Passover will pass over on Saturday…and I couldn’t care less. So what, you may say, neither could I. But Judaism is the religion I don’t practice. And since I was raised by an agnostic mother who felt no desire to keep up traditions she felt no connection to, I grew up with little sense of what it meant to be Jewish.
When I was a kid, I learned to answer the question of what my religion was with a rote, sing-song, “We’re non-practicing Jews.” Later, when we moved to Birmingham, Alabama, I replaced that with, “We’re Unitarians.” That was true as far as it went, but it was also an intentional dodge.
I had seen open racial hostilities in my newly desegregated school, so I was certain that it wouldn’t be wise to advertise my Jewish heritage. I was already being picked on for not being a “Georgia peach.” Imagine how I would’ve fared if the kids knew I was a prune hamantash (not that I knew what they were then). And all for something about my heritage that didn’t seem to have much to do with me.
I realize that for some nonbelieving Jews, Judaism is inextricably connected with Jewishness. For them, they stopped being Jewish when they lost their faith. Other Jews have denied point blank that I’m Jewish because I’m an atheist.
But to me, Jewishness is an ethnic heritage, with or without Judaism. It’s not just me who feels that way. It’s the reasoning behind the self-identity of secular Jews. For many secular Jews, that means continuing the traditions they grew up with. But I didn’t. I can remember my grandmother giving me Hanukkah gelt, both the monetary and chocolate kind. And once my uncle gave me a dreidel and taught me “The Dreidel Song.”
That’s it. Indeed, my sole connection to Jewish culture in my childhood was deli food. But in my teenage years, I began to identify with my Jewish roots, even as I was becoming an atheist.
One year, my mother and I decided to create our own secular Passover. We bought a bunch of traditional Jewish foods* and a Haggadah we barely glanced at. We dispensed with all the other Passover traditions too. Instead, we dug into the foods. So once again, my passport to Jewish culture ran through my stomach.
And what did I learn? Pickled herrings would make an excellent emetic. A metaphor for religion, you say?
So I wasn’t going to be able to connect with my heritage via ritual. That Ark had sailed. And, really, even if we had obtained a secular Haggadah, it would be hard for us to talk about an imaginary tale of a person who almost certainly never existed freeing Jews whom scholars doubt were even enslaved by the Egyptians and definitely didn’t build the pyramids. A prophet so visionary he was even able to write about his own death. Oh, and those vanquished Canaanites? They’re what came to be known as Jews. We have met the enemy and he is us.
Secular Haggadahs often change the narrative to a nice, liberal lesson on freedom. But if the Jews were never enslaved by the Pharaohs, what kind of truth can you find?
“Let my people go!”
“Okay. Uh, who are you again?”
So where does that leave me? I’m not in Jewish culture or of it, neither gefilte fish nor fowl. Yet I’ll continue thinking of myself as Jewish as I eat my lox and bagels and ignore Jewish holidays. But let my people go have their pickled herring.
Like Moses, I returned to my heritage (after a fashion). But unlike him, I’m actually real.
*Yes, I know pickled herring isn’t technically part of the Passover tradition, but we were going the whole Jewish hog, so to speak. It wasn’t even pareve because it was in a cream sauce—double blech! But then, we didn’t exactly care about violating some ridiculous Bronze Age dietary restrictions. Okay, so we won’t boil a kid in its mother’s milk. What kind of sadists do you think we are?