I was raised in a Jewish household and attended a Jewish day school for most of my childhood. My education came complete with a Bat Mitzvah and an all-expenses paid trip to Israel.
But even then, in the Promised Land, I didn’t feel this connection. It is imperative, now, before you read any further, that you understand that my connection has very little to do with faith.
You see, I am Jewish, but I am also an atheist. I do not believe in God. I battled for years with my faith and finally settled on the unwavering decision that an all-powerful creator just isn’t for me. I’m much happier without Him.
So how is it, then, that I can feel Jewish? What could Judaism possibly hold for me if God has no place in it?
First, I’m in love with the tradition. I couldn’t care less about the meanings behind them, but I’ve come to cherish the bond I feel with my fellow Jews when we carry out a tradition. Judah Macabee who? Just pass me the matchbook – Chanukah is here and it’s time to light the candles. At B’nai Mitzvahs, I love dancing the Hora and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t fully intend to dance it at my own wedding. And please don’t get me started on my Nana’s brisket and Matzo ball soup. It’s to die for!
When I am with a fellow Jew, I recognize the common thread between us. We share similar milestones and hold the same values. We believe the same thing – or at least we’re supposed to. But the amazing thing about the Jewish religion is that it’s okay to wrestle with your faith. I’ve struggled with mine and came to my own decisions, and my comrade has struggled with his/hers and came to another decision. And that is completely okay. We’re both still Jewish!
Lastly, I’m not fishing for pity points here, but let’s talk about the Holocaust. I was born to a Jewish woman and I was Bat Mitzvah-ed. If I had been a Jew in Europe during World War II, I’d be in serious trouble, despite how little “faith” I possess. How can I not feel the loss of six million lives at the hand of one sadistic bastard? And it was all because of our heritage – our family tree.
Which bring me back to point. I have no Jewish faith. What I have is a Jewish heritage. We have a rich history, regardless of how “far back” you choose to believe.
My feelings of connectivity also stems from working my third season at the same school I attended as a child. Suddenly, Shabbat is back in life, even if it is only when I bring my students to in-school temple services. I’m saying prayers before and after meals again, and I interact with our rabbis on a daily basis. I’m busy fulfilling one of Judaism’s most highly regarded philosophies: L’dor v’ dor. From generation to generation. Regardless of how much or little I believe, it’s a beautiful thing.
(Dipping briefly into current events, I had my own personal reaction to the recent attacks at the Gaza Strip. This past summer, I felt a deep sense of pride when Olympic gymnast, Aly Raisman performed her floor routine to Hava Nagila.)
I don’t keep kosher. I refuse to fast on Yom Kippur, and I could honestly give three shits about marrying inside the religion. But I do want my children to have Jewish names. I will want them to understand why they are being forced to sit through a three-hour temple service. We can celebrate both Chanukah and Christmas, as long as they understand the differences between them and why they are significant.
God doesn’t exist for me. I’ve redefined Judaism to suit my own needs. This weekend, when I shake Aly Raisman’s hand, I’ll thank her for choosing Hava Nagila. In March, when I bid my students, my school, and my community goodbye, I’ll recognize what I am leaving behind. This winter, as I light the Chanukah candles with my friends and family, I’ll cherish the connection I feel with them. And next year, when I light my candles alone, I’ll still be Jewish.