Reviewed by Tucker Lieberman
Religious differences collide in this warm-hearted family drama.
Bruce J. Berger’s To See God is a tale of family members trying to do right by each other but testing each other’s patience in the process. At the center is a child whose single mother is in a vulnerable situation.
This is a gentle narrative of people talking through their differences, a story punctuated by sudden realizations that spur them to take brave actions.
Sister Theodora’s old name was Kal. She was a Greek Jewish girl who survived the Holocaust. After she prayed to the Virgin (the Theotokos) and survived, she converted to Orthodox Christianity and became a nun. This is where she abandoned her old name.
Her brother, Nicky, believing she was dead, emigrated to the United States, where he practiced psychiatry and raised a family. His daughter Kayla became a teenage mother.
To See God opens in 1990, a year when the gaps in this family narrative ache for resolution. Nicky, having recently discovered his sister is still alive, visited her in Greece and sent her followup letters she didn’t answer.
Theodora is in her own world. At her monastery, the Abbess, Mother Fevronia, had once believed without evidence that the vineyard grapes were tart because they grew on a mass grave, so perhaps it’s unsurprising that Fevronia entertains Theodora’s claims of seeing visions of Jesus. She’s more surprised by the way Theodora springs the topic: “Did you know Jesus is black?”
One might be skeptical of Theodora’s vision for a number of reasons. She survived traumatic violence in the Holocaust, and her niece has schizophrenia (which runs in families). She says Jesus is speaking to her even though she wasn’t raised Christian, and she believes he’s coming back to Earth to usher in a new age. Jesus’s skin color isn’t the real eyebrow-raiser here; it’s that he’s seven years old and related to her. Sister Theodora’s Jesus is Jackie, her brother’s grandson.
Jackie’s biological father is a violinist of Caribbean descent. He hasn’t been involved in parenting the boy, so Jackie has grown up with his mother’s family, raised as an observant Jew. The father has recently reappeared and is seeking custody in court, on the grounds that Kayla, with her mental illness, might be a danger to the boy.
The nuns process their concerns about Jackie in theological terms: “If you’ve concluded that Jesus is black, if you want to call Him so, our tradition allows that view,” Fevronia counsels Theodora. But the boy’s family, dealing with a custody battle, is concerned with other matters.
Theodora—who speaks Greek, not English—wants to go to the United States to meet the boy. What follows in To See God is not an End Times drama but a story of family reunification. Nicky is motivated to resurrect what remains of his family connections. By contrast, Theodora is a true believer who experiences life solely in religious terms, and she is uninterested in hugging her brother at the airport, “looking not at him but at the floor, crossing herself.” Kayla, barely an adult, wants to be a good mother and is ready to accept help. Jackie wants to know why his great-aunt “dresses like that, in this black robe, and why she stopped being Jewish.”
Nicky’s family observes the Sabbath strictly, and they enjoy traditional Jewish food like rugelach (filled pastries) while conversing in bits of Greek. Their discussions are caring but also careful. They tread lightly, aware of each other’s emotional vulnerabilities and the fragility of their bonds.
The author is a seasoned trial lawyer, and this comes through in the courtroom drama. Jackie is assigned a guardian ad litem to defend his interests in court. His mother is questioned about why she never applied for child support.
Against this legal backdrop, the tension builds, leading us to ask: How can this family hold itself together? How can they preserve who they are? The crisis is believable, and Berger clearly shows us the risks and stresses involved when courts decide child custody.
From this novel, readers might take away the message that each of us has a mission. We can’t always avoid interpersonal conflict, and at these times, we move into the fray and navigate it.
Life is messy, and our vision isn’t clear. Sometimes we try to save others, and sometimes we have to save ourselves. To See God walks us through the narrative of what we think we know, how we can accept each other’s differences, and how we can show up for each other.
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