Q: Growing up, I referred to myself as “half-Jewish.” While my parents both have Judaism in their backgrounds – one was raised by two Jewish parents, the other’s father was Jewish – neither are particularly religious. One of my moms got involved in a Unitarian Universalist (UU) church, and then got me involved in its youth program as a teenager. At this point, I suppose I identify as an “atheist U-Jew,” but I’m really not knowledgeable about or involved in any faith. I celebrate both Christmas and Passover in a very secular way with my family. I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah, I never went to Hebrew school, and I don’t know very much about Judaism. It wasn’t until a few of my college friends came to my family and family friends’ seder last spring that I realized just how untraditional our seder and haggadahs are, and that I really have no idea what a normal seder is like.
Yet somehow, Judaism is still an important part of my identity. Its core values and focus on social justice are very important to me. I want to find a way to incorporate my Jewish identity into my life in a more secular way – but my problem is that I don’t have the kind of knowledge that my Jewish friends learned by growing up in Jewish households, going to temple and Hebrew school, becoming Bar Mitzvahs, even just by regularly celebrating the high holidays.
How can I learn about the concepts and values of Judaism that might be important to me? How can I connect to Judaism in my life, as an atheist who doesn’t have a background of Jewish knowledge? How can I “catch up” when I haven’t had the same education or experiences as others in the community? And how can my friends and I feel connected to the community when we feel like we can’t participate with a lot of its members?
A: Curiosity is a wonderful thing – good for you for wanting to learn! Fortunately, there are both secular and religious ways of learning about Judaism and the Jewish people, from the purely social to the more academic. You can even multitask by watching videos with Jewish content and discuss them with more knowledgeable friends, or spend time online searching the many wonderful Jewish resources. InterfaithFamily.com is just one resource where you will find others grappling with similar questions. I’ll bet your college library can recommend a terrific Introduction to Judaism book – there are many, one to fit every taste.
Because you, like many of your contemporaries, feel quite comfortable with your atheist beliefs, if you can squeeze it into your schedule, you could take a course on Jewish history or literature.
Another approach you could take is to go to the Hillel director and explain your discomfort, either alone or with friends who are also curious. The rabbi may suggest you just participate in what already exists, and because you have found that somewhat alienating, you might find that answer unsatisfactory. On the other hand, the rabbi may engage you and your friends in a conversation about what would make you feel more welcome. Perhaps, for example, the Hillel could buy prayer books such as Siddur Eit Ratzon, which not only have the prayers in Hebrew, English, and transliteration, but also have alternative readings, explanations, and choreographic cues.
A third alternative is to find a knowledgeable Jewish student on campus who is open to answering some of your questions. One of the great opportunities at college is learning from other students.
The easiest way to become part of any group is to share a fun experience. Simchat Torah and Purim are holidays filled with merriment and great food. You may not be moved by the readings, but I suspect you will be by the dancing and the music. You can go regularly to Passover services – there are a variety of opportunities in every community.
And of course, ask your parents and grandparents for their memories – they will love it and you will learn about both their history and Judaism. Additionally, if you have never been to Israel, sometime before age 26 you can go on a free trip with birthright! Just begin! Knowledge is always useful.
Ruth Nemzoff, Ed.D. is an author, speaker and resident scholar at Brandeis Women’s Studies Research Center and a board member of InterfaithFamily.com.