I reluctantly sat down. I didn’t want to be there, sitting in the synagogue and praying to someone I didn’t believe in. I would be glad when the whole incident was over and I could get back to my normal procedures. At my Bar Mitzvah, I did everything I was required to do, but I still didn’t understand why I was involved in these ceremonies. I didn’t believe in God, and if it were my choice, I would have avoided the traditions altogether.
I was born and raised as a Jew. As a young boy, I went through all of the customary rituals. I went to nursery school at a synagogue and I didn’t question anything. But after awhile, I became a cynical child. I was skeptical of many things, and religion was no exception. I never like to accept anything without proof, and the idea of believing something purely on “faith” didn’t appeal to me. After some consideration, I came to a conclusion that a vast majority of religious stories were not to be trusted.
When I was seven I found myself in a seemingly endless repetition of dissatisfaction and discontent. It was extremely difficult to find something that I enjoyed doing, and whenever that activity was miraculously found, I became saddened by the tiniest disruption, or anything that forced me to deviate from that activity. Afterward, the activity lost its fun because I was openly awaiting the next thing that would frustrate me. I was upset by the tiniest little inconvenience. While I was trying to find some cause for the mysterious sadness, I became obsessed with the idea that God was punishing me for my former disbelief.
Looking back on the topic, I see why I thought this. An observer would have found the idea ridiculous, that every nonbeliever is struck by a sadness, but what did I really know about other peoples’ traumas? I was a seven-year old, and I had no interpersonal intuition. Even now, I wonder how much intuition I really have. At thirteen, my father told me that he was dealing with some overall unhappiness in his life and that things needed to change for him. Up until that point, I thought he was very happy. I was clearly oblivious to my father’s sadness. If I had no idea as a teenager what was going on in other peoples’ minds, including someone I thought I knew well, I certainly had no business dissecting other peoples’ feelings at the age of seven. Hence, I blamed my sadness on my own failure to believe in God, and I temporarily changed my ways. I became devoutly Jewish. At the same time, the sadness gradually stopped.
My skeptical nature soon returned, however, as humans are fickle beings. I quickly forgot my allegiance with religion, and came to the same conclusion I had come to years ago; that the best course of action would be to resist any religious ideas whatsoever.
Needless to say, my atheistic cynicism did not fare well in religious school. I didn’t like being told what to believe and I was always the one arguing the opposite. I was taught many Jewish stories, and I didn’t believe any of them. I questioned every story, and the more I questioned them, the less sense they made. I prefer to think of things in a scientific manner, but religious stories seemed to defy many principles.
When I shared my thoughts, I was told that learning the stories was important, even if I didn’t take them literally. At the time, I didn’t understand the purpose of learning the stories. Why did it matter what some random person did four thousand years ago? Now, of course, I understand that these stories can help us better understand basic human values. Even so, what do we really learn from Sarah, who afflicts her slave to a degree that caused her to run away? There is no hidden morality in Jacob, who uses lies and deceit to gain his brother’s inheritance.
So, I declared myself an atheist. I had no conscious allegiance with any religion. I told my opinions to many people, especially at religious school, and I was told that I still had some Jewish values. I didn’t understand what was meant by those words. If Judaism meant believing in God and those stories, I had no link whatsoever.
In sixth grade, I started preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. While a Bar Mitzvah usually signifies “coming of age”, in my mind it only signified the end of religious school. I had a meeting with a Bar Mitzvah tutor every week, and this only added to the hatred of having anything to do with religion.
To avoid being required to waste another hour of my week reviewing my Torah portion with a tutor, I vigorously studied independently. I caught on quickly, and I soon knew the portion well enough to only meet every two weeks, then every three weeks. Then we only met once a month. By the time my Bar Mitzvah was looming, I was the expert on the portion. I was looking upon the upcoming date with hope, not dread; soon, I could be completely free of any religion and requirement to believe in something beyond reality.
At the final rehearsal the day before my Bar Mitzvah, the Rabbi asked to speak with me. He talked to me about an interesting topic. He might have known I was personally cynical of religion, or he might have given the same sermon to everyone the day before the big event, knowing that my entire generation was relatively cynical. Presumably the latter. Regardless, he told me two interrelated things which I have been considering ever since.
The Rabbi told me that I was sitting in the chair preparing for my Bar Mitzvah only as a result of every generation before me continuing the tradition of the Bar Mitzvah. We were a chain of Jews for thousands of years, each a link to the tradition, due to the person before us. He said that if just one generation had discontinued the tradition, the link would have been broken and I wouldn’t be there. So, it was my responsibility as a 13 year old Jew to keep the link of Judaism alive for the generations after me. Secondly, he told me that all around the world, Jews would be reciting the same passages in Hebrew on the same day. Since each day of the Hebrew calendar is attached to a specific passage in the Torah, we would all be reading and discussing the significance of the same portion. So, not only was I linking generations of Jews before and after me, I was also linking thousands of Jews simultaneously around the world on my Bar Mitzvah day. I then realized my Bar Mitzvah was important and my being Jewish meant something, at least to others, if not to me individually. It was amazing, really, that there hadn’t been any discontinuities. Tomorrow, on my Bar Mitzvah, I would maintain that link around the world and throughout the generations by chanting my Hebrew portion. The link of Judaism would survive.
The Bar Mitzvah was as I anticipated. Every family member was there, there were lots of tears of joy and, well, I don’t know what. There was lots of standing and sitting, kissing and hugging. But, I secretly smiled, since I knew that I was now free to believe in what I wanted, which was nothing at all.
But some part of Judaism still remains in my mind, over a year later. At times, I continue to reflect on what he said and what it means to me. When I was seven, religion helped me become happy again. Perhaps my extreme and sudden piety was, in effect, a cure for my discontent. And when I see other friends even now performing their Bar Mitzvah, I think of the Jewish chain staying intact throughout the generations and around the world. And, although I still am skeptical about the existence of a deity, I know now that religion can certainly help sadness and connect people. So, if a seven-year-old cynic can be cured by the thought of a God and now realizes the importance of the links of Judaism, then perhaps there is a hope for happiness throughout the world.
Age 13, Grade 8
The Dalton School