Poet Michele Madigan Somerville (see her blog, Fresh Poetry Daily) is the author of WISEGAL and Black Irish. She lives in New York City. The following is excerpted from her article “I’m with Jack” in the Winter/Spring 2014 issue of Harvard Divinity Bulletin, pp.14-18.
The Kol Nidre service is long, comes at the end of a school day. I had to require that Grace and Jack accompany me to the temple on a mandatory voluntary basis….
Grace, fourteen, has little patience for much, but more than most children her age for the ritualistic. Not so her brother, eighteen-year-old Jack. He’s not interested in religion. He never thinks about God. Yet since the day he was born, Jack has always had a kind of strange, holy countenance….
I confess I’m not big on the vogue my-autistic-child’s-special-gifts way of looking at children with autism. That’s a lot to put on a kid. Mostly, I see my son Jack as a regular guy who happens to have Asperger’s, a disorder on the autism spectrum, who, underneath the distracting static din I imagine clutters his mind, is plenty intelligent. But I have taken note of Jack’s peculiar gentleness, and his contentment with simple pleasures….
Although my children were exposed to two faiths (my own Catholicism and their father’s Judaism), we decided to raise them in the Jewish tradition. There were several reasons for this: My own admiration for Jewish culture predated even my decision to marry a Jew. My own faith was strong, but was characterized by an expansiveness which left space for experiencing God apart from Jesus….
The girls get it. The being Jews thing.
But through the years I have often been frustrated by my son’s lack of urgency in identifying as Jewish (after all, he was my firstborn son, and I’d thought of naming him Moses!). Usually he says, “I’m both….”
The only prayers Jack knows are Jewish prayers, and I believe he does think of himself as a Jew. But, over time, he has changed my thinking about his resolution to declare himself both. I now believe it is is a cognitive, apolitical, metaphysical expression of his transcendence. He is loath to exclude. To paraphrase Abraham Joshua Heschel, he’s the messenger who forgets the message. He is both angel and message….
Toward the end of college and shortly after, I sometimes used to work at the Catholic Worker on the Lower East Side in New York City near the Bowery…. I knew my street-smart, confident Maria would manage just fine, but I worried about Jack. I thought he might be too clumsy a waiter. I worried that some of the men might speak harshly to him. Because he sometimes lacks the ability to read facial cues, I worried that he might say the wrong thing and wind up in a tight spot.
But Jack not only took to this work, he has asked to go back every time he is off from school. When summer came around, he couldn’t wait to get back to that infernal kitchen–dining room off the Bowery to serve hot soup….
Philosophers who believe in God—even the amateurs—seem to agree on one thing: that God is way too big to be parsed. No sect gets it exactly right. That’s how I finesse my own bicameral relationship with God when I speak of God to my children. One finds a path and a reason to walk the path, not so much seeking to find God as to be found by God….
Jack doesn’t notice the clothing of the guests he serves at the Worker. Whether they need a shower or smell like Ripple or talk to themselves, none of these things register. I’ve heard the guys get gruff with him: “Hey, kid, I said white bread not brown!”
But my son doesn’t hear the ornery tone. He just hears the I am….
In my Christian tradition, charity suggests the emulation of Christ. A Christian is called to do works of mercy as a means of being the Christ who reaches out to the Christ in others.
Tzedakah is obviously not that. Tzedakah is not charity. Tzedakah, as I have come to understand it, is giving because you are commanded to increase justice. I couldn’t teach my children, who are not Christian, to be Christ to anyone—but I could teach them about their obligation to make justice through their gifts of time and talent. The message I have aimed to convey was very different from the Roman Catholic “charity” with which I grew up. “Charity” left one puffed up. “Tzedakah” is not an extra; it renders one, not more, but enough….
As a person with autism, Jack has experienced the message of tzedakah in both capacities: as beneficiary and benefactor. So many people doing—living—some form of what could be called tzedakah have helped him to become the man he is today.
Jack knows what it is to be in need, to be vulnerable in the extreme, to be persecuted, to be an outcast. Jack knows what the plagues of Exodus are. All people with autism know what it is to wander, to be excluded. Jack has learned two messages about tzedakah: 1) It was his obligation to give. 2) It was the world’s obligation to create justice on his behalf as a person with a disability.
Having been on both the receiving and giving ends of tzedakah, coupled with his overall genuine nature, has made Jack a natural at creating justice. He has little interest in commendations, less in having a fine reputation.
Jack does not see guests at the Catholic Worker as “the other.” He sees them as friends. He is entirely without self-consciousness when he serves the soup. He wants to do it because it is good. He knows that many have no homes, that they are men and women in search of food and a table.
There’s no ego in Jack’s outreach. For him, it’s tzedakah, not charity. He wants to be enough. He’s the angel who forgets the message.
Not long after Jack began his summer stint at the Catholic Worker, his father decided to do a shift with Jack one day. “Hey!” one of the guests on line called out, to the Jewish guy in need of a shave, “Don’t cut the line!”
Another called out, “He’s okay. He’s with Jack!”
Montreal Soup Kitchen 1931 (See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)