by Sarah Firisen
I haven't spent a lot of time in churches over the years, being born a Jew and becoming an atheist as a teenager, it’s not a common hangout place for me. But when I have, weddings, christenings, sitting in the back during mass at various European cathedrals, there’s been a solemn stillness over the place, most people quietly paying attention to the priest-like person at the front talking until the moment when it was time for the whole congregation to sing a hymn in unison. Sitting in the ladies gallery of the conservative synagogue – shul – where my cousin’s daughter was bat mitzvahed yesterday, I was struck by how different a Shabbat service is from a Sunday morning in a church; it’s not quiet. For almost all of the service, all the men daven (pray) along with the Rabbi. They do it at slightly different speeds, so there’s little synchronicity involved. But behind this chanting, prayer and singing, there’s the buzz of conversation; Jews are pretty noisy in shul. The women, banished upstairs and not part of most of the service, have very little to do but chat with their neighbors. But even the men walk the aisles, shaking hands, pretty openly having conversations. It’s part of the melody of the service that it be interspersed with an occasional loud “shhhh” which brings the volume level down for about 30 seconds.
These sights and sounds are ones I remember well from childhood. In fact, even though this shul was not the one I grew up attending, it could have been; everything about it reminded me of a childhood spent attending Hebrew school and Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah services. And despite an adulthood spent firmly rejecting not just my own religion, but all religion and belief in God, to my surprise these memories were very pleasant and comforting to me. I've always felt something in the melodic patterns of Jewish chanting and music that has a pull on my DNA, not just taking me back through my own childhood, but linking me to the history, joy and sufferings of generations of my family.
I spoke to my Aunt on Friday night and we commented on how surprised we both are that her son, my cousin, has turned into such a practicing Jew and so involved with his shul community. But as I watched him below me interacting with this community, beaming with pride as his daughter gave her bat mitzvah speech, I understood why he’s chosen to “get his Jew on”. I have no idea what his actual beliefs in God are or aren’t. If I had to guess, I might say that many if not most of the people around me in that shul yesterday don’t have a really strong, active, serious belief in God. I know this sounds pretty radical, but I actually have long thought this about many “religious” people. In some kind of vague way they say they believe in God, but certainly very little about their actions implies they really do. The God of the Old Testament is a pretty demanding, unforgiving entity; he goes around smiting whole groups of people on very little provocation. If you really believed in him and in these stories, you'd probably follow his rules to the letter. But of course, most people don’t. They're what my father used to call “a la carte Jews”, picking and choosing the bits of a religion they feel like following – and I don't just mean Jews, I mean all religions – without any fear that he’s going to turn them all into pillars of salt.
But of course, what my cousin has chosen to immerse himself in really has very little to do with an actual belief in God; it’s about community and tradition. It’s about a shared set of values and rules and the order that can bring to a chaotic often very cruel world. And while I chose not to participate in this community and share their values, I can very much see the appeal of doing so. I can certainly see the appeal of raising children within this community. As I watched my cousin’s daughter participate in her rite of passage into this community, I did, just for a moment, regret that I've chosen not to give this to my children. Even though my ex-husband shares my views on religion and God, he started a tradition years ago of buying the children a little Chanukah present and making a brisket for dinner that night. At some point, we started our own very non-traditional Passover Seder that involved me telling the Passover story during dinner and pausing every few minutes to say “of course this is all just a silly story; you know none of it is true, right?” We ended the meal by playing the Passover songs on YouTube because neither the ex nor I really know how the songs go, but I had lovely memories of my grandmother singing them to me when I was a child.
Even as we were engaging in these pretty poor imitations of the real Jewish traditions, I realized that what we were doing was utterly irrational; we don't believe in the religion, we've chosen not to raise our children within it, so why are we sitting around telling them the stories and singing the songs? I think we did it because we felt some sense of loss at not giving them the exposure to their families’ traditions and culture. For the most part, I feel we've set them free to choose to believe or not believe whatever they want, to celebrate whatever they want, not bound by family and community expectations and judgments. But a very little part of me, a part that definitely was a little louder this weekend, feels sad that I haven't given them this and that I've chosen to walk away from it myself.
So as I got my Jew on this weekend. And as I did I thought, “if this were all there were to religion, people sharing food and music and friendship, I'd be okay doing this sometimes”. Aren't most religions usually more about community and food and music and traditions and holidays than they are about anything else? And on the surface of it, it’s difficult to see why your food, community, holidays and music need to clash with someone else’s. I have a dear Muslim friend who is as immersed in his culture and tradition as my cousin is in his; why does there have to be such a conflict in these two men both saying whatever words they want to whatever entity they may or may not believe while feeling part of welcoming communities?
I realize that so much of what passes as religious battles, both cultural and literal battles, really have nothing to do with religion. They're about land and power; they're about politics and poverty. They're very often about deep rooted personal issues that somehow get played out in the public arena – it’s almost become an article of faith that the louder an evangelical preacher storms against homosexuality, the more likely it is that he'll be caught in an airport bathroom at some point trying to solicit gay sex. But most people practicing their religions are just average people trying to provide their children with a moral compass, a sense of tradition, a community. And as I watched this community yesterday perform its rituals, I felt a genuine affection for the traditions I was raised with. But as I walk away tomorrow, I’ll be equally happy that I’ve chosen a path that allows me, and my children, to make our value judgments and moral choices from a position that isn't in thrall to those traditions.