Losing My Religion
How becoming a father drove me away from Judaism—and my daughters into the Episcopal Church
CREDIT: Leela Corman
For lunch today I ate a pastrami sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise, and it was delicious. I can already hear you—and my dead grandmother—groaning: oy, what a goyishe deli sandwich. To be honest, it wasn’t my fault. I did it in solidarity with my kids.
Children can do that to a person. One day you’re a nice Jewish boy who knows the proper place of mustard and the next you’re saying “That’s nice, honey,” when one of your kids comes home from her touchy-feely, multi-denominational school and announces, “Poppy, I love Jesus.” Sorry to throw Jesus on top of the mayo-induced indigestion. I guess I’m just used to having him (Him?) around now.
Most people move closer to religion when they have children. Ground them in something solid, you think. Or: carry on the family tradition. And perhaps: make them suffer like I did. At least that’s what I expected to do when my husband and I became parents almost seven years ago. He comes from an Irish Catholic family, and mine is conservative Jewish. On paper, at least, my faith seemed like the way to go for gay parents, seeing how the boys in Vatican City don’t like our type much. I was never super-observant, but I was bar mitzvahed, I went to Jewish summer camp, and I make a mean matzoh ball soup. So the kids would be Jewish.
Then, like Lot’s wife, my faith dissolved. It started slowly, as I discovered that the rituals I’d always wanted to share with my children—seders, Hanukkah, and so on—left me surprisingly empty. As time went on, I found myself feeling, well, kind of hostile. Instead of pulling me back to my roots, becoming a dad actually yanked me away.
I imagine that part of it was my rebelling against my parents and they way they raised me. Also, being a non-traditional father, maybe I didn’t want my kids to be beholden to an ancient set of tenets designed to hand down the values of past rather than embracing new ways of looking at the world.
What happened most, I think, is that my “dad” reflexes kicked in. More than anything else, I felt compelled to protect my babies from a potentially dangerous influence. There is something about Judaism that, after 40-plus years of unquestioning loyalty, now rubs me the wrong way. How could I tell my children to accept the idea that the Jewish God is the only god when I want them to grow up with friends who worship different deities—or none at all? If you go around insisting that your god is better than Mary Catherine’s or Patel’s, it’s a short leap to the whole “my dad can beat up your dad” thing, which I’m pretty sure will never be true. And then “my dress is prettier than yours,” which is in fact true (one advantage to having gay dads) but isn’t something I want them to start gloating about until they’re at least in middle school. Add to that the notion of the “Chosen People,” and Judaism started to seem to me like a terribly arrogant belief system.
What bothers me most about Judaism isn’t anything written the in Bible. It’s the whole Member of the Tribe syndrome, or what I unkindly call The Clan. I know it’s an ugly stereotype, but to me there’s some truth to the fact that Jews band together in exclusionary, even unhealthy, ways. Back in the days when I still had faith in my faith, my husband and I applied to a nice, conservative, Jewish school for our older daughter’s kindergarten. The headmaster was very warm and open and said that gay dads wouldn’t be a big deal on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. But by chance, she asked, was our surrogate Jewish? No, she wasn’t, we told her. Now we had a problem. Even though we were raising our daughters Jewish (at the time), and even though our girls don’t really have what you (or they) would call a “mother,” if the woman who gave birth to them wasn’t Jewish, then some parents would not consider them to be Jewish either. That might lead to “social” issues, the headmaster told us—perhaps fewer friends, and certainly later, fewer (if any) dates. In other words, our baby would be treyf.
I can’t say that I was entirely shocked. When I was about 14 and my sister 10, our parents sat us down and explained that we were special, that no matter how much lox they eat, the goyim will never understand Jews or Judaism. (Proof: the cinnamon-raisin bagel.) Some of them actually hate us. Therefore, we were told, we were never to even date anyone who isn’t Jewish, because dating leads to love which leads to marriage, and a mixed marriage is a one-way ticket to disaster. My parents didn’t come right out and warn that if you put a Christmas tree and a menorah in your house the Hanukkah candles will set the pine needles on fire and burn the whole place down, but that was the implication.
(By the way, at that time this mixed-marriage fatwa was issued, our next-door neighbors were a black woman married to a white man. Of course, my liberal Jewish parents would never have a problem with that. People have the right to marry whomever they want! Except Jews.)
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not exactly thrilled with Christianity, either. My husband, the lapsed Catholic who didn’t seem interested in religion before we had kids, has discovered it again, only now as an Episcopalian. He takes the girls to church every Sunday, which even in my un-Jewish mode hurts a little. It’s hard to unlearn all those years when my parents, in their tireless efforts to promote Judaism, made Jesus out to be a no-goodnik. In fact, they made him out to be the original “not good for the Jews” no-goodnik. I’d never realized how hostile I’d felt toward Christianity until it joined my own family.
And it’s not that I don’t consider myself to be Jewish in most ways. We still celebrate Hanukkah and Passover at home, and I still fast and go to shul on Yom Kippur. Why? I’m not sure, other than that Judaism is part of who I am, as immutable as my race or my sexuality. I know I still think like a Jew, whatever that means. A few weeks ago when my husband was asked to do a reading at church, I called my mother to tell her about his aliyah. The sermon that day was about Luke 23, the part where Pontius Pilate is trying to figure out what to do with Jesus. “Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks. Call me crazy, but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit of nakhes at how the king of the Christians was once a Member of the Tribe.
Faith is truly important to my husband, and having agreed to give our children a religious upbringing when I thought they’d be playing for my team, I can’t rightfully deny him that now that I’ve dropped out of the game. So I put the girls in their Sunday-best dresses every week, and I kvell over the colorful wooden crosses they bring home. I’ve even learned to bite my tongue and smile when it’s their turn to bring the stuffed Jesus doll to live with us for the week. Though I must admit I enjoy finding him left in odd corners of the apartment so I can yell things like “Who left Jesus in the bathroom?” I like to think it’s a sign that my girls are already losing their religion, too.
Marc Peyser is a senior editor at Newsweek.