My journey from borderline atheist to teaching first grade Hebrew School classes was a much shorter trip than one might expect. But, rather than dwelling on the notion that I could radically change my thinking about my own religiosity, I invite you to ponder how easy it can be to alter one’s perspective and allow what might be considered mutually exclusive philosophies to co-exist within one’s brain.
I have always been what I would refer to as a ‘cultural New York Jew’. Much more ‘Woody Allen’ than ‘Fiddler On the Roof’. Growing up, I enjoyed eating bagels with a schmear and matzah ball soup. I liked to say ‘oy vey’ and explain the rules of playing Driedel to gentiles each Hanukkah. (Or Chanukah, if you prefer.) I had older relatives who used Yiddish words that have made their way into more mainstream vernacular; ‘kvetching’ about someone’s sense of ‘chutzpah’ and occasionally helped me wipe ‘schmutz’ off my face, by licking their thumb and dragging it across my cheek.
My family would occasionally and half-heartedly observe major Jewish holidays, with less of a sense of tradition than a need to remind ourselves we were indeed Hebrews. Once every few years, my father’s family would host a Passover Seder which I looked forward to only in anticipation of the copious glasses of grape juice I would be allowed to drink during the numerous wine toasts that occurred throughout the evening. We celebrated Hanukkah, when we remembered exactly what date it was due to start, but typically ran out of candles, and shrugged off the rest of the holiday after we had exchanged socks or books, always saving the more exciting gifts for Christmas. (“We’re celebrating the Santa Claus part, not the Jesus part,” my mother would insist when queried.)
What I definitely did not have is a traditional religious Jewish upbringing. I did not have a a Bat Mitzvah, the rite of passage for girls aged 12-13 as they pass into adulthood. I did not learn Hebrew or the Torah. In fact, I had barely been inside a synagogue by the age of 30, and ironically, any Bible stories I learned were smuggled into my house by my mother’s parents, both of whom had converted to become Jehovah’s Witnesses later in life.
The only official Jewish education I received was several years of attendance at the Workman’s Circle Yiddish School, a socialist organization more focused on culture than religion, which translated locally to weekly Sunday classes that took place in the basement of a Baptist church and featured age-inappropriate and nightmare-inducing lectures about the Holocaust, which we were forced to endure while munching on cheese doodles, a decidedly non-kosher snack.
Despite a sense of informality, I was content with my level of ‘Jewishness’. I enjoyed the notion that I was part of a minority group known for great New York delis, Catskill comedy legends and gesticulating wildly with their hands. Where I grew up in Westchester, outside of New York City, Jews were much more common, but even after I moved into neighborhoods where I became more of a novelty, I didn’t mind. I was different, unique, an underdog; a dark, swarthy ethnic ‘yang’ to the many blond goyim ‘yins’ I worked and played with.
My dating pool wasn’t limited either. After a brief, unsuccessful stint in a Jewish Youth Group during high school (“There are, like, a TON of super-cute Jewish guys there,” I’m sure someone promised me), I vowed not to let religion stand in the way of potential happiness. Who was I to discriminate against anyone based on their beliefs? ‘I’m O.K., you’re O.K.’, was my relationship mantra, as I took up with a myriad of Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Quakers. In fact, as time went on, I began to downplay certain cultural mannerisms in order to better suit whoever happened to be wearing the suit.
“What I really like about you is that you don’t act Jewish,” a friend from my past once told me. “I mean I wouldn’t have even known if you hadn’t told me.”
Many people, like my mildly bigoted friend, believe that Jews are their own race, and in fact the Supreme Court would agree, ruling in such a manner for purposes of anti-discrimination laws in this country during the 1980’s. This would mean that I couldn’t separate myself from my Jewishness even if I wanted to. And, although my brushes with real anti-Semitism have been few and far between, I began to wonder whether it was because I didn’t advertise who I was as blatantly as I might have.
By the time I was 30, I was married to a non-Jew, living in the South celebrating Easter, which was as far off the map from eating knishes on the Upper East Side as I could be. I dutifully hauled out a few Hannukah candles once a year, corrected my husband’s pronunciation of Challah bread (“You have to feel the ‘cchhh’ in the back of your throat”), and made sure my son was circumcised (albeit in the back room of the hospital somewhere), but my sense of Jewish pride had taken a back seat. I didn’t miss it per se, but what I did miss was the connection it had to my family, who I had left back north with the knishes.
There were many reasons why my first husband and I divorced, and not a single one of those reasons included religious differences. Yet, I would argue that our cultural dissimilarities made a significance impact on our relationship. I am a conversationalist, a debater, a ‘let’s sit here and hash this out until it’s been talked to death and we can move on from it’-er. I grew up in a family of shouters and yellers. My husband would happily let months go by without dipping below the superficial surface of small talk. He and his parents hailed from the land of ‘if we don’t acknowledge the problem, it doesn’t exist,’ a place where my passport had never been stamped. I thought of all my beloved yentas back home and I began to wonder whether my personality WAS more suited to someone who grew up in a similar atmosphere. Did I miss that slightly more nasal tone my voice took on when I talked to my grandparents on the phone? Would I be happier with someone who did that too?
When I reconnected with an old friend who grew up down the street from me, the fact that he was a Jew from New York was on my mental checklist of pros. And, I had to admit as we began dating, there was a certain sense of familiar about the way we conversed, reminisced, and even argued. Perhaps embracing my roots instead of refusing to acknowledge them was indeed a key to relationship success. As I soon discovered, however, it’s one thing to embrace your roots, it’s another to have to grow new ones.
It was no secret to me that my new boyfriend was a bit more ‘Jewish-y’ than I had ever been. He had received a Bar Mitzvah in a fairly religious Congregation. He regularly attended services. He was keeping Kosher when we met and had even considered becoming a rabbi at some point. He didn’t celebrate Christmas – not even the Santa Claus part.
But, I honestly enjoyed the idea of being with someone Jewish. Celebrating holidays, starting traditions, eating more lox, and…..er, doing other Jewish stuff. I even looked forward to hosting my son’s Bar Mitzvah – an occasion I had always secretly felt denied. And, like every other person since the dawn of time enjoying the first blissful months of a romance that felt right in so many more ways than it felt wrong, I was eager to compromise. When he proposed, I said ‘yes’ and his parents said ‘Mazal Tov.’
As much as I would like to end this story with “Dear Reader, I blew the shofar with him,” it soon became clear to me I had bitten off more matzah than I could chew. My new husband’s idea of Jewish family traditions included weekly Shabbat, holidays I had never heard of, Friday night services I didn’t want to attend with Hebrew prayers I didn’t understand. I sat in the new member section of the Reformed Temple during Rosh Hashanah, trying to follow along through the words and motions and felt as much like a phony as I had during any Mass I had attended on the arm of a former Catholic paramour.
My husband reasoned that I would become more comfortable with religious aspects of Judaism, as I became familiar with them. I did not want to become familiar with them, I reasoned, rather loudly, back, but eventually acquiesced by signing up for a new parent orientation at the Hebrew School in which we were enrolling my son. During the course of the discussion amongst the parents assembled there, some with more religious backgrounds, some not, some not even Jewish, one thing became clear – no one was there for the prayers. After several older men in the back admitted that they probably didn’t even believe in God, and I moved my chair forward to avoid any resulting lightning bolts – just in case – the notion that there were as many definitions of being Jewish as there were Jews settled over me like a thick comforting cloud of matzah brei. Many of these people were there for the same reason as I was – to hold onto that piece of themselves that they identify as Jewish and figure out how to help their children do the same. Whatever that might mean to them.
Over the past few years, some of my ideas on what it means to be Jewish have reverted back to the way I was raised, with the understanding that many of my fellow parishioners might feel similarly. My husband’s ideals on the Jewish family he always wanted have relaxed a bit as well. I attend certain religious services, because I know it’s important to him, but I will probably take more pleasure in planning the party at my son’s Bar Mitzvah than pride in seeing him called to the bimah. Two years ago I had a serious discussion with my husband about my desire to celebrate Christmas with my children, something I had not done since we were married. If his sense of Judaism was so strongly tied to the idea of traditions, why are my own traditions any less important? He agreed to indulge me, proving we’d both moved beyond our old definitions of what it means to be a Jew.
I still take tremendous pride in being a Jewish person and to that end, whether or not I was technically qualified for the job, I took on teaching First Grade on Sunday mornings. I enjoy reading and explaining Torah stories, but have been known to use the phrase ‘Well, that’s what some people think,’ when posed with a slightly more complicated religious question. Ironically, I’ve had less of a problem dealing with God in my classroom than with glitter-glue. Glitter-glue is pretty powerful stuff.