Guest post by Hannah Brown, author of the novel, â€œIf I Could Tell Youâ€ about mothers raising autistic children, which will be published in March by Vantage Point Books. Read more about it at hannahbrownbooks.com Hannah is also the movie critic for the Jerusalem Post.
The elderly man at a synagogue in Israel who said this was talking about my son. Danny was four, it was Yom Kippur, and Danny couldn’t stay quiet. In addition to being a kid, Danny is also autistic, and hadn’t yet learned to understand that a hush in the room during prayer meant that he wasn’t supposed to make noise. His father had just shushed him when the older man spoke those lovely words.
I have thought of that often in the years since, because time and again, Danny has found the most tolerance and the warmest welcome in religious communities and institutions. I am not from a religious family, and I didn’t know or expect that this would be the case. I have heard that in the some religious communities, there is a tendency to hide disabled children, for fear that their existence will make it harder for their siblings to make good marriages. That’s what I’ve heard, but it isn’t what I’ve seen.
We moved back to Israel just before that Yom Kippur when Danny was four, and it’s rarely easy here, as it would not be anywhere. He has always been an extremely good-looking boy (not that I’m objective) and so when people see him, they don’t instantly recognize that he is different. Then when he doesn’t behave as expected, people can find it disturbing. Israelis often have short fuses, and so are more than happy to pour out their frustration on what they perceive as a badly behaved child. Danny can be quite friendly (it’s not true that autistic children don’t want contact with people) — he knows people by name all over Jerusalem, where we just moved, and the area in the Judean Hills where we used to live â€“ but often speaks in a way that is odd and is inappropriate. For example, when he sees a bald man, he’ll say, â€œYou’ve just had a haircut.â€ That usually gets him a laugh â€“ or a hostile glare. He’s also learned that when a woman wears a head covering, she is married. That’s because several of his teachers are married, religious women and worked with Danny both before and after their weddings. After their marriages, they assured him, nothing would be different â€“ except that they would cover their hair. So when Danny sees a married, religious woman, he often says, â€œYou’re married.â€ Sometimes he asks, â€œWhen did you get married?â€ and many will laugh and say, â€œI got married a long time ago.â€ So he has absorbed that information, and when he sees an older woman, will look at her with confidence and say, â€œYou got married a long time ago.â€
If you don’t have kids on the autistic spectrum, this may all sound quite bizarre, but believe me, I am proud of every clear sentence Danny speaks, because he used to speak so little. However, while I try as hard as I can to teach him to behave as normally as possible, it’s in the religious community that he has found the greatest acceptance and gotten the most encouragement. On our old moshav, he was a valued member of the synagogue. Everyone greeted him warmly when he came in â€“ we would go toward the end of the service because it was hard for him to last through the entire Shabbat morning prayers. At first I felt unsure about bringing him there myself because it was an Orthodox congregation and I couldn’t sit with him, but the rabbi assured me that there was no problem: They were happy to have him. Period. It was mostly older men there and they couldn’t have been kinder. Even when he would say, loudly, â€œYou’re praying!â€ as he walked in during the Amidah, they didn’t seem to mind. During a period in which he lost weight, the women were terribly concerned and would urge him to eat more cookies at the kiddush after the services. The rabbi’s wife always managed to talk to Danny in the playground, in spite of having five very young children to look after.
So when there was a chance for him to attend a religious school, Reisheet in Rosh Tzurim, which has a very innovative program for mainstreaming special needs kids, I was happy and knew he would fit right in. I’m quite sure they knew that we are not an observant family, but no one pressured me about it or, in six years, commented in any way. At first I was worried and kept a skirt in my car which I would put on over my jeans in the parking lot every time I came to the school until I realized that no one cared. I also wondered what the reaction would be on Sunday mornings, when they asked Danny what he had done on Shabbat and he answered, â€œI went to the beach.â€ But his teachers recorded those comments in the notebook that special-education teachers use to communicate with parents and were always glad when he was able to answer their questions â€“ no matter what the answer might be. They were among those most supportive when his father and I split up. I told them right away, because I knew Danny would not be able to tell them himself. His teacher hugged me. She knew that I have no family in Israel other than my two children, and told me that I was welcome to spend Shabbat with her family (she had six children then) anytime, and that if I needed babysitting, I could simply drop my children off at her house. I can’t tell you how comforting this was at a time when I felt very isolated.
This trend of finding support in the religious community has continued as we moved to Jerusalem. I joined Moreshet Avraham, a Conservative (Masorati) congregation near our new apartment. Initially, I went there because old friends are members, but I joined because the rabbi and the congregants were so friendly and tolerant of Danny. It may sound strange to many people that this was the most important criteria for me, more so than the affiliation of the synagogue. I grew up completely secular so I don’t have any ingrained loyalty to any particular branch of organized religion. I am more comfortable in the Conservative setting, because of the participation of women in the services and because I can sit with my sons there. But for me, what sealed the deal was the rabbi’s emphatic yes when I asked if I could bring Danny, and the warmth of so many there. One family came up, started chatting and invited Danny to go running with them every week. Another woman alerted me to an afterschool group nearby where Danny could participate.
When there is a kiddush and Danny wanders around asking bald men if they just had a haircut or women when they got married, I think back to the words of the old man in that synagogue years ago when Danny was four, and I am filled with gratitude.