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Teaching My Son About Judaism—and Atheism

A Jewish education helped him get over his childhood obsession with Jesus. Then he made up his own mind about what he believed.

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Oliver’s Messibat Siddur. (Courtesy of the author)
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When my son Oliver was 4, he found Jesus. He discovered him, with kind eyes and flowing hair, in the pages of one of the “early reader” reference books he used to trawl through at the library. As he had with stories of the ancient Greeks and Romans, Oliver became captivated by the Christian Bible. The Crucifixion scene especially caught his interest; this was the illustration to which he returned, over and over again, running his fingers lightly across Jesus’ wrists, where the nails and flesh met.

For the next six months or so, Jesus became a regular fixture in our life. A game of charades would prompt Oliver to back up against the door, arms splayed, head lolling to one side on his imaginary cross. A family trip to Israel ended in tears because the rest of us were not willing to wait three hours in line to lay eyes on Jesus’ final resting place in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Oliver knew by then that some people believed Jesus was the son of God. I would even go so far as to say he believed it himself.

Oliver hadn’t been raised with any religious identity, so I watched him dip his toes into that pool with a mixture of intrigue and concern. On the one hand, I was curious about the prospect of a child of mine developing a spiritual bent in the absence of any active encouragement. On the other hand, Jesus in particular was problematic: Although I was an atheist, I had been brought up Jewish. And if my son was going to walk down the road of religious discovery, I figured, better it should be with the devil I knew.

That autumn, Oliver started at a Jewish day school. By the end of his first semester, he’d parted company with Jesus. But he soon became enamored with a whole new set of religious paraphernalia: kippot and tzitzit and havdalah, the symbolism of which stretched well beyond my own Reform upbringing. And yet I settled into the more cultural aspects of Judaism, like a hand finding again the comfort of an old, worn glove. It was hard not to. Oliver was thriving at school, learning to read Hebrew alongside English, discussing thoughtfully the meaning of Simchat Torah. I would hear him in his room, chanting brachot in a high, pure voice, and I couldn’t help but feel he was in the right place. “He’s a very spiritual boy,” one of his teachers told me, solemnly.

Oliver spoke of God often during those first years at his Jewish school. “HaShem made the world, Mommy, he’s everywhere!” He would say things like this with guileless certainty, and I would open my mouth and then close it again just as quickly. I had explained to Oliver in the past that I was Jewish because his Bubbe was Jewish and that was the context in which I grew up. I had also explained to him that Judaism is a religion in which Jesus has no claim to fame. What I hadn’t made clear, however, was that—Jewish or not—I didn’t believe in God. I might be more comfortable with his Hebrew prayers than his fascination with the Crucifixion, but either way I was an atheist.

Still, against the backdrop of the pervasive Christian culture in the U.K., where we live, the trade-off seemed preferable. I had never consciously decided to raise Oliver as an atheist. But religion, or the lack thereof, is indoctrinating by nature. Helping him assess the veracity of the stories in the Bible with the same criteria I use for those in Herodotus, putting the existence of God in the same category as that of the tooth fairy, is already sending him a message. Our home is Godless. Whatever I say or don’t say explicitly, however much he is exposed to other avenues of spirituality, there is no way around this reality. We don’t celebrate religious festivals. We don’t visit places of worship. We don’t offer prayers into the sky. This is the texture of life for him when he is with his parents, and it is bound to be formative.

Before Oliver was enrolled in school, I was content to let our atheistic lifestyle speak for itself. After he came home with God on his lips, I felt, eventually, like we would need to talk about where I stood on the matter.

***

I grew up in Great Neck, a largely Jewish town on Long Island with a street we called “Temple Row,” because it had three different synagogues on it. The one we belonged to, Temple Beth-El, sat squarely at the bottom of Old Mill Road, a position it occupied, I liked to think, because it was the most Reform of all. In our shul, not only weren’t the men and women kept separate, but, over the years I was a member there, a female cantor, a female rabbi, and a gay female rabbi took the bimah in turn.

In our family, accepting the existence of God was not a prerequisite to being Jewish. Those points of reference were separate entities, two hands on the same body that could work together if they so desired, but didn’t have to in order to function. We walked the block and a half to temple on the High Holidays, and we uttered the blessings along with the rest of the congregation, sometimes my mother with a magazine perched between the pages of her siddur. But we didn’t pray at home. The fact that we ate bagels with lox and constantly interrupted each other were more the marks of our Judaism than any particular relationship with the divine.

I didn’t attend a Jewish day school, though my public school was populated almost entirely by Jews. Hebrew school was an afternoon, once-a-week extracurricular and, by 12 years old, I had done my duty. My mother told us we had to get that far, “to the end of the day” as she described it, and then it was our choice whether or not to continue. For me, the choice was an easy one: As soon as I became bat mitzvah, I stopped my religious education altogether. I still went to temple twice a year with my family, broke the fast with them on Yom Kippur, counted the plagues in burgundy drops round the rim of my Seder plate, but it was increasingly a matter of going through the motions. In the typical way of an adolescent turn from faith, the older I got, the more divorced the activities of Judaism became from the meaning of Judaism and the less comfortable I was with the divide. If I didn’t believe in the background of what I was practicing, why was I practicing it at all?

By the time I left for college, I was a committed atheist and a non-practicing Jew. I couldn’t square any longer my lack of belief in God with my participation in the rituals of organized religion. The two hands of culture and faith that were once content to linger together, untouching, were all of a sudden at war. Rosh Hashanah came and went that year, and for first time I could remember, I did not set foot in a synagogue. It was a decision I made consciously, heavy-handedly, savoring the new freedom of expression I evidently felt, now that I was loose from the fold of family life. On reflection, it wasn’t Judaism per se that I was rejecting. It was the whole concept of religion and what it represented to me: the opposite of humanism and logic. Those were the new altars at which I began to worship, the ones that fit better with my understanding of how the world worked.

After I graduated, I moved to the U.K., where I married a fellow atheist, though he had been raised by devoted Christians. We were the same, but we were also different, the cultural aspects of our respective religious backgrounds manifesting themselves in stereotypical ways. We opted out of the festivals of our youths equally, saying “no” to Easter and Passover alike. But we weren’t equal about with whom we preferred to spend the holiday periods. Christmas, in particular, was a dark and undesirable time for both of us—the suffocating way Britain does it, starting in early November and insinuating itself everywhere you look—and it was my family who offered an escape. For years, my husband reveled as much as I did in the ability to pass late December in Boca Raton, with not a nativity scene in sight. And if our visits happened to overlap with Hanukkah, there was no expectation that we would be taking part. This kind of secularism felt welcoming to him.

Ultimately, it was the fact that I had come to live in a country with an established religion other than the one into which I was born that turned me back toward Judaism. As cliche as it is, there is nothing as identity-defining as the feeling of being on the outside. For when we had a son and he came home from nursery school one frosty morning singing sweetly of baby Jesus, I sensed, in a flash of emotion, that I would not be sending him to the local “state” school, where Christmas and Easter are built into the program, where outings to the church across the street are taken for granted as acceptable to everybody in the class.

***

The first day Oliver walked into his Jewish primary school was the first day he wore tzitzit. He dressed carefully that morning, each piece of the uniform offering its own novelty. The collared shirt, embroidered with the unfamiliar Calderwood Lodge logo. The kippah fixed tight to his hair, a “little hat” he might have seen once or twice before. And underneath it all something completely new, to both of us: a child-sized tallit katan that took me several minutes to untangle and drape correctly over his slim, bare shoulders, the instructions coming courtesy of Google.

It was this garment that made me most uncomfortable. Dangling beneath his bright-blue sweatshirt, it looked Jewish in a way to which I couldn’t relate: me, the staunch non-believer, who didn’t have so much as a menorah in her cupboard. But the spiritual landscape of our house was about to shift.

Oliver and the Noah's Ark hanukkiah

Once Oliver was at Jewish school, the holidays of my childhood made their way back onto the family calendar. Sometimes we would acknowledge them at home, with a gentle touch, frying latkes and lighting a few candles on the Noah’s Ark hanukkiah Oliver had begged my mother to buy him. Other times we would be invited into the classroom to watch him take his seat, with pride, at the head of the Shabbat table. In the beginning, he was keen. He mastered Hebrew quickly, kodesh was his favorite subject. For weeks after his Mesibat Siddur, he kept the new prayer book tucked lovingly under his pillow. His teachers took this all for a sign of deep-seated spirituality, and so did I, to a degree. But I have come to see that it was the language he loved best, the weight of history and the feel of a powerful story in his hands. It was the same things, really, that brought him to Jesus in the first place.

At some point during his fourth year, Oliver began to change. I didn’t notice it at first, in the way you don’t with children, whose movements on the big questions are often internal evolutions that happen, subtly, away from their parents’ prying gazes. But a friend of mine told me her daughter had reported that Oliver wasn’t saying the prayers at school anymore. And when his tallit katan ripped at the seam and he stopped wearing it altogether, I knew something was different.

Which is why recently when Oliver asked me outright whether I believed in God, I decided not to hedge my bets. We were driving home from schoo,l and I caught his eye in the rearview mirror, his kippah sitting slightly askew on his head. “No,” I said, quite simply. He wasn’t surprised. “Oh, I totally don’t believe in God,” he said. “You don’t? Since when?” I asked. He replied: “Since I raised my hand in class and asked how we knew for sure that the Red Sea parted. The teacher told me that we didn’t need evidence, we only needed faith. But that doesn’t make sense to me.” Here he paused. “I need evidence.”

And there it was. At 8 years old, the skepticism and logic and hunger for cold, hard proof I recognized so well from the calling of my own consciousness. I nodded my head in acknowledgement and also in silent agreement. I didn’t utter a word, not just then, but inside I felt something stirring. I’m pretty sure it was the beginnings of pride.

***

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Teaching My Son About Judaism—and Atheism

A Jewish education helped him get over his childhood obsession with Jesus. Then he made up his own mind about what he believed.