Bad Jew, Good Jew
A few months after my father died, my brother and I were playing by the row of jagged cypress trees at the end of our street. I was ten. He was thirteen. I have a picture of us standing at that very spot, and though I know it was taken a year or two earlier, whenever I think of that conversation I envision us as captured in that film: barefoot in T-shirts and shorts, mischief in our eyes, long, skinny limbs dirtied from play, and our heads hallowed by the dying light of a summer sunset.
At some point in the conversation I announced, “God is dead.” My brother eyed me curiously, eagerly. “Or if he’s not dead,” I went on, “then he’s an asshole.” A large grin spread on my brother’s lips.
Yes, I was angry and grieving, but I wasn’t being glib. I’d arrived at that Nietzschesque conclusion after serious contemplation. If we were born in His image, I reckoned, then God, too, must be mortal. Perhaps his work on earth was done. How else could you explain wars? The Holocaust? How else could you explain Him taking our dad away from us? My father was only forty-four when he died and a father of six, the youngest only two. He was a righteous man—a philanthropist, a synagogue-goer, a Tsaddik, some people even called him after his passing. When I asked the adults around me they said God wanted him near; He always takes the good ones. As though God was a selfish, entitled child who did whatever he pleased with no concern for others.
As soon as I uttered those damning words, I looked up, half-expecting to be hit by lightning, but the sky was calm and cloudless. At that moment, I had the unholy equivalent of an epiphany. No one was listening. God didn’t exist. The world was an unsafe, hopeless place. Bad things were happening to good people, and there was no one to stop it, no one to protect us. We were on our own, without guidance. Orphans.
It was the moment I became an atheist.
When Gabrielle and I walk toward the Reform synagogue for a Yom Kippur service, Bloor Street is thronged with happy Torontonians, grateful for the unseasonal balmy weather. Patios are teeming with people clinking glasses and laughing; storefronts and restaurants glow with bright, flickering lights. The city feels festive, joyful. It is not supposed to be joyful. It is Yom Kippur, literally “a Day of Atonement,” the holiest and most solemn day in the Jewish calendar. In Israel, even secular Jews often observe a “lighter” form of this holiday, fasting and unplugging from technology, while others use the day to meditate and reflect on the passing year. In very religious circles, even laughing is frowned upon. Knowing that Gabrielle is fasting, I’m surprised to see her answering the phone, and later in the synagogue, the rabbi—a curly-haired woman with a hint of an American accent—makes a joke and the room swells with laughter. I look around stunned. Don’t these people know they are supposed to be repenting?
Of course, for me as a secular child growing up in Israel, Yom Kippur was less about atoning and more about riding bikes. In fact, it was one of my favourite holidays, and not because of the chance to be absolved of all our sins. Yom Kippur offered an altered reality, a break from ordinary life as we knew it, an escape. Everything was shut down on Yom Kippur. National TV and radio weren’t broadcasting. There was no music blasting from cars, no TVs echoing or tele- phones ringing from neighbours’ homes. The world was quieter, serene, dream-like. Doors were left open and friends and relatives often visited, quietly chatting to the dim light of whatever lamps were left on for the duration of the fast—even turning on light switches was forbidden. But most importantly, for twenty-five hours there were no vehicles on the streets, a chance for us children to take over the adult territory with our bikes and our skateboards and our running feet, while the traffic lights kept changing, painting the pavement in bright, glittery colours.
Later, as rebellious young adults, we often gathered at someone’s home in Tel Aviv with a stack of movies and way too much food, as if we might starve without access to grocery stores and take-away. In the morning, we went to the beach, swam and laid in the sun with the rest of the heathens. Still, when the first car whirred down the street at sundown, marking the end of the day, I was saddened.
I try telling all this to Gabrielle on the way to synagogue, but I get the sense that she doesn’t quite get it, having a hard time reconciling her experience of the holiday with mine. When I first met Gabrielle, I hadn’t pegged her as a synagogue-goer. I saw a hip, feminist, queer filmmaker and thought I knew her. But Gabrielle grew up in Montreal going to synagogues, surrounded by orthodox families who were welcoming and warm, while I grew up in Israel, where secular Jews are a majority and where orthodox people keep mostly to themselves. As a young adult in the vibrant city-of-sin that is Tel Aviv, I hung out in circles where going to synagogue on Friday night (rather than, say, clubbing) might have raised eyebrows. A country of polar extremes, Israel didn’t offer much in between.
But at least in Israel I didn’t have to commemorate the Jewish holidays. During the high holidays, just like in Canada during Christmastime, the holiday spirit was everywhere.
In Canada, I have to make an effort.
Which is why I’m in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Because I want my three-year-old daughter to have a Jewish identity. Because I’m searching for new ways to celebrate Jewish holidays, to create traditions that fit my ideology and my lifestyle and my mixed family. On Rosh Hashanah, for example, I found the blessings online and changed the wording so they were less about our enemies trying to annihilate us and more about peace and renewal. On Passover, I presented my guests with an alternative Seder plate, which included—alongside traditional items—an orange as a gesture of solidarity with LGBTQ and other marginalized members of the community, olives as a call for peace in the Middle East, free-trade dark chocolate to acknowledge the slavery that still takes place in our world, and an artichoke as a symbol for mixed families like my own.
When I tell people I don’t practice Judaism, “I’m naturally good at it,” they laugh. It is a joke that only works outside of Israel, because in Israel you don’t need to do anything “Jewish” to be Jewish. On occasion, I call myself a bad Jew, which gets a few more laughs. Bad because for the first few years in Canada I’d sometimes let major Jewish holidays pass by without acknowledgment. Because the one time I fashioned a menorah out of a piece of wood and plastic bottle caps, I nearly burnt down the house. Because I only fasted once on Yom Kippur, and even then for the wrong reasons, using the holy day as an excuse for a cleanse. Because, despite growing up in a kosher household like many Israelis, I was now a fan of bacon and shrimp. Because I never, not once, went to synagogue in my eighteen years of living in Canada.
Then again, I hardly ever went to synagogue growing up. Although my father went every Friday evening, and my brothers sometimes joined him, I only went when we celebrated a bar mitzvah or the birth of a baby in the family. Our synagogue was steps from my grandmother’s house in Sha’ariya, a Yemeni neighbourhood at the edge of town, where everyone looked somewhat familiar. Built of yellowish stone bricks, a large menorah perched on its roof, our synagogue was small and unassuming, nothing like the big, fancy shuls I later saw in North America. I followed my mom and aunts up to the second-floor women’s section and stood on my tippy toes to look down over the bannister, watching the kippah-clad men as they bowed and prayed in the Jewish-Yemeni singsong intonation that made Hebrew sound like a foreign language, like music. Despite formulating my feminist world views at an early age, that sexist segregation didn’t bother me; already then, I didn’t feel a need to participate in the religious ritual. Especially since at the end of the service, my female cousins and I were allowed to slip downstairs and join the boys for the important part: the women throwing celebratory candy from the women’s section. We all ran frantically to collect as much as our little hands could muster.
Gabrielle and I sneak into the synagogue just after Kol Nidrey, which signifies the beginning of the service. I’m disappointed. Kol Nidrey, an Aramaic chant with a solemn, dramatic melody sets the mood for atoning and reflecting, and frankly, I could use the help. The place is jam-packed with families. Some of the men—and women too, because this is an inclusive, Reform synagogue—have kippahs on their heads and white, embroidered tallit draped over their shoulders like shawls.
Gabrielle and I sit in the balcony’s very last row, from where the rabbi and cantor—both women— appear tiny and faceless. The pew creaks as I lean toward Gabrielle to share her siddur, and we read aloud along with the rest of the congregation. It doesn’t take long before I’m fighting waves of cynicism and judgment. I am judging the fact that this is, in fact, a church, dressed up as a synagogue. I find it disorienting and weird, despite the wonderful job they had done covering the crosses with stars of David. I’m judging these people who are supposed to be “my people;” I think of them as conservatives and conformists. I judge the words we are reciting, the praise of a God I don’t believe in, the confessing of a long list of sins, the begging for forgiveness which feels laden with guilt. How is that productive? We’re humans! Shit happens. Besides, shouldn’t reflection and repentance be a private thing?
At the same time, as I watch families sitting together, elderly and young, kids shuffling on pews, babies wiggling in mothers’ arms, a part of me envies them for giving in to the regularity and commitment of a practice, for having guidelines to follow, for being a part of something bigger than oneself. But even my envy reeks of judgment, stems from my secret belief that they had chosen an easier path: a pre-packaged, all-inclusive trip to a resort rather than a backpacking journey through unpaved terrain. Maybe because I became an atheist at such a young age, I find myself viewing religious faith as naïve, nearly childish.
This is a day of atonement, our last chance to appeal to God for forgiveness, and what do I do instead of reflecting on my sins? Judge everyone else. I remind myself that I promised to come into this with an open heart, be present, let myself just experience the service. So, when the rabbi offers us the option to silently say our own prayer (“to God or whatever you may choose to call it”), I practice gratitude and recite affirmations, as I try to do daily. Fleetingly, I wonder, is it really so different?
Then my mind drifts to the grocery list, to the errands I’m supposed to run tomorrow, to the last episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Resentment begins creeping in. Was this really the best use of my free evening? I could have been writing right now, or catching up on reading. I remember what my sister, who had spent some time living in the US, said, “I get why Jews out- side of Israel feel the need to go to synagogue, but still, whenever I went I mostly felt bored.” To fight my resistance, I focus on the Hebrew text in front of me, appreciate it for its poetic qualities.
In high school, along with advanced literature, I chose to study advanced Bible for my matriculation exams. This surprised some of my friends who knew me as a die-hard atheist. But for me, studying the Bible (in a secular high school, mind you) was a literary exploration rather than a religious one. The Hebrew Bible fascinated me, the richness of its stories, the complex characters and dramatic situations. I was enamoured with the ancient words imprinted on the flimsy pages, the poetry and music. The Hebrew language is the hand that pulls me into this service. At least I can read the original words in which these prayers were written, know the shape of these letters by heart. Despite the fact that I write in English, my second language, the Hebrew alphabet is etched into my essence, tattooed onto my skin in an invisible ink. The words are where I find my comfort.
My first shiver of excitement comes when the rabbi points us to “Avinu Malkenu.” I faked my way through the songs because I didn’t know any of them, and the North American accent made the Hebrew words feel displaced, a little bit like me. But this is the one song I know and love. Years ago, on a beach in Thailand, a friend began singing the last verse of “Avinu Malkenu” around the fire and I joined her, and we repeated it, drumming and harmonizing and swaying, and the words— “Our Father, Our king. Be kind and gracious with us”—were humbling, the melody sombre and moving, and though I have chanted Hindu chants before, with local friends in India, experienced the elation brought on by that ritual, the ecstasy felt different, intensely charged and strangely comforting, the words infused with more meaning by virtue of them being sung by my ancestors, chanted by Jews for generations.
In the synagogue, I sing the song loudly and passionately, my voice absorbed by the sound of people singing together, becoming one. There is such power in that unity, in the communal voice and intention.
In this moment, I am one of them. I belong.
At the end of the service, I watch a young woman with a kippah on her long brown hair removing her tallit, folding it carefully and placing it in a hand- sewn bag, and something about the fluidity of her movements, the care and intention she instils in that gesture, radiates harmony and calm. This is a woman with a clear purpose, a woman who knows she belongs. My own Jewishness feels lonesome and untethered. For the first time, I can see why people might choose to go to holiday services despite being atheists. That promise of community and belonging is enticing.
For a moment, I consider it.
The moment doesn’t last.
After the breakfast, I call my mother in Israel. Maybe I’m hoping she can help me understand something about myself, about my failure to find solace in those settings, something about my relationship to Jewishness. We talk about the little synagogue in Sha’ariya that my father used to attend, where my family still celebrates Bar Mitzvahs and births. “It’s very modest,” my mother says. “There’s no big show. It’s not like in the movies from America. Over there it looks like a church! And everyone is coming so dressed up. It feels almost …” she whispers, “Christian.”
At my mother’s suggestion, I call my uncle, Avi. My uncle has been the synagogue’s cantor and its unofficial leader for many years, since the synagogue never had an official rabbi. Avi loves his role. A Doctor of Education, he is a charismatic, inspiring speaker, and has a beautiful, thundering singing voice. Twice a year he organizes daytrips for the congregation, which he guides, because among his many vocations, he was once a licensed tour guide.
Many years ago, my uncle was also a diplomat. He lived in Turkey, Italy and New York. When I ask if he attended synagogue throughout those years abroad, he says, “Of course!” The small synagogue in Turkey had been the most memorable. They sang in a Sephardic tune, in Ladino. “It was so beautiful it made me cry.” In Brooklyn, they had a Yemeni synagogue, and it was just like home. And once, in Los Angeles, “They had a woman cantor! And men and women sat together and they had music, like in a church. It was so strange I wanted to run away!”
When I mention missing Kol Nidrey, Avi begins singing it in the Yemeni intonation, and something stirs in me. It sounds nothing like the version I’d heard in American movies and surely would have heard in the Toronto synagogue. It is beautiful and singular and it’s mine. It reminds me of the sound of men praying in the Yemeni synagogue by my house, the sound that wafted through the wooden blinds into my room every Saturday morning growing up, waking me up, along with the sweet smell of jichnoon, the Yemeni Shabbat bread my mother had baked in the oven all night long.
I realize that what I am looking for cannot be found in a synagogue. A link to my Israeli-Yemeni- Secular-Jewish childhood, to my past. Being Jewish for me does not exist in isolation. It can’t be taken out of the context of the entire whole that makes me who I am. I am a Yemeni Jew, an Israeli Jew, a secular Jew who doesn’t go to synagogue. And the Canadian, Ashkenazi, Reform synagogue didn’t suit me because it represents only a small part of my cultural identity.
Like many immigrant parents, I’ve been searching for ways to maintain my sense of self, the self I’d been before Canada, and pass some of that cultural identity to my child. I want her to have the Yom Kippur of my childhood, to ride bikes through the empty city with the rest of the children, turning an imaginary wheel and stopping at traffic lights, pretending they are cars.
I want her to fight with her cousins over the candy from the synagogue’s floor. Of course, it is a futile pursuit; it can’t be done. All I can give my daughter is a second-hand cultural experience, a watered-down version of my own. And that would be better passed on through visits to my Yemeni neighbourhood in Israel, where the same sounds of prayer might wake her up on Saturdays, and through language, through stories, through words.
Again with the words.
One of the speakers in the Yom Kippur service spoke about feeling spiritually nourished at the synagogue. It made me think. Does one have to find their spiritual nourishment within the traditions we’re born into? Shouldn’t it be the first place we look? Perhaps, yet I have never felt a presence of the divine in a synagogue. The few times in my life that I felt a sense of godliness was out in the world, alone, often in nature.
But more than anything, nowadays I find it in writing. Writing has been my religion, my spiritual practice, my synagogue. Like any practice, it relies on rituals, meditation, prayer and intention. It requires attentiveness, focus and tremendous faith: faith in yourself, faith in the reader, and faith in fiction’s power to promote change, to make a difference, however minute. It is in writing that I grasp for the unknowable and the sacred, and search for meaning, for something bigger than myself. It is in writing that I experience the timelessness and self-forgetting that is so often associated with spiritual practices. And in those moments when it works, when the words flow, when everything falls into place, I feel something alight, unnamed, inexplicable. It feels like a revelation.
Photo By Flicker User JBrazito