I grew up in a household that did not practice any particular religion, but I never knew any other kids who did not agree they were part of some sort of faith or church. It’s not that the children I grew up around were religious; it was more that not having a box to check when asked “what religion are you?” was quite unusual. You might think that this means I grew up atheist, but this is not accurate. I grew up raised under the philosophy of my parents, and that’s the best way I can think of to describe it.
When asked if she were Christian, my mom would say something along the lines of “If loving Christ makes you a Christian, then I suppose I am one.” When asked why she never went to church, she said that she didn’t see what all the fuss was about going. Jesus himself did not like churches, so going to one every Sunday struck her as odd. Not that she condemned anyone for attending church regularly, it was more that her impression of the Christ she loved was that the whole Christianity thing wasn’t really his idea. So, she loved Jesus in the privacy of her own home and on her own terms. If I had to summarize how my mother raised me in terms of religion, I think it would best be explained by paraphrasing her when I asked a similar question:
“Faith is important, and it is at the core of who we are as individuals. But it is entirely within each person as to where to put that faith. No one can tell you, not even your mother. So, I guess you can make up your own damn mind, and I would encourage you to do just that. Just beware of those who have the answers, because they’ve stopped asking questions.”
She told me this, or something quite like it, when she was dying of cancer. And she was no doubt smoking a menthol 100 as she spoke these wise words.
My dad, on the other hand, grew up in a family who attended one of those churches that seeks to save souls. He even wrote in his journals about how he had actually saved a few people by the time he was nine years old, and how that made him feel strange instead of good. He felt like he had to keep count of the souls he saved, and he felt strangely responsible for these relative strangers whom he had convinced to accept what was supposed to be their salvation, thankfully provided by the regurgitated script his nine year-old self fed to these people. As he grew older, he realized the religion he practiced was based in fear, and he thought that was a terrible way to live. Sometime in college, he simply accepted the fact that he did not believe in religion or god, not going so far as to group himself in with others as an atheist. It was just a realization he had, and he moved on with his life. He wasn’t opposed to religion, and in fact he saw many benefits it had for others. It just wasn’t for him. He had good morals to impose upon his children, but when it came to religion, he was ambivalent.
With this mix of parents, my sister and I were exposed to much morality, but fewer names of persons to thank for it. The strange part was that religion itself was simply not discussed, deemed not important for small children. I will admit bias, but I find that quite wise. If my sister and I had questions, our parents would answer, but they simply filled the time other families would spend on religion taking us to places other than church, I suppose.
My first exposure to religion was going to a Unitarian preschool. I don’t remember much about that time, but I do remember being excited about getting to be a shepherd in the Christmas play. The entire story of Jesus’ birth was told, and it seemed quite nice to me. Christmas was the only time my family had anything religious on display. We had an old nativity scene, a train that spelled out “NOEL” (which we liked to rearrange to spell out “LEON”), and of course we always sang Christmas carols. I would ask questions about Jesus and Christmas, and both mom and dad gave straightforward answers. But nothing compelled me to think that I was missing out on something.
So, it wasn’t that I was raised to avoid religion, it was more that I wasn’t forced to be religious. I would go over for a sleepover at a friend’s house on a Saturday, and I would usually be dropped off at my home while my friend and his family were on their way to church on Sunday. I never thought anything about it; it was just something they did that we didn’t. Friends going to church made me curious, but never uncomfortable. I even asked my parents what religion we were at some point, and they just said that we didn’t really have one. This answer seemed reasonable enough.
So, in my preschool years, religion didn’t seem like much of a big deal.
When it came time for me to go to kindergarten, my parents sent me to the same Catholic school as my sister. The reason for the Catholic school was because of the quality of the education. Our local public school system was not very good at all (and is still poor to this day). Emily seemed to be having a good time in Catholic school, so I felt I had nothing to worry about.
Kindergarten was only a half day long, and I attended the morning class. I had the typical amount of kindergarten fun, I suppose. Then, naturally, the concept of religion came up between me and a couple other kids, because I had no issue with saying that I was not Catholic. They asked me what religion I was, and echoing the response my parents gave when I asked them the same question, I simply said I didn’t really have one.
This seemed to perplex whomever I told. They must have told a few other kids, because the same question came to me a few more times that day.
“You aren’t Catholic?”
“So, you’re Christian, right?”
“No, I don’t really have a religion.”
I had been raised to know that there were many other religions out there, but our family simply chose not to have one. It seemed like a choice you could either make or not make, and our family chose answer Z: none of the above. But these kids surrounding me grew up without even realizing that there was a choice made at some point by some member of their family to be Catholic, so that was obviously the right thing to be. I’m sure they taught their kids that other religions exist, but I sincerely doubt that the idea of a family just opting out of the whole religion thing ever came up at the dinner table.
So, I was probably these kids’ first exposure to non-religion, and it confused the shit out of them.
If only it had stopped there.
At least a few of these kids must have gone home and told their parents about me. That’s fine, because that’s what kids should do. Ask your parents about any part of the world you don’t understand, even about the kid in your class who doesn’t have a religion. Unfortunately, at least one of these sets of parents must have not wanted to take the conversation very far about not having religion, because the next day, I was told something about myself that was quite a surprise.
“You’re a Jew!”
“I asked my mom about you, and she said that you probably don’t want to tell us about your religion because you’re Jewish!”
Yes, this really happened. In kindergarten.
I didn’t know what to say, other than to tell the kid that I wasn’t Jewish. I had heard of the Jewish faith, and I knew that we weren’t Jewish. Unfortunately, this kid’s mother had given her son a talking circle to trap me in. She told him that if I didn’t want to talk about my religion, it was probably because I was Jewish. So, if I denied being a Jew, this kid was going to take this as confirmation that I was a Jew. But, of course, if I told him I was a Jew, then he also take this as confirmation.
And that’s all it took. He shared with everyone in the class the kinda anti-semitic generalization his mom made about Jews, applied it to me, and then everyone just accepted the fact that I was Jewish. And this became a joke at my expense.
I didn’t get it, though. I wasn’t Jewish. I tried to tell other kids that, but apparently this was now “the mark of being Jewish.” It was strange and frustrating, being told that I was something that I wasn’t, simply because I said I wasn’t.
That night I told my mom what had happened. She told me that the kids were being silly, and that I shouldn’t be too worked up about it because there’s nothing wrong with being Jewish, anyway. The other kids in my class were simply mistaken. She said that if I just let it go, it would all probably go away in a few days.
Unfortunately, some of the parents of the other kids weren’t relaying the same “patience and tolerance” speech that my mother relayed to me. They were feeding their children random basic stuff about being Jewish in response to their questions about me. I know this because of how one kid greeted me the next day.
“Shalom!” (followed by laughter.)
I had no idea what this kid had said, but he definitely said it with the intention of making fun of me.
It caught on by halfway through the day. Kids were randomly calling me “Shalom,” my new nickname. They were calling me this and laughing at me. None of us had any concept of the irony of trying to hurt my feelings by calling me the Jewish greeting meaning “peace.”
I went home and told my mom about what happened, and she kinda laughed. She said it was a Jewish greeting, and that it was actually nice. I told her they weren’t saying it nicely to me. She said that if I just ignored them, it would probably pass. She said that if I kept getting upset about it, it would only encourage them to make fun of me.
This worked off and on. But whenever anything was taught about Jesus in our class, some kid would point out that I didn’t believe in it because I was Jewish, which upset me, which would, as my mother predicted, “egg them on.”
Things just continued this way, waxing and waning in intensity. I wasn’t having a miserable time at school; I was just occasionally called out for being a Jew. It was weird, but I tried my best to take my mom’s advice and just let it go. This, however, did not make me any friends that year.
About a third of the way through kindergarten, I told my mom that I was lonely. I was only in school for half of the day, and then I’d come home and have no one to play with, as my sister was still in third grade for the rest of the day. So, my mom searched around for a second afternoon kindergarten class for me to attend. There was only one nearby.
And it was at the local Jewish center.
It didn’t seem to be a big deal at the time. The Jewish center was where we belonged in the summer to have a pool to go to. It was open to all people, it was nearby, and all of our neighbors had a membership, despite none of them being Jewish. It was a nice pool, after all.
So, I started having afternoons at the Jewish center. It was nice. The kids were nice, and I wasn’t as lonely after morning kindergarten.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
A boy at the Jewish center found out that I wasn’t Jewish. He asked me what religion I was. Even just the question “what religion are you?” seems loaded. It inherently implies that you must have a religion, and whatever religion you have, you are. You can’t really answer with “I am…not a religion” without confusing everybody or sounding critical. Well, at least when you’re going to kindergarten in the 1980’s.
And I was facing these questions while being six years old.
I told the Jewish kid the same thing I told the Catholic kid. When I said I really didn’t have a religion, I was once more met with a strange look. And the kid avoided me the rest of the day, as though I had been caught not being Jewish without the excuse of having another religion, and that it could be contagious.
As if to drive me crazy, the kid approached me the next day, obviously after consulting his parents, and started making fun of me for being Christian. I said I wasn’t. He made fun of me for being scared about being Christian. A couple of kids joined in. It wasn’t so much about being Christian, I’m sure of this in retrospect, it was more that it was how frustrated and red-faced I was at being made fun of for the reverse reason that I was being made fun of at Catholic school.
Then it got out at the Jewish center that I went to Catholic school. They forgot about the Christianity thing and made fun of me for pretending I wasn’t Catholic.
Then it got out at Catholic school that I was going to the Jewish center. The fire rekindled, they made fun of me for pretending I wasn’t Jewish.
This was my first real exposure to organized religion.
The rest of kindergarten was a little bit rocky. I was still made fun of fairly regularly, and then one of the girls at Catholic school caught me picking my nose, earning me the title of “nose-picker” instead of the peaceful “Shalom.” In other words, I was ruined, and perhaps in need of salvation.
By the end of the year, I was begging my mom to get me baptized. She comforted me and asked me why I would want to do that. I told her it would get the kids to stop making fun of me. She laughed and told me that Jesus probably didn’t want me to be baptized just because I was getting made fun of at school.
I asked her how I could become Jewish. She said it was near-impossible, but if I still wanted to be Jewish after I was done with Catholic school, she would help me look into it.
To this day, I am neither Jewish nor baptized. Go figure.