I recently wrote two sizable checks, one for our synagogue dues and one for religious school tuition. I always feel the need to explain costs like this and High Holiday tickets to non-Jews. It’s complicated, but believe me, the structure of the synagogue, the lack of a larger governing body that takes in and distributes money, the lack of a collection plate they all make the dues make sense.
Every year I wonder, not if the dues make sense, but if they make sense for me to pay. This year the wondering is more pronounced. Perhaps it’s because one family of good friends is considering leaving the synagogue and another family of good friends has decided to take their daughters out of religious school to explore the Catholic side of their family.
Perhaps it’s the strangeness of discovering that my bat mitzvah played a role in someone else’s conversion to Judaism. Perhaps it’s the aggravation of finding myself fighting to ensure that a public school event will not be held on a Jewish holiday that I no longer celebrate.
That right there is as good a description as any of my relationship to Judaism. To quote Facebook, “It’s complicated.” Raised “fairly observant” in a Conservative Jewish family in an overwhelmingly Christian town I now find myself unobservant, belonging to a Reform congregation, whose Reform characteristics I find myself constantly annoyed by.
One of the few true benefits I derived from being raised Jewish was Jewish education. Being a bible quiz champ served me well when I was getting an M.A. in literature. Understanding the structure of Judaism and of a religious service has made it easier for me to fit into a variety of settings. I believe an education in religion, in the concept of religion makes you more worldly.
But, my kids aren’t getting that. The other day my daughter and I were discussing a friend of hers who is Muslim and the things the two religions had in common. When I tried to explain about Abraham and Isaac and Ishmael, she looked at me blankly. After three years of Sunday school, She had no idea who Abraham and Sara were. She can however tell you the name and responsibilities of all 3,000,000 fairies in the Rainbow Magic world and the name and what time period each and every American Girl doll.
When we asked in kindergarten if she would be learning the “Four Questions” for the Passover seder we were told that the school thought it was too difficult for young kids and they didn’t learn it until 3rd grade. Really? Because she knows several songs in Spanish, she learned some of them in kindergarten. It seems like a song in Hebrew wouldn’t be so hard.
But, I bite my tongue (sometimes) and we stay. Because she likes it there, and because I’m ambivalent. I was an academically over-pressured child in the 1970s and 1980s, back before it was cool. Hebrew school twice a week, violin lessons twice a week, Sunday school once a week, services on Saturday and a Jewish educational camp in the summer.
But I didn’t face the secular academic pressures that my kids will face. My daughter has homework in second grade, there’s academic pressure built in to her every day life. Do I really want a religious school where she also has to study? Do I want her to spend her middle school years learning trope? (Don’t ask).
There’s a conservative synagogue across the street from our synagogue (no joke, although there is a Jewish joke about that). But do I want to add more pressure to my child’s life, take her away from a place where she’s comfortable just so that things feel more familiar to me? If I don’t keep Kosher, what difference does it make that our synagogue does not keep a kosher kitchen and our religious school sells non-kosher salami to raise money?
I am solidly agnostic. I am not one of those people who describes themselves as “not religious but spiritual,” I’m neither. I am also not one of those people who finds comfort or meaning in ritual. I’m Jewish simply because I always have been. Growing up in Louisville, KY it was part of what defined me. I had a funny name, I was short, I was Jewish (oh fine, I was also “easy”).
Lacking a need for spirituality, it seems silly to go looking for something more personally meaningful, so I stay with our congregation. It works for my husband (more-or-less), and it works for my kids.
So, I write the checks, I show up on the holidays and Sundays. After all, it gives me something to complain about, and let’s face it, nothing is more Jewish than that!