I didn’t go to synagogue this Yom Kippur. To be frank, I didn’t even fully fast. My ongoing rebellion against religion has turned into a full-fledged insurrection.
As my wife Jody left the house without me for Kol Nidre, she turned and said, “I can understand that Jewish Law and prayer don’t speak to you anymore. But if you’re not even fasting, you’re really separating yourself from the rest of the tribe. Seventy-three percent of Jewish Israelis fast on Yom Kippur.”
And then she added this kicker: “How are you even still Jewish?”
Thirty years ago, before I became religiously observant (only to more recently leave it), my answer would have been something along the lines of, well, I was born Jewish and I feel Jewish.
Not very deep, I know, but true enough for someone who didn’t know which side of the Tefillin goes up and who figured the “four species” of Sukkot must be the name of a high-end hotel.
The problem with gaining a little knowledge, as a few years of yeshiva learning and living a religious lifestyle for double decades provided me, is that then you know too well what you’re not doing.
That often leads to binary, either-or thinking, like: if you used to be scrupulous about keeping kosher but now you’re not, you’re not just a tinok sh’nishba – a child who sins inadvertently as a result of not having been raised with an appreciation for the thoughts and practices of Judaism – but rather you’re an all-in apikorus (a heretic).
And yet, Jody’s question begs an answer. How am I still Jewish?
How am I not Jewish?
My life is infused with Jewish content and practice at every turn – from the electronically unplugged Shabbat and holiday meals we eat together as a family every week to the classes on Jewish texts and philosophy we go to at places like Pardes and Beit Avi Chai.
There’s the funky but respectful Seder we make, the museum exhibitions on Jewish history and art we visit, the Jewish publications I seek out for my daily news obsession, the Jewish music we listen and dance to, the Jewish Renewal community we sing with in Jerusalem, the topics I write about here in this column.
It may have turned more cultural than observant over the years, but that doesn’t make it any less Jewish.
And then there’s Israel.
Admittedly I came to this country as a very different person, and Israel itself has dramatically changed. But I’m still here after 22 years. It’s just that my Jewish identity has morphed from a sukka-seeking Diaspora Jew with delusions of Kotel to a – well there’s no other way to say it – an Israeli.
Which is both surprising and strange since I have few Israeli friends, my Hebrew is stuck in kita gimel, and many of the norms and behaviors of the people around me drive me nuts.
And yet, I do this one seemingly illogical action, day after day: I show up.
I’m committed to making my small contribution to the continuity of the Jewish State and the betterment of the Jewish society around me, even if the majority of what I do is just try to live a normal life.
But those small things matter.
I vote. I pay my taxes. My children serve in the army. I always clean up after my dog.
Above all, I take continuing pride in being a willing if not always entirely enthusiastic part of the greatest Jewish adventure in 2,000 years.
And when the politics and religion of this place get me down, or when the missiles start flying from Gaza, I don’t flee to another, less war-prone country (if that even exists). I stick it out because my presence, however minuscule and seemingly insignificant, I have to believe, does have a long-term impact, even if I may never see it.
Historian and author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind Yuval Harari would say I’m afflicted by an over reliance in what he’s dubbed the “Liberal Story,” which posits that if only we liberalize our political, economic and religious systems, “we will produce paradise on earth, or at least peace and prosperity for all.”
But the Liberal Story, he writes in a recent column in The New Yorker, is imploding all around us. Disillusionment triggered first by the financial collapse of 2008 and continuing through the botched Arab spring and the alarming rise of nationalism, extremism, isolationism, terrorism and Trumpism, has led to mass disenchantment and fear for the future.
I can’t give up hope, though – not for Israel nor for the Jewish people (those two identities now inextricably fused, for me at least). That would be the true turning away from my Jewishness, much more than whether I chose to eat a bowl of cereal to wash down my anti-depressants this Yom Kippur or not.
Zionist Union Knesset member Manuel Trajtenberg put it more eloquently when he wrote that to live “as a believing Jew” means “believing in the uniqueness and historic role of the Jewish people… and in the need to…create a better world for future generations.”
And so I will continue to show up, day after day. I refuse to stop trusting that I can contribute, however obliquely, to that quintessential Jewish value of tikkun olam – repairing the world – or at least our little corner of it.
I guess I’m not such a heretic after all.
I first answered this question about my Jewishness at The Jerusalem Post.
Kol Nidre picture attribution: Zagler, A. R. S. Schenker Keller, Jacob (museums.cjh.org Center for Jewish History, NYC)