I Don’t Have Time to Be a Jew

Lately, I’ve been wondering: Where have all the indifferent Jews like me gone?

An illustrative photo showing ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in the West Bank Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit.
Baz Ratner, Reuters

The Jewish holidays are a great opportunity to check out my place on the scale of Jewish identity. Between being nothing and being something. Well, I checked it out – and I’m still nothing. But also something. Something teeny. Totally minor. Approximating absolute zero. I am a Jew because it was fated to be so. I accept the burden. Like a beauty spot hidden in the folds of the lower back. It’s been there since I was born. What will I do with it? Have it surgically removed? That would leave a scar. It’s the same with Jewishness: a scar will always remain.

Okay, so my place is clear. But it’s like an escalator – you can stand still, but the earth moves beneath your feet.

I don’t know if there’s still a place for Jews of my type. Jews who are Jews only by dint of some historical and cultural inertia. Who live their lives happily in this place, and who do what they do because that’s how they were born and that’s how they will die, and there’s no need to make a big deal about it. They don’t feel connected to the whole big hoo-ha, to the whole against-this-and-for-that thing. They are not against or for. What’s to be for?

The Jewish religion is like all religions. No better. No worse. Simply a religion. A pretty dumb invention, all in all, but one that seems to be indispensable. There are those who feel obliged to wear socks. Even in the summer. They’re afraid to be barefoot. Understandable. There are thorns and bits of glass on the ground. It’s scary when nothing protects you. So let them wear socks. It’s not my business; I wear sandals.

And what is there to be against? We were born into all this. I don’t intend to flaunt my opposition like a flag. Because, at that level, when you’re really against something, you turn into the thing itself. Apparently, you feel that you belong, so you try to kick it as hard as you can. There’s nothing for me to kick. I’m not from the Dawkins school. I don’t know whether God exists or not. Rationally speaking, the whole subject is utterly boring.

What about a little mysticism? Magic? Uncertainty? Not everything is empirical. There’s also a possibility for superstition – and if not superstition, then tradition. Okay, maybe not tradition. Because that really is a bit of a repellent word; it recalls post-Shabbat programs on Channel 1.

An illustration showing blue stick figures tussling.
Sharon Fadida

I’ll call it the petrifying fear of Mom and Dad. The shadow they cast over you, as Zionist Jews who came to this country from the Diaspora. Still, I feel a certain commitment to them. So I do what needs to be done. The bare minimum – which is not so little, actually. Yes, I had my son circumcised. Not with any great desire. I put up a fight. Tried to refuse. But I gave in. It’s hard to hang in there in the face of furious conversations with my father. He could persuade the pope to circumcise himself.

I sacrificed my son’s organ for appearance’s sake. Okay, fine. And I imagine I’ll probably inflict other, equally bad things on him down the line. But I can promise that, as far as I’m concerned, when he becomes a father he can skip the circumcision of his son and can dress him in corduroy trousers and a bow tie with an earring halfway up his nose. I couldn’t care less.

Afraid of Arabs

I already belong to the generation that absolutely doesn’t care. I’m second generation not caring about Judaism. My parents still felt like Jews in some way. Mostly from a negative point of view: like, to be a Jew was not to be a goy, and to be a goy was to be someone who wants to kill Jews. In short, you’re a Jew only when you’re reminded that you are one. Between pogroms. Or in Israel. Because to be here in itself means taking a political stance. In the Diaspora, you’re a Jew who’s afraid of the goyim. And in Israel, you’re a Jew who’s afraid of the Arabs. And you cultivate that fear by means of ceremonies that lack true, religious meaning, of which only superficial signs remain. Judaism as clinging to what’s different. As an antagonistic position in the face of external threats.

My parents didn’t know when Yom Kippur was; they ate pork at Pesach; and my father never wore a kippa in his life. The communists did good work in terms of making them forget their forebears’ heder. They passed their indifference on to me, and the fear of religion becoming a form of enchantment.

When I was in first or second grade, I went to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah with a friend. My mother was frightened when I got home, because I looked a little too overenthusiastic. Bibles and toffees were handed out in the synagogue. They always hand out toffees, don’t they? She was afraid I’d become a datishnik, as religious folk are called in Russian-Hebrew slang. She prohibited me from going back. And I never have.

Where have the indifferent Jews gone? Jews whose identity is Jewish, because that’s how it is, although they could just as easily be something else. Assimilating Jews who want to be like the goyim, but haven’t yet gotten over the Holocaust. Who want to be part of the world, to be cosmopolitan, but whose identity is connected directly to Israel.

That’s what makes them Jews. Not God or history. Rather, what’s here and happening now, in this place: the beach, heat waves, hummus, Ben-Gurion airport. They’re immersed in that. They don’t care about promises of eternal life, or graves and temples from 2,000 years ago. They’re already here. The here defines them. They could just as easily be there. But they’re here.

These are Jews who don’t have the strength for all the mind games of the religious folk and their obsessive rituals. Secular people who are still preserving some sort of ember, though it’s not clear why. It’s not a problem for me to pass on the flickering flame and have it go out. Or for there not to be sliced foreskins or fears of pogroms – and if the pogrom should come, so be it, what can we do? Having a Bible in my jeans pocket won’t help.

But in Israel, things like that don’t happen so much. Because everyone here is either religious and obeys God and the orders he gives them (who to kill, which land to take, what to eat and who to have sex with). Or they’re formerly religious people who are settling accounts with what God did to them and are afraid he’ll take revenge on them while they’re having sex. Or they’re potentially religious folk who are already planning what God will do for them and which land he’ll give them at the expense of the Palestinians.

And there’s the fanatic atheist bunch (“Alright, we get it, there’s no God”) and mainly secular people who lack self-confidence and have suddenly discovered religion, who are “becoming stronger” and discovering the “Jewish bookshelf,” cantors, liturgists, the Babylonian Talmud, the Jewish sages and Channel 20.

What does any of that have to do with me? Not that there’s a shortage of smart Jews, but I’ve yet to read all of Balzac, haven’t listened to all the jazz albums ever recorded or all the esoteric synthpop records that came out in the 1980s. And I haven’t been to all the museums in the world, or seen all the American movies from the 1970s, haven’t even finished David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest.” So excuse me for not yet opening the Gemara. It’s a matter of temporal economics. I don’t have time to be a Jew.

On the holidays, I always remember anew that I don’t have the strength for all this Judaism. It’s oppressive, it’s cloying, it forces itself on you, and there are too many days off work. Too much time to be with the kid. Are you good Jews? Then come babysit my son.