Is there a rolling eyes emoticon I can use here?
I'm a non-believing Jew but my son wants a barmitzvah
Annabel Wright and her husband are atheists. The idea of raising their children within her lapsed Jewish faith had never occurred to them. So what to do when their 12-year-old son searched his soul and suddenly got religion?
When my son Marcus was born, the last thing on my mind as a Jewish mother was circumcision. I am a non-practising Jew and my husband, Jonathan, is lapsed Church of England, and we both felt that, as our son grew up, he would want to "match" his daddy. Indeed, my husband and I are confirmed atheists, and although I have been known to make a deal with God on turbulent flights, my promise is invariably broken after touchdown.
The Torah, the sacred book of Jewish laws, states resolutely that God commands all Jewish males to be circumcised. Without this procedure a boy is not considered a Jew and will be shunned. But I am firmly against the idea, viewing it as a form of genital mutilation. How could I have known that this would present a potential problem some years later …
There we were, 12 years down the road, mooching around a north London synagogue. It was only the second time my son had set foot in one – friends had invited us to the annual Hanukah (Festival of Lights) bazaar. Although I didn't feel quite like a gefilte fish out of water, I didn't feel especially at home either. I sensed a lack of belonging to a tight-knit group.
I left Marcus to his own devices and went to find his two younger sisters. When I next saw him he was fingering a variety of kippas (Jewish skull caps) with rather more interest than I'd have liked. As he balanced one on the back of his head I stifled a laugh and playfully remarked, "Suits you."
"Don't laugh," he replied, a grave expression clouding his face. "I'm not trying these on for a joke. I want to buy one. In fact, I've been thinking lately and I want to be, well, more Jewish."
"You are Jewish, because I am," I reminded him, hoping that would be the end of it but instinctively knowing that it wouldn't. In the Jewish faith, children take their racial and religious identity from the mother, a fact over which my husband and I have had the odd tussle.
"I know that I'm Jewish because of you," replied Marcus, "but I'd like to do it properly – you know, the festivals, the food, maybe even a barmitzvah …"
I almost choked on my salmon bagel. A barmitzvah! Did he have any idea how many years ahead you had to book the Crystal Suite at the Dorchester? Where had this sudden interest in Judaism come from? Not from me, and certainly not from his dad.
I had "married out" and hadn't given the whole Jewish thing much thought thereafter. I never imagined I would have a fair-haired, blue-eyed son wanting to embrace Judaism – or any religion for that matter. How naive of me to assume my children would unquestioningly follow my atheist lead.
But I respect my son's integrity; he has an emotional intelligence beyond his years. His announcement demanded further exploration. My husband and I would have to take him seriously.
As the daughter of German Jewish refugees, I have spent a lifetime pulling away from my roots. The message I absorbed from my parents was that being Jewish was dangerous, even life-threatening. When I started secondary school, about the same age that my mother was when she found herself the victim of antisemitism, she warned me to assimilate and to avoid getting into a "ghetto" with the Jewish girls. I was further perplexed by my mother's ambivalent relationship with Judaism. She insisted on attending synagogue on holidays, but for the rest of the year we played at being as British and non-Jewish as could be.
My father wanted nothing to do with the religion. I was always embarrassed at relatives' weddings when he had to wear a disposable paper kippa, customarily on offer to the non-Jews. He didn't deny his roots (he was barmitzvahed as a boy), but he didn't go out of his way to advertise his racial heritage either. When I finally married, at the geriatric age of 32 (in Jewish spinster years that's about 55), my parents were delighted at my choice of partner: a non-Jewish lawyer. Operation Assimilation complete. Here was a man who could hide me under the floorboards should the Nazis return.
And luckily, here was a man who, despite his antipathy towards organised religion, was happy to let Marcus satisfy his curiosity about his mother's heritage – though he made it clear he wouldn't be coming along for the ride.
In the weeks that followed, Marcus asked if I could find a synagogue that might consider taking him on with a view to studying for his barmitzvah. I knew this would be a tall order. There was no way he could cram the necessary knowledge in one year. And would a synagogue take him at all? A friend had warned me that hers probably wouldn't, given Marcus's uncircumcised status. I was incensed that what was in his pants was more important than what was in his heart. But I also felt that it would be wrong to deny my son the chance to explore his roots.
We sat Marcus down for some soul-searching. "I like the idea of belonging to something special," he told us. "I feel proud to be Jewish. It feels unique. And there are so few of us left it seems a shame not to do something about it. I want to do this because it's about the religion and believing in God."
And so began my quest to find a synagogue liberal enough to take us on. An easier proposition than I'd feared – we live in north London, after all – and I found one in Golders Green. Progressive, liberal and welcoming to mixed-faith couples, although my husband was taken aback by the £750 annual fee. "That's more than a year's subscription to Sky Sports," he half-joked, threatening to offer Marcus an ultimatum: Sky or synagogue?
Marcus and I met the rabbi, and I delicately raised the issue of his physical predicament. I was relieved by the response. "It's true that some synagogues, particularly the more orthodox, would see this as a bar to entry, but not us. You're Jewish, so your son is Jewish," he said.
His advice was that Marcus and I join their family classes to give both of us an idea of what would be ahead. We all agreed that it was too ambitious to aim for a ceremony at 13. "It's a misconception that you have to have one then," explained the rabbi. "Although 13 is usual, you can study for it at any age. Men who were boys in the war and missed out have been known to have barmitzvahs in their 70s."
In the early weeks, I managed to affect a spray-on enthusiasm. But as time wore on, I realised that if Marcus was to follow the faith, I just couldn't do it with him. The subject matter (dissecting parts of the Old Testament, examining the meaning of Jewish festivals) was just too dry, too archaic, despite the rabbi's valiant attempts to make it relevant to life today.
At the end of the first term, I told Marcus that he would have to go it alone. He could join the Sunday classes, where no parental input is required. He was upset by this but realised that he couldn't expect me to embrace a religion that held no appeal. We hugged each other and cried.
But some weeks later, Marcus said that he just couldn't do it on his own. "It's just too unrealistic, Mum. How can I celebrate the festivals and follow all the other stuff without you and Dad and the girls? I guess it's time to quit."
That was 18 months ago and Marcus is now 13, the traditional age for barmitzvah. We are watching some of his friends go through the process and my husband and I have a lingering feeling that we may have denied him something important. A sense of belonging and a supportive community to fall back on, beyond home and school, are no bad things in the world we live in. But what are we saying? Organised religion is a club that we simply don't want to join.
Yet I am a Jew, and fiercely protective of my race. My grandparents survived the Nazi concentration camps and my parents avoided a similar fate by a whisker. Just don't ask me to get involved in the religious shenanigans. My husband, meanwhile, is relieved that Marcus has moved away from the religion. Would Christianity have been more acceptable I asked him. "At least the services are in English and the music is great. But ultimately no, because I don't believe in any of it."
Marcus himself is sanguine about the experience. "Now that some of my mates are going through barmitzvah I can see what's involved and I don't think it would have been right for me. Anyway, I can always go back to it when I'm older," he says. And he can. The velvet kippa is in the top drawer of his bedside table, awaiting the day.
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