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The only problem is she's always asking me if I have boyfriends and if they're Jewish. Now that is ridiculous because number one I don't have boyfriends. And number two what would I care if they're Jewish or not? (1.9)
Here are this book's major issues in a nutshell: growing up and religion. And for Margaret, grappling with religion is a pretty big part of growing up.
My parents don't know I actually talk to God. I mean, if I told them they'd think I was some kind of religious fanatic or something. So I keep it very private. I can talk to him without moving my lips if I have to. My mother says God is a nice idea. He belongs to everybody. (2.132)
How do you think Margaret got started talking to God? It's not like he's a big topic of conversation in their house… so how exactly did this happen?
"But if you aren't any religion, how are you going to know if you should join the Y or the Jewish Community Center?" Janie asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I never thought about it. Maybe we won't join either one."
"But everybody belongs to one or the other," Nancy said. (5.74-76)
We'd like to take this opportunity to point out that no one—not a single character—actually goes to the Y or the JCC in this book. They only talk about it. What do you make of this?
I hoped he decided I was normal, after all. I lived in New York for eleven and a half years and I don't think anybody ever asked me about my religion. I never even thought about it. Now all of a sudden, it was the big thing in my life. (6.11)
There are all sorts of differences between urban and suburban life, and in Margaret's experience people caring about your religion is a pretty major one.
If I could figure out which religion to be I'd know if I wanted to join the Y or the Jewish Community Center. That was meaningful, wasn't it? I'd have to think about it.
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. What would you think of me doing a project on religion? You wouldn't mind, would you God? I'd tell you all about it. And I won't make any decisions without asking you first. I think it's time for me to decide what to be. I can't go on being nothing forever, can I? (8.3-4)
Margaret seems to be on the fence about whether or not having a religion is actually important. Instead of saying it's meaningful, she asks if it is; and instead of saying she can go on chatting with God the way she's been doing forever, she asks him if he thinks that's okay.
So I asked her, "Can I got to temple with you sometime?"
Grandma absolutely stared at me. I never knew anyone could open her eyes so wide.
"What are you saying? Are you saying you want to be Jewish?" She held her breath.
"No. I'm saying I'd like to go to temple and see what it's all about."
"My Margaret!" Grandma threw her arms around me. I think the cab driver thought we were crazy. "I knew you were a Jewish Girl at heart! I always knew it!" (8.18-22)
We're willing to bet Grandma Sylvia's green eye shadow that she'll love Margaret no matter what. So why does she care so much if Margaret is Jewish?
And that was it! I expected something else. I don't know what exactly. A feeling, maybe. But I suppose you have to go more than once to know what it's all about. (9.5)
The thing about repeatedly going to church or temple, is that every young character in the book who's done it doesn't seem to give two hoots about God. The only kid character who does is Margaret.
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I'm really on my way now. By the end of the school year I'll know all there is to know about religion. And before I start junior high I'll know which one I am. Then I'll be able to join the Y or the Center like everyone else. (9.28)
Margaret's got her eyes on the prize and, in this case, that means she's got a game plan for getting to the bottom of this whole pick-a-religion business.
A week before the pageant Alan Gordon told Mr. Benedict that he wasn't going to sing the Christmas songs because it was against his religion. Then Lisa Murphy raised her hand and said that she wasn't going to sing the Hanukkah songs because it was against her religion.
Mr. Benedict explained that songs were for everyone and had nothing at all to do with religion, but the next day Alan brought in a note from home and from then on he marched but he didn't sing. Lisa sang when we marched but she didn't even move her lips during the Hanukkah songs. (12.7-8)
What does this awkward little incident teach Margaret about religious identity? Also, compare this showdown to the non-religious exchanging of presents that Margaret's family does every year. Which one is more in the holiday spirit?
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I just came home from church. I loved the choir—the songs were so beautiful. Still, I didn't really feel you God. I'm trying hard to understand but I wish you'd help me a little. If only you could give a hint God. Which religion should I be? Sometimes I wish I'd been born one way or another. (15.5)
Every time Margaret goes to church or temple she's disappointed… and later on at home has a chat with God about it.
I've been looking for you God. I looked in temple. I looked in church. And today, I looked for you when I wanted to confess. But you weren't there. I didn't feel you at all. Not the way I do when I talked to you at night. Why God? Why do I only feel you when I'm alone? (19.57)
Margaret's frustration builds throughout the book. Everyone is telling her how important religion is, but every time she goes to a place of worship she feels no connection to God. It's only at home that she knows where to find him, though she never tells anybody about this.
Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I'm so miserable! Everything is wrong. Absolutely everything! I guess this is my punishment for being a horrible person. I guess you think it's only fair for me to suffer after what I did to Laura. Isn't that right God? But I've always tried to do what you wanted. Really, I have. Please don't let them come God. Make something happen so I can go to Florida anyway. Please… (20.40)
There are many different ways to understand God, and here we see that Margaret believes in a God who punishes. Perhaps if she started by identifying the characteristics she understands God to possess, she might be better able to find the right religion for her.
All the way to the airport my mother briefed me. "Margaret, I'm not trying to make excuses for my mother and father. But I want you to know that your grandparents have their beliefs too. And fourteen years ago… well… they did what they thought was right. Even though we know it was cruel. Their beliefs were that important to them. Am I making any sense to you?" (21.10)
Religion has been causing drama in Margaret's family since before she was born. Her mom's parents stopped speaking to her when she married her father, all because he doesn't share their religion.
"I can't stand another minute of listening to you. Who needs religion? Who! Not me… I don't need it. I don't even need God!" I ran out of the den and up to my room.
I heard my mother say, "Why did you have to start? Now you've ruined everything!"
I was never going to talk to God again. What did he want from me anyway? I was through with him and his religions! And I was never going to set foot in the Y or the Jewish Community Center—never. (21.65-67)
And… she's done. Margaret needs a break from all of the pressure, and feels like God hasn't shown up to help her make sense of this religion conundrum no matter how many times she's sought his guidance. So bummer for God—Margaret will be keeping her thoughts to herself now, thankyouverymuch.
Sometimes Grandma is almost as bad as everybody else. As long as she loves me and I love her, what difference does religion make? (23.33)
Grandma Sylvia is generally awesome, but even she puts pressure on Margaret to pick a religion. Ugh.
I have not really enjoyed my religions experiments very much and I don't think I'll make up my mind one way or the other for a long time. I don't think a person can decide to be a certain religion just like that. It's like having to choose your own name. You think about it a long time and then you keep changing your mind. If I should ever have children I will tell them what religion they are so they can start learning about it at a young age. (24.2)
This is Margaret's letter to Mr. Benedict concluding her yearlong religion project. Do you think it would have been better for Margaret's parents to just assign her a religion the way she says she's going to do if she ever has kids?
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