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Yom Kippur, the Pope and My Reluctant Secularism

3 years ago
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LONDON -- Sometimes the easiest questions are the hardest ones to answer. Like: What religion are you?

I had reason to think about this issue the other day during a routine doctor's appointment at a local London hospital. As we were winding up, the doctor turned to me and asked: "Oh, yes, and what religion are you? It could be relevant to your treatment." He was holding a clipboard and a pen, ready to tick the appropriate box on his chart.

I paused, as if he'd asked me the solution to Fermat's Last Theorem. "Umm . . . well . . . I used to be Catholic." I heard myself say. "But my husband's Jewish . . . so I guess . . . um . . ."

The doctor raised his eyebrows. As polite as the Brits tend to be, you can tell when you've tried their patience. And I could see that this kind gentleman was thinking: "Honey, just answer the question. I've got loads of patients to see in the waiting room and I really don't need an American confessional right now."

"I guess I'm nothing," I told him finally. "Yeah, that's right. Just tick 'nothing.' " But what I really wanted to say was: "Do you have a box for 'formerly Christian'? Or perhaps for 'wanna-be Jewish'?"

As it happened, the very next day was Yom Kippur -- probably the most important holiday in the Jewish calendar. This year, my husband and I had decided to attend services at a self-described "Alternative Liberal Jewish synagogue" in London. Although this synagogue primarily serves the LGBT community, the website made clear that it was open to all sorts of "alternative" members, including: a) atheist Jews (like my husband); b) patrilineal Jews (like my kids, who aren't technically Jewish because their mother isn't); and c) all those who don't feel like they fit in anywhere else.

In short: they welcomed misfits. Like myself. And since we, as a family, periodically revisit the question of whether or not to join a synagogue, this seemed as good a place as any to hang our hats (or rather, don our skull caps) for Kol Nidre, the first night of Yom Kippur.

In retrospect, it's clear to me that I was expecting way too much out of this service. Don't get me wrong. I liked the rabbi. With her insistence that we use gender-neutral pronouns when reciting prayers, her comfy-jeans-and-black-fleece-beneath-the-prayer-shawl look, and her sermon peppered with references to Derrida and Ayn Rand, this lady was right up my alley.

But I think that I was expecting the clouds to part . . . shock and awe . . . or some other rock-my-world type experience that would convince me, for once and for all, that -- to coin a phrase -- I'd found religion.

Instead, despite using the Reform prayer book, the service reminded me of all the Conservative Jewish services I've attended with my husband back in the States. Which is to say that I spent the evening following a book backwards in a language I don't speak or read while everyone around me -- including my husband -- chanted, sang and stood up (and boy, is there lot of standing on Kol Nidre!) with a comfortable familiarity that I lacked. At one point, I gazed down at my 9-year-old-son, who had a copy of "The Complete Sherlock Holmes Short Stories" tucked within his prayer book, and wondered whether I, too, might just as well be reading that.

I know what it feels like to participate in a set of ancient rituals with a room full of people who know them cold just like you do. I grew up in an observant Catholic family. I can still recite all the prayers in a standard Mass by heart and I know when to sit, stand and kneel in lockstep with the congregation. There's something deeply comforting about that process.

But somehow, as I stood there on Friday night, trying desperately to latch on to whatever thread of a Jewish melody I could recognize and mumble along with, I felt that the magic was gone. It just wasn't working for me.

To make matters worse, just as I was standing there contemplating my religious moorings (or lack thereof), the pope had arrived in the U.K. for the first papal visit to this country in nearly 30 years. As Pope Benedict took to the pulpit to warn against the dangers of "aggressive secularism" in British society, I couldn't help but feel implicated.

For as much as I'm quite certain that I could never return to Catholicism with its present hierarchy and social policies, I do wonder whether I'll ever embrace organized religion again . . . at all. And if I don't do so, whether that's a problem.

Of course, none of this would weigh on me at all if -- like most of my British and American friends -- I could easily shrug religion off. But I'm no Richard Dawkins. I'm not militantly secular. I'm more in the Woody Allen school of thought on this matter. When asked about his faith in a recent interview with The New York Times, the famous Jewish filmmaker said that although he ends up being very scientific about these things, "I wish I could get with it. It would be a big help on those dark nights."

I hear you, Woody. Because I think -- reluctantly -- that's where I've ended up as well: as a well-meaning, wanna-be religious but ultimately secular gal, with a dash of agnosticism tossed in for good measure. (It's always best to hedge your bets.)

Perhaps I'm writing religion off too soon. Maybe I should keep searching for that magical synagogue in the sky. Or maybe I should go the route of my sister, who -- after years of attending first Catholic, then Methodist churches -- has ended up a Unitarian. And happily so. Maybe that's where we misfits who want to be spiritual but ultimately just can't get with the religious program really belong.

Or maybe, to return to the doctor's question, I should just accept that I'm "nothing" and get on with it. Yom Kippur is, after all, a holiday of atonement. It's a day set aside to atone for the sins of the past year -- to others and to God. But it's also about forgiveness.

I get that. As an ex-Catholic, I'm all about sins and forgiveness. But maybe it's time to forgive myself for being secular. And let up on the guilt.

So in conclusion I say, "Shalom."

Which means "hello . . . goodbye . . . peace."

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