I have long looked at Judaism as a promise I try not to break. It is a personal matter, my religion, and an evolving one at that. I didn’t even know I was Jewish for the first seven years of my life. Our family celebrated Christmas, and every year when Channel 5 aired “The Little Drummer Boy” I would tie bongo drums around my waist, wrap the heads of two Tootsie Roll Pops in Kleenex (to simulate lambskin), and solemnly parade through the apartment mimicking the “parum pum pum pum” of this birth-of-Christ early claymation classic. When I would get to the “I have no gift to bring, parum pum pum pum, that’s fit to give the king” line, no one ever offered a dissenting viewpoint on the king concept, or mentioned that, as Jews, we didn’t actually believe we had one.
Even my first school, the Church of the Heavenly Rest, belied any indication that I wasn’t Christian. I wore a plaid jumper-type school uniform topped with a blue blazer bearing an elaborate brocade crucifix under the school’s moniker. I attended chapel daily, thoroughly enjoying sermons, organ music, dim lighting, dank smells, and stained glass. I behaved with such solemn sincerity that my teachers routinely chose me for candle-carrying honors during services. If my mother, attending the holiday play, heard my impeccable Latin pronunciation during my solo of “Oh Come All Ye Faithful” (“Venite adoremus, venite adoremus, venite adoremus, Do-o-minum!”), it didn’t prompt her to mention my Judaism.
It was mentioned when I was 8. We were in a dressing room at Bergdorf Goodman and I was protesting trying on a string of way-too-frilly dresses. My mother, annoyed and exasperated, explained that I could not go “like a vagabond” to my brother’s bar mitzvah. “My brother’s bar whatzvah?” I said loudly. “We’re Jewish,” my mother said in a hushed tone to signify it was nothing I should continue to question in this semipublic setting.
My parents’ Judaism existed in a hushed tone. My somewhat blond-haired, entirely green-eyed family passed through the corridors of our upscale lives without anyone assuming we were Jewish. And my parents liked it like that. What I took in as a child as confusing, I understood as a teen to be anti-Semitic. Somewhere in college I promised myself I would correct my parents’ transgression and not hide who I was. I would even embrace it, since I continued to have an affinity toward religion and its general traditions and trappings.
The execution of that promise I made to myself is consistently imperfect. For instance, on my way to joining the Hillel club at college, I lost interest because the club’s outreach to “any Jewish students who . . .” seemed exclusionary. Also, during college I continued to date my high school boyfriend, Hank, who came from a large, religious, Catholic family. When we would spend weekends at his family’s Connecticut compound, there would always be a priest in residence as well. Mass would be conducted Saturday evening before dinner courtesy of Father Tim or Father Mike. I would assist these clerical family friends prepare what would become “the host” during communion by cutting up into small squares the same Wonder Bread Hank and I would toast for our beloved B.L.T. sandwiches.
I attended these services in the living room and happily participated, from the “Our Father” opener to the “Peace be with you” closer. I didn’t do communion. Once that Wonder Bread had metamorphosed through the miracle of transubstantiation, I opted out. I also didn’t make the sign of the cross. And, after I read in a Bernard Malamud story that Jews don’t kneel (who knew?), I stopped kneeling.
I was keeping my promise to myself, but I was also constantly reminding the small group I was otherwise a part of that I was an outsider. I fantasized that my efforts went unnoticed, that my Judaism was merely a quiet presence, like the wallpaper set back 15 feet behind the sofas. I desperately wanted not to make a statement, yet I was making a huge one. Ten people would rise for communion and I did not. Ten people would kneel and I remained sitting. Was this what my parents were trying to avoid?
After college I got a job in advertising, and work immediately took over my life. I worked, without question or complaint, early mornings, every night, and many weekends. I worked on my birthday, Columbus Day, and Thanksgiving. I never worked on Yom Kippur though. Even the Yom Kippur before the Seiko watch pitch, when it was “crucial” that I be there. I didn’t break my promise — especially because not breaking it seemed reasonable.
Yom Kippur was called the Day of Atonement. I was not supposed to work or spend money or see a movie or do anything else I would normally do. I also wasn’t supposed to eat from sundown the night before to sundown that day. No commerce, fun, or food. It was intense and demanding and bordered on extremist in concept — but it was one day a year. During Ramadan, Muslims fast all day long for an entire month. Christians of all denominations seek forgiveness for their sins weekly. But Judaism offered a way to wrap up piety and contrition into 24 hours. I could do this. I was hungry, but my promise was intact.
Christmas was hard for me to give up, and it didn’t happen overnight. The first year that I didn’t buy and decorate a tree, I instead strung lights on an incredible 25-foot spruce that grew in the center of my backyard. A close friend, seeing my outdoor illumination, intuitively sensed my internal struggle and gave me a menorah.
When my son was born, I knew it was a moment to embrace and begin traditions that would keep my promise to myself, by making one to him. I joined a local temple, which helped me with the structure of holidays and added a sense of fun and community to the December season. I liked the simplicity and continuity of Hanukkah’s eight-night candle lighting. Phonetic Hebrew was as simple to recite, I found, as phonetic Latin had been. My son would grow up spinning dreidels instead of drumming out “parum pum pum pums.” My promise was being kept. With one small exception.
I was reluctant to deny my progeny the myth of Santa. I have, frankly, always liked this world-famous holiday lie. Its absolutely innocent and temporary suspension of truth in order to foster a universal sense of belief for no practical reason whatsoever appeals to me. When I tried to imagine not partaking of that suspension of truth, it simply smacked of segregation. I imagined myself explaining, “That big jovial guy in the red suit who keeps popping up and offering candy canes and promising presents? Oh, he’s for other kids, but not for you.”
I struggled hard with it. And lost. When my son was 4, I asked a really lovely neighbor of mine if he’d come into my house, late at night, wearing a Santa suit, and make just enough noise rustling around and leaving presents to awake my son. I asked him to do it on the first night of Hanukkah. The plan worked, and my wide-eyed son ran to the door of his bedroom to watch that red-suited mensch of a neighbor wish my son a “Ho, Ho, Happy Hanukkah!” before departing. It was sweet and memorable, but I am not proud of this moment. And of course that night I broke my promise.
It is hard to keep a promise one makes to oneself. The difference between that and making a promise to someone else is the difference between a cavity and weight gain — weight gain the whole world can notice; a cavity is an entirely personal and internal matter.
Last Yom Kippur, for the first time in many years, I didn’t fast. A week before, during Rosh Hashana — the Jewish New Year — I had spent a few hours in temple out of tradition and obligation and found that the former didn’t balance out the latter. This is the eternal struggle of my promise. Some years it’s easy, some years it’s not.
At the end of Rosh Hashana, there’s a tradition of throwing bread into the water. Years ago, during the early manifestation of my promise, I mentally rewrote the reason one does this. In reality, the bread is supposed to be symbolic of sins from the past year, which are then cast off. For me, the act embodies my embrace of fresh starts. I like that the Jewish New Year begins when the weather shifts from hot to crisp, the leaves hint of change, and the school year commences. It makes perfect sense to begin again, each year, during this time.
Sins are a harder concept for me. I err, without fail, every single year, all year long, in myriad ways, from artificially lighting a huge outdoor tree to reinventing Santa Claus to imagining myself pious because I don’t eat for a day. But sins? I don’t know . . . I instead cast off various debris from my past year — an altercation with another human, a mistake in business where I let someone down, or a family eruption in which emotional loss resulted. This is what my bread symbolizes to me, as I cast it into the erratic ocean at Main Beach in East Hampton.
The resolve to try to learn from my history and do it better each year is largely how I interpret my religion. It has become a practice, and remains a promise. And when I break it, I try to forgive myself and move on.
Jennifer Brooke is a writer and filmmaker who lives in Sag Harbor.