What It’s Like To Be A Secular Jewish 20-Something

As far as Jewish people go, I most definitely fall into the category of “disgrace to your cultural background.” I think most pork dishes are the tastiest options on menus, ditto shell fish and creamy meat sauces; male circumcision has precious little to do with anything of substance as far as my libido is concerned; being pedantically modest (lest a male have inappropriate thoughts about me) is not my problem to respond to; and that replicating the poverty and desolate nature of existence in ancient times is not really the purpose of a rest day.

I’m part of the category of secular Jews that recognise that 1) religious texts are written in metaphors as fables with morals conveniently encompassing the state of the law in the times in which they were written and 2) being Jewish is more than just a religion. It’s a culture and a history — that comfortable moment at your grandmother’s house when you’re schvitzing because it’s too damn expensive (and she’s too cheap) to turn on the air conditioning, after you’ve been stuffed with a 7-course meal and been given the 411 about every single Jewish boy, whose mother likes the sound of you, within an acceptable radius (Note: in modern day, “acceptable” includes a plane ride away).

I have struggled with being Jewish for a very, very long time. The same struggle that most of my generation has encountered in trying to reconcile the realities of modern life with the realities reflected in ancient scripts: For the most part, they just don’t “fit.” I grew up in a Russian Jewish family whose Judaism was reflected in a deep history of anti-Semitism and discrimination that had forced us to “stick together.”

One of my father’s earliest memories is a family vacation to the Black Sea in Ukraine, when a man approached him as he was revelling in a child’s glory of pretending to be a pilot, and said to my father, whose nose is unmistakably Jewish, “Little boy, Jews don’t become pilots”. My grandfather had overheard the remark and gave the stranger a “piece of his Jewish mind.” The same courage did not help 15 years later, when my father was told that his perfect record at school (2 years of scoring 100% in every subject) had to be altered to include one “satisfactory,” because a Jewish boy could not graduate and attain the “gold medal” award that that accomplishment traditionally warranted.

It was exactly such emotional recollections that distanced me from religion as “something of value.” My father had succeeded in spite of being Jewish in an anti-Semitic environment; our home, my school, my friends, they had nothing to with being Jewish. We went to the Synagogue once or twice a year on the “high holidays,” and the whole experience seemed strange to me. Men and women were seated separately; half the service was in a language most people didn’t understand, and they just sat there, for hours, mesmerised, by what seemed to be nothing more than the so called “amplified” presence of God in that room.

When I was 10, I decided to fast, as is traditional on Yom Kippur, an annual “cleansing of sins” to begin the new year. Traditionally, it is only required once you have undergone your initiation (age 12 for girls, 13 for boys), but in my mind it was a test of my ability to sacrifice. To persevere. For me, it was more about my ego. Could I do it, not eat or drink for 24 hours, as adults did? I wondered if that was what being an adult was about, was it successfully sacrificing in the name of God when called upon?

I did it — and continued the tradition until I was about 14. It was around then that I was introduced to Pascal’s Wager, the idea that, regardless of whether God existed or not, believing in God was safer than not believing in God. Around that time, I realised that I didn’t really understand religion at all. I didn’t understand what fasting really meant in the scheme of things or how that made me a better person. Why a deity would judge me for choosing or not choosing to eat pork? I really had no clue who God was or purported to be, and I was using religion as an insurance policy. It clicked one day when a friend, from a non-ethnic background, told me she didn’t believe in God, and it triggered a feeling of pity in me for her, because in my mind, that directly correlated with “going to hell.”

For many, many years after that, I distanced myself from Judaism and all of its labels. I would hesitate in describing myself as Jewish, because there was no part of me that was ready for others to identify parts of me that I didn’t want to identify in myself. I’d let anti-Semitic jokes slide and could never really understand why my father or (Jewish) boss would cut business ties over the slightest unfavourable remark towards their religion. Again, I put it down to personal histories: both had been tormented, in one-way or another, because of their religion.

Inevitably the question came up when I started dating. Almost instinctively I’d grown up assuming I’d marry a Jew — to this day, in spite of all of my doubts/criticisms, I have no doubt that this will be the case. But when I started dating “goys,” as the Jewish community so lovingly refers to non-Jewish men, I questioned my reasons for such an unshaken belief. The first penis I ever saw was uncircumcised. To this day when I think of a penis, whether or not it was circumcised is only a thought that comes to mind when somebody directly asks me  — because yes, female friendships have these Sex and the City moments all the time.

Moreso, I dated people who were more than just “not Jewish.” They were varying degrees of devout to other religions. This never sat easily with me, because it was both a fundamental conflict of identities, and at the same time, in my mind, reflected positively on their commitment and sense of belonging to a community, albeit one I found ludicrous. I’m not one for Synagogue organised social gatherings. I believe these things should be organic.

And despite my distrust for any forms of extreme devoutness, I am far from ambivalent to Jewish history. In 7th grade, I produced a 15-minute script in response to a short class activity on the Holocaust. I have read, considered and criticised countless historical analyses of Germany — pre- , during and post-WWII. I lived in Germany for many months and used to find myself slightly paralysed in streets, thinking about where I was standing, and what I would have seen just 65 years prior. Despite living in Berlin for over 3 months, the Holocaust memorial in the city centre would frustrate all of my thinking into a blur of grey pain and entrapment, overpowered by the countless structures encircling the small block of land. Sometimes the persecution did feel like my own, and it devastated me.

There was the push and pull. The push away from a label I didn’t understand or want, the pull towards that which I knew was part of who I was and common to what other Jews were. The pull is organic. And it has changed things.

Two interesting things happen as you grow older. First, your friend circle gets smaller, and you generally find less people interesting. And secondly, though I was told this was way off in the distant joint problems life stage, you revert back to religion. Both have been true for (a still very young) me. Most people I meet don’t interest me. Not because they aren’t great, but because I’ve got a lot of great people in my life, as well as a lot of not-so-great time-consuming responsibilities. I make time for the important people, the ones on the periphery are a constant struggle though.

And the ones that have stuck (or stick if we meet at random) today? They’re generally from a similar cultural background to me, through no conscious effort of my own. It just flows easier with them, and a part of me just wants to get lost in a conversation with these people indefinitely about the great big world outside us, as we see it from the little microcosm that our culture has raised us in.

I’ve tried cross-cultural dating. In the end, that made me get lost in a complicated labyrinth of my already convoluted and sometimes hysterical mind. It’s probably coincidence, but it has all geared me towards the Russian-Jewish collective of single men.

In lieu of Jewish New Year, and upcoming Yom Kippur, I’ve started to reconsider my stance. I have an excellent relationship with my father — and part of that is the similarity between our personalities and our value. I understand a little better now that these are inherently Jewish. The reason it means a lot to him is because it defines his integrity as a person. I love my father and his integrity is part of what makes me a better person. His Judaism, beyond a genetic inevitability, makes me Jewish.

I’m still not sure what that means, but for the first time, it feels really good — as though I’m part of a rich history (that I would like to learn more of and pay homage to) through a small sacrifice of the things I take for granted. I’m still tossing up whether or not I’ll fast, but beyond an articulable matter of fact explanation, it just feels intuitively right to do so.

Let me clarify: I am not giving up my pork, my sexual liberty or my distaste for affixing oneself to a deity at the cost of living the incredibly opportunity-rich life modernity has granted us. But I feel proud to say I am Jewish. This, too, will calm to a quiet, demure “comfort” in simply knowing, beyond knowledge, that Judaism is part of who I am. TC mark

image – Flickr/luccawithcheese

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