explore the in-between
I’ve probably been to more bar mitzvahs than you. Having grown up in the heavily Jewish suburbs of northern Chicago, my seventh grade weekends almost always consisted of two, three, or even four services and parties to attend. Indeed, if you’ve ever stayed in a hotel in the Chicago area on a Saturday night, the odds are high that downstairs in the ballroom, a bunch of pubescent middle schoolers are dancing their asses off to LMFAO’s “Shots” (or any song involving pretend inebriation) while adults monitor for grinding. Repeat this tradition for fifty-two weeks, and you have yourself a bar mitzvah season.
What did I gain from my frequent attendance? I have a whole shelf in my closet back home devoted to the themed sweatpants given out at each celebration. I’ve eaten more mozzarella sticks and pigs in a blanket than one could ever dream of. But I never had a bat mitzvah of my own, so I attended these events purely for fun, without fully identifying with the occasion’s religious magnitude. I’ve never read from the Torah to become a woman in the Jewish faith, but also, much to the chagrin of my devout Greek Orthodox grandfather, I’ve never been baptized. In short, my religious identity is the equivalent of shaking a Magic 8 Ball and getting “Reply hazy, ask again later.”
If I had to blame anyone for this ambiguity, it would be my parents. My father, Jewish by blood, fled Romania as a child with his parents. As Communism in eastern Europe had stamped out religion pretty successfully, my dad assimilated into his new Philadelphia suburb’s predominantly Italian Catholic community with ease, and didn’t encounter life among practicing Jews until he went to college at – you guessed it – Penn. Still, he never reclaimed the religion as his own.
My mother, however, had Christianity forced on her as a child, attending Catholic school despite being Greek Orthodox (‘the next best thing,’ according to her father) and was routinely told what to believe. So when these two crazy kids decided to start a family, they were lost as to how to raise me and my sister religiously. Naturally, we started attending Unitarian Universalist services every Sunday, carrying this on from kindergarten to sixth grade. (Legend has it that my dad picked UU because its followers statistically get the highest SAT scores, but he claims it’s just because UU had an open mindset with no oppressive teachings. Still, I can’t help but wonder…)
To clarify, Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religion that encourages members to seek out their own spiritual growth as part of a community characterized by intellectual freedom and inclusive love. In fairness, though, this information comes more from UU’s Wikipedia page than my own memory. Services would go like this: we’d enter the community center multi-purpose room and engage in some light mingling before listening to a short introductory speech, then participate in a full church sing-a-long to a suspiciously religious-sounding hymn. After, the children would be ushered upstairs where a different parent would teach a lesson each week, each clearly tailored to their own beliefs and with zero formal training in religious education whatsoever. Though I have no recollection of the lesson material, I do remember once telling a parent who was Swedish how much I loved her country’s fish. She didn’t understand.
After an hour, the kids would run back downstairs, where the adult services (a longer speech on some nonreligious topic; if my memory serves me well, they were all about outer space) were finishing, and the congregation would then engage in more mingling over assorted desserts before we bid them adieu. For seven years we repeated this tradition until finally my sister and I wore my parents down with complaints (ex. “I’d learn more by reading Jesus’s Wikipedia page”) and thus didn’t have to be part of UU anymore. But seeing as the next year we were inundated with our Jewish peers’ coming of age, I suppose it was by default that I began considering myself Jewish, too.
I’ve never felt secure in this identity, however. In high school, I was the only non-practicing Jew or Catholic in my advisory, a divide mentioned often. During Brown’s orientation, I went to a Hillel barbecue and met three of my closest friends, who recite the Jewish mourner’s prayer whenever I make a bad joke, but I still feel out of place when they mention any terms or traditions from Hebrew school. After discovering that two of my best friends at Brown were both Catholic, I urged them to discuss their shared faith; instead, whenever we’re all together they mock me for my enthusiasm, saying “Go with God” to each other in jest. When it comes to religion, I feel like an elderly person learning about technology; I can discuss it, but it’s clear I have little experience and no authority.
Recognizing my limited knowledge base, I called four people for input on this essay. My friends Mike and Michael both told me about church and temple, respectively; my dad told me how despite his family being Jewish, the last person to be bar mitzvahed was his great-grandfather; my mom told me how she tried to fit in with the popular girls at Catholic school by praying with them at lunch. Clearly my parents have survived without definitive religious identities, so I guess it’s not the worst thing in the world to accept my lack of a traditional religious upbringing and allow every part of my background to coexist, to crack red eggs on Greek Easter and fast for Yom Kippur and humor my Danish grandmother by eating the ceremonial Christmas Eve rice pudding (check it out, it’s a real tradition). I now realize that my quest to find my religious identity is perhaps the most Unitarian Universalist thing I’ve ever done, in regards to UU’s promotion of spiritual growth. In this sense, if I ever wanted to spice things up, I guess I have a pretty good excuse to visit the neighborhood Church of Scientology and ask them to give me their best shot at indoctrination. Hey, if Tom Cruise can do it, why can’t I?