Minimum Viable Passover
I don't write about religion very much, and I don't plan on making a habit of it. However, as we approach the first Passover since my father's passing, I'm thinking about it a bit. Since this may be the only article that I ever write about religion, I'm going to cover the whole damn thing. If you don't want to hear my take on religion, western vs. eastern philosophies, atheism, and more, then go in peace and I'll catch you on my next post.
Disclaimer: I spend a lot of this article criticizing the shit show that was my personal religious upbringing. But to be completely clear, I don't hate Judaism (or any organized religion); I'm just not religiously Jewish. The rise of antisemitism in the US in recent years is frightening to me, and I consider acts of hatred against Jews as attacks against my family. If you are here looking for a sympathetic voice for your anti-Jewish conspiracy theories, fuck off.
The Grand Plan
Let's start at the beginning. My father was Jewish, born to Jewish parents. They lived in Connecticut where their social circles were almost exclusively made up of other Jewish families. They practiced conservative judaism, though they were lax on a few of the finer details – particularly around observing the sabbath weekly, and keeping kosher.
My father's exposure to other religions came through his school interactions and through the boarders that rented a room in his parents' house. My grandmother went as far as to have a Christmas tree in the house for the sake of the renters. I don't think he liked that very much; he understood the financial need to rent rooms, but later on, no house owned by my father ever had a Christmas tree in it.
My mother was not born Jewish. She couldn't have been much further from it. Her father was a second-generation Norwegian immigrant who made a career in the US military. Her mother was from a family with deep ties to colonial Virgina, with social and business connections to families like the Washingtons and the Lees. (But in my Granny's defense, she was so much more than that – a story for another time.) Both of my maternal grandparents were devout Christians who practiced in accordance with my Granny's family traditions.
My mother was and remains pretty fluid on religion. She still likes the Christian hymns, and loves the family traditions, but during her formative years she found that there were things about Christianity that didn't sit right with her. For this reason, when things with my father got to the point of discussing marriage, my mother was open to the idea of converting to Judaism. She converted, they married – so far so good!
The plan was to raise their kids – me and my sister – as Jews in a Jewish household. And to my sister's credit, if she ever spent any time doubting this path, I've never known about it. She's happily married to a great person who also happens to be Jewish, they had a traditional Jewish wedding, and I even DJed their eldest son's Bar Mitzvah this past summer. So why and how did things go sideways for me?
Not Jewish Enough
I grew up in Connecticut, and I grew up in the suburbs. So I was lucky enough not to have to deal with antisemitism very often. When I was teased about being a “jewbag”, it was by the usual middle-school douche canoes who weren't actually bigots but just figured out what would be the most insulting thing they could say to their intended target.
I spent more time feeling judged harshly by the Jewish community than I did by my gentile classmates. Here's the thing: even though my mother had converted to Judaism before I was conceived, I wasn't really Jewish. In Jewish law, religious identity is tracked through the mother, and despite the fact that my mother converted, she apparently hadn't done it in a way that passed muster with our rabbi. And this fact came up again and again and again. Nothing I could do would make me Jewish enough to meet the expectations of the Jewish community that we were part of.
My mother's Jewish status was enough of an issue that before my Bar Mitzvah, I was required to go through my own conversion to Judaism. Put a pin in that; oh boy – we'll come back to it.
The only person who judged my religiosity more harshly than the people in our synagogue community was my father. He expected religious practice to be a high priority, and to this end I was attending synagogue on Saturdays regularly starting in second grade, and then going to religious and Hebrew classes on Sunday mornings. Saturday morning services were two and half hours long. Sunday school was three hours long. I was eight years old when I got started.
My mother would drop me off and pick me up from synagogue those mornings, and my father would be off doing other things if he wasn't on call. Praying was something I did in a language that I couldn't understand, surrounded by strangers.
The Difference Between Doing and Being
Years before my Bar Mitzvah, when I was old enough learn through rote memorization, my father decided that it was time for me to learn the Four Questions and be an active participant in his parents' Passover service. Everyone gathered around my grandparents table would have a copy of the Haggadah in hand, with the Four Questions printed inside in Hebrew and English. But, my father felt that it would reflect much more positively – on him, I suspect – if I had them memorized in Hebrew to recite aloud on cue.
He recorded himself singing the prayers and I spent the better part of a month leading up to the holiday practicing the prayers as much as possible based on his recording. I was literally terrified. The thought of what would happen if I fucked this up was a source of singular focus. I thought he would hit me if I got it wrong.
Every year after that, I recited the Four Questions from memory. When it was eventually my sister's turn to take over... well, she was allowed to read them from the Haggadah. When it was our cousin's turn to take over a few years later... well, he was allowed to read them in English. The extremely high standard of Being Jewish Enough for my father's tastes didn't seem to exist for anyone except me.
The Bar Mitzvah. If memorizing the four questions to recite in front of twenty people was terrifying for me, the work of memorizing a hundred lines of Hebrew in two tropes (Torah and Haftarah) was worse. In fairness to my Hebrew school classmates and most Jewish kids going back to ancient Jerusalem, they all had to do the same damn thing. Were they as afraid of their father as I was of mine? Probably plenty of them were.
Because my mother and I weren't Jewish enough, our rabbi felt that I should do the rituals of converting to Judaism before I could actually go through with the Bar Mitzvah. In retrospect, I wish I had the nerve to say “fuck this – you don't think I'm Jewish and frankly I don't want to be”. But I meekly went along with the whole thing, which included a dip in a frigid spring-fed pool called a Mikvah.
Absolutely nothing untoward occurred during my Mikvah, but the ritual requires two witnesses to observe you going completely into the water. Being naked in front of two male elders of the synagogue was 100% mortifying. And my father wasn't around for any of this.
What sticks with me most about the day of my Bar Mitzvah was the sense of relief I felt when I had read my last prayer and could finally sit down at the end of the service. I could have cried. I suspect most people feel a sense of accomplishment and pride in this moment, and perhaps a sense of connection to their Jewish heritage. I just felt relief that I would never have to do this again. If I wasn't Jewish enough two months prior to my Bar Mitzvah, what made me more Jewish now?
Not a damn thing.
For years I would continue to pay lip service to Judaism. Now that the Bar Mitzvah was behind me, my father only expected me to be in synagogue for the high holidays, and at his house for Passover. I stuck to this arrangement dutifully right up through the pandemic. But by then, everything had changed.
A New Perspective
When my first child was born, a daughter, I was grateful not to have to address the thorny question of circumcision and a formal Jewish upbringing. My wife and daughter dutifully joined me in CT for the high holidays, though the services were extra boring for people who had barely any connection to the religion and the language whatsoever.
During the same time period, my wife's middle sister was diagnosed with cancer. She lived with us for a while, lived on her own for a while, and lived with her parents towards then end. In the midst of the years where she was fighting her battle, she underwent spine surgery and had to wear a whole torso brace. When she had recovered enough from that surgery to leave the hospital, the job of driving her to her parents' house fell to me.
During the whole of her illness, I made it a point to keep my conversations with her to everyday things. She had more than enough cancer talk with her family and all of the well-wishers, and so my gift to her was conversation about anything else. But on this one car ride, we wandered into spirituality and religion. Maybe it was because many of her visitors wanted to pray with her, and in those moments, I noticed that she would bow her head respectfully, but never say the words.
I'll never remember exactly how she said it, but in the kindest way possible, she told me that she just didn't believe in God. God hadn't given her cancer, and God wasn't going to take it away. If anyone could help her, it was going to be team of surgeons and oncologists working with her in the real world. After that car ride, I started wondering – what if she was right? And in the days and months to follow, everything started to make more sense.
The Hardest Days
I was comforted by the idea of a world without a God in a way that I had never felt in a synagogue. As it turns out, Judaism wasn't the root problem – it was organized religions, full stop. In April of 2007, I wrote a blog post about the state of my sister-in-law's battle with cancer and I noted that I still held out hope for her. One passage in particular stands out to me even now:
I don't believe in God, but I do believe in people, and [she] is as strong willed as they come.
She gave cancer hell, but she passed two months later at age 25. It was a devastating loss for our family, held in perfect balance with the arrival of my second child – a son – only three days later.
Having a son meant that I couldn't put off having some real-talk conversations with my father any longer. As fate would have it, he actually broached the topic with me. It turns out, he read my blog article, saw my throwaway comment about belief, and he had questions.
My wife had left the decision about whether or not to circumcise my son entirely up to me. And in my heart of hearts, knowing how I felt about my upbringing, I couldn't put the same expectations on my son that my father had put on me – especially since I didn't believe there was any point to it whatsoever. Breaking this news to my father was the hardest conversation that I've ever had.
Spiritually, I was in limbo as well. What I knew with absolute certainty was that there is no omnipresent, omniscient, and omnipotent God. But I also felt – perhaps thanks to the religious framework in which I was raised – that even the godless can benefit from moral guideposts. I had taken a Comparative Religions class in high school, and two decades later I found myself doing this research again.
The years leading up to the loss of my sister-in-law and the birth of my son were some of the most difficult years of my life. Spiraling anxiety and depression, a punishing work commute, balancing the needs of my young family versus the expectations of my parents. After I had finally told my father where I stood with religion, and expressed the reality that I would not raise my children in a religious way, things started to get a little better.
During my search for a new spiritual framework, I was surprised to discover two religions that don't require you to believe in God. The first of these was Zen Buddhism. Gods don't factor into Zen at all (unlike Tibetan Buddhism – so many gods!), and at the same time, if it turns out that any god does exist, this would have no impact on Zen Buddhist philosophy or practice. The second of these religions is... actually, it's Judaism. Perhaps fearful for my mortal soul, my Dad pointed this out to me – that Judaism requires one to live according to a staggering list of rules, but belief in God is not one of them. Belief in other gods is problematic, but if you observe all of the rules, you can debate against the existence of Yahweh as much as you like.
Needless to say, I spent my whole life going through the motions of Judaism and I was not eager to rejoin. The biggest irony of my whole Jewish experience is that once I'd had my Bar Mitzvah, the narrative went from “You're not really Jewish” to “You can't become un-Jewish”. Seriously. The only way to win that debate is not to participate.
I started studying Buddhism and gravitated towards Zen. And it turns out, I'm not that special. The fact that there's a nickname for Jews who practice Buddhism kinda says it all. It goes to show that when a Jew does the work of asking “what parts of this do I actually believe?“, they end up with a significantly more flexible framework whose core philosophical point is this: “If you're having a bad day, maybe it's just you.” Okay, not exactly what my homeboy Siddhartha said but pretty close.
I joined a Zen center in 2010. In April of 2014 I had studied the basic texts of my sangha and started work on my own Rakusu. A year later, I took the precepts at a large group ceremony in the sacred space of that Zen center. In stark contrast to my Bar Mitzvah experience, I felt like I had done something meaningful, I felt accepted, and I felt loved.
Minimum Viable Passover
I never told my father that I took the precepts, but I did tell him about the Zen center. We didn't talk about it very much. In the years after my eldest son's birth, I maintained the tradition of joining my father in person for one or the other of the high holidays, and my family would go to his house for Passover. It was very diplomatically tricky – Passover and Easter often overlap, and so we'd either have to delicately compromise for an off-day Passover celebration, or pull a marathon weekend of driving between CT and NH to try and fit it all in.
Passover had become my father's big opportunity to write and deliver a sermon on some aspect of Judaism, and we were all expected to sit and listen attentively. The religious historian in me found some of it interesting, but it was mostly just... a lot. If my father hoped to spark curiosity about Judaism in his grandchildren, I didn't think he was very successful.
Every year, one of my kids would read the Four Questions in English, and then I would recite them – from memory – in Hebrew. Not because I particularly felt it, but because I had run the damn gauntlet and I wasn't afraid anymore. And yet, despite a lot of the negative feelings I still had, Passover is one of those holidays that I've always wanted to take a shot at. My father was a terrible sharer – particularly when it came to family holidays – and I always imagined what I would do when I finally had the chance to do a Passover seder differently.
Last year I got a preview of what that might be like. My father surprised me last April when he told me that he was done writing Passover sermons, and that he was going to go to the Passover service at his synagogue instead. I was equally surprised to discover that in the face of this news, my kids still wanted to do Passover. We didn't have a ton of time to pull it together, and I needed to rely heavily on some online resources, but we had our first Passover as a family. Led by the resident Buddhist atheist.
This year, we're doing it again – a little bigger than last year, a little more complete, and yet significantly more stripped down than my father's version. Taking a lot of guidance from Joshua Tauberer's A Minimalist Haggadah, I've come up with an “MVP” that we can tweak from year to year. I was surprised to find that Tauberer's Haggadah doesn't include the Four Questions. I'm not sure if I want to add them back to my family's version.
The Last Conversation
Last August, my father forwarded an article to me without comment. The article was titled “Budhism is Wrong”. At many points in my life I would have interpreted this as a rebuke of my opinions, or another surprise-attack style snap judgement. But I saw it differently this time. Why was my father engaging me in a conversation about Buddhism at all?
We had a pretty deep email exchange over this article. And a few weeks later, he forwarded me a different article. A week later, another one. I think my father was making his peace with my decisions – or maybe he was questioning his? Through our slow-motion conversation about it (only via email; we never talked about it on the phone), I think he was able to see the wisdom in my chosen philosophy. Maybe he heard about JewBus and decided that I had never actually stopped being Jewish. If so, he took that opinion with him when he passed away.
I opened this article with a disclaimer: my religious upbringing was a shit show, but I don't harbor any ill will towards Jews or Judaism. I still feel the kinship of a shared history with Jewish people. Building upon that: as an atheist, I have no issue with those who want to believe in any god or gods. I prefer to focus on how each of us chooses to channel our beliefs into actions. If your faith helps you to help other people, then I love that you have it. If your faith is a platform from which you unfairly judge others or bring them suffering, then take it from me: you are ultimately only damning yourself.
In my own family, I'm starting to see myself less as the unlikely spokesperson for a religion that I don't follow, and more as a curator of family traditions that I have the opportunity to remix and share. If the bits of Jewish tradition that I maintain for my kids inspires some curiosity in them about Judaism, then I will be happy for them to discover it the same way that I discovered Zen Buddhism – on their own terms, in a time and place that is right for them, and without judgement.