I was raised Jewish, but for most of my adult life I have not considered myself to be Jewish. However, something unexpected happened to me on October 7th. I woke up, learned of the horrible news perpetrated against the people in Israel, and for the first time in my adult life I felt Jewish. How, exactly, could a terrorist attack around the world on people I did not know bring out a religious and cultural identity in me that I rejected decades ago? There have been many horrific wars, attacks, and atrocities that occurred during my life. I believe that any life that is lost is a tragedy, and that we all have, despite what any country or religion claims, a universal human right to live peacefully.
The news of the attack on Israeli citizens shocked and saddened me. This was the same shock and sadness I have felt countless other times, for countless horrible events, wars, conflicts, school shootings, and for whatever other horrors humans all too frequently commit. The only time I felt differently was on 9/11 when my wife was stuck in midtown Manhattan, and I was home safe in Queens with our 8-month-old son. That day I was nauseous while she walked many miles in Manhattan, over the 59th Street bridge, and through Queens back to our apartment in Forest Hills. On that day I got a miniscule dose of what too many people on Earth have experienced — jolting loss and devastation that occurs when hateful and nefarious people end loved ones’ lives.
Let’s rewind a bit. I was raised Jewish by my parents in Queens, New York, in the 1970s. I began attending Hebrew school as a kid when I was about eight or nine years old. I learned a great deal during my five years at Hebrew school. However, unfortunately, the very first thing I learned from many of my teachers that really stuck in my mind was that “they hate us.” Kids tend to pick up on details like this quickly. Back then, the “they” existed only as abstractions in my mind. This hate for Jews, I learned, came from the Nazis during WW2. But to my young mind, that event happened “a long time go.” Nothing like that existed anymore, right? The war was long over, and the remaining Jews in the world were safe, right? Prior to October 7th, I thought that was the case except for fringe antisemitic lunatics. How wrong I was.
As I grew up and my perception of time improved, I realized that the events of the Holocaust did not occur a long time ago. The Holocaust ended only about 26 years before I was born. It was only 1944 when the surviving Jews who had been corralled like livestock in Germany’s death camps were liberated. Had the war dragged on, many more Jewish individuals would have surely died just for being Jewish. Jews during WW2 did not die for some plot of land, or as civilian casualties of war. They were rounded up and killed only because of crazy ideological superstitions and because of the religion they followed. That is exactly what happened to Jews in Israel on October 7th.
My neighborhood in Queens in the 70s and 80s was very Jewish. Many of my neighbors were Jewish. Some of my teachers in public school were Jewish. A large group of my friends were Jewish. However, we did not live in a vacuum. My public school, Queens, NYC, and even my extended family was a healthy mix of all peoples, races, and religions from all around the world. My mom’s side of the family is Protestant French-Canadian. She was raised by a Chinese stepfather and has two half-Chinese brothers. My extended family is very multicultural. I have decorated Christmas trees at my maternal grandma’s house many times, and I have celebrated many non-Jewish holidays with family and friends who are not Jewish.
Growing up, I was taught, and saw with my own eyes, that the world is a big complex place and Jews only account for a tiny fraction of the billions of people on Earth. There are only about 16 million Jews worldwide.
As time went on, I had my bar-mitzvah at age 13. I knew Hebrew school was not compulsory like public school and so, like many of my Jewish friends, I stopped attending Hebrew school after my bar-mitzvah. Before I was free from what I viewed as a burden, I was required to have a face-to-face, one-on-one, closed-door meeting with the rabbi of my temple. If it sounds ominous, believe me, it was. I had even been warned about it by friends who had already left the school. I was just an oblivious teenager then. Still, during our brief conversation the rabbi managed to impart some vital information into my young, distracted mind that was then occupied primarily with toys, comics, films, and art. The rabbi talked a lot about life, what I had learned, and where I was headed. Before our meeting was over, he conveyed one crucial bit of information to me. He said, “Remember, you will always be Jewish.” I dismissed this at that time. As years passed, I became more distant from the Jewish religion. Judaism, I convinced myself, was nothing more than a religion. And if I did not believe in the details of the religion, then I was not Jewish.
My father, whose family is Jewish, also raised me with science, microscopes, telescopes, binoculars, cameras, hiking through forests, and the endless wonderment of the natural world. His teachings opened the world to me with far greater depth than anything Judaism offered me in Hebrew school. This is not to say my religious education was worthless. It’s just that, as often happens in school, facts and memorization are stressed, which tends to make learning dry. And I was too preoccupied then to gather much wisdom from prayers and the Bible.
Hebrew school was more social for me than anything. My fondest memories are of the friends I made, the food we ate, and the many summers I spent at a carnival-like Jewish sleepaway camp in Connecticut, Camp Hadar. I also fondly remember the one time my temple (mysteriously) had a Halloween sleepover for the students, and we watched Night of the Living Dead. — I’m still amazed that actually happened.
Eventually, whatever tether in my mind that had me considering myself as Jewish faded when I arrived for art college in Philadelphia in the late 80s. Back then I was becoming an artist and the world I lived in was too edgy and exciting for me to be constrained by anything the rituals of religion required.
I dated, mostly, non-Jewish girls. Eventually, I married outside the Jewish religion. My wife was raised Catholic, and she too did not have any strong ties to her religion, and so we decided to not include religion in our home. There were no baptisms, no first communions, and no bar mitzvahs for our kids. We never went to temple or church aside from weddings and funerals. And our holiday celebrations were just as void of religion as Halloween has become. We did put up a Christmas tree each season and gave our kids “holiday” presents. But we were not, and still are not, religious.
And yes, I do believe in God. And I’m not anti-religion. I have read a lot about world religions. I don’t want to fly too far off the rails here, but I consider math to be the language of God. There is more evidence for me of the existence of God. For instance, there’s Earth’s magnetic shield protecting life from cosmic radiation. Water becomes lighter when frozen — an odd phenomenon without which life would not exist. And there’s the very fact that anything exists at all! There is also consciousness, evolution, synchronicity, dreams, and our limited understanding of quantum mechanics in which matter can behave both as waves and as particles. All this and more has led me to a very deep and rich sense of awe surrounding the endless mystery of the unknown. For lack of a better term, I call all this God.
I’m still puzzled about why I now feel Jewish more than I’ve ever felt before. I obviously owe much to the wisdom of my rabbi, who’s words I dismissed decades ago. Maybe it’s my shock at all the recent antisemitism that evokes these feelings in me. Maybe it’s because I was just living comfortably all these decades and I have now opened my eyes. Maybe it’s because of the atrocities committed by a terrorist group that has been very appropriately described by many as a death cult. Maybe it’s because many strong voices have recently had the courage to speak out against antisemitism. I now wake each day with more hope than I had the day before. Each day since October 7th I hear from the many honest and positive voices of people shining light onto darkness and hate. Bari Weiss, in particular, has been nothing short of an inspiration to me. Maybe I feel this way because of something I’ve not yet considered. Maybe it’s just God.
Whatever the reason, the result has been a wellspring of internal emotion for my cultural heritage and my Jewish background. While I do not think I will be buying a Bible or attending religious services, I am connecting with some of my Jewish friends in a way that feels different from past interactions.
Every night since October 7th, I have been writing to try and organize my thoughts on all this. I’m still not sure I have succeeded, but eventually I mentioned all this to my wife. I expressed to her how strange I feel that this horrible terrorist atrocity in Israel makes me feel truly Jewish for the first time in my adult life. She leaned over and hugged me and said, “No matter what you’ve said over the years, I always knew you were Jewish.” So, my wife has always known what my rabbi knew as well. I am Jewish and will always be Jewish.
God bless the United States, God bless the Jewish people, God bless Israel, God bless the hostages, and God bless all those we have lost. May their memory be a blessing.