Friday night I attended a rather odd and interesting function for gay Jews. The founder and group are attempting to integrate two very strong aspects in their lives, their Jewishness and their gayness. The form of this integration is the traditional Friday night shabbat dinner, but in a more fabulous, gay way. The events (this is the second one) raise money for good causes and this one in particular was to benefit the Ali Forney Center. Although the event is open to all, if I had to guess I would say it heavily leaned towards gay male Jews whose religious background was on the Orthodox to Conservative end of things. I was somewhat raised in this tradition (having been sent to a Hebrew school until 6th grade), and so the opening prayer (and melody) was very familiar to me from my childhood, and although I would not say it put me at ease, I still smiled a little at the connection to something so far in my past.
Anyone that knows me knows I have some complicated feelings about my Jewishness. As mentioned, I was sent to an orthodox Hebrew day school until 6th grade, had a bar mitzvah and then over the next few years slowly divorced myself from that group and sect. By the time I was 20, I was pretty done with religion of any sort.
I am Jewish, there is no removing it from me. It is a part of me and will always be. I would never try to erase it, it would be like trying to erase history. But what is my “Jewishness” composed of? Let’s start with the religion itself. Over the years, I came to realize that all the god stuff, put simply, left me cold. Despite the years of acculturation, I just never took to it. I have a theory (along with some others) that belief in a deity is partially genetic and innate, and you either feel it or you don’t. I (and most of my family to be honest) just never felt the existence of god, despite being awed by the universe and all of its natural wonders. To me, a belief in a deity is a belief in “intent” to the universe, a “plan” if you will. And because I lack this specific belief, I describe myself as atheist (others might use the term agnostic). And over the years I have come to refine that innate sense, to the point that religious ceremonies mostly seem silly to me, especially if they put an emphasis on pleasing a vengeful god.
Outside of that is the idea of “community”, whatever that means. Growing up Jewish in Indianapolis mostly meant knowing every other Jew in the city, it is a bit of an insular community. And because my family moved away from the main part of town where almost all of them live, from high school onwards we were somewhat separated from them. I actually think this was one of the best things to happen to me growing up, and I attended a public high school with a much greater diversity than was found in the schools that community attended. This diversity was not just ethnic and racial, but just as importantly, socio-economic. This gave me a perspective that I value to this day.
Then there are the many cultural aspects of being Jewish, and I have to admit here to feeling a great connectedness to this part of my upbringing and heritage. This is what binds me to other Jews in the strongest ways. These are reflected in a huge variety of things such as foods, languages, humor, cares and thoughts about healing the world (tikkun olam), and deep questioning and debate around issues.
So putting it all together, I am both Jewish and non-Jewish at the same time. For better or worse, I am culturally that and always will be, even as I reject and refine other parts that hold no or negative meanings for me. I realize that my life has been a struggle to move towards the universal human values that bind and uplift us all. Values that transcend tribal instincts of any group or sort whether they be religious, patriotic, ethnic or other.