I gave my 10-year-old son, Zev, the Pew survey on American Jews. The entire thing. One Sunday afternoon at our kitchen table.
It all started the night before, when an undergraduate student at Hillel at Ohio University, where I am a rabbi, told my son during our Sabbath dinner that he recently found out he is Jewish. My son (pictured below) asked this student for clarification. He wanted to know more about this just-discovered identity; it was as if the student had found Judaism underneath the bed in his dorm room, or at the bookstore while buying books for class. The student replied: “My mom informed me that her parents were Jewish. So it turns out that I’m Jewish!”
Later that evening, back at the house, my son wanted to talk. Or rather, he wanted to monologue.
“Judaism,” he began, “is not just inside you like a dormant virus.” I turned to my husband with a look of desperation on my face. My son continued: “I don’t think it’s waiting there for you to realize it exists, or for you to coax it out, or for it to be teased out by some long-lost relative. In fact,” he asserted, “Judaism does not exist if you’re not practicing it.” He went on to claim, basically, that there is no such thing as an inherited Judaism. To the horror of grandparents everywhere, my son actually proclaimed that a person “isn’t just Jewish because their parents or grandparents are Jewish.” I took a gulp of my Shabbat wine and grabbed my computer. The Pew survey and my son had collided. My 10-year-old was talking about many of the same things we’d all been debating since the Pew survey had come out. I had the hysterical urge, on the Sabbath no less, to find out how he would respond to the Pew questions. I Googled around, and eventually found it: the 40-page survey of U.S. Jews.
“Ima, why are you asking me all these questions?” he wanted to know the following afternoon. I fed him ice cream to keep him seated. It was a long survey. By page 12, even I wanted out. I wondered how the hell anybody stayed on the phone for such an exhaustive list of questions, many of which, had I been asked, I would have said, “Well, if you asked me yesterday, I would have said one thing, but since you’re asking me today, I’m going to say something totally different.” Because even I, a rabbi, don’t feel Jewish in exactly the same way each day.
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.