I walked into my friend’s classroom just the other day at about two in the afternoon and I sat down at the desk across from him with a great big sigh.
“Michael,” I stated solemnly, “I am experiencing a spiritual crisis.”
To be clear, that’s a pretty shocking expression coming from me. Spirituality has never even been close to defining the essence of who I am. I am opinionated. I am steadfastly loyal. I believe strongly that a good sense of humor is often an indication of a sharp intelligence. I am brimming with joy on the outside while I am questioning everything on the inside, but rarely is spirituality part of what I’m questioning and maybe that explains why Michael looked at me with the same shocked expression he might have worn had I just declared that I was going off the grid to train for a marathon where I had to run up mountains while shoeless.
“Why?” he asked me. He even looked up from his computer, a thing that only happens when he’s really interested or puzzled by something.
“Do you fast for Yom Kippur?” I responded, my question answering his question.
“No,” he said with a short laugh. And then, almost astonished, he asked, “Wait – do you?”
Here’s the thing: I don’t fast. I never really have. I think I might have made some half-hearted attempts to fast back in the day, but it was more to see if I could make it an afternoon without a snack (I couldn’t) and the practice never had anything to do with a real belief system. I haven’t even thought about fasting on what Jewish people consider the holiest day of the year in a long time. It may not be something I announce, but I’m honest with anyone who asks.
I remember a good friend of mine sucking down half a tube of Colgate when she was in middle school because she was hungry on Yom Kippur but she didn’t want to break and eat actual food because she thought she’d get in trouble. She got really sick, but her puke smelled like peppermint. Still, she was a girl who went to Hebrew School and had a Bat Mitzvah and so it made sense that she would attempt to fast to abide by the doctrines and customs with which she was entirely familiar. Me? I was never enrolled in a Hebrew School and I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah. My parents were Jewish and we celebrated the big holidays faithfully, in that we had dinners for Rosh Hashanah and Passover and we lit the Hanukah candles every night during those eight days. I could (and still can) sing the Hebrew prayer as I light the candles, but I don’t know the meaning of what I’m singing and I learned the words phonetically instead of actually learning Hebrew. As an adult, I have my own menorah in my own house but I don’t think I’ve broken it out even once.
Of the two, my mother was raised to be far more faithful to religion than my father. The house she grew up in was kosher and her family did things like go to temple regularly, while I don’t recall a single story of my dad’s that began, “This one time at the synagogue…” Religion continues to serve a purpose for my mother; I think it reminds her of her youth and of her family, many of whom are gone now. There’s both a peace and a sadness that sweeps across her face as she lights the candles before the Rosh Hashanah meal and I think it’s a mix of comforting nostalgia combined with the unrelenting knowledge that the thing about nostalgia is that it’s all about the past.
When a close family member dies in the Jewish faith, there is a prayer you are meant to say each day for a full year following the death. I clearly remember my mother reciting this prayer every single morning after the loss of her mother. I can’t imagine that the constant reminder of a profound loss brought her any kind of comfort, but I think what did assuage some of her gripping pain was the knowledge that my grandmother would have very much wanted my mother to say that prayer for her and so my mother did it because she was and remains a person who tries to always do the right thing. I have a very hard time even thinking about it, but I know that I will say that prayer every day for a year too at some point, and I desperately hope such a thing will not be necessary for scores of year. I’ll do it, though, for the same reason my mother did: because the person you’re saying it for would appreciate such a gesture.
I guess what I’m saying is that I always grew up with religion as part of my life, but there are major caveats to consider. I believed in Santa. I had my own glitter-painted Christmas stocking. After her divorce from my father, my mother married a man who was not Jewish and we had a Christmas tree. There were absolutely no religious items on that tree – no angels, no Jesus, not even one Wise Man – but it was still a tree covered with silver tinsel and twinkly lights in our living room. The town I grew up in had somewhat of a Jewish population, but I’d venture to say that more than eight-five percent of my friends were not Jewish. We did not belong to a temple because money was tight after the divorce, though to be fair, I don’t think we belonged to a temple prior to the dissolution of my parents’ marriage either. Religion served as something where we gathered for a few holidays and ate great food made from recipes that had been passed down for generations but it was never really more than that, at least not for me.
Then came college. Right before I entered school as a freshman, I spent the summer at a sleepaway camp where I was a counselor and I fell in what I thought would be a quick rebound kind of love but it ended up being something very real and very deep for a good long time. The guy I became smitten with was Jewish – and to this day, he is the only Jewish guy I was ever serious about. He was the kind of guy whose family belonged to a temple and his friends were pretty much all Jewish and he sort of looked at me like I was an enigma, the kind of girl who didn’t remind him much of the girls he’d grown up with despite the fact that I was of the same religion. Sure, I had long dark hair and dark eyes too but there was this physical similarity amongst all of his female friends that I didn’t have. They all wore the same clothing and their hair was the same length and each one of them wore at least one very expensive piece of jewelry at all times – even when we all went swimming – and I was more of a fun-bangle-wearing kind of girl who would rather be naked than turn up at someone’s house wearing the exact same shit as anyone else. The funny thing is, he and I went to different colleges and, though he ended up at a university with over thirty-thousand undergraduates, I realized five minutes into my first visit there that his college friends were exactly the same type as his high school friends. Many of them were very sweet girls, but they all seemed aesthetically interchangeable to me and I couldn’t help but think that what they really had in common with one another boiled down to their inherent Jewishness. It was a Jewishness that just seemed different – more pronounced – than mine would ever be.
Over at my college, there was something called a Hillel House. It was a place designed for Jewish students. I guess it was a way to foster a sense of community and those students could go to services together and I remember that my mom pointed it out to me on the tour we took of the campus and she told me that I should make sure to stop by Hillel when I arrived at college. Listen, parents will always be seen as somewhat embarrassing and awkwardly out of place when you are seventeen years old and they are tromping alongside you across the fifth college campus you’ve taken a tour of and they will undoubtedly ask the tour guide a question that will make you want to roll your eyes to the highest heavens. That said, my mother was the Dean of Students at a college. She knew what she was asking and she really knew more about college than anybody on that tour so I attempted to keep my angst-filled reactions to a minimum because the truth is that I respected her knowledge and I admired her. But when she smiled widely at the idea that I would walk to worship with these Hillel strangers, I looked her dead in the face and told her that it would not be happening, that it was not even a possibility.
“Why would I arrive at college and suddenly become religious, like it’s a superpower I’ve been concealing this entre time?” I asked her. The question came out sharply, the way it always does when I’m confronted about why I am not the kind of person I know I never will be.
“I just thought it would be nice for you to make some more Jewish friends,” she replied innocently and I immediately felt badly that I even contemplated the idea that her intentions were not pure. Still, I saw no reason to file the location of Hillel away in my mind in the same way I had already locked tightly which of the dining halls on campus served curly fries from dusk until dawn.
It turned out that my religion sort of ended playing a major role in who my first friends at college turned out to be. While at camp during the previous summer – where about 90% of the people were Jewish – my friend told me about a guy who went to her high school who was heading off to Delaware just like I was about to.
“You have to find my friend Mike,” Mandy told me. “You guys will totally get along.”
“I have a hard time believing I’m going to be able to find ‘Mike’ at a school with sixteen thousand people,” I laughingly replied.
On the very first night of school, everyone in my dorm was called down to the longue on the first floor so we could do the kind of icebreaker games I don’t even require of my high school students. I have a shitty memory and I always have. I will never remember what item Chloe is bringing on a picnic, not even if it’s Combos or chocolate, but I already had my standard line ready to go because I took one look at my way too peppy Resident Advisor’s face and just knew what was coming.
“Hi,” I said with a smile. “I’m Nell from Northport and I like Nutella.” (It was only partially true. I am from Northport – but I hate Nutella. Still, what was I going say? “I like nuts?” That kind of comment seemed dangerous to blurt out on the very first night of college because it’s simply far too dick-related an introduction.)
We went around the room and everybody said where they were all from and what snack item they liked and I know that I thought Pete, the guy who mentioned that he loved Pringles, was very cute and that he obviously had excellent taste in cuisine, but to the others I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention. It had been a heady day. I missed my boyfriend and I didn’t know how I would survive with such a small closet and one of my roommates in our triple had already cried from being homesick twice and my mind was on all of that when one of the guys waked over to me after the game was complete.
“Are you Nell from Northport?” he asked me.
“I am,” I responded.
“I’m Mike from Commack,” he told me. “I’m Mandy’s friend. She told me to look for you but I didn’t think I would ever find you!”
“I might have never located a specific ‘Mike’ on this campus, but you had a decent change of finding a ‘Nell,’” I said with a laugh and we realized then that we were not only in the same dorm, but we lived on the same floor! And when he introduced me to his roommate, I asked the guy with the smiling face where he was from.
“Livingston, New Jersey,” he answered.
“Oh!” I said with start of surprise. “I went on a teen tour with three girls from Livingston when I was fourteen!” Then I went on to name them and it turned out that one had been his prom date and another one was also at Delaware and in the dorm next door. To this day, it is the single finest experience I’ve ever had playing Jewish Geography. Those guys became my best friends at school. During freshman year, I was in their room more than my own and we took care of each other like a nice Jewish family would.
When it came time to rush a sorority – after I’d been on that campus for about three whole days – I already knew that there was one where the Jewish girls usually ended up. I walked into that sorority on the first night of Rush and I saw a sea of dark brown hair. Every single one of them looked like they would be best friends or first cousins with my boyfriend’s gaggle of female buddies and the conversations I had with the girls I spoke to flowed easily. We chatted about where we had each gone to camp and who they knew from Long Island and it all felt easy – almost too easy – and I knew on that first night that I couldn’t let myself end up there because, while very sweet and welcoming, those girls felt interchangeable to me. I decided to go with a different sorority, one whose membership included girls of all religions but it wasn’t the kind of thing spoken about all that often because they were way too busy talking about how to acquire me a fake ID.
I had to break the news to my mother that my newly paid-for sisters were not uniformly Jewish, a thing that should never have even been an issue based on how she had raised me. Her response was that she just wanted me to be in a place where I was happy and then she left me alone and never said a word about it again because my mother is awesome that way. She says what she has to say and then she keeps quiet.
I haven’t thought a whole lot about religion since those early college days when it seemed to define things in ways it never had before and never would again. The men I dated and had long relationships with were never Jewish, but they weren’t devout in their religions either and that mattered to me tremendously. I was always up for celebrating the festivity of a holiday no matter what it was – and I even learned how to make a cake shaped like a bunny’s head for Easter that’s awesome – but I have never been drawn to someone for whom religion matters all that month. Religion has never offered me comfort and it has never been my source of a solution to a problem. In my life, religion is about family getting together and eating matzo ball soup and using the china my mother picked out when she got married to my father a zillion years ago. It’s about telling stories about my grandparents who are long-gone by now. It’s about an evening of warmth and happiness where I get to leave with leftovers.
As she’s gotten older, my mother has become more religious. She and my stepfather belong to a temple now and they begin sentences sometimes with “The Rabbi said…” and I just smile and nod because it’s clear that this more pronounced exposure to religion is filling some need within them and I think it’s lovely that going to temple makes them happy. They never say that I should go and I never tell them that they shouldn’t.
But two nights ago, I called my mother to tell her I’d located some Yahrzeit candles because neither of us had been able to find them at our local supermarkets. It’s customary to light one of those candles on the eve of a deceased loved one’s birthday, anniversary of their death, and on Yom Kippur, and for all of my reluctance to embrace traditions, this is one I never ignore. There is something about lighting that wick and looking down at the small candle that will burn for twenty-four hours straight that calms me inside. In a way, the practice makes me feel like a child and a grown-up all at once. It’s a gesture of remembrance, and I take that seriously. I light only one candle for all of those I loved who are gone now – if there were separate candles for each of them, I could potentially burn my house straight to the ground with all of those flickering flames – and it makes me sad each time but it’s something I want to do.
It’s something that makes a great deal of symbolic sense to me.
My mom found her own collection of Yahrzeit candles and she didn’t require any of mine, but she did ask if I wanted to come over on Wednesday night to break the fast.
“That’s a sweet offer,” I told her, “but I don’t fast so there’s nothing for me to break.”
“You don’t?” she asked with an inflection of surprise.
Now, I have never once maintained that fasting was part of my yearly endeavors and I have most certainly told my mother in the past that I did not partake in a day of enforced starvation to illustrate my commitment to a religion I never felt all that committed to. It’s possible she was trying to make me feel guilty by asking (though, to her credit, making me feel guilty is really not her style – and for that, I thank her and not Moses) or she somehow convinced herself that I fasted because it’s something she’d like to believe is true.
“Why don’t you fast?” she questioned. She sounded interested and just a tiny bit judgmental.
“Well,” I began, “there are a few reasons. First, fasting is really unpleasant. Second, I have never identified all that much with my religion so engaging in it like that feels off to me. I light the candle and I speak to Daddy and all of the grandparents in my head and I say my own prayer for their peace and for our wellbeing and that feels right to me.”
“No,” she began. “You fast because…” and I cut her off before she could so much as put punctuation on the end of that sentence.
“You asked me why I felt no need to fast. I told you why. Don’t now tell me that my feelings are wrong. You can have your own and I can have mine, okay?” I said.
“Okay,” she responded. “But fasting will make your soul lighter.”
(For the record, I have never heard the woman utter such a statement before and I’ll admit that it got to me, so much that I started to consider how much better my life could be if only my soul went on a diet.)
“Does fasting include coffee?” I asked.
“You can’t have anything,” she replied.
“I’m out then,” I stated bluntly and the conversation was over.
But at school the next day, I felt conflicted. Maybe I should fast, I thought. Maybe the reason not everything was how I wished for it to be was due to my bloated soul. Maybe this could even help me kick off that cleanse I’ve been meaning to do for months. Maybe I was wrong to have never really embraced religion.
I needed some guidance, but I never even considered doing something like praying for some. Instead I wandered purposefully over to Michael’s room. He and I are the only Jewish people in our department and I remember that when his father suddenly died, that all of these adults who had lived on Long Island surrounded by Jewish people for their entire lives showed up frantically at my classroom door to inquire about what they should bring, wear, or say while on a Shiva call. I knew the answers to all of those questions, proving I was as devout as I needed to be.
Anyway, Michael’s response made me feel better, and not just because it was what I wanted to hear. He told me that he had been Bar Mitzvahed and he had gone to Hebrew School, but he didn’t feel the need to partake in some of the longstanding traditions that no longer felt relevant or meaningful. As he spoke, I remembered suddenly all of the people I have known for years who gave things up for Lent when they never did a single other religious practice all year long and about the people who did practice religion faithfully but felt no need to give up anything extra during those forty days and I realized that it can be okay to be someone who doesn’t follow doctrine to the letter.
I was on the phone with someone last night who is not Jewish, but he might as well be. He appreciates how the Jewish people he knows well value family and education and he’s always had a ton of Jewish friends.
“I’m, like, ninety-eight percent Jewish,” he said to me and I could hear the smile in his voice.
“Me too,” I replied with a laugh, and I started to think right then and there about what I should buy the people I loved the most for Hanukah and Christmas.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle.