My parents (especially my mother) thought it important to raise me as a member of “the human religion.” The mantra: “I am not a this or a that – I am a human” rings as a distant memory in my ears when recalling that fundamental message.
I think my father, a child prodigy violinist raised in a first-generation immigrant Jewish home, came to view Judaism as a narrow-minded and limited world view. He would hold up his hands to the sides of his head when describing how their Judaism was worn by his parents like “blinders on a horse.”
My mother, raised as a southern Baptist during the depression, developed an early disgust for the bigotry, prejudice and negativism she observed in her environment and in her church. She often recalled her distress witnessing unfair actions against neighbors of color, of “fire and brimstone” sermons and of the shaming and humiliation of church congregants – with the preacher banging a loud gavel while admonishing: “you sinners, you’re going to hell!”
With the benefit of 9 years of parental experience considering the question of what religious upbringing or exposure they want for their kids prior to my arrival, my parents basically decided they would let nature take its course with me – to not try to provide me any specific religious exposure or training as they had done with my older siblings. An interesting side note is that neither of my siblings has chosen the “Jewish” path, as I have.
I’ve always embraced my parents’ humanistic view pretty deeply, but I also envied that sense of “belonging” and “rooted-ness” I perceived my Jewish friends as having. That feeling grew, and upon entering college I joined a Jewish fraternity, developed an interest in Zionism, enrolled in some courses in Hebrew and Jewish studies at UCLA and the University of Judaism (including a Reconstructionist conversion program there that I did not go through with), and generally began to surround myself in a Jewish environment.
Several years later, I made good on a suggestion I saw on the cover of my fraternity’s newsletter, which read: “if you’ve been waiting for an invitation to visit Israel, you’ve got it!”, and signed up for the WUJS (World Union of Jewish Students) – a year abroad program in the Negev desert. I loved it so much that I stayed another 7 years in Israel, working in my field (software development)! While there, I met someone who told me about a cheap way to learn about Judaism more deeply, sponsored by the rabbinate: the conversion program. I entered it, specifically not committing to convert, although at the end it felt like the right thing to do, so I moved through it becoming officially Jewish.
Upon returning to the United States, it’s been a struggle for me to find a comfortable convergence of religious practices. I currently hold my “Jewish training” a bit – as my father said – limiting in its proscriptions, although I struggle with it as defining my Jewish identity and understanding. I haven’t lived according to the orthodox interpretations of Halacha for many years now, yet still struggle with a dissonance – of a feeling that the “authenticity” of my Jewish-ness is brought into question, given the tenants of my conversion. Also, I do believe deep down to some extent that “it’s the traditions (law?) which have (has) kept the Jewish people”, which makes me feel a bit of a hypocrite. One thing I’m very happy about and comfortable with is that I have given myself enough of a context to help give my kids a decent chance at feeling a “belonging” and a “rooted-ness” that I never had.
Together with my loving and supportive wife Renee (who grew up in a reform Jewish environment), and with the help of our affiliation and participation in our Conservative synagogue (Netivot Shalom) and a Jewish after-school program named Edah, we are helping to keep the metaphorical leaf from my father’s ancestral branch of the Hebrew tree from falling off.
Many thanks to Marty Ross for sharing his story.