I have been an atheist since I was five, when I discovered that God did not punish me when I broke plates accidentally on purpose, talked too much at the table, or blasphemed. A deity who could not see through these little tests that I set up for him was a God without backbone. I liked Greek mythology where the gods were full of human rage and motive. Being turned into a spider is a great punishment that monotheists would never think of- spiders have eight eyeballs and eat their mates and young. A lot of people have stories of struggling to get their families to accept their atheism, but in my family, everyone was relieved that it had turned out this way- they are without religion like almost all other Soviet immigrants. I scared my parents with the intensity of my short-lived religious fervor. I wrapped myself in bed sheets and re-enacted bible scenes like one possessed, memorizing the saints from the pictures in my mother’s dusty art history textbooks. I considered myself protected by learning all of the stories and the signs on the off-chance that they were true- a possibility that I quickly discounted in favor of pagan myths, which my parents perceived as less of a threat. The offending phase passed like all the others, and my family was glad that I wasn’t going to be joining Jews For Jesus. To be fair, Judaism never really entered my thoughts except as a gaggle of disapproving bearded men shaking fingers and the Talmud in the background- I was never sent to Hebrew school.
When we were seven, my friend Zack believed in magic circles. Since we were little, we played games where we would crawl inside a dented hula-hoop and monsters would press their grotesque faces into the invisible snow-globe surface of our circle after the last foot was in, never managing to break through into our narrated adventures. Zack’s parents named their cats after Eastern deities and he showed me what appeared to be a long staff he had hidden behind his bed. His cousin, a computer programmer and practicing Wiccan, had given it to him. Don’t turn it upside down, he told me. You’ll have seven, no fourteen years of bad luck. I watched his face. He was clearly improvising- really quickly I tried to turn it over to call his bluff and show him what a baby he was being. I was banished from his room for a year. Zack wasn’t wrong about the luck. His black rabbit, No, hopped around munching lettuce with the deceptive appearance of health- in reality teeming with infection. By the end of the year, both of his grandparents had died of cancer, leaving the family with an anxious and talkative parrot they handed down to some relatives. The next time we were over for dinner, the spell books had been donated to Salvation Army and the estranged cousin’s hand-me-downs were gone. I was relieved to see that the unwieldy staff had disappeared with them. It was an alarming shade of yellow and always looked more like an electrical conductor than a wand to me.
In the fall, I received a big brown box in the mail. When I shook it, it barely made a sound and two evil eye bracelets and three new quarters fell from the upended box. It was a few weeks after my cousin Michael died, which meant that sometime over the course of those first days, my aunt had thought to get two bracelets and ship them internationally. I thought she might have dropped the quarters in by accident, but my mom said they were good luck. When we used to visit my aunt and uncle in their big house for holidays, I would wake up earlier than everyone who was hung-over from New Years and play upstairs in the awkward fashion of an only child suddenly without an adult audience. Michael woke up around noon across the hall, and I wasn’t supposed to wake him up before then, so what I remember best is the hush.
That fall when I cried crocodile tears and feigned loss of appetite, I was crying for the play-dates missed for funeral arrangements- that irretrievably lost chunk of my normal routine – and for the new hush around everything. Suddenly I had babysitters and there were long-distance phone calls behind closed doors in our apartment, even though none of them locked. If I pressed my ear to the door I heard the pieces: Michael Management Moscow Methadone. The most satisfactory answer I got was from my mother: he died from internal bleeding. like Harry Houdini?
Left with my grandparents for two weeks, I threw tantrums about the injustice of not being allowed to watch the Powerpuff Girls for 14 straight hours, while my family flew to Israel to bury him. By the time I got there, years later I was surprised by the scale of the cemetery, sandy and vast, full of interred and re-interred rabbis.
he wanted to be buried at the first place the messiah’s supposed to come.
had he known then?
Without doubt, my aunt and uncle had pulled a lot of strings to get him here, their son recently out of his teens surrounded by holy men. They sacrificed custom for belief, and someone higher up had been understanding.
I am not an atheist on account of the boundless succession of tea services, mugs, and mirrors that I’ve sent crashing to the ground, some of which were salvaged. It is a gut feeling that goes past damaged kitchen utensils and heirlooms, straight to the heart of Brighton Beach on Yom Kippur, decked out in black latex, spike heels, going to synagogue in a rented hummer-limo hybrid. It goes back to the look on my friend’s mom’s face when her tank-top slid far enough to reveal the blue Nordic tree she had gotten inked on her back. The dishwasher door dropped on its hinge, and so did her mother’s jaw. Sympathetic to the transgressor, I put up a weak effort to lighten the situation, which was bristling with bad feelings. Ygdrasil is the Viking tree of life, I offered. It’s a pretty peaceful, non-sectarian symbol if separated from its history with those red-bearded 11th century raiders of villages and monasteries. She can’t get buried in a Jewish cemetery, my mom said, as if that qualified the outpouring of nasty family emotions we had witnessed. I shrugged. She can always donate her body to science.
My family has closet believers, easy to target, frequently the butt of jokes. When my aunt’s ex-boyfriend got drunk on several consecutive New Years’, his inner New Ager came out and admitted that he had seen angels on Staten Island. My aunt was so embarrassed by this outburst from the otherwise quiet man that she almost forgot dessert in the kitchen. The boyfriend may think he is a prophet, but my aunt knows that he snores at night, and the rest of my family knows that if a religion is younger than two thousand years old, it is a cult. And cults are about as trustworthy and useful as angels. The boyfriends and other unwelcome additions to the family come under scrutiny, and not entirely because of their crazy beliefs. This one supports Putin, that one has another family in Florida, the other one is a freeloading home attendant who just wants a green card. The rest of us get some leeway for our little disagreements with reality. It is widely known that some atheists pray in the shower, that my mother believes every piece of inside-out clothing is bad luck, and that I keep a crumbling tarot pack on the inside of my bookshelf because I hate uncertainty.
Nadya Kronis, Age 17, Grade 12, Stuyvesant High School, Silver Key