A little over a month ago, I began an experiment in what I thought of as Doing Jewish Things. I wondered, if I observed certain customs or ventured into areas of Judaism I had previously ignored, would it have any discernable impact on my life? Would I feel better, more engaged, less inexplicably guilty about not doing stuff no one was pushing me to do anyway?
As the weeks went by I lit candles on Shabbat, made Gefilte fish, fasted on Yom Kippur, and bought my first ever tanakh. Then I tried to come up with a unifying theory of Doing Jewish Things and what it all meant.
The candles unexpectedly made me wish for an idyllic and meticulously scheduled family life, a life that was not only the opposite of my own but probably not even attainable outside of mommy blogs and Instagram feeds with deceptively shiny finishes.
The Gefilte fish was an enjoyable foray into traditional cooking methods that I do not particularly want to repeat. The fasting got me thinking about whether I should try that new 5:2 diet plan and, in retrospect, provided a mental connection to other Jews across the world. The tanakh, which I haven’t sat down and read any of yet, remains an important book I’m eager to peruse when I have the time. But how all of that fit together, I couldn’t really say.
But while I was contemplating this, the Pew Research Center came out with a study of Jewish Americans, and it seemed every Jewish American I knew was talking (and writing, and tweeting) about nothing else.
Until recently, I was a poster-child for the kind of attrition from Jewish life that the recent Pew Study, subject of so much angst in the media, describes. I eschewed nearly all organized Jewish activities in the decade after my first Hillel dinner at college, which I fled screaming.
Okay, I wasn’t quite screaming, but I certainly didn’t go back to more Hillel dinners.
An early stint at Jewish day school — supposedly a guarantee of future involvement in religion — hardly indoctrinated me. Instead, it put me in an odd position: It gave me affection for many of the customs and ideas that are associated with Judaism, but it also turned me off of hyper-organized religion forever.
There was a level of competition and sanctimoniousness involved in the religious part of the synagogue and day school experience that I never wanted to replicate. I loved being a Jew, but not listening to people brag about having the Rabbi over for shabbat, about being Jewisher than thou.
It’s true that, over time, I also became an atheist. But I would argue that my non-belief alone wouldn’t have kept me from practicing religion — I enjoy prayer and ritual and find them meaningful. Rather, what I disliked was the condescension that the allegedly more pious offered towards the less.