Ear­li­er this week, Tom Fields-Mey­er wrote about read­ing and think­ing about books and took a look at autism and GodHe has been blog­ging here all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJewishLearning.

Tom and Ezra

Not long ago, I had the plea­sure of speak­ing at an event to ben­e­fit my children’s sum­mer camp. In the midst of a love­ly dis­cus­sion, the rab­bi who runs the camp offered a ques­tion: What’s your book’s Jew­ish mes­sage?”

I stam­mered and stum­bled a bit before I came up with an answer. But after­wards, I kept think­ing about the ques­tion. I tend to come up with much more artic­u­late respons­es the next morn­ing, on my jog, than on the spot. (That’s why I’m a writer and not, say, a White House spokesman.)

Fol­low­ing Ezra tells the sto­ry of rais­ing our mid­dle son for the decade from his autism diag­no­sis at age three through the day of his one-of-a-kind bar mitz­vah. It’s loaded with Jew­ish con­tent: there’s the awk­ward, hilar­i­ous con­ver­sa­tion he had with a neigh­bor on the walk to syn­a­gogue one Shab­bat; there’s the won­der­ful con­ver­sa­tion when Ezra learned about the Eighth Com­mand­ment (the hard way); and of course there’s the last chap­ter, detail­ing the days sur­round­ing my son’s bar mitz­vah celebration. 

But what’s the Jew­ish message?

In the book of Gen­e­sis, it says God cre­at­ed human beings in God’s image. That means we should treat every per­son with dig­ni­ty, respect and hon­or — no mat­ter their dis­abil­i­ty, no mat­ter what they look like, no mat­ter how many times they remind us when the next Pixar movie is pre­mier­ing (a habit of Ezra’s that can be either endear­ing or annoy­ing, depend­ing on your per­spec­tive). That also means that encoun­ter­ing peo­ple who are dif­fer­ent from us — from dif­fer­ent back­grounds, dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances, or fac­ing dif­fer­ent chal­lenges — gives us a insight into the many aspects of the divine.

My book begins with an epi­graph, a sin­gle bracha, a tra­di­tion­al bless­ing. Jew­ish litur­gy is full of bless­ings recit­ed on var­i­ous occa­sions. Most Jews are famil­iar with the bless­ings said over wine or before eat­ing bread. One of my favorite pages in the Artscroll prayer book lists Bless­ings of Praise and Grat­i­tude,” the bra­chot that are reserved for life’s unusu­al encoun­ters. There’s one for see­ing light­ning, and one for expe­ri­enc­ing an earth­quake. There’s a par­tic­u­lar bless­ing to say when you see 600,000 peo­ple in once place. (How often do you get to use that one?) 

In the midst of that list, the prayer book includes a bless­ing to say upon see­ing a per­son who is dif­fer­ent. The Tal­mud enu­mer­ates the var­i­ous kinds of peo­ple includ­ed. It prais­es God, mis­haneh habriy­ot—who cre­ates vari­ety among liv­ing beings.”

Blessed is God for cre­at­ing all kinds of peo­ple. What bet­ter words could intro­duce a sto­ry about rais­ing a child with an unusu­al and fas­ci­nat­ing mind? 

And what bet­ter Jew­ish mes­sage could there be?

Tom Fields-Mey­er is the author of Fol­low­ing Ezra. A for­mer senior writer for Peo­ple, he has writ­ten for dozens of pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing The New York Times Mag­a­zine and The Wall Street Jour­nal