As fans gird themselves for the cataclysmic marital revelations expected to emerge at any moment from the impending divorce of actors Katie Holmes and Tom Cruise, I can only think about the spiritual insanity awaiting little Suri.
Suri, 6, is just one year younger than I was when my parents divorced and decided to leave the choice of my religion to me. We were in process of moving out of New York City to New Jersey. In my case, a religious riff was also in the mix. I became the spiritual football as my parents beat each other up both physically and emotionally.
My maiden name is Goldenthal. My father, God rest him, was Jewish, my mother a Roman Catholic. I celebrated Passover and Easter, Christmas and Hanukkah. My mother gave me a little gold cross and my father bellowed, “If Jesus died today, would you all wear little gold electric chairs around your necks?”
It was the 1970s, a crazy time in the church when nuns were suddenly spotted on beaches in bathing suits or singing with a guitar. My mother, partially excommunicated when she married a Jewish man was being reinstated as the divorce took place. The loophole was that the marriage was then considered never to have taken place in the eyes of the church. I was told by my local priest that I was “illegitimate in the eyes of the church.”
I didn’t understand the term "illegitimate," or much else happening at the time, so I decided to look it up in the dictionary: “not authorized by the law; not in accordance with accepted standards or rules: ‘an illegitimate exercise of power by the military;' (of a child) born of parents not lawfully married to each other."
I wasn’t a military exercise and I’d seen the wedding pictures, so I mentally morphed the definition, applying it to my immortal future as “spiritually illegitimate.” Within a week of that event, at age 7, I was told to choose between the two religions as divorce talk in our home got louder.
It was Mission Impossible – asking a child so young to make that choice.
In the Catholic religion I was rapidly approaching the rite of passage known as First Holy Communion. To this day I can’t sort out if my parents actually meant well for what ensued, or if they had made the conscious choice to use me against each other. Now, at age 47, I don’t know, don’t care.
In my case humor has always been my best defense, so we come to the story of what happened the day my father spiritually weaponized me by taking me to visit the Hillel Yeshiva School and St. Mary’s Catholic School, both in New Jersey.
“I told your mother you get to make your own choice about which religion you want to be,” he explained as we drove his old metallic brown Plymouth, first to the Jewish school to see the rabbi. On the way he told me about Solomon and the good parent who chose the child's welfare over her own. He was clearly on the role of "good parent" here and it was pretty clear I was expected to be Jewish at the end of the afternoon. No pressure. (Before we left the house mom reminded me of how many presents I got last Christmas. Again, no pressure. Hanukkah meant eight pairs of socks and Christmas was Barbies.)
I was 7 years old and a New Yorker with a massive vocabulary and attitude, yet I was terrified. When the rabbi asked if I had any questions about his religion, I squared my chubby little shoulders, shook my curly brown hair out of my chubby face and asked, “How do I get into Heaven?”
The kindly gentleman gave a little shrug and broke the unfortunate news, “Well, you don’t.”
I don’t? I don’t. Was I wearing a sign that said I was spiritually illegitimate? Had word made it in from the Arch Diocese of Trenton that fast?
“Only a child born of a Jewish mother can go to what you think of as Heaven,” explained the rabbi.
I remember holding back tears that might have come from humiliation, disappointment or rage. I shot back furiously, “Well Jesus was born to a Jewish mother! And they (Catholics) let you be bad your whole life and if you say sorry at the end you’re in! Everybody is in. Not that I’m gonna be bad. Just saying.”
Then (with my face burning red with shame) I was led to a small room and given a test of my academic prowess, which I failed in the true spirit of Santa Claus in the film "Miracle on 34th Street." I made sure to spell even my own name wrong.
In the totally silent Plymouth on the way to St. Mary’s my father asked, “Why? Why on God’s earth would you purposely fail such a basic test? You made me look like an idiot!” At the next light he back-hand slapped me across the face. It couldn’t be seen on top of the red already there.
At St. Mary’s I passed the tests. I began classes there that fall – a Goldenthal in a sea of O’Kids. I spent more time arguing religion than learning academics. Every time I came home crying, or was sent home for arguing with a nun over whether or not we should associate with “Jews,” my father reminded me, “That’s what happens when you make the wrong choices in life.”
He was right, but the choice was never mine to make. It wasn’t kind and it wasn’t right. They did make me into a weapon – one set on spiritual self-destruct. I could never fully believe in any religion, having been backstage at two productions my entire life.
I look at the Holmes-Cruise divorce and all I see is a brewing religious war and one tiny casualty.