The suburban library where I work is near an Orthodox Jewish synagogue, which means that when I walk to work on Saturday, the sidewalk is crowded with Orthodox families on their way to shul. I’m Jewish, too. But I’m a secular, atheist Jew. I’m the kind of Jew who works on the Sabbath.
As my neighbors smile and greet me in passing, I imagine my Orthodox ancestors whispering in my ear, “Bad Jew!”
My mother’s grandfather wasn’t just Orthodox, he was a rabbi! And yet his great-granddaughter is an atheist. How did this happen?
You could blame Dad’s side of the family. Grandpa Oscar, born in Poland and raised in an Orthodox home, became an ardent socialist as a young man. When he first set foot on American soil, he vowed never to set foot in a shul again.
He kept that promise.
Or you could blame my mother. Mom was raised in an Orthodox home, but stopped keeping kosher after she married my dad. She continued to light Shabbat candles and say blessings each Friday, and she and my dad joined a Reform congregation, where my sister and I received weekly religious instruction. But God was never mentioned in our home.
Instead, the Jewish instruction my sister and I received from Mom mostly took the form of remarks like “Jewish women never go camping,” and “You’ll never see a Jewish woman mowing the lawn.” She also told us, “Jewish men don’t beat their wives.” And “Jews are never alcoholics.”
We also learned that Jewish women, at least in our suburban neighborhood, went to the beauty parlor once a week and shopped at Saks. Of course, we knew these were practices, not beliefs. There was nothing in the Torah about mowing the lawn.
I once asked my mother if she believed in God. “I do believe that there is a force for good in this world,” she said. I took this to mean “no.”
She confirmed this when, years later, dying of cancer, she confided, “This would be a lot easier for me if I believed in God.”
I married an atheist. Rick Smith. (And, with a name like that, obviously not a Jew.) We had one child. Our son attended the local Jewish preschool, and I always took him to High Holy Day services. But we never joined a congregation. We celebrated Hanukkah. But we also celebrated Christmas.
When my son became a teenager, old enough to need independence and space rather than moment-to-moment mothering, I filled the void this left in my heart with babysitting. Spending time with my young charges was wonderfully consoling when my son went off to college. (He’s one of those kids who, despite the application of my best Jewish Mother Guilt, rarely phones home.)
And here’s the funny thing: The kids I sit for are Orthodox Jews. I’m great with children, and can pick and choose the ones I want to take care of. And, even though I believe that God doesn’t exist and that the core beliefs that shape their lives are an illusion, for the most part I choose to take care of Orthodox Jewish children.
Why? An Orthodox Jewish upbringing makes for smart, engaged, articulate, and imaginative kids. Orthodox Jewish children—at least the ones in my upscale suburb—don’t spend endless hours in front of televisions and computers. They read! They play! They pretend! They converse! Hannah Montana means nothing to them. Children like this are increasingly rare in our pop-culture-adoring, screen-addicted world.
I don’t discuss religion with my charges, although the older ones sometimes try to wrap their minds around the question of “What is Roz?” They know that I’m a Jew. But what kind of Jew? Three-year-old Tiferet knows more about the Jewish holidays than I do. And I need to check with eight-year-old Tikva to be certain I’m using the right dishes when I fix her a snack.
My favorite three-year-old owns several plush Torahs. The first time Hanina asked me to say a Hebrew prayer with him, he couldn’t believe that I didn’t know the words. Nowadays, he picks up a plush Torah, hands another plush Torah to me, and recites a few words of prayer. He waits for me to echo him. Then he corrects my pronunciation.
I dislike organized religion, yet nothing makes me happier than the company of Orthodox children. Am I overcompensating for my own faith-free childhood? Is this how the God I refuse to believe in plans to draw me back into the fold? Or is it just that I’d much rather recite prayers with a plush Torah than sit through yet another episode of The Suite Life of Zack and Cody?
Being an atheist who does her best to nurture the children entrusted to me by Orthodox Jewish parents is a bit of a paradox. But I’m comfortable with that. And when I pass one of “my” families on my way to work and a four-year-old runs to give me a hug, I don’t feel like such a bad Jew after all.