Finding Courage to Write About Religion
Talking about religion made me uncomfortable during childhood and well into adulthood. The idea of writing about it at first terrified me.
When I first started writing a memoir about losing my brother Kevin, I didn’t mention faith. My brother, two years older than I, had died at age 23 in a car accident in 1986. An author reviewed the first 25 pages of my memoir during a week-long writing workshop in 2000. One of his first questions was, “Did religion or God play a role?” I stared at him blankly. I didn’t know how to answer his question, though it should’ve been obvious. Religion or the lack thereof likely plays a part in everyone’s story.
I was raised in a non-religious Jewish home. We didn’t talk about God. We didn’t do Jewish rituals, such as lighting candles on Shabbat. When I was 9, we moved from a small town in western New York State to a tinier town in rural Ohio. In school, my two older brothers and I were the only Jews. Peers interrogated me about what being a Jew meant. They told me I was going to Hell because I didn’t believe in Jesus. The experience drew me closer to my brother Kevin but also made me reluctant to talk about religion period.
I wrote about little of this in the first drafts of my memoir. Yet, in every layer of my life, I could have found stories to tell with religion at the center. There was the story about finally getting rid of my own ignorance in Judaism. I didn’t understand much of what the rabbi said at my brother’s funeral. I didn’t know the meaning of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the Hebrew prayer recited at the funeral. Nearly 20 years later, I was living in Boston and working as the education editor at The Boston Globe. My memoir had sat unattended for several years but Judaism had crept more into my life. In late 2004, my grandmother died at age 102. Her death was not a surprise, but I broke into sobs at the funeral when a cousin mentioned how my grandmother adored my late brother. Later, the rabbi who led the service talked with my parents and me. He had observed how the funeral brought back memories. He asked, “Tell me about Kevin.”
Not long after, this same rabbi invited me to join an adult bat mitzvah class at his temple. I said yes. In an eerie coincidence, I chanted a portion of the Torah that dealt with Jewish rituals for grief. I gave a talk at the adult bat mitzvah service about the structure Judaism set for grief and how I regretted that I didn’t understand it when my brother died. I was, despite of myself, writing about religion now.
Once I got started, the story ideas were endless. A journalist by training, I researched the history of the adult bat mitzvah movement and wrote an article about that trend and my own experiences for The Boston Globe Magazine. I began rewriting my memoir. It was no longer simply a story about a woman who had lost her brother. It was now about a woman who journeyed closer to her faith after a great loss.
But I wanted to avoid sounding like a cliché. Young woman loses brother, finds faith. The themes of early religious ambivalence and the ostracism my brother and I faced packed more of a punch. I wrote an essay “Jew Girl” about what I endured as the only Jew in a tiny school. I found myself becoming a writer about religion despite my initial fear. I had doubted that others would value anything I wrote about religion. I was not a rabbi or a preacher. I was still learning.
I didn’t turn to a handbook as I began writing op-eds, magazine pieces, literary essays, and ultimately a book with religion as a central theme. But some internal rules guided me.
- Never assume readers know religious words or phrases. Err on the side of over-explaining.
- Religion intersects with so much in life, including politics, education, and relationships. See it as fertile ground for a variety of topics.
- Realize everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and practices. It’s ok to describe how it feels when someone tries to convert you, but find a way to show understanding for the proselytizer. Otherwise, an essay may just sound like griping.
- Know what you’re writing about. To learn more about Sikhism, for example, I read books and visited a Sikh temple. The World’s Religions, Our Great Wisdom Traditions, by Huston Smith, has been a must-read primer.
- Look for unusual stories about religion or at least different ways to write about it. Read great work of others, including Devotion, a memoir about faith, by Dani Shapiro, and The Sabbath World,A Different Order of Time, a nonfiction book that mixes a little of the author’s personal experiences with the history of Sabbath, by Judith Shulevitz.
Linda K. Wertheimer will teach a new class for Grub Street called, Writing About Religion, on March 31. To sign up, click here!
Photo of the author by Michael Benabib.
Linda K. Wertheimer, a former Boston Globe education editor, is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, Faith Ed, Teaching about Religion in an Age of Intolerance. Her book, a look at public schools' efforts to teach about the world's religions, grew out of a proposal she wrote in a Grub Street class and was named one of the top two religion books of the year by the Religion News Association in 2016. She worked full-time as a newspaper reporter for nearly 25 years before pursuing her dream to write books. She has published op-eds, personal essays, and long-form nonfiction for many publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, TIME, and The Washington Post. Other awards include a 2014 Massachusetts Cultural Council Artist Finalist award ; second place in the national Education Writers Association contest; third in Moment magazine’s memoir contest; and an honorable mention in Tiferet journal’s nonfiction writing contest. She is a mentor-editor with The Op-Ed Project. She has been a prose writer-in-residence in at the Chautauqua Writers' Center and will be a featured interfaith lecturer at Chautauqua in 2020. For more about Linda and her work, visit lindakwertheimer.com. Follow her on Twitter @lindakwert.See other articles by Linda Wertheimer