Hidden Religious Identity in Honor of Purim

A little girl is sitting beside her mother in church, in Washington, DC, her home town. The preacher is telling the story of how Moses asks to see God face to face. The little girl is five years old. When she was three she saw her infant brother dead in his cradle, his skin all blue. She cannot figure it out. She leans forward on the pew listening. She leans forward and somehow she is on a mountain, and Moses is there talking to a God he cannot see. She is amazed. She watches and listens for a moment, and then she is back on the pew beside her mother, wondering if everyone in the church is amazed. To Sinai and back, just like that.

She writes a chapbook of poetry when she goes to college at Howard University, and she entitles it, Sojourner. In her mind she is sojourning in the wilderness with the Hebrews as she transfers and advances from college to university: Eastern Baptist, Villanova, the University of Pennsylvania.

She loves literature, she loves poetry, she loves epic, she loves languages: Phillis Wheatley, John Milton, Paradise Lost, Homer, Dante, Genesis, Thomas Mann. Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra. Call and response. Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, Spanish, English. She sits at a window in New Mexico, overlooking a desert, reading Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. These works, authors, disciplines constitute the call, her response is Asenath and Our Song of Songs. The fictionalized autobiography of an African and American woman linking herself to Judaism. The story of Egyptian Asenath who marries Joseph.

Once in South Hadley, Massachusetts she finds herself in a group discussion in a Congregational Church. One man says, “My mother is Jewish, my father is Christian—and I’m here because I’ve decided to be Christian.” She says, “If I had a choice, I would be Jewish.” And then she says to herself, “Then what am I doing here?” The next day she goes to Rabbi Carolyn Braun and begins her formal journey into Judaism. And Julius Lester also comes to her and speaks to her of the journey to Judaism, voice to ear, and through his book, Lovesong.