The SMITH Diaries Project

Hocus-Pocus, The Lord in Focus

Thursday, August 17th, 2006

By Ben Kaplan

Julie’s cousin is 12 years old and she’s beautiful. She’s just in Toronto from Greece and got a camera for her last birthday, so she keeps snapping my photograph as I stand on the altar trying not to cry.

In the first pew, between her parents, Julie has lost this battle and I try to look past her, force myself to stand up straight, as tears roll down her cheek.

What the fuck? It’s hardly like I’m religious. Last time I went to temple it was for a newspaper story; after I got the quotes I needed I took off, vowing to, but never actually managing to, someday return.

I’m getting baptized into the Greek Orthodox Church today because my fianc?e is Greek and while she’s certainly more religious than I am, she goes to church, say, six times a year, tops. Her dad is president of the Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto, while my family is composed of Reformed Jews in suburban Maryland who go to temple on the big holidays, but not much more. I lived with her parents for a year when I first got to Canada, and her mom, who I do love, prays on her knees on the floor of the church. Converting from Judaism to Greek Orthodox was something I could give them.

It wouldn’t change me, I thought, to go through the service: I’ll always be me. But now I’m on the altar in a wrinkled white Polo shirt and black slacks and my mouth is dry and I can’t, though I’m trying, repeat the words of the priest.

“Do you accept that the Lord Jesus Christ is your savior?”

“Will you follow his word, that he was born again, and accept him to be your lord of lords?”


Father Peter, a close friend of Julie’s family, who was born in Canada, not Greece, and he doesn’t have a long gray beard nor a righteous certainty; he shows mercy. He keeps the ceremony moving, and when I turn back to face the icon of Jesus on his cross, nails through his hands and feet, head fallen, I relate. How self-righteous am I? I feel like I’m martyring myself for love. And yet, while it feels awful, it also gives me power. Look at what I did. I gave up my religion for you. How can you possibly get mad at me when your friend’s friend sits too long on my lap?

I hate it when people ask me if my parents care. Of course they care, asshole. They just care more for Julie ? Julie, who I’ll be marrying in a month and a half in the Greek Orthodox Church her father built for her wedding day. And still…thoughts of my grandfather go through my mind. What would he say? I have to think he would support me. No amount of hocus-pocus, as my father calls it, can alter a lifetime of ingrained beliefs.

I duck backstage behind the altar to change into an expensive Caban bathrobe Julie’s mother bought me for the actual baptism part of the ceremony conducted in a small baby pool. My hands are shaking as I take off my clothes and I tie the robe up to my neck. Julie’s cousin comes backstage to see me. Is it OK for the family to watch from the altar? Why not, I tell him. I’m all in: take my photograph, stand next to me, applaud, it doesn’t matter: you’re going to do this to me, and I’m going to be strong.

Father Peter pours oil on my head. My eyes transfix on the Jesus. I mumble the Amens after him. He circles around me three times. I know why Julie is crying. I wear the look on the altar of pain. I’m the brat who only wants candy when it’s taken away. All this time I was Jewish it didn’t mean anything to me. I was Bar Mitzvahed and rooted for Israel, but nothing about being Jewish really stirred me. Now all that is being tested. Being taken. I’m giving my soul away. I see my father’s name on my baptismal certificate. Lester Ira Kaplan from Brooklyn, New York. Dale Jean Weinberg from Albany. What happens when Dimitrios and Eleftheria Tsatsaronis’s youngest marries a Jewish kid from New York?

We take a group photograph of her family flanking me with my certificate when it’s all over. Hunters posing in front of their captured bear. But that isn’t the way I’m going to frame this. In the car, on the way to the restaurant, I let everything go. I’m crying like I haven’t since I lost my job. Julie’s crying, too, but we can’t wear that into the lunch place.

Julie’s aunt tells me: “Congratulations,” but that isn’t right. Her parents say: “Thank you.” And that is.

Up Next: The families come together for the Big Day. Will everyone find wedding nirvana under one big tent?

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