High Holidays, New York, 2002

By Linda Arking


This Rosh Hashanah, when our family wishes each other a joyful and sweet New Year, it will be with added poignancy and pride. Our involvement with Humanistic Judaism will give my husband, who isn’t Jewish, the opportunity to participate most directly in this special time of remembrance and renewal.

First, some family history. I was born and raised as a Conservative Jew. In my twenties and thirties, when I was single, I maintained a strong sense of Jewish identity even as I grew increasingly non-observant. My husband, who was raised an Episcopalian, had long before left both his church and his faith, and was equally non-observant. When we fell in love and married, we joyfully discovered that the many bonds we shared also included the fact that we both had a secular humanistic outlook–an outlook we had each adopted independently, as adults. Robert respected my commitment to Jewish identity, and shared my feeling that Jewish heritage was something vital and precious, which should be preserved. And thus we agreed our marriage would include a celebration of Jewish heritage.

When our daughter was born, we felt a greater need for community and decided she would have a Jewish education: of course, we hoped to provide this in a way that was consistent with our secular and ethical beliefs. As an couple in an interfaith marriage, we wanted to raise her in a community that didn’t just pay lip service to our cherished values of tolerance, compassion and respect for diversity.

For me, as a wife, it was important to find a congregation where the partner who isn’t Jewish would not only be welcomed, but one where he, for his part, would also feel comfortable–in other words, where he could participate fully without any sense of having to renounce connections that remained important to him.

The philosophy behind Secular Humanistic Judaism holds that for secular households, the difference in faith is not a problem. Or, to put it differently, the difference is not between two sets of religious beliefs, but rather a difference between two cultures. Once Humanistic Judaism explained things in this context, we felt that many things fell into place, and many of our related questions were answered. Secular Humanistic Judaism, we felt, would be a natural home for our family. And in fact, for the past five years, we have found an embracing home in the larger Humanistic Jewish community and specifically, in The City Congregation for Humanistic Judaism in New York, where we live.

In the context of Humanistic Judaism, Robert’s Christian background is essentially irrelevent. As a father, Robert took an important role in helping our daughter prepare for her Bat Mitzvah, a process demanding many hours of family study and discussion. We’ve taken part in our Congregation’s study groups examining Jewish history, beliefs and culture. We gather together with fellow congregants for secular Shabbat and holiday services. And we rejoice in our Congregation’s active pursuit of ways to put into practice Judaism’s ethical commitment to social justice. The emphasis on community has brought us many hours of family closeness.

Rosh Hashanah, for our family, has always been a day of sweetness, of apples and honey, song and celebration. This year, it will be extra special, for us in particular. Like many contemporary Jews, we recognize the fall festival of Rosh Hashanah as a time of renewal, reflection, and new beginnings. Humanistic Jews see this period, in addition, as a time for self-judgment and as an affirmation of human power and human dignity. Traditionally, Yom Kippur is a day of awe, reverence and repentance. Again, Humanistic Jews have adapted this non-theistically, as a time of self-forgiveness and forgiveness of others. At The City Congregation, Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur, is celebrated as an evening of reflection through literature and music. This year, my husband will be one of two readers who will present everyone assembled, our Congregation and our guests, with an extended selection from literature chosen for its special meaningfulness and relevance.

To me, personally, it is a joy to see my husband participate so wholeheartedly, and play an important role in the service.

At the beginning of this piece, I mentioned “pride.” I meant the pride our family will feel when my husband addresses the congregation on Kol Nidre. I also mentioned the word “poignancy.” For, as we draw nearer September 11, I remember that on that morning, my husband was working in his 36th-floor office right across the street from the World Trade Center. Just twenty minutes before, he’d walked through its lobby. Thus our grief and sorrow over the tragic loss of so many precious lives mingle, for us, with a bitterly intensified awareness of our personal fortune, implied by my husband’s escape. In addition, the Marriott Financial Center Hotel, which stood adjacent to the World Trade Center and was severely damaged that day, was to be the site where, a mere week hence, our entire Congregation was to gather for the High Holiday services, 2001.

This year, we will return to the site–to a newly rebuilt and refurbished Marriott, adjacent to the horrifying pit that remains for all to see, and contemplate. Our mixed feelings will be intense. We’ll return in defiance, in sorrow, in celebration. I’m confident that our Humanistic Jewish services will help us embrace these feelings–and will then help lead us all forward, to a place of hope.

About Linda Arking

Linda Arking, during the last 20 years has written fiction and feature articles for the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker, and has written a series of articles on family and parenting issues for Family Life and Family Circle among many others. Concerned with Jewish continuity, the Arking-Avila family chose Humanistic Judaism as a way to actively participate in Jewish life, to celebrate their heritage, to educate their daughter, and to help her build a lasting connection to the Jewish world.