I Am An Atheist Jew, Like My 13-Year-Old Son: Huh?

I went to a bar mitzvah today. I had to. I reacted viscerally. Let me explain.

Those of you who are regular readers are probably aware of my atheism. What you may not know is my Jewish history.

I was created by a "Jewish" father and a "Christian" mother. Apparently--I don't remember--we had a Christmas tree for the first couple years of my life. My dad (whose mother emigrated from Russia in 1910--she's the little girl in the picture) couldn't stand it, so it ended. From then on, again apparently, my family was Jewish. Mom did not convert, mainly because we were not religious. At all. Never went to temple. As a child my mother and her family were not religious either. Neither my dad, my brother nor I were bar mitzvahed. It was just a religious thing anyway, and who really believes a 13-year-old becomes a man by reading some Torah?

The Frustrated Family were just a bunch of cultural Jews, with a shiksa as our leader. Indeed, in my large extended family (those are 2 parents and their children in the picture--all of whose descendants have Seder together in L.A., where most of them live) my goyishe mother was considered the glue that holds the family together. That's how it was most of my life. Now that she has moved, she is merely a participant, like me.

I went to Jewish summer camps as a kid, was a counselor, and as a young adult I ran a few. That was my Jewish identity. The cultural Jew. The non-religious Jew. To some Jews, I would be considered a bad Jew; or worse, some might call me a self-hating Jew (I have been so accused). I love chopped liver and corned beef sandwiches. I felt connected to all my ancestors who were killed, sent away and harassed for millenniums. To be a Jew, in my mind, was to be part of a culture. We were a people, not a religion.

Summer camp was all about culture. We did the prayer before the meal, but we did it "Dixie" style, because praying is stoopid. Jews praying seemed to be marginally important compared to the things Jews in my life stood for: equality, fairness, intellectual curiosity, and social justice. The religious thing just never struck me.

The most important thing I got from being an "affiliated" Jew were friendships that last to this day. I was connected to a high-quality group of people. That is all good, and I want that for my son.

My son will be 13 in June. His mother (we are not together--haven't been since his birth) wanted him to go to Hebrew school. Her other 2 kids, now grown, did not. I think she deferred to her goyishe ex-husband and didn't think much about her, and subsequently her kids', Jewishness. It wasn't a big thing for her.

But with our son, possibly because her other son is lately feeling his Jewishness, she wanted it.

I was therefore confronted with a tough issue; I am an atheist. I become more atheist every day, it seems.

When she told me she wanted our son to go to Hebrew school, at the temple where I had run the camp, I decided not to make much of it. The kid wanted it, she wanted it, and I know my influence on our son is such that a little religious nonsense would not make him believe in fairies (or god). Besides, the cantor was an old rocker and we were friendly (we collaborated when I was camp director). I figured everything would be fine.

On the day we went to temple to talk with the rabbi about enrolling the kid in Jew school I had one question. After her schpiel, I asked if I could speak to the rabbi alone. I asked her, in private, if she tells the students the Torah/bible/old testament is the word of god, or just a bunch of stories. She convinced me she was not going to suck the empiricism out of the kid, so I said fine. So I told his mother, go for it! But I won't pay.

So the kid has been going for a couple years and this is his bar mitzvah year. He goes to the bima in August. Today was his good friend's bar mitzvah, and my first in a long, long time.

As I sat there, alone in the back, listening and watching, I felt horrible. I was tense. I nodded my head in disagreement, like Justice Alito. I watched the grown ups, with their talit, daven and close their eyes. I watchhed them gently leave their seat to go tell others to pick the prayer book up off the floor (there are no pews, just folding chairs). I watched the gay rabbi and the transgendered rabbinic assistant do their jew/rabbi thing, all the time saying things to myself like:
This is so obviously full of shit. Men hold the torah!

Why is the rabbi touching the kid's head? Is he channeling Jesus?

Don't put the prayer book on the ground, but let anyone go to the bima!? Even women and homos?!
I am not a homophobe. I am not sexist. I thought these things because if traditions can be jettisoned in the name of equality, why can't the whole kit and caboodle be jettisoned in the name of sanity?

I listened to the rabbi and the bar mitzvah boy talk about god. I know this kid. He has never mentioned god. Nor has my son, except to tell me his atheism is kept quiet at temple because there are some true believers there.

And here is where the visceral nature of everything comes into focus. My son, who by his own admission is an atheist, is being required to maintain a mountain of religious nonsense to please his mother (also not religious--but very "spiritual") and to not make himself uncomfortable in the presence of these true believers--folks who might label him a bad Jew. I cannot countenance that. But, what choice do I have?

Fortunately my kid is hip to all the crap. He knows the only reason to keep going is because of the friends he has made and will keep, and the work he has put in. It is not about religion for him. It is about fun and feeling the satisfaction of accomplishing something after putting in a lot of work. He makes me very proud.

As soon as it was over I left. I love the family. I love the bar mitzvah boy, who has spent many nights here with my son. They are best friends.

My strong reaction tells me how hard it will be at my own kid's bar mitzvah. I will have to go up on the bima with him. I will have to listen to him artfully interpret the Torah portion so as not to compromise his integrity and at the same time not offend anyone. He can do it. But why?

I am an old curmudgeon. He is young and full of life. I need to watch myself as we near the culmination of this Jewish silliness.

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