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.

We didn't spend every Saturday in places like West Philly's Temple Beth-El.

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.

Six year old Sadya once asked me, his voice solemn, “Do you worship graven idols?” When I assured him that I didn’t, he was obviously relieved.

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.



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  • Emanuel Shargel May 8, 2016 at 12:53 am

    I was on line using an address from the University I taught at until my retirement. Somehow there was an incredibly long list of names and a sidebar with links to hundreds of websites and I picked yours, I’m an 80 year old Jew with a good Jewish education but could not believe in the God I was taught about, So I am now an agnostic and contemplating my own mortality and your post struck me as quite meaningful. Thanks for posting it. Whether you are still posting or not, I hope you get to read this.

  • Ineffective April 9, 2012 at 10:19 am

    I feel very ineffective as parent. I was raised Christian and was very religious until ~19 years old. Then just had/have this aversion to Jesus and now I’m lost. My belief is closest to Jewish as I believe in God (biblical God, what was pounded into me as child though so sometimes I think I’m definately athiest). Then I acquired a son, through a friend’s family I used to nanny for who lost custody from abuse. He was Christian and went to Church on his own. Then I adopted a daughter from Russia. I promptly put her in Jewish daycare and all was good until she went off to school and aftercare became my Christian mother. I tried to enroll her in Jewish private school but I was told one parent had to be ‘practicing Judiasm’ and since I have little idea what that even entails I was out. Yesterday my daughter and son came back from Easter service singing and chanting ‘Hosanna’ song and I’m thinking ‘hmm I should remember what that means’. So, my kids have no idea of my religious beliefs and just have taken it upon themselves to be Christian I guess. I’m still sending my daughter to Jewish Centers summer day camp though!

  • RozWarren February 27, 2012 at 11:16 am

    Steve Klaper is a Maggid and Jewish Troubadour who runs the Song and Spirit Institute for Peace in Berkeley, Michigan, which promotes “a greater understanding among people of diverse religions, culture and ethnic backgrounds through music, art, culture, programs, dialog and story.” And, apparently through posting this great comment about my essay. Thanks for taking the time to share these thoughts, Steve.

  • Cohen Laundry February 26, 2012 at 8:21 am

    Beautifully said, Steve!

  • Just One Boomer February 25, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    Amen. Bottom line—-fundamentalism of all stripes is dangerous because it is, by definition, intolerant. This is why Rick Santorum scares the bejeezus out of me (if you’ll pardon the expression). I’m writing this from Mexico where even the smallest town seems to have a church full of gold leaf and full of subsistence farmers. I just don’t get it, but it has been repeated worldwide. (BTW, the Spanish Inquisition was alive and well in Mexico. “It’s our way or you get burned at the stake.) I don’t think the indigenous peoples here were given the option of leaving (like the Spanish Jews in 1492). While I’m in a fundamentalist bashing mode—the Aztecs didn’t have a real nice religious orthodoxy either.

  • Steve Klaper February 25, 2012 at 12:19 pm

    Certainly Orthodox Jewish kids — being raised without knowledge of modern technology, and without the fractured attention of the modern, urban world, have a childhood that seems to more closely resemble the childhood of previous generations. For middle aged folks like us, this seems comforting, as we are none too happy with the way society is whizzing information and advertising by us minute by minute, all the time. Nor do we completely understand what’s really happening. Too much info, too quick. Children steeped in this modern culture, however, appear to have far less trouble coping with it, as they take it for granted — its the only world they’ve known and they naturally become good at living it. The prevalence of attention deficit disorders in this larger world notwithstanding, it isn’t necessarily advantageous to grow up completely cut off from the whizzing, whirring outside world. Unless you’ll never live there.

    The assumption that Orthodox Jews make is that their children will choose to always live in the relative cocoon of an Orthodox Jewish world; will work, study, marry, live and raise their own children in a world governed by very tightly organized rules of conduct and religious practice.

    It’s a wonderful thing that you are being exposed to this world through the children — adorable, thoughtful, upscale, engaged and loved children. Protracted exposure to the adult Orthodox Jewish world might remind you why you’re happily a secular, atheist Jew.

    That said, I don’t have much against them per se, They’re trying to live decent, God-fearing lives and there’s nothing wrong with that — but, in fact, I have very little contact with that world (one in which I, incidentally, grew up). I do appreciate worshipping in an Orthodox shul from time to time — mostly because I like the hum of the davvening in Hebrew — but I don’t much care for halachic attitudes/laws regarding women, politics, contact with non-Orthodox Jews or non-Jews, nor indeed the way they raise their children. But the work I do as a maggid, chazzan, teacher and worship leader does not intersect with that world. Musically, educationally, spiritually — the Orthodox have no use for me, and I’m not really interested in presenting them with Jewish alternatives they’re not looking for anyway.

    My complaint is that non-Orthodox Jews (and indeed most of the world) seems to regard orthodoxy as the authentic representation of a people and mission thousands of years old, which has shaped the structure and content of western civilization like none other. I take issue with this attitude. All the cool stuff of Judaism — the devotional and meditative practices, the mystical cosmology, the family rituals, the social action imperative, the depth of study, the music and chants, the teachings of the Torah itself — none of this belongs to the Orthodox. They do not have an inside track on the ownership or definitive interpretation of what these things mean or how they can or should be used to the betterment of individuals or society. We have no pope; we have no hierarchy. The whole point of modern Jewish Renewal is to re-claim the deep teachings and meaningful practices of our people, without being tied to narrow, sexist, racist, isolationist notions of superiority and triumphalism. When we teach disenfranchised or disinterested Jews about the heritage that they own, and we do it with stories and music and mitzvah days and soup kitchens and environmental awareness — without insisting that they structure their lives in this or that specific way — then we are really infusing Yiddishkeit into people’s hearts and souls. Then religion isn’t stupid or boring or insensitive — it’s alive and cool and fun and interesting and helpful to the planet and to the people walking on it. It’s not just Jews who need Yiddishkeit — the whole world is in need of healing and awakening.

    That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

    Good shabbos!

  • Nancy February 12, 2012 at 9:35 am

    This was really great! Thanks for sharing!

  • Cohen Laundry February 9, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    Thanks so much for the compliment! So glad you are enjoying the blog.
    All the Best!
    p.s. Just read your nun story . . . it put a smile on my face too!

  • RozWarren February 9, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    CL you are welcome to link to my article! Thanks for your thoughtful response. I enjoy your blog and got a kick out of being called a Kindrid Spirit!

  • Cohen Laundry February 8, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    I really enjoyed this post, and can very much relate as I am secular atheist, but almost all my nephews and nieces (children of BTs) are being raised Orthodox. I do agree with RA, that although as children, or in childhood this is a quaint presentation of life for these children, it is ultimately based on mythology presented as truth, and I also worry that “The questioning of doctrine is treated harshly, and leads to serious generational estrangement.”. In terms of education, in the more insular/isolated religious communities, the extreme censorship of information + general suspicion of all things secular leads to a very impoverished education that really closes doors for children who later want to integrate in mainstream society. To me, this is criminal. I blogged on the topic here:

    (I also linked your article on the previous post on my blog, I hoope you don’t mind).

  • Rando Agnosto February 7, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    I would disagree that human beings are hard-wired for “orthodoxy”. After all, “orthodoxy” simply means “a correct belief”, which is almost an oxymoron – for a belief to be considered “correct”, it must be proven. Otherwise, how do you know it’s correct?

    But once a belief is proven, the necessity for believing is gone! That belief can now be called a fact, even though one can still “believe” in it.

    Simply put: believing is the act of thinking something is true without necessarily having or caring about the proof.

    Proving something to be true – and really what I’m referring to is the scientific method – is a relatively new concept. By proving, we have advanced far and have exponentially increased our collective knowledge. However, the multitude and complexity of knowledge has far surpassed most people’s mental capacity. So, we still believe in orthodoxies. It’s just easier that way for most (especially when facing death).

    Orthodoxy (of any “orthodox”-style religious subgroup) takes its authority from the weight of the ages and the elders. However, this seems to be largely a consequence of written religious doctrine – in many older religions and spiritual traditions, the doctrine is passed down orally, and therefore is a vibrant, mutating entity, more of a “guideline” than something set in stone. So if anything, orthodox thought is a younger phenomenon – the oldest ways we have of interfacing with spirituality are intuitive, shamanistic in nature, sometimes even calling for psychoactive substances to bridge the gap between the two worlds.

    While there is absolutely no proof of either G-d’s existence or non-existence, to discount the possibility is, frankly, un-scientific. However, to believe in orthodox interpretations of what’s true and how to live is unconscionable in light of all the actual truth about our existence and the universe that we have uncovered (albeit in such a brief time). The Catholic Church did not issue an apology for their actions towards Gallileo until the 90s. I mean the 1990s, three years after his namesake – a spacecraft – was launched towards Jupiter. And while they may have exonerated him hundreds of years later, I do not know of any statements that definitively state “we got it all wrong – our dogma was wrong” because that would contradict the “Church and Pope are infallible, being earthly representatives of divine will” and all. Which essentially boils down to the fear of losing authority – and, consequently, power! – in the earthly realm.

    So while Orthodox kids may be nice to babysit, their parents have chosen to raise them with absolutes, which are sacred and therefore unquestionable. And indeed, Orthodox religious movements are largely propelled by a controlled, tightly-wound system of childrearing where orthodox doctrine is taught and reinforced from day 1. The questioning of doctrine is treated harshly, and leads to serious generational estrangement.

    Of course, this wouldn’t be a problem for the un-orthodox masses if orthodox beliefs (across the spectrum) didn’t include unsavory elements of tribalism, sexual repression, and (in some cases, though definitely NOT in the world of Orthodox Judaism!) anti-intellectualism. In fact, orthodoxy in the modern world is at best a compromise between the pure, unadulterated orthodox doctrine of the past and the zeitgeist of now. (E.g. stoning women for adultery is absolutely not ok in developed countries, even though it’s “on the books”, if you will.)

    This compromise is the very essence of most conflicts between religion and modernity.

  • Lisa REhfuss February 6, 2012 at 8:36 am

    Ah Roz, you hit it out of the ballpark yet again!

  • Just One Boomer February 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Oy vey (but great essay). I agree that human beings are hard wired to believe in G-d. Every culture has a myth of creation and a set of orthodoxies. I was raised by an ardent atheist. My father couldn’t tolerate the hypocrisy of his Jewish relatives who often exhibited the worst of tribalism. With my left leaning, forward looking parents, I could have married (or just cohabited) with a Rastafarian as long as s/he was a “good person”. I rebelled and married a Jewish doctor. When we had children, this Jewish doctor who had until then displayed not a shred of religiosity, informed me that he wanted to send our sons to a synagogue for religious training. I agreed, but secured my husband’s promise that he would be in charge of the religious upbringing. We joined a Reform congregation and each boy was duly bar mitzvahed. There was no follow up at home by the Jewish doctor. He later confessed that he too is an atheist, but he was afraid of incurring his mother’s wrath if he didn’t at least go through the motions. Our sons are completely turned off by religion, including their own. One is engaged to a lapsed Catholic who had her potential religiosity exorcised by attending 12 years of Catholic school. I have no idea why I am sharing this. If the Jewish doctor and I are “blessed” with grandchildren, it will be very interesting to see how they are raised.

  • Kate February 1, 2012 at 11:42 am

    What a wonderful essay. It makes me wish I’d raised my children Orthodox. Not being Jewish and finding organized religion personally untenable seem like such flimsy excuses when in the thrall of Roz’ world of plush Torahs.

  • Isy January 31, 2012 at 5:44 pm

    Maybe it just proves that humans are hard-wired for orthodoxy – whether it’s Judaism or American celebrity worship. It doesn’t matter – what matters is that you and those kids are enjoying yourselves.

  • Kelly January 31, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    This is awesome! I think it has a lot to do with how they are as kids (e.i. wanting to read and play rather than watch tv).

  • Ruth Nathan January 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    This is just a terrific article because it captures the modern dilemma–to believe in G-d in the age of Science. I highly recommend Luc Ferry’s international bestseller, “A brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living.” Ferry teaches philosophy at the Sorbonne.