My dad was in disbelief.
When I called him last week to say I wanted to fast with him for Yom Kippur, forgoing water and food from Tuesday at sundown until Wednesday evening, all he asked was "why?"
I thought he would be unquestioningly excited. He's not a religious man, but he's observant. He goes to temple every year on Yom Kippur to atone for the mistakes he has made.
He goes alone.
I grew up with a Protestant mother. There's an old joke among Reform Jews -- what do you call a mixed kid with a Christian mother and a Jewish father? A Christian.
It's a two-part jab. It references the conservative Jewish belief that religion, like mitochondrial DNA, is imbued in the womb. (Tell that to all the angry anti-Semites that read my stories, note my last name, and suggest I'm part of the liberal media conspiracy.) The joke is also teasing Jewish men for (allegedly) taking a backseat to their shiksa wives when instructing the kids on faith.
The joke was written with families like mine in mind.
I grew up celebrating both sets of holidays. I went to church with my grandmother from time to time, largely for the promise of a free ride to the mall or record store if I sat through a service. I went to synagogue for the occasional high holiday, and for my cousins' bat and bar mitzvahs. The problem was, I never felt fully Christian nor Jewish. My lighter-haired Christian cousins teased me for having dark, wavy hair that they claimed was "Jewy." My Jewish cousins assumed I knew no Hebrew (they were mostly right) and that I was more or less a Christian.
But the Christian god seemed to be a vengeful one. I was servant of the Jewish god, by birthright. With the Christian god, I had to opt in. The pastors told me that my father and his family and all my ancestors would burn for eternity in hellfire because they did not accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Perhaps this absolutism was a botched attempt to ease my confusion. Don't worry kid, there are just two options: Believe, or burn.
Wonderful imagery for a 10-year-old to visualize, really.
So, for about three years, I believed. Or at least I convinced myself I did. I prayed when I was scared. I prayed that my dad would be there with me at the pearly gates. I prayed that my grandfather had a last-gasp epiphany. I prayed that my great-great grandfathers -- two of them rabbis -- were not cast into a lake of fire.
By 14, I was sick of trying to rectify these conflicting faiths. As I learned about the spread of world religions, it became clear to me that my ancestors' beliefs were result of geography. Of course my mother was a Protestant -- her forebears were English and Welsh. Of course my father was a Jew -- his forefathers migrated (er, were forced) into Eastern Europe over the last two millennia. I wasted years of my real life anguishing over the very concept and eligibility of eternal life. I felt betrayed.
Soon after, I declared my atheism. I read Christopher Hitchens. I quoted Richard Dawkins at Christmas dinner. I channeled my teenage hormonal angst into vitriolic attacks on religion, particularly Christianity. My parents, until now opposite poles in my religious sphere, found common ground in their dismay over my lack of faith.
In college, to quote my freshman-year roommate, I learned a new, more nuanced personal mantra: I'm objectively agnostic, subjectively atheist. Meaning, in all fairness, I'm too young to really understand the nature of the universe, so I'm open to a higher power. But, in my experience so far, I don't believe there is one. Though I now celebrate people's faith, I stand by this today.
Still, it was around that same time in college that I became more aware of my Jewishness. I didn't feel inclined to don a yarmulke and join a temple. It was more of a cultural connection. Maybe it was living outside New York for the first time. Maybe it was sharing a dorm with a bunch of kids from the Midwest and South who, and I quote, "never met a real Jew before!" Maybe for the first time the "otherness" I felt growing up with mostly Catholic schoolmates and cousins finally gave way to an "otherness" that I wanted to celebrate and distinguish. Maybe I just finally got bored of my lopsided identity.
I started reading, admittedly pretty casually, about talmudic history and beliefs. I traveled to Israel on Birthright. There, atop the ancient desert fortress of Masada, I was bar mitzvahed, albeit in the ceremonial equivalent of a shotgun wedding. It was there that I finally understood that, for many people, it's the community, not the scripture, that provides spiritual solace.
So, with that memory in mind, I'm going to fast for Yom Kippur. I don't know if I'll feel a connection to a higher being, but I owe it to myself to try. I owe to my great-great grandfathers, for picturing them in suffering before I ever even saw a photograph of them.
I owe it most of all to my dad, who has been sitting in temple without his son by his side for too long.