If there’s any label that seems to fit me right now, it’s “Jew-ish skeptic” (obviously I made that up), though my “public label” is still “Christian by faith, Jew by heritage.” My father’s death last year brought up a whole series of questions I never let myself truly consider before (starting with hell, which snowballed to questioning God’s goodness, which only lead to more questions…). That was a twist in the journey that I never expected, and it’s been extremely stressful, to say the least. It’s exhausting to try to reconcile the good parts of Christianity that attracted me in the first place (the incarnation, ultimate redemption) with the not-so-good: eternal conscious torment (which I realize isn’t the only interpretation of hell out there, but it sure is a popular one). The division among Christians is more obvious to me now than ever before. Despite how great Jesus is, it’s other Christians that tempt me to run away, which makes me miss the wealth of diversity in thought that exists in Judaism.
But my theology has always skewed more toward Christian, even before I started using the Christian label. I finally decided to be honest with myself that my ideas of God and beliefs about humanity really weren’t Jewish. But the cultural pull of Judaism is still there, and still strong – I think Jewish culture says more about me than Christian culture ever did. I still go to church with my husband, but I also started going to Shabbat services at the Jewish Student Center on campus. I missed it. I miss having Jewish friends. And some part of me hopes that maybe going there will clarify some things for me, but I’m not sure what, exactly.
Well, maybe I’m a little bit sure. It’s a way for me to maintain a relationship with the history that brought me here, which is something I can’t easily forget. But the odds were stacked against me in my childhood: for every synagogue within reasonable driving distance in my hometown, there were a dozen more churches. And those churches, not so much synagogues, had youth-oriented programs that taught about God, which was all I was ever looking for. It makes perfect sense considering I was one of seven Jewish kids in a class of four hundred that I turned to the church for spiritual mentors and guidance, because that’s all that was available to me. And I’m one of hundreds, if not thousands of other American Jews facing the exact same conundrum. Jewish education is gasping for breath while Christianity continues to thrive, no matter what the fundamentalists say.
So how are Jews supposed to maintain a Jewish identity in a heavily Christianized culture? I’m probably the last person to answer that question, but my understanding of a “Jewish identity” is that it is an elastic one; there are so many diverse ways of nurturing it, and for me, I celebrate it in two ways: I continue reading my Jewish books, and I invest in friendships with other Jews.
The church may be my spiritual family, but there is something to be said about the bonds of a community that is bound not just in belief, but by blood. The Jewish culture is more than a group of people who enjoy matzo ball soup and gefilte fish, make awesome movies, use Yiddish slang, and kvetch about…well, everything. We are also bound by a common history of suffering, and it is truly miraculous by any standard that we are still here. That is a common ground where we all – orthodox, reform, agnostic or atheist Jews alike – can meet. My beliefs are very likely to keep changing as I get older, but I will never cease to be proud of where I came from.