“I know you were raised Jewish,” he said, “but are you still Jewish?”
Our conversation took a different direction, but the question lingered in my mind. Am I still Jewish? I have, after all, been distancing myself from Judaism for some time. I never really believed in God, but since I had children, my nonbelief has become something I consciously express—like a tune that had been banging around in my head, underneath my thoughts, until I’d finally heard it, and started to hum it aloud.
So: done with the God part. But a rabbi I met last year shruggingly informed me that there are plenty of atheists in her congregation. They still consider themselves Jews.
They’re in her congregation, though. They still practice. I am definitely out of practice. It’s been so long since synagogue and services have been a regular part of my life that when I do occasionally witness the ritual bowing to the ark and the tender undressing of the Torah scroll . . . I feel like I’m watching a movie set in an archaic and alien world.
Judaism—the religion—is over for me. But Jewishness is not so easy to discard.
I grew up in a little town called Broadway, in Rockingham County, Virginia, the “turkey capital of the world” (high school mascot: the Gobblers). We moved there when I was three, my father having been hired to teach at James Madison University, in Harrisonburg, 12 miles south. In Broadway, being Jewish was one of the chief identifying characteristics of us Cohens, a name our neighbors often pronounced as if to indicate a pair of collaborating chickens.
We were different, and our Jewishness helped explain our difference to me and to my friends. It explained why we didn’t go to church, or attend the weekly religious classes my public school held in a trailer off school grounds (to make them . . . less unconstitutional). It explained why we had a candlelight dinner, with wine, every Friday night around 8, two hours or more after our neighbors had eaten. It even—somehow—explained why our walls were lined with books.
Our Jewishness helped explain me, and naturally I sometimes had to explain it. And represent it, as if I were a diplomat from a foreign land. My mom dutifully arrived at the elementary school every December, menorah in hand, to tell the Chanukah story. I often had to insist to astounded classmates that, no, honestly, we didn’t believe that Jesus was the son of God—not even a little. And I don’t know about my sisters, but my being Jewish was also mixed up in my head with the idea that I had to do well in school—extremely well—and also be especially kind to the nice Christians around me.
That part was vague and subconscious, but let me be clear: I was bat mitzvah; I wrote a book on the Holocaust; I had a Jewish wedding; I still make excellent challah.
In other words, it would take a great deal of effort, and possibly therapy, for me not to feel Jewish. All those old labels you stick on yourself (or find yourself stuck with) as a child—even when you try to scrape them off, they leave a gummy residue.
To be honest, though, I’m not trying to scrape off the label. I find it comforting, especially wherever I feel out of my element. I was comforted to think of myself as Jewish at Dartmouth, where lycra-clad blonds jogged by me on their way to the gym. I was comforted by it when I moved to Albany and set about trying to fit in with my husband’s family.
Would I have taken some rubbing alcohol to “Jewish” if it connoted a bunch of traits that didn’t really feel like me at all? If, instead of highly educated, food-obsessed, and politically liberal, “Jewish” signified athletic, outdoorsy conservative?
Well, yes. I’d probably be down to the gummy residue by now.
Or would I be tanned from late-season skiing and a fan of Jeb Bush? Does “Jewish” still seem to suit so well because I have suited myself to it?
Oy. I have to think about that.