Late last summer, when I told my mother I’d be attending a Jewish New Year ceremony at the harbor the next evening, she shrieked: “You’re going to become Jewish?!”
I considered telling her what so many Jews had told me, even if I didn’t really believe them: that I already am Jewish—and so is she. Despite my mother’s 84 years aspiring to be like everyone else, a Jewish identity lies behind her exile from her Dutch homeland. And so does a string of murdered, mostly faceless relatives. I was 15 when my grandmother told me about those family members; until then no one had suggested we weren’t as American as Wonder Bread. Having told me just enough to upend what I thought I knew about myself, Oma refused to say another word. I absorbed the message that our Jewishness was best forgotten.
So I might have left it, if not for an interminable, embarrassingly predictable midlife crisis. I felt an emptiness that might have simply indicated loss of meaning and loneliness, but might also suggest a need for something more ineffable. Whatever this void was, I’d recently started to think exploring Jewishness might help. Being Jewish had to mean more than a terrible legacy of victimhood. And there was no better time to begin discovering that “more” than Rosh Hashanah, a time for new beginnings.
But I didn’t say these things to my mother. I knew that if I did, she’d just continue looking at me as if I’d started speaking Cantonese. So I mumbled that I was “curious,” and retreated into her guest room to reflect on the day ahead.
“Cold treats provided and BYO picnic,” the synagogue’s website read. A picnic! I envisioned myself surrounded by new friends on blankets laden with food, talking and laughing as the evening drew to a close. I wanted to come in a spirit of generosity. I saw myself saying, “Take some, I’ve got loads,” and proffering tasty morsels I’d prepared with my own hands. I saw myself becoming part of their community through the sharing of food.
Harder would be explaining why I was there. I would not humiliate myself by revealing too much to people who would go home with their families and forget about me.
These are among the things I would not say:
I was a devoted member of a small, insular, Trotskyist organization for 25 years. I quit a few years ago and now think it was something of a cult, not to mention rife with antisemitism. I’m extremely sorry about helping to spread such beliefs and have made fighting antisemitism my mission. I also regret apparently wasting my life. Still, even now, sometimes I miss the party and my comrades so much I ache.
I’m 54 years old, just separated from my husband, and living with my mother until I figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I don’t know what this might be.
I’m so numb I barely have a pulse.
It occurred to me the things I could not say might pose a conversational challenge. Yet my image of myself at my picnic—laughing, eating and talking, awash in sunshine and conviviality—persisted. I would find words, even if I didn’t yet know what they would be. And I would bring the perfect Jewish feast.
Judaism for Dummies was my guide to the ceremony. At tashlich, I read, Jews empty their pockets of crumbs and lint (this synagogue would use stones) “in a symbolic gesture of casting away guilt and letting go of the previous year.”
Guilt. I’ve got more than my share. Comrades used to joke that I must have grown up Catholic because guilt seemed to run through my veins. I’d laugh and say no, I’d been raised without religion, but it seems to me guilt is justified when one has harmed others. And it’s the harm I’ve done to Jews that flooded my mind.
How righteous it felt. It must be, because my heart burned with love for my comrades and such a transcendent feeling must be pure. We were dedicated to the noble struggle for socialism; and lamentably, Jews kept placing themselves on the wrong side of history. From Soviet Jews who demanded release from the workers state to the ADL and other Jewish organizations to Israeli Zionists: Our face of evil reaction was Jewish. I was oblivious to the stench of antisemitism. Smelling it would have threatened everything, but above all my sense of belonging.
So I picketed Natan Sharansky, in 1987 when I was 19, at the party’s behest just before joining its youth organization. I marched against Israel countless times, alongside not only my comrades but all good people. I believed crazy claims about Zionist malignity through the ages, because they came from people I revered. My reward was what I felt to be their love. And despite everything I now know, losing that love, and eventually my husband’s, has left a hole perhaps nothing will ever fill.
The ceremony took place on a gorgeous evening. Sunshine set the harbor aglow while ocean and sky merged in a vision of blue. On the pier a few dozen people of various ages formed a tranquil group. I edged my way onto the periphery, hauling a tote bag containing enough food for a small but hungry Jewish troop.
Soon people approached and made me feel welcome. A chatty woman about my age introduced me to the rabbi, a youngish man with a toothy smile, after which I talked with a young father distractedly minding twin toddlers. I started enjoying myself, just as I’d imagined. Then the shofar sounded and the cantor, a slender young woman with long brown hair and hoop earrings, sang in a lovely soprano. I was captivated.
After her the rabbi spoke, invoking the call to cast away the sins of the past, and I wondered again if I deserved to cast away my guilt. Then the rabbi and cantor sang to the accompaniment of a guitar and others joined in. A handsome young man put his arms around the rabbi and they sang together, swaying to the melody and looking rapturous.
Hearing the repeated word “Hallelujah,” I started struggling. I’ve spent my life mocking such overt religiosity. I remembered my dead father, a staunch atheist: How he’d smirk if he were here. So would my estranged husband, former comrades, sister, brother, mother: Almost everyone I knew would think I’d lost my mind; and maybe they’d be right. Anyway, the last time I joined something bigger than me, I ended up in the party.
Then I remembered something a new Jewish acquaintance said. I wrote to him saying I’m an atheist and he said he was, too, for most of his life. As he aged, however, he came to feel that although he doesn’t know, the world is a nicer place with the thought that a loving God exists. At that moment I decided: not to believe in God, but not to let my nonbelief barricade me against the world. It’s music and community and joy on a beautiful evening. Why not try to go with it? And I thought I felt some of my cynicism fall away.
When it was time to cast my stones into the harbor, I thought about how far I’d come from my beloved Trotskyist sect. I was alone, but I had acted as I saw right and had the strength and integrity to continue. Maybe it was enough for forgiveness. I held the stones, cool and smooth in the palm of my hand; and when I was ready I tossed them into the water where they disappeared without a sound.
If I had any dignity, I’d end my story on this uplifting note. I’d hint that I began my unfaltering journey to spiritual awakening and a sense of belonging. But if I had such an abiding sense of dignity, I probably wouldn’t have spent quite so many years brandishing placards screaming for the unconditional military defense of the deformed workers states. And it wouldn’t be true.
After we’d tossed our stones, the rabbi announced that an ice cream truck had arrived and everyone could get a ticket entitling them to a treat. I watched as squealing kids and grown-ups mobbed the ticket distributor and darted down the pier. Soon it was nearly empty.
I walked down the pier with my ponderous tote bag and lingered near the ice cream truck. People seemed to be dispersing in all directions after getting their ice creams. Soon almost everyone had disappeared, and I felt too foolish to ask someone the question raging in my head: Where is the picnic?
Finally I spied the rabbi with a woman and several children walking away. He’d know where the picnic was. He was talking with the kids and I felt shy, so I trailed behind them. I felt like a stalker. It also crossed my mind that, in these antisemitic times, a rabbi with his family might find it discomfiting to be followed by a stranger toting a bulky bag. He ended up at a parking lot and I watched the rabbi and his family pile into a large vehicle. Around this time it occurred to me there was not going to be a picnic.
I turned and lugged my tote bag to a nearby nature center. I crouched in the parking lot on a curb facing the ocean. Reaching into my bag, I grabbed fistfuls of the food I’d prepared to share with my new community and shoveled them into my mouth as I gazed alone at the sunset. I managed not to cry until I’d returned to my mother’s guest room.
Since then I’ve continued to explore what it means to be Jewish, although something prevents me taking more than baby steps. My mother is extremely anxious about COVID-19, so although we’re both fully vaccinated I stayed away from in-person activities the long months that I lived with her. Alone in my room, I started slowly reading the Torah and find it resonates in some ways while it disturbs in others. I followed the Jewish holidays with Abigail Pogrebin’s My Jewish Year and through Twitter: “liking” hanukkiot at Hanukkah, Seder plates at Passover. On Yom HaShoah, feeling like an impostor, I tweeted commemoration of my great-grandfather and great-aunt, Henri and Lucie van den Bergh, and wished again for a Jewish identity based on something more than distant, terrible family victimhood.
I attended one Shabbat service, at a Chabad center. I liked the rabbi and was deeply moved by the ceremony, but the congregation was a bit too eager to make me one of them, in a way I recognized that made me uneasy. Some displayed a smug assurance, also familiar to me, that theirs is the one true path; and I was especially turned off by a couple who insisted the parting of the Red Sea happened exactly as it says in Exodus. (“You can Google it,” one guy said, to which I didn’t respond that you can Google anything.) I’m glad I went, but don’t think I’ll be back.
So I resumed my solitary improvised weekly observances. For most of the year, after wishing people on Twitter “Shabbat shalom,” I walked to the beach from my mother’s home before sunset. I said the prayer aloud to the indifferent ocean, then sat on the sand watching the waves crash as the sun ebbed. Now that I have my own apartment, I light the candles and wait for a feeling of Jewishness to descend on me, like a vapor. It hasn’t yet.
But Jewishness is clearly impossible without living, breathing beings, and I have to confront my diffidence about again belonging to something—a mistrust that matches my yearning to. As a new New Year approaches, I’m thinking about reaching out to the synagogue of last year’s tashlich. I won’t tell the rabbi about stalking him. I’ll once again throw my stones in the harbor, and ask again for forgiveness. I don’t know if I’ll ever believe in God. But if He exists, I wish He’d seen fit to give me that picnic.
Kathleen Hayes lives in Southern California. She is the author of Antisemitism and the Left: A Memoir.