Ask Richard: Former Orthodox Jewish Atheist Endures Bigotry and Rejection by His Parents

Note: When letter writers sign with their first names instead of a pseudonym or nickname, I randomly change their name for added anonymity.

Dear Richard,

Atheism has estranged many an adult from his nuclear family and I am no different. When I left religion there was anger enough on both sides. People behaved accordingly and nobody has much to be proud of. Since that time, we’ve settled down into a truce of sorts. I was Orthodox Jewish, not Christian, and the insularity of the Jewish Orthodoxy puts anything I have seen from Protestant groups to shame. Protestants want to convert you back; Jews just really seem to want to stone you.

I am now remarried to a non-Jewish woman, and that is the Ultimate Sin according to my parents’ generation (WW2 – Korea). When my father communicates with me, he does not quite manage to mask the vitriol that emanates toward me from my mother. The nasty, it is too strong. My parents’ mind-boggling rudeness to both my wife and to my non-Jewish son-in-law is ample reason for us simply to avoid any interaction with them. Frankly, this is fine with me on a day-to-day basis. After all, my parents were not exactly beacons of positive energy for me before I left the faith, and I feel that whatever I have accomplished in life has been despite them and not thanks to them. This is supported if not proven by the fact that my rate of progress in life is much greater since I left, 13 years ago.

So my question revolves around what suggestions you might have for coping with “Major Lifecycle Events.” For example, living as they do with their Orthodox mother, my two sons had Bar Mitzvah ceremonies. These were surreal experiences for me, since I so firmly disbelieve in the entire meaning of these things, and yet because I am the boys’ father, there is a clear role for me there. I was treated as if I had arrived and been announced as the NAACP ambassador to the KKK. My wife and I were instructed not to attend the Friday Night dinner “for the family” before the most recent one. So we attended on Saturday morning as expected and headed home as soon as possible. No blood was spilled or anything!

But not all events can slide by so easily. Those parents of mine have the nerve to be transitioning firmly into the “elderly” category and my brother recently pointed out that the next lifecycle event, or one soon, anyhow, might be less happy than a Bar Mitzvah. Grief stresses people, which does little to improve their disposition or their manners. To think about attending the funeral of either parent with the other in fully irrational Torah-thumping mode really sets my teeth on edge. Demands could well be made on me to participate as an eldest son is expected to, in all manner of abhorrent Bronze Age rituals that would be utterly dishonest, to say the least. But staying home does not seem like a viable option. I have many rational relatives, with whom I do share loving relationships, and disappointing them is almost equally distasteful. It seems to me that funerary rituals are, on some level, a show. The nearest relatives are the stars, and they are expected by their public (the other relatives and friends of the deceased) to put on the show.

No doubt I will be an emotional mess at the time too, which is why the time to come up with some positive coping strategies is now and not “at need” as the funeral industry likes to say. So I am basically looking for ideas.

Thanks,
Ben

Dear Ben,

Your patience is impressive. You have been treated horridly by your parents as well as whoever else sides with them, ostracized along with your second wife and son-in-law by naked bigotry. Yet you still want to be supportive and to participate in the family landmark events. You care about the feelings of the innocent people who are mixed in with the bigots who should be showing you love.

It’s understandable that you might feel bitter, but you resist the temptation to completely abandon the whole lot of them. You keep returning, taking the insults and rejection, so that for instance, your sons and your ex-wife can have their important ceremonies performed with the full cast of characters.

And now, anticipating the inevitable funerals, you are willing to go through perhaps even worse mistreatment for the sake of your surviving parent and your other relatives, including those who are abusive and those who are not.

These rituals are farces to you, not only because you don’t believe their theological bases, but also because they imply that those whom you are honoring are worthy of that honor. Sadly, they are not.

The honor goes entirely to you.

What you have described is called shunning. It is one of the most revolting practices of organized religions, or any insular, conformity-enforcing group. It is very destructive to the victims, it can be harmful to uninvolved members, and it tends to spread like rot.

I think that you need and deserve some allies. You said that you have many rational relatives with whom you do share loving relationships. Make use of them. Individually or gathered together, tell them what you and your second wife have been going through. Don’t be embarrassed, thinking that you have to be stoic, or that you should not complain. Of course you should. Even though the main perpetrators are your parents, their behavior should not remain hidden. If your rational relatives are unaware of this rot in the family, they need to know about it for their own sakes.

You would be participating in these events for the sake of their feelings, and it is perfectly legitimate to ask them for some help. From some of them you may get moral support, from others practical support, and a few might even be willing to try to intervene on your behalf, speaking out against the bigotry. Orthodoxy or not, such shunning is despicable, and it should be resisted, not just endured. Of course, they might hesitate if the shunning threatens to be inflicted onto to them as well, so you may have to forgive them for that. But at the very least, when you come to these grim charades and play your expected part, you will have allies at your side or in the crowd, giving you encouraging nods.

Ben, I wish I had better suggestions to offer. My advice is not much compared to what you are facing. I don’t know how powerfully the Orthodox Jewish culture affects your particular family when it comes to shunning and opposing shunning. I have seen some families able to clean it out of their midst, while others remain deeply entrenched in submissive obedience to the system of social blackmail.

Although I have expressed my disdain for the prejudiced members of your family, I also must acknowledge that they are caught up in their fear and hatred, and I wish for them a healing and a release from a trap of ignorance that must be painful for them as well.

Hopefully, some readers here, beyond being as dismayed as I am, may be able to draw upon their own experiences and suggest constructive solutions that have not occurred to me. In your own “major lifecycle events” I hope that you receive in abundance the love and support that you have tried, without thanks, to give to others.

Richard

You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. All questions will eventually be answered, but not all can be published. There is a large number of requests; please be patient.

About Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a retired Marriage and Family Therapist living in California.

  • qwertyuiop

    submissive obedience to the system of social blackmail.

    Now that’s a damn good phrase and a perfect description of why many people say they’re religious.

    I truly believe that there are more closeted atheists than open atheists. I really do.

    They are just afraid to come out.

    Well put, Richard.

  • littlejohn

    Trouble with parents? Have them destroyed.

  • stephanie

    You might find some decent middle ground in the Society for Humanistic Judaism (http://www.shj.org/) It keeps many rituals as cultural tradition without any spiritual mumbo-jumbo attached.

  • http://religiouscomics.net Jeff

    I’m quite fortunate being a 2nd generation atheist in my family. Although I don’t have any advice for you, at least you can draw comfort that the dynamics will be different for your own children as they grow older. They won’t have both parents shunning them if they decide to eventually leave the faith. At worst, they would just have one shunning them. And hopefully your ex-wife is a bit better than your parents in this regard.

  • http://infalliblefailure.blogspot.com Jeff Satterley

    I think that you need and deserve some allies. You said that you have many rational relatives with whom you do share loving relationships. Make use of them. Individually or gathered together, tell them what you and your second wife have been going through. Don’t be embarrassed, thinking that you have to be stoic, or that you should not complain. Of course you should. Even though the main perpetrators are your parents, their behavior should not remain hidden. If your rational relatives are unaware of this rot in the family, they need to know about it for their own sakes.

    I went through something similar with my dad, although it was due to alcoholism and abuse, not religious differences, and was forced to stop all contact with him. Although Ben has contact with his parents and family, it appears what he is going to is similar to my experience, and based on them I totally agree with Richard’s advice above.

    I could have lost half of my family because of it, but by talking to some of my aunts and uncles on that side, I was able to continue a relationship with many of them (not all, unfortunately), and it was definitely worth the effort. I found out that many of them were unaware of what went on, and now that they know the truth they are behind my decision (not that it was a contest to get the most family members on my side, but it was important to me that they knew the truth about what I was going through).

  • Tizzle

    I went back home for my grandma’s funeral, and thought the talk there was horrible. BUT, the funeral was for my dad, not me, and it was what he wanted to hear, and given by a dear friend of his. My family doesn’t shun me…or rather, my parents don’t, but my siblings do a little. I put in my time at the obligatory events and then went and drank with my friends.

    I brought a couple friends with to the memorial service, as well, for moral support…consider if that’s possible. I don’t know if it is in a more structured ceremony. Can you cut out early, after your duties are over finished? Or do you have to sit there for hours or days?

    I’d say make a plan for your own grief: drink with buddies, spend time alone, whatever is best. If you know ahead of time what you need you can plan it around other events.

    For short bursts of time, I am able to call upon all my old self-righteousness that I learned in the church and act like the “bigger person”. I turn it into a game, a little bit. Perhaps not admirable, but coping methods are about pragmatism.

    Maneuver your physical space to be near the supportive relatives say, 85% of the time.

  • Captain Werewolf

    Here’s the thing: you can do the “show” in a way that won’t disappoint your relatives and doesn’t require dishonesty. Exercise a little constructive compartmentalization and tell yourself the Hebrew prayer you’re speaking is cultural rather than religious (or religious, but orthopraxic instead of orthodoxic). Play your role respectfully, but don’t feel pressure to hide, before and after the ceremony, your true position of “Well, I don’t believe in this stuff myself, but I wanted to take part in order to show respect for my [insert family member here]‘s beliefs” or “For me, the poetry of the words is enough, and I like the connection it gives me to my heritage and family.”

    You could also try to look at the religious ritual as commemorating a transition to a life with less religion in it, as in “This is the last time I will have to say this prayer.” I know that sounds weird, but it could represent a break from your religious past. A religious ritual for the end of religious rituals, I guess.

  • Orthodox Reader

    Ben-

    I’m sorry for the way you’ve been treated. I am Orthodox, but some of my friends have gone “off the derech,” and I’m sorry your family has taken it so badly.

    I think you should think about whether you are going to say kaddish for your parents when they do inevitably pass away. Even if you don’t believe in it at all, it might be something that can help repair the relationship that you have with your family.

    A lot of people who say kaddish say it for cultural reasons, not religious ones. It is a tie that binds together the generations- that’s why the children say kaddish- not the most ‘religious’ relatives.

    My father passed away, and we did the entire Orthodox funeral- it is not a show. We are not on stage- we were mourners, and during this process, let me tell you, people are not judging you. We all grieved together, though we are all on different religious pages. We have plenty of family that isn’t Orthodox, some that isn’t Jewish, but we all grieved as one family.

    Death is a time to think beyond religion, to think about the people and the relationships that were touched by the one who has died. I think saying kaddish for a loved one can help with that. At the least, it gives you a chance every day, three times a day, to help you stop and think about the one you’ve loved. It’s helped me enormously.

    Again, I’m sorry you’ve been so hurt by your family. I hope they can choose to look beyond your religious choices and see the man you are.

  • EW

    For your sake – not theirs – make your peace with them before they die as best as you can, without compromise or dishonesty. Maybe by way of a letter if a meeting is not realistic. Again, for your sake, you don’t want to leave things unsaid or unspoken because that has a way of haunting you after communication is no longer possibile.

  • Dan Brook

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