It’s Complicated


He was a sweet kid, around 20, I’d say, dark skinned and
slightly plump and cheerful.  He was the
resident “Jack of All Trades” at the Newark Crowne Plaza Hotel, one morning, mopping
the floors, another, serving breakfast, and when we couldn’t get the sound to
work on our slide projector, he figured out the problem.  He had become my right hand during my
company’s annual conference.

“Where do you live?” I ask during a quiet moment between

“In Elizabeth,” he responds.  “We’ve only been here a year.  We came from Egypt.  But we’re Jewish,” he adds, as an

“I’m Jewish too!” I squeal, grabbing his hand, ecstatic that
I have something so concrete in common with this delightful young man. 

For a moment, I’m surprised at my own enthusiasm at our commonality. I don’t belong to a synagogue. I have no intention of signing up my
children for Hebrew school. My youngest child isn’t even “officially Jewish,”
as I neglected to hold her naming ceremony. My relationship with Judaism is
complicated.  I grew up in a strict,
conservative Jewish household, had seven years of formal religious education,
and then thirty years ago,  I walked off
the dais after giving my Bat Mitzvah Haftorah reading and never looked
back.  The reasons for this are
complex and varied, but the end result is that a connectedness is just not there. 

I don’t dislike Judaism. 
It’s a beautiful religion, yet I tired of going through the motions for
something that never felt quite right.  Yes, I have faith, yes, I believe in God, and
I have a moral and ethical code by which I live.  But my faith doesn’t fit neatly into a
package with a label. 

When I was faced with decisions about my children’s
religious education, I had to take a long, hard look at the “why’s,” of sending
them to Hebrew school.  I came up
empty.   How could I make them go through
years of religious education and Bar Mitzvah training for something that I have
never fully and easily embraced?

Yet, my lack of religious observation or continual study of
the Torah doesn’t change where I come from. 
 I have grown to realize that
being an observant Jew and having a Jewish heritage are mutually exclusive. There
are the traditions I follow, the holiday dinners I host at my house, the
Chanukah candles and preparation of homemade potato pancakes.  There are the memories connected to these
traditions that I will always hold close to my heart, my grandfather crooning
out “Dayenu” at the Passover seder, childhood Purim carnivals (which are like a
second Halloween), the excitement of winning a Dreidel game.   

No matter what God I pray to, my heritage is steeply rooted.
 I will always stand up as a Jew.  And I will ALWAYS stand up to the haters,
because there are many.  Ann Coulter
hates me. The Klan hate me.  People in my
own town hate me and don’t even know it. Being part of a minority
religion yet not “looking” different from other people lends to unexpected awkward
moments. Do you know the remarks people have made to me about Jewish people –
assuming I wasn’t?

No matter what God I pray to, my blood is 100% Jewish, or at
least it would have been to Hitler. In a different time and place, I would have
died in a camp.  In a different time and
place, I could have been beaten, like my uncle, by an anti-Semitic schoolmate.  As a matter of fact, that still goes on all
the time.  I’ve just been lucky.

I will fight scrappy for the Jews because no matter what God
I pray to, they’re still my people.  But
I’ll also fight scrappy for Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Jains and

Because they’re my people, too.  

Mala beads

Once you take off the robes and the yarmulkes and the
crosses and the mala beads, we’re pretty much a people who all want the same

Who are taking different doors to get to the same room.

It’s a small room, people, so maybe it’s time to learn to love
your neighbor.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
whose tireless mission opened doors to many rooms for all of us.



Where else to find me: 

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It’s Complicated — 39 Comments

  1. Beautifully written. And, I totally agree with your views on this. As long as there is a core belief in something bigger than ourselves, the world is a better place for it. To me, formal religious training is only to teach our kids a core belief system. Once we all believe in something bigger than us, I see no reason to have to traipse to any religious institution on a weekly basis to reiterate and regurgitate the same prayers and chants that were written thousands of years ago by people of that time. I have to wonder if God gets tired of hearing the same words over and over again, especially when they are said with little feeling or understanding of what those words were originally meant to portray. A personal connection with God and with friends and family, to me, are much more important in the grand scheme of life. I know many people who are great all around people who don’t go to church or synagogue or whatever. Just as I know of people who DO go to religious institutions “religiously” that in my opinion are a poor excuse for humanity!
    Live well, Love lots!
    Love you my friend! 🙂

  2. Well said and beautifully expressed. Religion is a funny thing to try and pin down especially when you’re not attuned to it the way some people are. I was raised Catholic, and so I get the whole ritualism of a ceremony, often finding myself reciting prayers by rote, even now after years of not going to mass. It becomes intrinsic whether we like it or not. I question my own spirituality and it’s also something I avoid talking about on my blog, but I love your statement that no matter how far you may have strayed from the ritual observance, you’re bonded to the emotional experiences of religion. I think that’s something we can all relate to. 🙂

  3. What a beautiful..heartfelt post. And – being Jewish myself – I’ve gone thru much of the same questioning. No matter what – it’s very rooted within me. We are all the same. It’s so very very true!

  4. This makes it to my favorites of your blog! I love that we are all trying to get to that same room and as small as it is, there is room enough for all of us. What a beautiful tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. and to remind all of us to be respectful of each other in the name of one love!

  5. Beautifully said. Hate is an ugly thing, usually based on a lack of understanding or fear. I’m sorry for the hate those close to you have experienced as well as any hate you have experienced. You’re absolutely right. We all belong to each other; we should learn to get along. Thank you for these beautiful thoughts on this important day.
    Stopping by from SITS.

  6. This is beautifully written my friend…
    This is what touched me most: “…we’re pretty much a people who all want the same thing. Who are taking different doors to get to the same room. It’s a small room, people, so maybe it’s time to learn to love your neighbor.”
    I’m not Jewish, I’m Catholic. (Most of my readers & friends don’t know this about me.) We ARE taking different doors to get to the same room…and despite how absolutely humongous this universe of ours is, this room you speak of is not. I would never ever NOT love someone because of his or her religion. I love everyone of my friends (you included!) and family members for how unique they are, and religion is just one teensy weensy (yet very large) part of who you all are.

  7. Awesome job on this, Ilene, and well-timed.
    I believe all of us have a personal religion, even the most devout to a church. We have different convictions and priorities from the church we attend. But you’re right, we’re all headed for the same room, aren’t we?
    I love what Abe Lincoln said about his religion. When I do good, I feel good. When I do bad, I feel bad. THAT is my religion.

  8. I love you too, my friend! And I appreciate your comment. There is a lot of wisdom in it. Core beliefs and core values are so important and I 100% agree that a church or synagogue can be great places to learn these – and I also agree that there are a lot of “religious” people who don’t have their values straight – and yes, connections to friends, God, family – the most important. So grateful that you are in that circle for me. xo

  9. Thank you so much for your kind words, Maribel. My relationship with religion is so very ambivalent. This post actually helped me articulate some of it for myself – believe it or not! The emotional bonds that I have with my experiences will always be with me – even if I never go to a formal religious service again.

  10. Melissa, you nailed it when you said that religion is both a teensy weensy and large part of who we are (at the same time!). I have never discussed religion on the blog before, but today, for MLK it just felt right and also I think there are a lot of people who life me, have ambivalence about the religion they grew up with. Part of how I have reconciled that is by realizing that we really are all one people with very similar beliefs expressed in slightly different ways. Thank you as always for being so supportive!

  11. Judged not [by anything obvious] … but by the content of our character.
    We’re UU, because we feel that there are some common principles we can agree on, with other people, even if they arrive at their truths by different means … and that’s how we want to raise our children. We talked a lot this past Sunday about humanity. What connects us, regardless of our differences. The basic things that become self-evident when you sit across the table from someone else, and look into their eyes.
    Love this post. It’s complicated. But that’s what makes it beautiful.

  12. I was raised Episcopalian, though my dad was Jewish. He used to go to church with us and stand outside to wait for us to be finished. I always wondered why he wasn’t adamant about having us “be” Jewish; we figured he just let mom make that decision. Turned out, when he was a boy during the depression, his family was so poor, they didn’t have the money to go to Synagogue. He said that in those days, people would bring money to the steps to be let in.
    Organized religion is a funny thing, because in some ways it’s not just about faith. Money is a huge part of it, too.
    I’m with you, be kind to your neighbor and do good, so that you feel good. For me, yoga has become my religion. At the end of practice when I’m guided to hold my hands at my third eye to think good thoughts…and to the mouth to speak kind words….. and then through namaste…gratefulness. All of that sustains me more than a morning in church ever did.

  13. What a beautiful post, Ilene. And so perfect for MLK Jr day. I was raised Catholic, yet I don’t really identify with the faith. I think religion is a very personal experience that is different to each individual. I will never understand the hate that comes from religion. I’m pretty sure whatever god we pray to would probably frown upon hate.

  14. I loved, loved, loved this post. Love thy neighbor is definitely what it’s all about and if there’s a group being discriminated against because of their religion then “fighting scrappy” is what a good neighbor does. I’m so sharing this!

  15. So love this post Ilene. So perfectly written. We are pretty much all people who want the same thing. I was raised Catholic but went to the local JCC for preschool because it was the best school in the area. From there, I went directly to Catholic school until 3rd grade. I was never confirmed and I stopped going to church long before that. My husband and I were married in a Catholic ceremony, mostly for our parents. I’ve been conflicted about religious education for our kids. I’d feel like a hypocrite if we sent them to Catholic school or Sunday school because I don’t believe in it. But I do believe in something and I want my kids to believe in something bigger too. And it’s that something bigger that connects us all, right?

  16. I 100% agree that it is that “something bigger” that connects us but I too am struggling on how to present that to my kids. Sometimes I wish I had more passion for organized religion – It would make things easier, right? Although hopefully I can find that happy medium that works for all and gives my children what they need to be raised with faith.

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