Anthony Hecht is a writer and web developer living in Seattle, Washington, where he manages the IT department and runs the web site for The Stranger. He has written for pbs.org and last year he completed a cross-country web-diary at travelinvan.com. He blogs constantly at slapnose.com.
Half Holy, Wholly Half
Anthony Hecht's "Half Holy, Wholly Half" is excerpted from Half/Life: Jew-ish Tales from Interfaith Homes. Edited by Laurel Snyder. Brooklyn, N.Y. Soft Skull Press, 2006. 185 pp.
Half. I never really considered what it meant to be half, although now that I am considering it, I'm all halves. I'm half-Jewish, half-Catholic, half-American, half-French. I'm often half-asleep. I'm half computer geek, half artist. I tend to do a half-assed job at both. Half the time, I have half a mind to be doing something else.
Is it possible that my halfness comes from being born all halves? Did growing up half-Jewish in a halfway real city with half Jewish and half Gentile friends set me up for a lifetime of halves?
In the first place, although I'm technically half-Jewish and half-Catholic, I'd have to say the real breakdown is more like 85% Jewish, 15% Catholic. And that's being somewhat generous to my Catholic/French side. Sorry, Mom.
While I would conservatively estimate my Jewish percentage to be around 85, it must be understood that this Jewish-ness is not really very Jewish at all. The Jewish we're talking about here is ultra-Reform Judaism, which amounts to basically, "Enh, sure, we're Jewish, but let's not get all CRAZY about it."
Sure, we said the prayers on Friday night, but the lighting of the candles was as likely to be followed by a nice pork roast as anything else. (If you were a certain type of person, you might say this branch of Judaism put the '-ish' in 'Jewish.' I'm not the type to say it, but you might be.) We drove to the country club on Saturday, marveling at the Orthodox Jews wearing black wool coats and hats in Baltimore's oppressive July. We threw up our hands along with the gentiles at the habit the Orthodox have of walking in the middle of the street with their many children, blocking traffic in both directions. (It's not just that they don't drive on Saturdays, it's as if for one day a week the automobile had never been invented.)
The Catholicism I was exposed to, on the other hand, was all dark, musty, stone churches in little villages in France, where we'd sit through weddings that lasted for five hours. Nothing was air-conditioned. And, of course, the whole thing was in French. My brother and sister and I would nearly go mad from the heat and boredom. When I see pictures from those weddings, my eyes are invariably drawn away from the beautiful bride to the miserable little polyester-clad American children, who quite clearly would like nothing more than to be at the pool in Baltimore, with the Jews, eating BLTs.
My grandparents' house in France had particularly gruesome crucifixes above every bed, and as a child this was profoundly creepy to me. I didn't know anything about Jesus, but it sure seemed scary and weird to have images of a guy who had been tortured to death hanging around my head when I was trying to sleep. The Jewish side of the family didn't have that. Synagogue was almost as boring as church, but at least nobody ever talked to me about sins or death or going to hell. They just told stories about how rough Jews had had it for ever and ever and how we'd been treated like shit by just about everybody, always, and then we'd go swimming and eat ice cream.
I never felt the religion of the Judaism of my childhood, I never believed in any of it or took it very seriously and I didn't think anyone else did either. Being Jewish was more like belonging to a social club than it was like a religion, and besides, none of it made any sense anyway, how could they believe it? What about all the contradictions? I don't just mean, "Why do bad things happen to good people" but what about the dinosaurs? Fossils? A flood that covered the entire earth? 40 days and 40 nights in the desert with nothing but flat bread? If this god did exist, he seemed like kind of a jerk.
What about all the people we knew who followed different religions or who were more observant than we were? Were they evil, or just stupid? Had they been damned by an accident of birth, or had we?
If the Orthodox Jews are following god's commands more strictly than the other Jews, what are we to conclude from that? Does god like them more? Do they just get first dibs on the buffet in heaven, or are they the only ones who get to go? And what about Mom? She's not even Jewish at all. What's the status of her immortal soul? And from her perspective, we're all doomed as doomed can be, too. If anyone really believed this stuff, how could they get married and start a family together? I've never heard a reasonable answer to these kinds of questions, and more to the point, nobody seems to want to talk about it, as if it's really not all that important. If they really believe this stuff, what could be more important?
The typical pluralist answer is that religious belief is personal and the whole thing is not to be taken so literally. I find this line of reasoning terribly problematic. Not to be taken literally? Isn't it supposed to be the "Word of God"? What's to be taken more literally than that? The belief systems of most major religions specifically describe what is good and what is bad and they're generally incompatible with each other. I've always felt that if one wants to be religious, fundamentalism is the only logical choice, and we all know where that leads.
It's not that I've never felt something "bigger than myself" or had an experience that I couldn't explain; it's just that I've never been tempted to place these experiences inside any kind of structure. I find each explanation for the unexplained to be as arbitrary and unconvincing as the next. I don't understand string theory, but that doesn't mean it's supernatural, it just means I'm an idiot.
For thousands of years, people believed that the stars were gods or tiny pinholes in the fabric of our night umbrella. Those were good explanations at the time and are still good explanations for some very isolated people today, but we don't tend to consider those people to be more holy than us, just less informed. As our reason sorted out explanations, these phenomena went from the godly to the mundane.
So I've come to suspect that in my family, religion isn't about god. I don't even think that anyone I'm related to really believes in god. Not the god in the stories, not the literal, conscious, thoughtful, human-like god. In my family, religion is all about and only about culture. We're Jewish or Catholic, most of us, not because of our faith but because of our parents, and their parents before them, and their parents before them. It's tradition. This doesn't explain the family's Scientology offshoot, which is about a certain kind of faith--namely, the faith in tiny aliens from beyond the moon living in our blood controlling our thoughts--but there are exceptions to every rule.
I know that my religious heritage is important to some people. My father, for example, calls me on the Jewish high holidays and ask me if I'm observing. "Did you go to temple today?" he'll ask. "Are you fasting for Yom Kippur?"
The answer is always the same. "No, why would I do that?" He doesn't usually have an answer for this. But from his perspective, I would go to temple to honor my family, my father, and my heritage. I would go to stay connected with my past and to do my part to continue the traditions that his people have passed down for like millions of years.
This is an example of religion's most important contribution to our lives: guilt.
From my perspective, I don't have to participate in the rituals of this collective (or the other) in order to be connected to my family or to be respectful of my heritage. I understand the history, I just don't buy the myths. There are valuable lessons to be learned from religious teachings, but I strongly believe these lessons can be learned by simply being alive and trusting in our reason and humanity.
Though they're equally known for the application of guilt, if often guilt of a different sort, I never felt any pressure from the Catholic side of my family. This may be because the only member of that family that I have any regular interaction with is my mother, and she was having enough trouble reminding us that we were half French to try to take on the Catholicism too. It may also be because she is even less strictly Catholic than my father's side is strictly Jewish. Midnight mass on Christmas Eve was the only time I ever heard mention of attending church, and we were never even really encouraged to come along. Christmas Day was an opportunity to throw a party for all of our Jewish friends and for my mother to practice her true religion, cooking. You could be excused for thinking my mother was Jewish, actually, when she offered to make you something to eat. If you accepted, you'd be sure to get a full meal. If you refused, you'd get a full meal, too. If you insisted you really weren't hungry, you'd probably get a sandwich.
Growing up half Jewish and half Catholic is not something I've ever considered to be a crucial part of who I am. Culturally, I was raised almost entirely Jewish and religiously I was raised almost entirely Jew-ish, but I came out entirely nothing. I was allowed to quit all forms of religious instruction after I had my Bar Mitzvah, and I did exactly that the very next day. When I have children, I have no plans to raise them as Jews particularly, or as anything else. I will certainly teach them about the history of our family, both sides, and that will probably include the religious history, but I have no plans to teach it as faith or as an obligation. It's more a curiosity.
If both my parents had the same religion, would I be more likely to have followed along? Did seeing that not everyone was one religion or another teach me that I didn't have to be any religion at all? Surely if both my parents had been strictly and equally religious, I would be less likely to have left the fold, but that would have had more to do with the strictness than the similarity of their religion. I was raised without absolutes or strict dogma. I was raised to believe in myself and my intellect, and that is what is truly responsible for my heathenism.
Many may say that having no faith makes me less than whole, half a person. They may condemn my parents for failing to instill a strong religious belief in their children, thus damning us to some wretched, brimstone-filled fate. The opposite is true. My parents taught me flexibility and openness. They taught me that no one explanation is the correct one and that there is always more to learn. They taught me that morality cannot be reduced to a simple set of black and white rules. They gave me the confidence to seek out my own truth and to find my own path. They showed me that I am whole, and can only, always be whole.
And I thank them.