This is What it Means to be Jewish

Matt Peiken

Matt Peiken

I wore a reversible suit to my Bar-Mitzvah (don’t ask!), but I see it now as a metaphor for my relationship to faith.

Had our family remained in Brooklyn rather than emigrated, when I was young, to the Lettuce Capital of the World, I’m not sure my Judaism would look much different than it does now. I’m an atheist whose Jewish observance begins and ends largely with “Seinfeld” reruns.

The soft, academic term for that is “secular Judaism,” and it allows Jews like me to be Jew-ish, as if it’s a character trait, and wear the faith on our own terms. I say faith because there’s one core belief all Jews hold: Jesus was just a dude. (And no, Jews for Jesus aren’t Jews). From there, it’s really open season.

Some years, the High Holy Days—the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah and, on the heels of that, the Day of Atonement known as Yom Kippur—pass without my notice, and even when I can see the pitch coming from a week away, I never swing. I don’t fast. I don’t attend services. I don’t ask godly forgiveness or absolve others for the previous year of misdeeds. For one, I don’t await dates on the calendar to pull arrows from my back, and self-atonement takes a lot more time, reflection and work than I can squeeze into a holiday.

The Judaism I learned in Sunday school seemed so stuck in the Dark Ages, and it wasn’t until a few years ago I found what contemporary, progressive Judaism looks like. I had entre to a synagogue and congregation that holds social justice as a central calling—investing voices, expertise and resources to everything from banking and fair housing to marriage equality and a two-state solution in Israel. I attended strategy sessions and workshops, lectures and policy debates, did some phone-banking and door-knocking. Nothing I’d associated with religion—worship, sin, God’s word—ever came up. This was nothing like the Judaism of my youth.

I remember asking one of the rabbis what all this had to do with Judaism, and he looked at me, smiled, put a hand on my shoulder and said, “This IS Judaism.” I began attending services, intermittently, for the first time since my Bar-Mitzvah. His sermons compelled me to think not of being a better Jew unto a God I didn’t believe in, but becoming a more enlightened, engaged person and participant in my community and world.

Shortly after I moved to Cincinnati, nearly three months ago, I heard about Congregation Beth Adam, a 33-year-old Cincinnati strand, which defines its worldview as “humanistic Judaism.” To that point, I’d only known of three grades of Judaism: reform (unleaded), conservative (diesel) and orthodox (pre-pay only). I haven’t visited Beth Adam yet, but I’m intrigued by two of its core tenets:

“We value community engagement and social justice that is responsive to the ever-changing world.”

“Our liturgy is created by and is written for individuals who do not presume a God who intervenes or manipulates the affairs of this world.”

This is relevant spirituality—it places all faith in our own hands, in ourselves.

Yom Kippur this year is Sept. 14 and, just like every other High Holy Days, I won’t fast or pray. I was considering a service at Beth Adam until I learned it also includes yoga (“plan to be barefoot.”). But more important, at midlife, I’ve found I can relate to Judaism beyond Woody Allen, Seinfeld and Sarah Silverman.

The values and ideals I hold, as it turns out, are baked into Judaism. I don’t need a Day of Atonement to forgive myself for nearly a half-century of distance from the faith. I would, however, love to find that reversible suit. I hear cocoa plaid is in style again.

2 thoughts on “This is What it Means to be Jewish

  1. Hi, Friend!
    I stumbled upon your blog from a reblog. Great post! I think too many religious leaders (regardless of their religion) tend to get so wrapped in keeping traditions exactly the way they’ve practiced them, that they neglect the importance of how faith fits in context with contemporary society. They tend to ignore the essence of what faith is and focus too much on the details. Beth Adam sounds pretty cool as does your cocoa plaid reversible suit. Hope you find what you’re searching for.


  2. Pingback: Repost: “This Is What it Means to be Jewish” | The Cynic Testifies

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