Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Tied in to Rituals

I've been pondering rituals lately, along with the meaning they have in my life.

As I was writing the Bar Mitzvah story, I was thinking about my oh-so-complex relationship with both religion and religious institutions.

Having grown up as the daughter of a Jewish atheist father and a somewhat closeted Christian mother, and having gone to a Unitarian "church" where probably 70% of the congregants were interfaith Jews, and having parted ways with that institution around thirteen (and not entirely of my own choosing), I didn't have a strong sense of religious identity as either a child or a young woman.

We embraced a variety of rituals when I was a child - we celebrated Christmas, Easter, birthdays and anniversaries in our home. We lit candles for Chanukah, and I usually went to a temple for Yom Kippur with friends. I sometimes went to "real" church with my Grandma, or to shabbas dinner at our Jewish neighbors'. Once I went to a Catholic church to acknowledge the death of my Jewish grandmother, who attended Quaker meeting.

You can see why I might have been confused.

There were many things about Christmas rituals that I loved - if I think of all the things I loved most about Christmas it was the smell of pine everywhere and how strangers in the City seemed nicer during that time. I also loved listening to Lessons and Carols in the small, Connecticut, Congregationalist church that I visited as a teen and young adult. There were also many Christmas rituals that I hated - chief among them the fury our household flew into in preparation for the season - there were so many "have-tos," beginning with an impossibly long list of Christmas cards to write, the endless preparations for my sister and her family's arrival, listening to my mom go further and further over the edge under pressure as the "day" approached. There was so much to do! So little time! And inevitably, the only things I really cared about were end of the semester tests and exams and my social activities, and I just wanted to be left alone to attend to my younger concerns.

As an adult I embraced other rituals. I rediscovered my Judaism and threw myself into learning the rituals of the Jewish holidays and calendar.

Over time, though, I found myself repeating the frenzy that I had witnessed as a child. I grew disenchanted with policies and issues within the Jewish community, and finally I drifted from my enthusiastic start. And living with only my Jewish half, with no acknowledgment of my Christian half, also left me feeling neither here nor there.

Now my family revels in a more informal approach to life. There are three of us and we each have very different ideas about spirituality, although we live a mostly secular life style. And this isn't for lack of trying - it's more where we've all settled over both time and much discussion.

So I hear stories of friends' traditions and activities surrounding various holidays. I celebrate with friends and relatives who've found great comfort and joy from the religious institution of their choice. For me, however, the traditions of rituals were meant to be broken; no religious institutions thus far have had that special fit, and I continue to explore spirituality through long walks, philosophical discussions, much reading and searching.

Our family traditions are a sea of change. What we've taken most from ritual is the joy of being together, eating favorite foods of the season, sitting together and playing a game, sharing a book or a movie, or just watching the guinea pigs playing or the fire crackling. The comfort I take in listening to my husband's and son's breathing, knowing we are all in harmony and at our most relaxed is, for me, the only ritual that has ever truly fit.


anno said...

Amen! Beautifully said, Jennifer. I love this piece!

Unknown said...

Your thoughtful exploration of ritual and its place in your life is a pleasure.

I'm always stunned by people who say, "Well, we go to church where we do because it's close to where we live." I want to ask them that if they'd lived close to Satan worshippers they'd attend there?

soccer mom in denial said...

As a life-long UU I understand being a kid and seeing the other faiths as more "real". But as an adult I love that I was part of, and am raising my children now in, a community that supports personal beliefs and a love of humanity.

Carol said...

This is beautiful! My father is half-Jewish too... though his experience as a "mischling" in 1930's and 1940's Germany had ramifications that he couldn't ignore...

He came to the US in 1953 and from then on, when we did anything religious as a family, it was always at the Unitarian church (of Berkeley). It was an odd upbringing, in a way, but I never felt pushed into anything.

And now, I long for a sense of community, and there's a UU church just blocks from me, but I'm scared to visit. Not sure why!


Anonymous said...

This was a lovely and thoughtful post.

I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a pastor. I often feel like our family life was a sacrifice to the church, as it suffered greatly with my father's work. There were many rituals, but they were empty and meaningless to me.

As an adult, I've enjoyed peace and freedom from organized religion. Like you, the rituals that have become important in my life are the ones tied to my family. Those are the ones that mean something to me.

Jami said...

Absolutely lovely! I, too, grew up in "mixed religion" home. And then all of us kids married into even more different religions. Between 2 parents, 4 kids and their spouses we covered Baptist, Methodist, Catholic, Episcopalian, Jewish, Buddhist, Unitarian and Pagan. The standing joke in our house was that we were the local branch of the InterFaith and Ecumenical Councils.

Luisa Perkins said...

I loved reading this. Family rituals are the best!

Rebecca said...

Lovely post Jen.

I grew up in a very atheist and non-ritualistic family. But am much more into rituals with my own family - The closest I get to spirituality, I think, is the love I feel for my children.....

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

Thank you for writing this; I love reading about people's spiritual paths, especially as I struggle to find my own. And rituals? I love them, but like you, when they are family-focused.

Great post.