Guest writer Cindi Hartman Lynch
I was taught that I was born a Jew. It was something that was as much a part of me as being female or pale-skinned or dark-haired or anything else that I inherited via the genes of my parents. It didn’t matter what I believed. No matter what, I was a member of the tribe because my mother was a Jew and she was a Jew because her mother was Jewish, and on and on. No one ever really had to do anything to be a Jew – you simply were one or you weren’t, and by those rules, I was.
When I was nine, I was sent to Hebrew school to learn how to recognize and pronounce Hebrew letters so that I could say prayers in Hebrew rather than in English, and how to sing certain prayers. I was not required to know what the individual Hebrew words meant; I was just required to say the words correctly, at the proper time, in the proper order, or to sing… And I loved to sing.
We weren’t really taught what to “believe” with one exception. The first prayer we were taught to say and to sing was “Shema yisroel, adonai elohenu adonai echad – Hear, oh Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.” We were told to cover our eyes with our right hands (the left hand is not appropriate because it is used to wipe one’s behind) so that we could concentrate on that prayer. We were taught that Jews were the “chosen” people – chosen to be the first to know that there were not lots of individual gods controlling different aspects of life, but in “fact” there was only one god. We were special because we were the first to understand that. We were smarter, and when we proved we were smarter, time and time again in story after story, people didn’t like us very much and they persecuted us.
If we questioned any of the stories, the rabbi or his wife, our two teachers, told us it was a story to help us understand and learn a tradition that would help us live a righteous, honorable life. For every ridiculous rule, we were taught that there once had been a good reason long, long ago as to why someone came up with that rule and that even if it no longer made sense, it was good to follow the rule to show respect for those who came before us and suffered. For example – we were taught that the rule about not eating pork was created because once upon a time, many people who ate pork tended to get sick and die, and because Jews wanted their people to survive and thrive, it was smarter to tell people they were forbidden to eat pork. So even though it is perfectly safe to eat pork today, it is an important tradition to respect and that’s why Jews shouldn’t eat bacon. We were taught it was cruel to eat the meat of a kid in its mother’s milk, and that’s why we had to have two separate sets of dishes and never eat milk and meat at the same time; and of course, why pepperoni pizza was definitely not kosher.
We were also taught that it was extremely important never to deny that we were Jewish, because of the Holocaust. We needed to honor the memory of all those who were killed simply for being Jewish, and to remember that it didn’t really matter to the rest of the world whether we honored our traditions or not; we would still be considered Jews and that a lot of people hated us simply for existing.
The real purpose of Hebrew school, as far as I could tell, was to prepare someone for their bar mitzvah (for boys) or bas mitzvah (for girls). Bar mitzvahs were mandatory; bas mitzvahs were optional. This was my first blatant exposure to sexism. Boys sat on one side of the class and girls on the other. Boys wore kippot (the little caps, also known as yarmulkes) and tzitzis in Hebrew school, and when they were bar mitzvahed, they got a tallas and tfillin. They could lead prayers. And there had to be at least ten men for a minyin (a quorum) to make certain prayers “doable” – didn’t matter how many women were there. Girls got nothing. A girl’s only responsibility was to say the blessing over the Shabbos candles on Friday night, and that was pretty much it. (At age 9, they weren’t talking to us about our menstrual periods and mikvahs were no longer a thing, so they never mentioned that to us; I read about that particular responsibility much later.)
This bothered me enough that I spoke to the rabbi and asked him why this was; that it seemed very unfair. After all, I had a really good, strong singing voice; I knew and sang the prayers better than any of the boys in my class and would make a better leader. His answer to me was that God knew that women were smarter than men and needed no reminders to remember Him, and that men needed constant reminders, so they were given more accessories and responsibilities. I was only 10, so I politely shut up and accepted that response, because that was what you were supposed to do when an adult answered a question. It didn’t matter whether the answer made sense to you or not; if they were polite enough to have responded to you rather than telling you to shut up and go away, the polite thing to do was to accept what you were told.
By the time I was 11, I’d pretty much figured out that the only thing I really enjoyed about Hebrew school or going to temple was singing the prayers. But Jews didn’t have choirs and women weren’t cantors, so there wasn’t much motivation to continue. Plus, my grandmother died just before my brother’s bar mitzvah and most of the family’s motivation to respect the traditions died with her. The only reason my brother was bar mitzvahed was that my mother knew that he’d get a lot of money as gifts and that could mean whether or not my brother could go to college. So when my mom asked me to make a choice between whether I wanted to continue with Hebrew school and have a bat mitzvah, or skip it and have a sweet 16 instead a few years down the road, I chose to skip the bat mitzvah.
But it wasn’t until I was in my late 40s that I read something that shook me to my core: that there was no archaeological evidence that Jews had ever been slaves in Egypt, and that the story of Passover and the Exodus was totally bullshit. I don’t know why this hit me so hard, because with every telling, it’s obvious that it’s nothing but fiction, and even in Hebrew school they said that some of it was metaphor – but that was the key. Some of it. Deep down, even if I recognized that some of it had to be exaggeration, I had genuinely believed that it was based in something that was true. But it was a lie.
So I took the step that a lot of new atheists took: I started reading more. And more. And of course, the more I read, the more I realized that whether it was lots of gods or one god, the idea of deity was nonsense, and all the polite excuses in the world didn’t excuse the rules, the traditions and especially the sexism I’d been subject to all my life.
Today, I wonder what I am. I’m an atheist, definitely because I don’t believe in any gods or the supernatural. But am I also a Jew? Ask most other Jews and they’ll tell you that yes, no matter that I don’t believe in a god¾I’m still a Jew and will always be a Jew, and if I’d had a child, it would also have been a Jew. I don’t know. A good friend of mine suggested that, if any one asked, I could always accent the “ish” and honestly say that I was Jew-ish.
Cindi Hartman Lynch