If I had to claim a religious identity, I’d probably say this: I’m an atheist Jew. You might be wondering how that’s possible.
I grew up in a northern suburb outside Chicago to (mostly associative) Jewish parents with atheist tendencies. Even though I had a bat mitzvah (like the majority of my town), a strong connection to faith wasn’t so much the reason as was the recognition of the transition into Jewish adulthood. Yes, a bat mitzvah (or "bar mitzvah" if you’re a guy) is the Jewish equivalent of a quinceañera. I had a party with family and friends, wore an obnoxiously pink dress, and danced gracelessly to Fall Out Boy for the entirety of the night. Even though I occasionally attended Sunday school (my parents’ half-assed attempt at submerging me in Judaism), I never directly tied my Jewish identity to the religion itself. Instead, my claiming of Jewishness came from a desire to preserve what my ancestors had fought so hard to maintain, through suffering years of persecution and by surviving the Holocaust.
Like presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, my Jewishness comes not only from heritage but also from culture — an undeniable connection with other people who share the label. No, I don’t attend temple and my best attempt at a consistent religious practice is a weekly routine of watching Broad City. I’m mostly just a matzo ball soup lover with an affinity for rugelach and my grandmother’s brisket. Even so, my Jewish identity still remains a crucial part of who I am. In terms of faith, I really don’t know what to believe and, quite honestly, I’m content with not tying myself down to anything in particular. For me, faith has always been synonymous with love.
So when it came to dating, religious affiliation had never even crossed my mind as a factor to consider. I had either only been with people who identified similarly, or who identified as nothing at all. And with an increasing number of millennials considering themselves atheists, it’s not surprising to find that a strong commitment to faith is now a rarity. At my liberal-arts school in Southern California (formerly affiliated with a church), there’s a wide mix of what faith means, ranging from people who feel music is the closest thing to God and people who can’t go a day without thanking their deity on social media, all valid in their own definitions.
When I met my now-boyfriend, our connection was anything but superficial. For the first time, someone was more interested in my love for poetry than what kind of alcohol I like to binge drink on weekends. We took the time to learn the parts of each other that most people wouldn’t normally appreciate. He openly told me about his faith in Christianity, as my knowledge of the topic was lacking. And as our relationship progressed, we undoubtedly had some challenges that have resulted from the obvious differences in our spiritual beliefs.
When we’ve talked about our long-term fate, we’ve argued about the reality of our future together. Questions like, “How would you raise your kids? Would they attend religious-education classes? How do you teach your children to be good without the basis of religious morality?” Even though we’re still young, these are still important questions — ones I hadn’t previously contemplated. My answer is always the same: I’m not really sure. We’ve had tensions arise from these issues more than once. He’s openly admitted, with a sense of concern, that my confident rejection of certain ideas has caused him to question his own. His blatantly stating how he has always wanted to end up with someone of his own religious beliefs has at times left me feeling disappointed and upset. Why should my faith or lack of it have anything to do with how we love? And why does it even matter at all?
Oftentimes, our pillow talk will turn into a debate about whether or not the devil is real. (“So what exactly does the devil do?” I’ll ask, half-serious.) On occasion I’ll interrupt a kiss to ask if he thinks I’m going to hell or not. Sometimes he’ll laugh and tell me I’m ridiculous. Most of the time, we end up having some of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had with anyone about these topics. And even though it’s been difficult at times (my words can come off as condescending in tone), I like to say that it’s our difference in belief that makes us so incredible, that the contrast between what we know and what we’ve learned from being with each other is what makes our relationship so dynamic.
What I love most is his willingness to learn more, how he listens intently and shows genuine interest when I talk about what I’ve learned that day in my History of Judaism lecture. His dedication to expanding his perspective is exactly what makes me want to do the same. And if I know one thing for sure, it’s that I had never before taken the time to think about and discuss religion on such a deep level. Before we met, I hadn’t really thought about it at all. But being with and in love with someone so different is a privilege I’m more than thankful for. Some might even call it a blessing.
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