I am an atheist Jew or Jewish atheist, take your pick. I feel like this distinction is necessary because without the qualifiers you don’t get the whole picture. I feel uncomfortable calling myself merely “Jewish” because I don’t believe in god and, quite honestly, usually learn when the Jewish holidays are from facebook posts. And yet calling myself simply an atheist doesn’t quite cut it either because it leaves out my cultural identity, which actually I would expand to “New York Jew.” This is the sort of shorthand that makes people uneasy, but sometimes it is right-on and we can’t help it.
I am remembering a time when I was hanging out in my friend Naomi’s NYU dorm our freshman year of college. A bunch of us were sitting in the hallway outside her room playing some kind of random word association game that tends to happen when college freshmen think they are being funny and cool with each other. At some point one of the guys said, Hey, who here is Jewish? And looking around in astonishment, and with some hesitation, we all raised our hands. This is the sort of thing that has rarely happened to me out in the real world (this wouldn’t even happen around our Thanksgiving table, to be honest). Suddenly our word association game became a Jewish word association game that led to shouts of “Whitefish salad!” “Miami Beach!” “Black socks with sandals!” This totally delighted all of us, the same way a Jewish friend of mine who calls me “Reynaleh” (the way my grandmother did) delights me. This is the shorthand I’m talking about.
What probably makes my situation unique is that I was raised by atheist Jews (who in turn later married lapsed Catholics), meaning that I never had to rebel against any sort of religious upbringing. We were just secular people. It’s quite possible that I am a third generation atheist Jew on my mother’s side, since her parents were at one time active socialists. My grandmother, who came from Poland in the early 1930s, retained a pretty strong Yiddish accent her entire life (which I adored) and cooked what I can only describe as Jewish food, but never once talked about god or celebrated any Jewish holidays. My mother’s father was totally enamored with Irish culture, which maybe has to do with his Lower East Side upbringing, and is a story for another time. What I’m getting at is there was very little god happening over in their Bronx apartment.
Way on the other side of the Bronx, my father’s parents were a different story. They actually belonged to a temple and had had their sons bar mitzvahed and it was because of them that I experienced many a fine seder as a child. But not too much talk about god either. They seemed to respect books above all things and this has carried right down to me.
As for my children, I’m not sure what to call them. Their father is a lapsed Catholic, yet you don’t really get to be called half-Catholic, do you? They could be called half-Jewish, even though they are apparently entirely Jewish since their mother (an atheist Jew) is, by Jewish law (of which she does not practice), a Jew. They are, in any case, atheists (we are just secular people). But we do celebrate Christmas, which I think of at this point in my life as an American holiday, as all we really do is presents and, when they were younger, a tree (which is, of course, pagan). My older daughter, curious about religion, has been to church twice, I think, with a friend who was also curious about religion. They found it peaceful. I would have to agree. Churches are some of the most gorgeous and peaceful places I’ve ever been to in my life, and I have found stepping into a silent empty church and sitting for a moment to be what you might call (ironically or not) a religious experience. Plus I’m a sucker for the delicious smell of incense.
Have I said anything sacrilegious here? I don’t even know. I just know that I have a cultural identity that is tied into a religion of which I do not abide. If I tell someone I’m Jewish they might wish me a Happy Chanukah. And while I appreciate the gesture, it doesn’t get at who I am. If they were to ask me where to find good poppy seed cake, I would feel a greater connection (Note: on my last visit to NYC, I bought a black-and-white cookie at Moishe’s on Second Avenue, a bakery that always seems to have irregular hours, until you factor in the Sabbath. Jeez, I’m clueless. Anyway, it was not the transcendent experience I had hoped for, until I realized like an idiot that I should have gotten poppy seed cake there. Sheesh.).
Facebook tells me that Rosh Hashanah ends tonight and I would like to wish all of you a happy New Year, from someone who certainly enjoys a good honey cake, another important cake of my people. As my grandmother would have said, You think I don’t know from Rosh Hashanah? Ha!