When I was a child, I wanted religion. Everyone else it seemed had it. At least, they went to CCD. I didn’t.
“What’s that?” I asked one kid in my class.
“The Central City Dump.” He told me. He said it with such great loathing, that I thought he might be telling me the truth.
“Why don’t I go to CCD?” I asked my mother.
“Because you’re Jewish,” she told me. Being Jewish seemed to entail little more than going to my grandmother’s on Passover and speed reading through the Hagaddah as my father grumbled, “when are we going to have dinner?”
I tried to absorb religion through my relationships with more pious friends.
I liked going to mass with Emily. The service was so carefully choreographed. Stand up, sit down. May god be with you. And also with you. Everyone seemed to know their part. I learned “Hail Mary” and “Our Father.” But I didn’t actually say it out loud because it felt wrong.
When my friend Alizabeth had a Bat Mitzvah, I took home the program, which had a little prayer in it. I read it under the blankets at night with a flashlight. I kept hoping it would make me feel closer to something. Something bigger than me.
I wanted God. But God didn’t seem to know my address. It made me feel lonely.
Once I went to a church dance with Emily. “What if somebody asks me what my religion is?” I worried.
“No one is going to ask you that,” Emily reassured me.
At the dance, we were approached by a nun. “Hello dear,” she said, “are you new to our parish.
“Oh. You don’t belong to our parish?”
“No, I’m here with Emily.”
“What parish do you belong to?”
“I don’t belong to a parish.” I said in a small voice. “I’m Jewish,” I said in an even smaller voice.
“Oh! Well then what synagogue do you belong to?” My face went hot. I KNEW this was going to happen. I stared at the gym floor.
“I don’t belong to a synagogue. My parents don’t believe in organized religion.” She didn’t audibly gasp. But she might as well have.
I never did get religion. It always seemed like a team sport to me—something people had played for most of their lives, I couldn’t possibly pick it up now. I’d keep dropping the ball. Or throw it to the opposing team. I wouldn’t know which way to run.
I sit on the sidelines of religion. Every now and then peeking in. Wishing I had that sense of solidarity with others. Something less superficial then knowing a handful of words in Yiddish and how to make kugel.
How is it that my grandmother was born to Orthodox Jews? That my father went to Yeshiva? My blood is diluted.
What do I have to pass on?
When Kevin and I got pregnant we made a deal. His last name, my religion. Now that Sophia is here, I feel the weight of responsibility. How do I begin to teach her something I know so little about?
I don’t want her to be left with the spiritual void I wrestled with.
At first, I fantasized that, perhaps, we could learn together. It would be a shared journey. We could be bat mitzvahed together, taking turns reading our Torah portions. I could be a real Jew.
But as I started looking into temples, I couldn’t find anything that felt close to what I’d envisioned—something that could accommodate decades of disbelief that had settled into a peaceful agnosticism. Light on rules, heavy on stories. And love so luminous it pours in like light through the windows.
So I sit in limbo, with Sophie beside me, teaching her the things I do know. Empathy. Gratitude. Reverence. Awe. All the things I feel to be holy.
This post is inspired by I AM FORBIDDEN by Anouk Markovits. Though not sisters by blood but through their Hasidic faith, Mila and Atara views the rules and structure of their culture differently. Mila seeks comfort in the Torah while Atara searches for answers in secular literature she is forbidden to read. Ultimately each must make an irrevocable decision that will change their lives forever. Join From Left to Write on May 8 as we discuss I AM FORBIDDEN. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.