The Uncomfortable Agnostic

Revisiting the faith of my father

It was a cold day in October, and I was walking down a street on New York’s Lower East Side, toward a small wooden building with a flight of steps at the front. Built in 1820 as a synagogue, it had only recently been reconsecrated and put back into use as a place of worship. At the doorway stood members of the congregation, welcoming the small stream of worshipers climbing the stairs. “Come in, welcome, join us,” they said, and I could feel my heart beating faster. I was excited but frightened. It was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement—the holiest day of the Jewish calendar—and I was about to step into a synagogue for the first time in more than fifty years.

I am 72 years old, and though I was born Jewish, I received no training in my faith. In a sense, despite my age, I’m not unlike many of the 20 and 30-something spiritual seekers who make up much of BustedHalo’s readers. Religiously/spiritually speaking I’m a novice at best. It has always been fine with me not to be religious but to choose to be a cultural and ethnic Jew. When asked about my beliefs, I’ve been comfortable with saying that I am an agnostic. Privately, I’ve thought I might actually be an atheist. I’ve always thought that no higher being could possibly allow the wanton cruelty and pain that exist in this world.

Something Primal

My father was a somewhat observant Jew, but he did not impose his views on any of us. Actually, I used to wish he had. On all major Jewish holidays, particularly Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, he would take himself with his tallis, or prayer shawl, to the synagogue, and become someone else from his everyday lawyer’s persona. He became someone I didn’t know but respected. He would rock back and forth, a

torrent of Hebrew prayers forced out, let free, something primal released.

The rest of our family, my mother, my sister and me, were not observant. My mother did not keep a kosher home. She did not light Friday night candles or say the Sabbath prayers. We did not go to synagogue, and did not fast on Yom Kippur.

But on Passover, with my mother’s agreement, my father would conduct a ceremony entirely in Hebrew, and it would go on for what felt like forever. He would leave out nothing, but the words, which I did not understand, could nevertheless tear your heart out, just from their intonation. It was so pure, from his deepest soul. Aunt Esther would always say, “Can you hurry it up a little, Bernie, we need to eat.” He would try to speak more quickly and everyone would laugh—except me, because I loved my father, and I knew that the ceremony was important to him.

Absolutely Jewish

“A lifetime spent holding my father’s faith at arm’s length
is a hard thing to overcome, but even the comfortable agnostic in me believes that the New Year is a time to make changes…”

Now my mother is 97 and my father has been dead these thirty years. I am rather old myself, with grown children and grandchildren. My mother has never changed. She makes no attempt to observe any religious rites but considers herself absolutely Jewish, as I do myself.

I can’t really say why this past Yom Kippur was different for me, why I found myself on that cold, clear morning walking toward the small wooden synagogue. But once inside, my fears began to dissipate. It was a funky, rickety place with a diverse, interracial congregation that spanned the age range from small children to grandparents. There was a blue ceiling over us all, needing some paint but covered in stars; a humanistic, charismatic, and welcoming rabbi; and a full-throated congregation. Immediately I relaxed and felt comfortable. I was so happy to be there. I felt close to my father, whom I had missed all these years since his death.

That was almost three months ago, and though I haven’t been back yet, the memory of that evening is still vivid in my mind. I keep thinking about climbing the wooden stairs to that lovely sanctuary with the starry ceiling. A lifetime spent holding my father’s faith at arm’s length is a hard thing to overcome, but even the comfortable agnostic in me believes that the New Year is a time to make changes—to try once more to reach out and connect.