"Have you seen my childhood?
I'm searching for that wonder in my youth
Like pirates in adventurous dreams,
Of conquest and kings on the throne…"
Written and Composed by Michael Jackson
In one of our conversations together, my friend Rabbi Shmuley told me that he had asked some of his colleagues–-writers, thinkers, and artists-–to pen their reflections on the Sabbath. He then suggested that I write down my own thoughts on the subject, a project I found intriguing and timely due to the recent death of Rose Fine, a Jewish woman who was my beloved childhood tutor and who traveled with me and my brothers when we were all in the Jackson Five.
Last Friday night I joined Rabbi Shmuley, his family, and their guests for the Sabbath dinner at their home. What I found especially moving was when Shmuley and his wife placed their hands on the heads of their young children, and blessed them to grow to be like Abraham and Sarah, which I understand is an ancient Jewish tradition. This led me to reminisce about my own childhood, and what the Sabbath meant to me growing up.
When people see the television appearances I made when I was a little boy--8 or 9 years old and just starting off my lifelong music career--they see a little boy with a big smile. They assume that this little boy is smiling because he is joyous, that he is singing his heart out because he is happy, and that he is dancing with an energy that never quits because he is carefree.
But while singing and dancing were, and undoubtedly remain, some of my greatest joys, at that time what I wanted more than anything else were the two things that make childhood the most wondrous years of life, namely, playtime and a feeling of freedom. The public at large has yet to really understand the pressures of childhood celebrity, which, while exciting, always exacts a very heavy price.
More than anything, I wished to be a normal little boy. I wanted to build tree houses and go to roller-skating parties. But very early on, this became impossible. I had to accept that my childhood would be different than most others. But that's what always made me wonder what an ordinary childhood would be like.
There was one day a week, however, that I was able to escape the stages of Hollywood and the crowds of the concert hall. That day was the Sabbath. In all religions, the Sabbath is a day that allows and requires the faithful to step away from the everyday and focus on the exceptional. I learned something about the Jewish Sabbath in particular early on from Rose, and my friend Shmuley further clarified for me how, on the Jewish Sabbath, the everyday life tasks of cooking dinner, grocery shopping, and mowing the lawn are forbidden so that humanity may make the ordinary extraordinary and the natural miraculous. Even things like shopping or turning on lights are forbidden. On this day, the Sabbath, everyone in the world gets to stop being ordinary.
But what I wanted more than anything was to be ordinary. So, in my world, the Sabbath was the day I was able to step away from my unique life and glimpse the everyday.
Sundays were my day for "Pioneering," the term used for the missionary work that Jehovah's Witnesses do. We would spend the day in the suburbs of Southern California, going door to door or making the rounds of a shopping mall, distributing our Watchtower magazine. I continued my pioneering work for years and years after my career had been launched.
Up to 1991, the time of my Dangerous tour, I would don my disguise of fat suit, wig, beard, and glasses and head off to live in the land of everyday America, visiting shopping plazas and tract homes in the suburbs. I loved to set foot in all those houses and catch sight of the shag rugs and La-Z-Boy armchairs with kids playing Monopoly and grandmas baby-sitting and all those wonderfully ordinary and, to me, magical scenes of life. Many, I know, would argue that these things seem like no big deal. But to me they were positively fascinating.
The funny thing is, no adults ever suspected who this strange bearded man was. But the children, with their extra intuition, knew right away. Like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, I would find myself trailed by eight or nine children by my second round of the shopping mall. They would follow and whisper and giggle, but they wouldn't reveal my secret to their parents. They were my little aides. Hey, maybe you bought a magazine from me. Now you're wondering, right?
Sundays were sacred for two other reasons as I was growing up. They were both the day that I attended church and the day that I spent rehearsing my hardest. This may seem against the idea of "rest on the Sabbath," but it was the most sacred way I could spend my time: developing the talents that God gave me. The best way I can imagine to show my thanks is to make the very most of the gift that God gave me.