My father, whose New York accent is stuck between his teeth, was raised in a household that shunned religion. In a quite stereotypical American-Jewish fashion, his parents frequented Chinatown rather than a congregation. My family, in that same vein, has celebrated Christmas for as long as I can remember: my parents cannot be bothered to give eight presents for Chanukah. Other than the two boxes of fish spread that perpetually lie in our fridge, our house is devoid of any Jewish symbolism. It’s almost as if this eschewing of religion was passed down, a tradition of sorts. I’ve been a staunch atheist, proclaiming and feeling non-belief without an ounce of thought, for most of my life. I have been hiding my yarmulke under the Seder table since I was five years old because I think my head is just too round to pull it off. I demanded that my parents throw an Easter party involving an intense hunt for pastel eggs. I even told my mother that I was considering of converting to whatever religion next peaked my fancy.
My mother’s religious values were not always so nonchalant. Unlike my father, she grew up in with bleach hair dye and other lulls of suburban New Jersey. For her, temple was an escape, not a chore. When she turned thirteen, she had a bat mitzvah, a Jewish coming of age ceremony. She had had that engagement with her belief system, though it was still not fully formed. So when it came time for my parents to decide whether I was going to Hebrew school, which would one day presumably culminate in a Bar Mitzvah, my own Jewish coming of age, my mother felt strongly that I should.
For me, at that age, a Bar Mitzvah meant the end of afterschool spent in sticky asphalt and the local pizzeria; I was unwilling. In third grade I could not even fathom going to two schools at once. Prep and Hebrew school sounded like a hellish combination, particularly at my tender age of eight. I can remember pleading with my parents, stubbornly begging them to spare me religious schooling by proclaiming I was an atheist. My mother tried to bribe me with promises of money and admiration from friends. Nothing could sway me. I felt entrenched in my Judaism (despite my lack of cultural and religious practices); I didn’t need religious confirmation.
The older I have gotten, the more I have wondered if this was a mistake. It wasn’t just the first shots of Fireball that I took hiding in a broom closet at my friend’s bar mitzvah or the dancers dressed in neon who were the cause of more sexual awakenings than I can count. It was the subtle feeling that I had let part of my identity wither away. It was an identity that I had shaken as soon as I understood religion as a concept.
I’m somewhat ashamed. It isn’t an intense burning sensation of guilt or anything that I am actively going to try to change. But it was a nagging that I didn’t enjoy, and I think I realized it bothered me when once, when my friends at Princeton were talking about their childhoods and their attendance of church and synagogue, I was inexplicably compelled to lie about it. I simply began speaking about my nonexistent Bar Mitzvah. I had a riveting story about my Torah portion and a joke to crack about how given my rampant only-child syndrome, speaking to a hundred people was my dream. It flowed out effortlessly. I wove the night with details of my friends’ indiscretions and the presents I received from distant family members who I didn’t even recognize. I honestly scared myself. How could I conceive a story from not a single kernel of truth? What can I say, it’s a gift. This lie came tumbling down because nothing ever stays truly hidden, even when you make an intense effort to suppress it. And I did not even make that great of an effort.
Late last year, my parents came to visit and took my friends and me for dumplings. We began discussing the coming end of our freshmen years. We were filled with nostalgia and relief, really cheesy stuff. It was typical. But of course, we went down a rabbit hole about my friend’s religion class and of course we landed upon the topic of my Bar Mitzvah. My friends retold the tale I had told, assuming my parents would jump right into the banter. But instead they just sat there, eyes widened; my father wore a grin on his face. My mother looked worried that I may have gotten dementia.
Without even thinking, my father said, “Alex lied.” And then: “He never had a Bar Mitzvah.” I just sat there cross-legged, thinking of a comedic yet rational explanation for my beyond-bizarre behavior. My friends just stared at me and the only thing I could do was stuff my mouth with enough dumpling so I was physically unable to talk. But they waited and so when I finally swallowed the last bit of dough, I tried to joke, “Well it may not have been true, but at least I’m getting in touch with my roots!” No one thought that was funny.
At that point, it was clearly time to psychoanalyze myself. After a brief bit of reflecting and a little bit of apologizing, I came to a conclusion: I had regrets. I felt that I had rejected a part of myself. All those years when all the other kids ran haphazardly downstairs to find matzah while I sat nonchalantly watching Maury Povich could have been different. Of course I am not really sure what I believe in. Is there is a god? Did someone part a sea? I never thought I cared, but if I cared enough to lie about it, maybe I should not just ignore these questions. So maybe you will see me at Shabbat dinner or perhaps even attend my Bar Mitzvah this year.