Wishing You a Truly New Year

Photo by Matt Klein. Challah by me.

Every year in the synagogue of my childhood, we started our Hebrew lessons over again. There were too few of us to divide into two classes, so every fall, to accommodate the (doubtless) one new student, we’d begin back at the beginning with the alphabet, pronouns, a few basic nouns, and an article or two. Needless to say, I never got very far. Of “Rosh Hashanah” I can translate only the “Ha,” which means the; Google can do the rest: “Rosh” means head and “shanah” means year.

For Jews, it’s the head of the year again. If it’s not marked on your calendar, you can tell from the challah. Usually the loaves are straight—knotty with braided strands, tapered at the ends, but straight. For Rosh Hashanah, you make them sweeter and you make them round.

Judaism adores symbols. The noun “shanah” comes from the verb “shanah,” which means repeat. Rosh Hashanah celebrates the circle of life, the cycle of the year. Round and round, over and over it repeats: Grandpa intoning at the head of the table with his prayer book. Grandma dishing out her celebrated matzoh balls. My kids veering between respectful and silly. All the guests wishing each other “Shanah Tovah”—a good year—as they part. My husband at the front door reminding the kids to go back and thank Grandma before we leave.

We’d just gotten home when my daughter announced that she was 45% Jewish. I thought she was doing some complicated math involving the fact that her grandmother grew up Episcopalian and then converted, but . . . no. She meant that she felt about that amount Jewish. Jesse volunteered 0%—he can be a bit doctrinaire—and then, reconsidering, upped it to 5%. Presumably on account of the matzoh balls.

From a Jewish perspective, of course, Lena is 100% Jewish because I, her mother, am a Jew. In terms of education, participation, and belief, she’s none. She does not go to synagogue or Sunday school; she knows no prayers; she equates God with Santa Claus: two things her classmates believe in that she knows are pretend.

I get why I feel Jewish, despite my lack of belief. I was bat mitzvah, after all. I learned how to say “Mother” and “Father” and “I” and “you” in Hebrew class every year.

But what makes Lena feel Jewish? Could it simply be dinners like these, cousins’ bar mitzvahs, and the persistent and aggravating lack of a Christmas tree? Do kids just naturally want to belong to groups?

I may have underestimated the power of these forces. Still, at the head of the year 5775, I believe I can report that such power can diminish over time.

Back in April, Lena told me about an exchange with a friend who kept trying to bond with her over Easter. “I mean, really” she said that she said to this girl, “I’m Jewish—remember?” Six months ago, in other words, Lena felt so Jewish she figuratively slapped her forehead at the idea that someone wouldn’t know that essential fact about her.

Today, “45%.” I won’t try to do the fake math, but maybe her self-image is shifting slightly. And as I look back on Rosh Hashanah dinner, it strikes me that all of our percentages are changing.

We didn’t dress up as much as we used to. Adam wasn’t forced, or even asked, to wear a yarmulke. His father didn’t harangue him about going to synagogue the next day or try to get us to let the kids go. Because of my determination to be more vocal (and less equivocal), everyone at the table—both family and family friends—knew clearly where Adam and I and our kids stood on issues of belief and belonging, God and Torah. And, for the first year I can remember, nobody said anything to Noah (now almost 14) about when or whether he would be bar mitzvah.

Hebrew is a fascinating language; I wish I’d gotten farther along. I even have a couple of Hebrew grammars on my shelf from lapsed later-life resolutions. Most of the vocabulary is based on what they call triliteral stems, three-letter roots. For “shanah”—year and repeat—that root is shin, nun, hay. Which is the same as for the word change. Change and repeat and year, all essentially the same word.

I love that. The hands move around and around the clock face, unchanging, and yet, every time they pass the same spot, time has passed. Things have changed. So, yes, there I am still placing my round challah on the dining room table, still standing quietly while my sister-in-law lights the candles, still sipping the wine after the blessing. There I am, celebrating a Jewish holiday, the same way I have for years and years.

And yet, at the same time, I am gently but firmly moving away from religion, and leading my children away too. Seated around that holiday table, we may look like we’re back at the beginning again. But we’re not in the same place at all. The year is, in fact, new.

Shanah Tovah.


  1. Thank you for this rich and lovely essay. And I think you’re right that culturally, a lot of us are drifting away from traditional religious practice. But in terms of your daughter calling herself Jewish, and then six months later calling herself 45% Jewish, the different answers may have as much to do with changing context and the flexible and fluid identities of interfaith kids, as they do with a clear movement in one direction. In response, this Bill of Rights for Interfaith People might interest you…http://onbeingboth.wordpress.com/bill-of-rights-for-interfaith-people/ Shanah Tovah!

  2. You’re right, Susan. Lena will probably feel more or less Jewish, depending on the season! The more reliable–and to me, encouraging–changes are among the grown-ups. Not just that we are clearer about what we think, but also that those around us are coming to accept that.

    How interesting that you refer to Lena as “interfaith.” I have to think about that.

  3. Ah, sorry, I do see everything through my interfaith lens, though of course none of us should go around applying labels to other people. But because your children have both atheists and (more or less) religious Jews in their extended family, I think your essay depicts how they are formed by both worldviews, and learning to compare and contrast and discern and create their own identities. (And yes, interfaith is an odd and awkward term for atheist/religious families–some are championing the new term interbelief, but there are issues with that too, since not all religious identities are belief-centered). You’ve probably already seen it, but I think you would be interested in Dale McGowan’s new book, In Faith and In Doubt, on mixed religious/nonreligious marriages–it may not seem to apply to your family at first glance, but he’s an atheist who is excellent in writing about letting children construct their own identities.

  4. I like Dale’s work, but he’s more in the “some people believe . . . ” / “I believe . . .” / “What do you believe?” camp than I am. I feel more that it’s my responsibility to debunk the myths that my children encounter.

  5. I’m actually -5% Jewish and equal portions humanist/buddhist/pantheist/raised culturally protestant, but I feel moved by the holiday from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur and the opportunity to reflect on the circle, behind and ahead. And I got snagged by a beautiful message from a dear, somewhat observant friend whose parents escaped death in Hungary the 40s. I had sent a Shanah Tovah email to her and she replied: “THANK YOU Dear One! If I’ve done anything, anything at all to offend or hurt your feelings, in the spirit of the holiday, I beg forgiveness!” I like that. A holiday that presents one with the gift of taking off the mantle of ego and opening arms to humility, returning to one’s pure-er self. I guess what confession is supposed to be? That should be every day. That’s the reminder of a holiday for me, whether it’s a birthday or secular or religious. Remindtolive.com.

  6. The rich cultural history of our religious heritage need not be abandoned along with the absurd concept of an anthropomorphic deity. Nor do the philosophical and ethical aspects.

  7. I find this discussion fascinating. As someone who never, in my memory, believed in god but always identified as a Sephardic Jew, I have moved very far away from wanting anything to do even with the “rich cultural heritage” of religion (exception: the foods!). I believe my journey is the (not necessarily rational) result of the horrifying religious wars raging around the world; the attack on rationality by virtually all religious sects; the seemingly increasing Israel-right-or-wrong stance of many of my cousins; and my view that raising children with any religious culture, even in an atheistic milieu, will tend to have them identify with that religion, if even only slightly. I’m not sure that this last reason needs to be a negative one — but, for me, because of the first three reasons, it has become one. Certainly, one can identify with a religion and still be objective vis-a-vis his or her “tribe”; but the odds of this happening are reduced. In short, I think that if all people were raised with NO religious culture, there would perhaps be less hatred, less war, less magical/unhinged thinking in the world. I just saw an article about Pope Francis; in it, the writer noted that when Ukrainians were forced to give up religion by the Soviets, intermarriage and business ventures were common between now-fighting religious sects. However, I don’t recommend the Stalin solution — mass murder and forced repression of religion.

    1. Glad to hear you’re not pro-Stalin, Leslie.Are you saying that if you were to do it over again, you would raise your kids without any religio-cultural identification? I guess I am comfortable with having my children feel a vague kinship, especially since it’s accompanied by lots of critical discussion and thought. Religion suffuses the world, and to have an up-close experience of it can be very instructive. You manage to be objective about your tribe; I manage to be objective about mine. I give all of our kids the benefit of the doubt that they can be at least as thoughtful as we are.

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