Growing up, I remember hearing stories about two of my great-grandfathers, both of whom left behind tradition in pursuit of the American dream.
Grandpop Sam, my father's grandfather, was an avowed Capitalist, even as a child. So at the ripe old age of twelve, when Communism began to sweep through Eastern Europe, he left his entire family behind in Russia – along with his religious lifestyle – never to see either again. He arrived penniless and parentless, hardly knowing a word of English, and not a decade later graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, he got married, opened a cigar factory, and was soon buying a new Cadillac for himself every two years.
My mother's grandfather, Abraham, did not fare as well in America. Although he did everything in his power to provide for his family (including keeping his haberdashery open on the Sabbath), Grandpa Abraham died at 36 from leukemia, leaving behind his young wife and three children to struggle through unyielding financial hardship at the start of the Great Depression.
Along the way, both of these great-grandfathers shed their Jewish observance in order to make a better life here in America. Three generations later, I was quite representative: upper middle class, assimilated, and living in Northern New Jersey.
Our comfortable lifestyle was founded on our great-grandfathers' sacrifices. My father was a doctor. We had a pool in our backyard, a vacation house in the mountains, and we attended private school. My mom had us in more after-school activities than I can remember: dance, gymnastics, ice skating, tennis, baton twirling, piano lessons and Hebrew school, to name a few. On Saturday mornings we'd climb into bed with my parents for tickle-wars with my father, followed by a waffles-and-bacon breakfast prepared by mom. And we rarely missed our Thursday family night out for Chinese food.
Despite all the wonderful things I had in my life, it occurred to me one day, at around the age of eight when I was well into collecting Garbage Pail Kid cards, though still regularly conducting Barbie weddings, that there was something enormous missing from my life. No, not a sense of fashion; everyone in the late 80's was wearing their hair big and tall, with rhinestone-studded baggy shirts, tight pants, and slouch socks. What I was missing, rather, was something profound and yet so basic:I didn't know why I was alive.
This notion of infinity started messing with my little eight year old brain.
This realization was brought on by a discussion my father and I were having about infinity. He was trying to explain that not only do numbers go on forever, but that there's also an infinite amount of space between every integer. We then started talking about how the universe has no end either. (One might wonder why a father would burden his young child with such knotty concepts, but my dad is a natural born numbers guy who hadn't a clue at the time how his seemingly harmless banter would come to wreak havoc on my psyche.)
This notion of infinity started messing with my little eight year old brain, and I began staying up at night, trying to wrap my head around these concepts.
Then a tragic event exacerbated my worries about infinity and launched me into years of insomnia, panic attacks, and existential angst. As the story was retold in whispers by my classmates on a cold December morning of my 4th grade year, my schoolmate Angela's father had gone crazy the night before. Thinking he was going to die, he decided to take his kids along with him. Angela's mother came home later that evening to find her whole family dead at her husband's hand.
Now, I grew up in a sleepy suburban town where things like this just didn't happen. So when something like this did happen, I was forced to confront the fact that I too could die at any moment, and that life was not nearly as stable and predictable as I had always assumed. This got me thinking about the eternity of death -- how I'd be either somewhere or nowhere forever. Then I realized something even more disturbing: I had no idea what I was supposed to do with the time I'd been given before I had to confront that unknown eternity.
I approached my parents one day -- I was almost nine -- and casually asked, "Why are we here?"
"Where?" they responded, sharing quizzical looks.
"You know," I persisted, "living. What are we here for?"
While most parents probably dread the day their kid asks them "where did I come from," my parents would have gladly discussed some birds and bees with me at that moment to avoid the philosophical Pandora's Box I had just opened. "Um," is about all they could muster in response
My parents were the ones who brought me into this world. How could they not know what they were doing in it?
Their inability to answer my question upset and surprised me. They were the ones who brought me into this world. How could they not know what they were doing in it? It seemed irresponsible of them to have gotten me tangled up in this mess of existence when they hadn't bothered to figure it out for themselves yet.
Desperately, I began asking other people this question -- friends, family, teachers, anyone who might have a clue. But no one seemed able to answer what I had assumed to be a very basic question.
Eventually I came to think that life was not much more than people staying so busy that they never had time to consider what they were staying so busy for in the first place. But I was never able to keep myself distracted for very long. During the day, when I was tied up with school or other activities, I could push away the big questions that haunted me. But late at night, when all the noise was gone and I was left alone with my thoughts, I was tortured. Why did the day I just lived even matter? Why should I bother waking up tomorrow to do it all over again?
I never once considered the possibility that there simply was no purpose. The world seemed too detailed and complex, human beings too full of talent and abilities, to have it all be used for nothing. But each day that passed without finding an answer brought me one day closer to the end, and I was painfully aware that once my time ran out, I would get no more.
Over the next eight years, I would suffer from off-and-on insomnia and panic attacks. I would get a nauseous, empty feeling in the pit of my stomach as my mind would fixate on the fact that there was no way of escaping the eternity that awaited me. I would repeat over and over again to myself, "Oh my God, Oh my God, Oh my God" until someone (usually my older sister) would pull me out of my state.
It was around junior year of high school that I took a class called "Taoism and Pirkei Avot" at the local twice-a-week Hebrew high school. Pirkei Avot ("Ethics of the Fathers") didn't promise to be too interesting, but getting to study Taosim seemed exotic and exciting.
My teacher, tall and lanky, wore a ying-yang ring and a yarmulke. A young, approachable observant Jew, he showed us that Pirkei Avot was similar to the Tao Te Ching, and at the same time distinctly profound and relevant. We were a motley crew of teenagers searching for something deeper, studying and discussing some of Judaism's thoughtful wisdom. For the first time I understood that my heritage had more to offer than good food, humor, and guilt.
Soon after the semester wrapped up, my family took a winter break trip to Hawaii. We stayed right by the shore in Maui for a week, and my father -- good old numbers guy -- told me to listen to the waves. So I did. I listened in the morning, in the afternoon, and in the evening. I listened to them when I went to sleep, and when I woke up the next day I heard them again. It occurred to me that waves had never stopped crashing. I ran to my father to announce my discovery.
He looked at me as if I had gone mad. "Waves don't stop. So what?"
But I challenged him to do the math, and we figured out that if the world was a million years old, the waves on that shore would have crashed 10 to 12 trillion times, without once ever stopping. And not just on that one shore – but on countless shores across the planet.
And then it hit me: If I had spent 16 years taking something so profound for granted, I must be missing so much more. I spent the rest of my vacation trying to appreciate the natural world like I never had before. But it wasn't until the last day of the trip that my life would change forever.
My family and I were hiking through a breathtaking tropical rainforest called the Road to Hanna (where Jurassic Park was filmed). In the middle of the hike, we came upon some bamboo shoots whose bark was covered in green and gold vertical stripes
"Did someone paint these on here?" I wondered aloud.
Everyone in my family had an opinion on the matter. Some said painted, some said natural, but my father came over to settle the confusion. "These lines are too straight and flawless to be natural," he assured us.
But when I looked up, I saw that the shoots towered over us 50 feet in the sky, with stripes all the way to the top.
"Wow," I muttered to myself, "God has quite a paintbrush."
I took a few more steps and shook off the wonder of the moment, only to stop in front of the most incredible tree I've ever seen. It had a smooth bark, lavender background, and was covered in pink, blue, and green swirls. There was no doubt in my mind: Some nutty artist was painting the trees in this forest. It was the only thing that made sense. But when my mother told me to look up, I saw that the color continued to the top of the trunk. And for a brief moment, it was as though I understood the entire universe.
The best way I've been able to describe my experience is that I had a moment of clarity during which I tapped into a greater sense of harmony in existence. And in an instant I went from intense doubting to intense belief in God.
I doubted -- in all of New Jersey's ugliness -- if I'd ever experience such transcendence again.
The nauseous, empty feeling that used to occur in the pit of my stomach as I'd contemplate my own demise was suddenly filled with warmth and light. What I realized in that moment was that from every comet to every caterpillar, every thing in the universe was in its exact right place and time, including me and my life.
Of course, I was petrified to leave Hawaii. I doubted -- in all of New Jersey's ugliness -- if I'd ever experience such transcendence again. But when I got back home and continued on with my Jewish studies, I began to understand that it is not occasional moments of spirituality that provide a sense of meaning and purpose. Yes, those moments give us inspiration and often point us in the right direction. But it is through day-to-day study and observance that a person builds a lasting connection with that awesome force that I tapped into in the forest in Hawaii.
My great-grandfathers sacrificed everything to pursue the American Dream. Three generations later, I retraced a path back to their Jewish roots and returned to a place of tradition and observance that had been all but forgotten within my family. I learned that everyday actions can transcend our transient lives, and connect us to something greater and more permanent. Now I live my life with that knowledge, which has finally -- and thankfully -- put my mind at rest.