A friend of mine has said that we always write to our obsessions, in different guises, so it’s good to know what those obsessions are. Working on a play takes a good two to five years, and if you are going to spend that much time writing (i.e. wrestling with self-criticism, megalomania, depression, outrage, and poverty), it better be something you care about deeply.
I look at my obsessions in two ways. On a micro level: the times in my life when I’ve gotten into physical confrontations have been about me being Jewish or a woman. On a macro level: even the UN agrees that misogyny and religious extremism are two injustices whose resolution could save our planet. And if we could eradicate religious misogyny, we’d be in atheist heaven!
I’ve had enough of religion. Haven’t you? Between Orthodox rabbis telling women to go to the back of the bus, to the Pope and his vaginal-probe-like population police telling women when and how to have babies, to those two hundred still-missing Nigerian girls, I think we can all admit that religion needs to keep ten feet the fuck away from women’s bodies and souls. And yet, many deeply thoughtful women have faith, have religion, have both. I wanted to find out why, to see if their voices could convince me. Even if it took being consumed by a play for years to do it.
Like almost every leftie Jew, progressive Muslim, or lapsed Catholic I interviewed for this play, I come by my mistrust of religion honestly. Religion for many of us is a first love who broke our hearts and shattered our innocence but who can flood us with a kaleidoscope of powerful, formative memories in an instant. I attended parochial Hebrew school for thirteen years. One day, when I was about twelve, a guest speaker came to our school and I thought he had some interesting things to say. As one of the brainier of the brainy bunch of Hebrew-school nerds, whose muscles were slightly atrophying from the long tradition of Jewish anxiety toward sports, I approached the speaker and offered my hand in congratulations for a lecture well given. He looked at me but wouldn’t offer his hand in return. We stared at each other until someone took me aside and said, “He’s orthodox. He can’t touch you because you’re a woman.”
I’d forgotten I was a woman. I thought I was a person.
And then I thought, “As if I want to touch you?!”
Moments like this have inspired me to tangentially explore the place women occupy in Judaism in my work for years. In my solo show Random Acts, my main character, a paraplegic former motivational speaker who was pushed in front of a bus in a random act of violence, keeps having strange visitations from Sarah, the biblical matriarch who laughed when God told her she was pregnant at age ninety (well, it is hysterical). In this play, the main character learns to laugh at the randomness of fate, like Biblical Sarah did. She also learns how to make herself have an orgasm with her mind. Not biblical, but very holy. (Food for thought: apparently, the number one exclamation people make during sex is “Oh God.”)
After circling these topics for many years, I finally realized it was time to take them on directly—in a play that asks women to debate each other about religion. That way, I could explore the points of views of women who support religion and those who have abandoned it. In the play, during the course of the debate, we flash back to specific moments in the debaters’ lives where they were on a precipice, experiencing a crisis of faith—a moment that challenged, and maybe changed, their beliefs and made them who they now are.
To write this play, I needed to also ask myself which side of the debate I would be on. From those early Hebrew school days, it was clear to me that religion was damaging to women, but what about personal faith? Did I believe in God? The answer had been percolating for years, but came to light through my (gorgeous genius) children. Specifically, my eldest son’s atheism, and my youngest son’s birth.
For most of my adult life, I hung onto a belief in God. Or spirituality. Nature. Trees. Something bigger than just us. When my youngest son was born, he spent most of his first year in critical condition in the SickKids’ neonatal ICU. In that time, I witnessed suffering and heroism. I saw people lose who should have won. And one too many times I heard the aphorism, “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” One day, I looked down at the atrium of the hospital, and I saw the brave parents shuffling to and from the Tim Hortons with their children—some in wheelchairs, some hitching a ride on their IV polls—who all just wanted to go home. It hit me that it was time I jumped off the flabby agnostic fence on which I’d been perched during all my years of rage and outrage at religion. It was suddenly clear that if any of these people could “handle” anything, it had less to do with God and more to do with good friends, sleeping pills, and the fact that they had no choice but to keep moving forward until they couldn’t anymore. I stopped believing in the God of my childhood, or any god, and I decided to believe in the kindness and compassion of people.
Shortly after that, when my eldest was in grade two of his hippie, feminist Hebrew school, he told me that he was an atheist. (Where did he even hear the word?? Oh right. Mel Brooks.) Something didn’t add up for him: if Judaism was as progressive a religion as they said, how could it support a god that would ask a father (Abraham) to sacrifice his son (Isaac) to prove to said god that Abraham loved Him? By age seven, my eldest was done with the absurd adherence to the notion that God is Good.
If he could declare it to me, then maybe I could declare it too. Still, it took a few more years for me to write a play that took on not just organized religion but faith in God as well. The final inspiration for the play was about a different kind of faith: faith in love.
For a few years, I wrote a column for the Toronto Star called “In the Thick Of It,” about ordinary people coping with extraordinary crises, and I interviewed an old friend whose brother had committed suicide. He said that many people asked him if he regretted being an atheist since that meant he couldn’t get comfort from God. I would have wanted to punch those people in the throat. But my friend said for him, comfort comes from us. Humans actually possess it all inside. In our love for each other.
Whether that’s true or not is open for debate. Very open. One thing I know now, as a woman, a Canadian theatre–career survivor, and a mom, is that a heart-stirring, hallelujah-raising belief is something we all crave—whether it’s in religion, love, theatre, or each other.
It’s worth trying to engage with the things that separate us in order to possibly discover a holy moment that could unite us.
Nightwood Theatre’s Unholy is back! The show runs from November 23 to December 10 (opening November 25) at Buddies in Bad Times.Click here for tickets or more information