On Saying “No” and No More

(If you haven’t already, read here how I got myself into this mess. )

♦ ♦ ♦

Moses ScoldingYou don’t have to explain. That’s what I kept telling myself. Just say it’s not going to happen.

I had resolved to tell my father-in-law that his grandson would not be celebrating a bar mitzvah.

And I had resolved to tell him only that.

He knows well enough that we are not religious—that’s why he’s been bringing Noah up to his house to meet with a Hebrew tutor. And that’s why he didn’t even speak to his son or me (i.e., Noah’s parents) before deciding Noah was going to be bar mitzvah in October.

In other words, my “no” would be a blow but not a shock. And trying to soften that blow—with explanations, justifications, apologies—might simply confuse the matter (or me). I had to be clear.

So after a pleasant exchange about our chickens’ current egg production, with the kitchen counter between us, and with my heart pounding, I said, “It’s fine for Noah to be learning some Hebrew, but he is not going to have a bar mitzvah.”

His smile froze and his eyes narrowed. “What’s going on here?”

All my careful reasoning swirled through my careful head. All the things I could say. At best, it would be meaningless for Noah to celebrate a bar mitzvah; at worst, it’s dishonest. Noah can bond with his Grandpa in other ways. He can always bar mitzvah as a grown-up if he so chooses. According to Jewish rules, he already is “bar mitzvah” (son of the commandment)—just turning 13 does that.

And of course the most fundamental reason of all: Reason.

I’m not letting my son stand up in a synagogue to praise an imaginary being and officially undertake to uphold the laws of a people who worship Him—even though he doesn’t believe in the being or subscribe to the laws.

There is no scriptural law that says Noah has to celebrate a bar mitzvah; it’s a cultural thing. But the first of all the (613) Jewish laws is “To know that God exists.” The twelfth[1] is “To learn Torah and teach it.”[2] Obviously, I do not subscribe to these laws. And yet, I somehow still feel guilty for breaking them. In the face of my father-in-law’s disapproval, I really really want to explain myself, defend myself, exonerate myself. I’m uncomfortable being in the wrong, even if “the wrong” I’m in is actually right.

I remember once jogging with my father in Spain, and feeling terribly unnerved not because the street cops carried submachine guns but because the old ladies hissed with disapproval at the sight of my bare legs in running shorts. I was twelve. Later, visiting Italian relatives when I was a college student, I was deeply embarrassed when my cousin, an observant Jew, found me writing a letter on a Saturday; writing is working, and I wasn’t supposed to be working on the Sabbath. I still feel self-conscious if my father-in-law comes over during Passover while I am making the kids a not-matzoh sandwich.

That’s crazy, of course. There is no moral basis for these rules, and, since there is no God-who-disapproves-of-bare-legs-or-leavening outside of our collective imagination, there is actually no basis for them at all.

It is likewise crazy that—absent belief, absent observance, absent participation in Jewish life, absent parental input—Noah’s bar mitzvah should be the expected thing, and that not doing it requires an explanation.

It’s backwards. But atheists live in a backwards world, where there’s a special name for people who do not grant the existence of a creature no one can see or hear or prove exists. And we get used to pretending we do believe, or might; we get used to soft-pedaling our disbelief, or apologizing for it.

A backwards world.

Standing in my kitchen, I make the tiniest effort to set it right.

“What’s going on here?” he asked again.

“Noah is not going to bar mitzvah,” I said. For the second time and not for the last.

[1] Depending on whose list you’re using . . .

[2] The 613th is “To destroy the seed of Amalek.”


  1. You have my full attention! I appreciate the conflict and like the story threads that you bring into it. It gets me thinking about what it means to belong and what’s bless-ed in my own world. Why did I think mitzvah meant blessing? Google translate gives me ‘tombstone’? Look forward to reading your next installment.

    1. I think maybe there’s a popular understanding of mitzvah to mean “good deed” or “good work” and certainly many of the 613 mitzvot involve doing good deeds . . . (Google translate is hilarious. Just the other day it decided “baguette” meant “chopstick.”)

      I’m glad I have your attention. Stick around: I’m trying just to talk about one little angle at a time, resisting the urge to explain it all and make sure everyone still likes me . . .

      1. I like the serialization of thought and life. Dickens did it. The Sopranos did it. And now Kate Cohen is doing it. Providing simpler—or at least more narrow—helps me digest the material better. This is a very good thing for my mind. And most of all, I’m dying to know how the conflict unfolds with ye familial Gods.

  2. I enjoyed your article. Over 20 years ago my husband & I told my in-laws that we would not be raising our children Catholic. I’m hoping your experience will not end up like ours. It has seriously been the one and only bad time in our marriage. My husband & I came out of it stronger and I learned a new appreciation of my parents who were unconditionally loving & giving. Our relationship with my in-laws has been severely damaged. With the first of our children getting married in a few months I know which set of parents we would like to emulate when we are in-laws. Good Luck.

    1. Thank you for your good wishes. You were wise to make the break in the beginning; I think I’ve made it harder on Noah by not saying “no” clearly and repeatedly from the start. (I’m really only worried about consequences for him.) I don’t think I was strong enough then. Plus I think with Judaism, there’s more room to hedge. Catholics are faced with those early sacraments . . . Anyway, good for you for standing your ground and, if I may say, for raising at least one lovely child. And congratulations on the wedding. I’m sure you will be terrific in-laws!

  3. I’m standing by, figuratively, for the next installment.

    Jacquelyn K. Schwimmer
    Licensed Associate Real Estate Broker
    The Corcoran Group
    660 Madison Avenue
    New York, NY 10065

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