With Passover beginning tomorrow night, I’ve been reflecting of late on my hard relationship with Judaism.
On one hand, my identity is very much as a Jew, at least culturally. I had a bar mitzvah. I’ve been to Israel. I can read Hebrew (although my understanding is limited). I went to a Hebrew high school, and even taught there for two years. I know the blessings by heart, or mostly. I have Passover Seders in my house, we occasionally have Shabbat, and I can “Oy vey” and “Nu, so …” with the best of them. I married a Jewish woman, and we stepped on the glass. And guilt? Do I know about guilt! That’s part of the reason for writing this.
I want my son to know Judaism. I want him to have a bar mitzvah, and know the blessings over wine and bread and matzoh. I want him to know what a lulav and an etrog are, to know the sounds of the shofar being blown. I want that to be part of his identity, for him to feel connected to this group of people who have struggled over great adversity and managed to survive for thousands of years. He is part of that struggle, as I am, and as my parents were before me, and their parents before them.
On the other hand, I am not a practicing Jew. I don’t fast on Yom Kippur or eat matzoh at Passover. I don’t regularly stop working on Shabbat or even light the candles. I eat pork and shellfish with abandon. I’m not a member of a synagogue, or even go to synagogue with any kind of regularity (and when I do go, I kind of resent it). I have a great doubt that any of those things will help me in an afterlife I don’t think I believe in and haven’t gotten much spiritual comfort from.
I don’t think I’d go so far as to say I’m an atheist. I believe there is some creator, but not one I have a “personal relationship” with or who cares whether I work on Shabbat, or eat cheeseburgers. And while I feel I am a part of the grander scheme of Judaism, I have never felt a part of an individual community of Judaism. Well, maybe for about 10 minutes, but certainly not on a sustained level.
The most spiritually moved I’ve felt has been at the theater and, occasionally, while sitting on a rock jetty with my back to the shore, watching the waves roll in. (Yes, my spiritualism is a tampon commercial.)
When my parents were alive, I was more active in my Judaism. I kind of felt I was doing it for my mom, and not for me, and when she passed away, I decided to stop. Since then, I have become increasingly more ornery about practicing Judaism.
When my wife and I lived in New York, we were part of a synagogue, but I never felt very close to that community. Perhaps because it was my wife’s community, perhaps because soon after I started going there was a great deal of flux due to the spiritual leader leaving, perhaps because my wife got involved in the behind-the-scenes of synagogue politics, and I saw the worst of it.
In the Passover Haggadah, there is a parable about the four sons: the wise, the wicked, the simple, and the one who doesn’t know enough to ask. Each has a question about what is going on, and you are supposed to answer each differently.
When I was younger, I always cast myself as the wise son, the one who includes himself, and asks the question “What did God command us to do?” But now I’m pretty sure I’m the wicked son, the one who holds himself apart from the group, and asks the question, “What did God command YOU to do?”
So I’m in a quandary. I feel like I’m Jewish, but don’t really believe in (or do) all of the stuff that makes one Jewish. And I want my son to be Jewish, or at least know about Judaism. But I’m setting him a bad example, at least as a Jew.
I’m sure I’m not alone.
I feel like I have two choices:
- Fake it ’til I make it. Set a better example as a Jew, even though I am not getting much out of it. That might mean more synagogue time for me, more fasting, more “religion for the sake of religion” instead of for the sake of me.
- Don’t fake it. Explain as best as I can to my son why I want him to be involved and knowledgeable and, when the inevitable charges of hypocrisy come, parry them by letting him know that when he’s 18, he can make his own decisions.
Is there a third option? A fourth option? For those of you who are religious doubters, what are you doing to help give your child/children a basis in religion?
A version of this first appeared on DadaPalooza.
Nice one, Adam.
I’m an agnostic with atheist leanings. My kids have access to different religions through their grandparents and the diversity of their friends, but for the most part conversations have always been framed around religion as something that other people do.
As for the cultural aspects of my childhood Christianity, namely holidays like Christmas and Easter, we embrace them (Easter less so) in the glad tidings of peace, friends and family, Bing Crosby and Santa sort of way. The boys understand that there are religious reasons for the holidays, and also that many, like us, celebrate them without.
I guess my answer to your question, since you asked, would be #2, although I don’t know that I would even put the “when you’re 18” on it. I’d say, “This is what people believe. This is what I believe. This is why they do this, and this is why I do it. Experience it yourself and do what feels right for you.”
You certainly aren’t alone.
Chad R. MacDonald says
I grew up Catholic. My wife grew up Jewish. But we’re both atheist.
Yet we still expose our son to the traditions of both of our families’ religions. We celebrate Passover and Easter. Hanukkah and Christmas.
It isn’t about whose creator is the correct one, it’s about being with family, and celebrating their traditions with them because we loves them, and this is still part of our identity. How our son will worship, or choose not to worship, will be up to him, we’ll just provide him with all of the best options we’re aware of to make his own choices.
But, man, the presents in December are getting ridiculous.
Really nice piece, very much enjoyed this pleasant and erstwhile read.
Adam G says
Thanks, Whit. We are doing a variation of #2. However, I also feel like the education part of it is important, so we’re sending him to a Jewish Sunday school. He won’t get a lot of Hebrew, but he should get some idea of the social justice aspect of Judaism, as well as some of the important ideas.
Wonderfully written. I relate on so many levels.
Lorette Lavine says
I am in a mixed marriage and raised my kids Catholic. My husband is Jewish and non-practicing much like yourself. We celebrated all the holidays in our home. I was very familiar with the Jewish holidays from working at a Yeshiva hospital in the Bronx. I felt it was important that my children knew and respected the backgrounds of both their parents. It was not easy. Both my kids are making their way spiritually and are content with that at the moment. Both are parents. One grandchild of mine is being raised Catholic. For myself, I share my beliefs so that my granddaughter understands why I choose to go to church, she goes to a Catholic school and I see myself as my grandmother, who was not overly religious…she used religion it to comfort and support our family. It was simple but it was the foundation of who we were when it came to believing in being the best we could be and helping others. Our behavior is a model for our children, I believe if we are honest and truthful and gear our explanations to them about our beliefs in an age appropriate manner and remain a good listener we are doing our best for our children.
Josh Misner says
I grew up the son of a preacher man (this sounds like the start to a Steve Martin bit), who manipulated Christianity to suit his selfish needs, so I’m pretty bitter on the whole religion thing. I consider myself a Buddhist (I’ve taken 4 of the 5 precepts, but I still like booze every now and then), but like Whit, I lean more toward the atheist side.
I recently discovered that my ethnicity is not white, but actually Choctaw, so I’ve been reading up on the culture I’ve been separated from for the last four decades. The hardest part of it for me to accept is all the mythology about the Creator, and that fills me with some of the same cultural guilt you described here. I guess I’m in the same position as you somewhat, wanting to stay true to my cultural roots but not wanting to sell out my personal beliefs. I guess it’s sort of like a buffet, where we pick out the stuff we like and add a pinch of salt to the other stuff we know we have to take?