I had never been much of a religious person. My family celebrated the Jewish holidays as traditions rather than as a religious event. I didn’t go to Hebrew school. Rarely went to temple. I wasn’t a bat mitzvah. This is all despite my family tree which is seeped in Jewish history. My family immigrated from Russia to Palestine in the 1800s. My great-grandfather and grandfather were born in Israel (then Palestine). My great-grandmother was buried in the Mount of Olives–a cemetery in Jerusalem where Jews have been buried for 3,000 years.
And with all of this, the first real identification to Judaism didn’t come until I spent six months in an abroad program at Tel Aviv University when I was 21. Living in the country where my ancestors lived, witnessing another culture and spending time with my family in Tel Aviv changed my life. To my family in Israel, being Jewish wasn’t about identifying with God–it was about retaining knowledge about your culture. About Jewish politics. About the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. I was embarrassed that I didn’t know anything about my religion except that my grandfather was born in Israel and that there were four questions you ask on Passover. Even then I couldn’t have told you what those questions were.
So as time went on, I embraced my Judaism as a culture rather than a religion. As a community. As an ethnicity. Like being Irish. Or Italian. We say mashuganah when we think you’re crazy. We make matzoh ball soup for comfort food. We mourn the dead with specific instruction.
When it came time to send Jake to Hebrew school I felt somewhat tortured over the idea of joining a temple. Though I was clear about my feelings around “God” I wasn’t sure if I was ready to explain this concept to my child. Mommy doesn’t believe in “God.” Or more, there is no “God.” (Though when he came home one day to tell me God killed the dinosaurs, I was quick to explain God had nothing to do with it. That it was a meteor. Or volcanoes. Or, as someone told me recently, they farted themselves to death.)
But we can’t hide religion from our children even if we wanted to. God was bound to come up–if not in the Pledge of Allegiance, then in a song, or in a book, or in my own strange need to scream Jesus Mary Mother of God when I’m pissed off. What’s a Jewish agnostic to do? According to Washington Post columnist Janice D’Arcy I’m not alone in this paradox. In her Washington Post column this week she writes:
“Americans are increasingly less religious and less inclined to identify themselves with a particular faith. Among those without ties to a religious institution are many parents of young children, a group that can struggle with how to present the concepts of religious faith to children.”
D’Arcy goes on to talk about new studies by the Pew Research Center that found that the “number of people who said they are “unaffiliated” with a religion has grown to 20 percent of the population. The percentage includes more than 33 million who say they are atheist or agnostic.”
Upon the advice of friends, I found a humanistic secular Jewish school. He’s learning Jewish history. Conversational Hebrew. Some bible stories. According to Time Magazine, there are a number of atheist Sunday schools popping up around the country as well.
And when he asks me about God, which I’m sure he’s bound to, I’ll tell him the truth. (That Mommy is going straight to hell. Just like a good Jew should.) He’ll need to make his own choice. He can decide with the history he’s learned where to go with it when he’s ready.