IdentityRace, Ethnicity & CultureReligion

A Very Atheist Rosh Hashanah

I am an atheist Jew. Or an agnostic Jew. Or an agnostic atheist Jew. Eh, whatever. Unlike Judaism, atheism is not a core part of my identity. I guess I’ve just been Jewish longer than I’ve been a non-believer.

Since I’ve always been a member of Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues, I’ve felt pretty free to question everything, including the existence of God. I realize that isn’t every Jew’s experience but I grew up in Santa Cruz, California. My rabbi dressed up like Barney for Purim and our cantor was more like a folk singer with a penchance for flowy silk skirts.

Belief in God is not the defining factor in a Jewish life — okay, okay, at least not my Jewish life.

That doesn’t mean being an atheist and a Jew and a mom is easy. Some Jewish traditions resonate for me simply because they’re mine — the same melodies, the same candlestick holders, the same charoset recipe from childhood– but my family doesn’t share that connection. My husband wasn’t raised Jewish and he now considers himself an atheist. My son is ten, and is already quite vocal about his lack of belief in a higher power. I never told him about my atheist inclinations, and I always encouraged him to walk his own path, but I think God has always held far less appeal than the worlds of Minecraft and Harry Potter. His enthusiasm for Judaism is pretty much limited to food and fire. My daughter is only three and too young to weigh in on the God question, although she is also quite fond of both food and fire.

photo by flickr user Alexandra E Rust
photo by flickr user Alexandra E Rust

Last year around this time, I gave up on attending high holiday services as a family. I refused to drag everyone along and worry about nap schedules. Instead, I just went by myself and sent my son to the kids’ services. My husband stayed home with our daughter since she’d be napping for half of it anyway. I confess that it was nice to sit through an entire service without interruption but it also felt sort of lonely and disconnected.

So this year, at my suggestion, we are trying something new. We’re not going to services in the morning at all. We will probably go to Tashlich in the afternoon because it’s short, lively and fun — the highlight is throwing your sins (as represented by breadcrumbs) into the water. Sins are also communal by the way. Think of it like this — we all sin when we ignore climate change or buy into GMO hysteria, or refuse to vaccinate our children — so we are all responsible for doing better. That may strike some of you as unfair but remember there’s not really a hell in Judaism either. I can do better in the here and now. We can all do better.

In the morning, we’re going to bake round challah and eat apples and honey. We’ll celebrate with gluten and welcome a sweet new year.

odd little picture by flickr user David Lisbona
odd little picture by flickr user David Lisbona

Preschoolers are easy — we can do crafts and draw pictures — but ten year olds are a bit more challenging. My son doesn’t usually appreciate my well-intentioned attempts at educational experiences. I’m going to give him a choice of a few stories to read and then I’m thinking he could write a letter to his future self reflecting on the past year and the year to come. I’m hoping it will be fun for him to open it next year (Stole this idea from a teacher friend of mine via Facebook).

It’s actually been incredibly difficult for me to decide that we’re not going to services. I’ve always felt pretty heavily that responsibility of a religious minority. I feel a sense of obligation to pass the traditions on. But the truth is those traditions won’t make it very far if no one is interested, and I’m tired of feeling let down and disappointed by my own unrealistic expectations. Besides, I feel like our cultural traditions should be living things that adapt and change as we do. We have to be open to turning our world on its head every once in a while to see things from a new perspective. L’Shanah Tovah.

Rosh Hashanah begins tonight at sundown.

 featured image by flick user Liz West

Jenny Splitter

Jenny Splitter is a writer, storyteller and over-scheduled mom of two living in Washington, DC. She spends her glamorous days trying to write whatever she can, counting 1-2-3 in a slow yet threatening manner to her children, playing with gluten and working to eradicate dog hair from the planet (or at least her home). Find her on Twitter , Google+ and Facebook

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  1. My husband is Jewish, and I’m hardcore atheist; my kid’s an atheist Jew. We celebrate by throwing bread in the river and yelling out everything we want to be forgiven for; then we come home and eat a big dinner with honey cake for dessert.

    And my kid too pretty much likes only the food and fire aspects! Every Hanukkah she loves lighting the candles so she can mess about with the melting wax and open flame. I’m like, you’ll catch on fire. “I’m careful, MOM,” she says, rolling her eyes.

  2. Bread in the river is a pretty good ritual! I’m always trying to explain to atheists that we have some seriously cool traditions that I am not ditching! I personally enjoy everything that goes with the New Year and the Day of Atonement, even the services. I just like the idea of starting with a fresh slate, reflecting on life and improving yourself, though I was always a fan of self help books and that sort of thing.

    Shabbat (at home) is also a pretty good holiday for the food and fire fans. My son lights the candles (daughter likes to look at them) and we eat a nice family meal. It’s a nice way to chill before the weekend starts.

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