know what? I forgave Yehuda Dickstein, the man who assaulted me. A friend, hearing about what happened to me when I was 14, got indignant. They wanted to go after Yehuda on my behalf and went looking for him. Turned out Yehuda had just died. My friend forwarded his obituary to me.
I would never have sought it out on my own but I’m grateful my friend found it and sent it to me. When I finally opened the link — and saw Yehuda’s face (much, much older than when I last saw it at 14), I knew I hadn’t made it up. Visual memories — the whole tick-tock of it — came flooding back. Memories, too, of Yehuda’s piquant body odor and the tang of onions on his breath.
Yehuda’s obit told his story. I never considered that he had one. Why would I? Why would I care? But, reading about Yehuda allowed me to understand Yehuda in his own context. He was born in Poland before WWII and, like a lot of religious boys, Yehuda became part of a yeshiva — a school. Of boys. Learning how to be religious. When the war broke out, the boys in the yeshiva stayed together. They kept just ahead of the Germans, ultimate fleeing through Russia to the Far East where they finished out the war in relative safety before making it to America.
Yehuda was the youngest. Of a group of boys in a boy culture. So — as a young adolescent — Yehuda was likely bullied. The Yehuda I knew was not a dynamic personality. He was quiet and introverted and pretty much disconnected from the secular world. If I’m a bully — and there had to be bullies in Yehuda’s group cos there are always bullies — they picked on Yehuda. Being adolescent boys with no access to girls but sexual urges aplenty, it’s a logical step that in addition to bullying Yehuda, the bigger boys sexually assaulted him too.
I don’t know if a bit of that happened. But I’d bet my life on it. I almost did.
Yehuda was visiting upon me what had been visited upon him. It really wasn’t him sexually assaulting me as much as it was the boys who assaulted Yehuda doing it — across multiple lifetimes and miles. That’s the most terrible thing about sexual assault and rape: it doesn’t end when the assault or rape ends. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
I mis-spoke before. I don’t forgive Yehuda. I can’t. But, now, I understand him. I forgive him in context.
Like I said, I think I understand what fundamentalist Christians mean. I really and truly feel “born again” like I was given a second chance at Life. Well, at getting my life right. At being happy and productive. At waking up feeling refreshed and ready to face the day whatever it throws at me. At seeing purpose in just being.
At the depths of my worst despair, my atheism sustained me. At no time did the world ever stop making sense. Just the opposite — it made perfect sense.
And because it made sense — now with even more context — it gave me the chance to get right with myself. Let me tell ya — there’s no better feeling than getting right with yourself. It might even be better than being born again.