Jewish atheist character with personal challenges
Hi, want opinions on a Jewish protag in my triad romance story, on both his personality & actions just to be sure I don't do something harmful: 1) he's a strong, loving, kind atheist who is ultimately a good father and person but is also a fairly promiscuous mentally ill alcoholic who is impulsive & prone to bad judgement & bad decisions. He had an abusive upbringing so never had exposure to his heritage or Jewish maternal family until adulthood.
What are some ways he could try to connect with that as an adult? What ways would he pass it to his son? And lastly, would it be offensive for him to love holidays & celebrate (nonreligiously) things like Easter & Xmas just for the fun of it?
I realize he's halachically Jewish because of his mom no matter what, but not being raised Jewish at all: what is the point of making this already super complicated character Jewish if he has to be reconnecting as an adult and that’s something you’re not already personally familiar with? Plus, he likes Christmas and the “Jewish character who doesn’t really know a lot about Judaism and likes Christmas” written from the outside just sounds like a gentile character someone stuck a “Hello my name is: Jewish character!” sticker on, so if “written from the outside” applies to you, please keep that in mind.
That being said: connecting as an adult might involve
going to temple either for Shabbat services or other holidays
having private conversations with the rabbi
reading Jewish blogs from people who are more involved
reading Jewish books both fiction and nonfiction
watching videos on YouTube
becoming frustrated at having to use Boolean search terms to get the random Christian things out of the Google results, and depending on his age, even reading Tumblr tags.
He might want to learn the Hebrew alphabet for the first time.
He might want to learn more about his mom’s side of the family and their stories.
His son, depending on his age, can do all those things with him and also be enrolled in the synagogue’s kid program or even study to become bar mitzvah (which is like, learn some Hebrew, learn your Torah portion, give a speech about it.) They can start to celebrate Jewish holidays with more practicing friends and families. What if they have friends who have a kid of similar age who invite them over for a seder?
He might still be drawn to Christmas but I’m side-eyeing this plot element just because of how many times I’ve seen Shoshi remind everyone in her posts that gentiles seem to looooove writing us finding meaning in Christmas, even just secular meaning. Can it just be okay for us to sit it out? It really doesn’t make it less fun for the rest of you, I promise. After all, if I wanted to spend Christmas Eve with my loved ones doing Christmassy things, churches couldn’t hire me to work in front of strangers.
Plus, our holidays are good enough!
Also I think Meir might be handling this part but being a Jewish atheist and being someone who was not raised Jewish at all and is atheist don’t feel the same; it’s possible for him to go from the latter to the former but that might come with some baggage from mainstream Christian culture about what it means to be part of a religion in the first place.
I do want to talk about the atheism element a little, because I think a lot of people heard the message “Jewish atheist is not a contradiction” and correctly understood “we don’t consider someone not Jewish if they don’t believe in a literal God,” but didn’t take in the far more important--and harder, perhaps, to comprehend from a Christian-based perspective--”Whether or not a Jewish person believes in a literal God does not necessarily affect how they interact with, express, or practice their Judaism unless they intentionally choose to.” That is to say, writing someone whose Jewish practice or expression is in some way affected by whether or not they believe in a literal God is not an easy way to include Jewish representation without doing the background work, it’s actually a lot harder and will require a lot of additional research. In real life, the majority of Jewish people who don’t think God is an actual, literal, existing higher being practice their Judaism exactly the way Jewish people do who feel that something larger than themselves is present in the universe. Theism or atheism just isn’t something that affects how most Jews do or don’t practice their Judaism.
But there are a lot of factors that would, and I’ll get to those in a moment. First, let’s think about what it means to write a Jewish character as an atheist.
If what you’re hoping for from this character is specifically to represent atheism in a way that doesn’t include the trauma and rejection that can be experienced by atheists who are leaving a faith-based religion because of their lack of literal belief, then one direction you can take for this character is to show him taking comfort and connection in learning his own heritage, unlearning elements of Christian hegemony, and finding the kind of community that can support him through his recovery by taking part in Jewish traditions with a Jewish community as his support system. You could even start by showing him unlearning the idea that lack of personal faith necessarily excludes him from his heritage or from Jewish practice.
On the other hand, if what you’re hoping for is to represent his Jewishness in a way that’s easier to write from the outside, let him leave aside the question of whether God is real in some kind of literal sense and instead show him learning, step-by-step, to engage with Jewishness through historical reading, practical observance, and, yes, unlearning elements of Christian hegemony, which could still include learning that Jewish participation doesn’t require a prerequisite of belief.
If he grew up in a toxic environment and was kept from his mother’s family, it stands to reason that he’d have a lot of ambiently-Christian assumptions about the world, including the idea that whether you believe in God is a very important attribute of a person and that not believing in God is necessarily a major part of one’s identity. Frankly, I’d wager that 95% of Jewish adults outside of Ultra-Orthodox groups (and I’m only excluding those because I don’t have the tools to make an estimate) would be classified by Christian-influienced atheists as being to some degree agnostic. When I say that, what I want you to take away is that it doesn’t matter. Jewish people who feel certain that there’s a personified God whose consciousness is essentially similar to a human one, and Jewish people who feel certain that there is nothing metaphysical beyond human perception, and the vast majority who fall somewhere in between, do not practice differently based on where on that spectrum they fall.
As promised, here are some things that would affect your character’s process of developing Jewish practice and identity as an adult:
His learning process: When a person begins to get involved with their Jewish identity, they don’t go from ambiently-Christian to strict Jewish observance all in one go, especially if they have other major difficulties or pressures in their life--for instance mental illness, addiction and recovery, and parenting. He might decide he wants to start lighting candles on Friday night without being sure what he’s going to get out of it, but not take on any additional Shabbat observances at the same time. Later he might experiment with avoiding pork to see how he feels about that, or learn a holiday recipe and make a nice dinner for a holiday even if he’s not ready to do every single practice for that holiday.
His life circumstances: maybe he can’t afford to take on a practice he’d like to try, like taking Saturdays off or replacing all his kitchen tools. Maybe he doesn’t have the spoons to manage his mental illness, his addiction recovery, AND cleaning the house for Passover. Maybe he can’t always commit reliably to things he wants to do because of his drug use or other short-term choices. Maybe when he’s managing well he always is home on Friday night for a nice family dinner, and his family can tell he’s spiraling out again if he doesn’t do it. Maybe learning to recite basic liturgical prayers--like the Sh’ma and V'ahavta--can help him ground himself when he needs it.
The people in his life:
How do his partners and son feel about this change in his lifestyle and identification?
Are they happy he’s finding something meaningful in life?
Are they worried he’s taking on too much too fast and going to crash?
Are they annoyed that he’s messing up their routines while he tries to develop a new one?
Is he infodumping about his new knowledge or avoiding sharing about it because he thinks they wouldn’t be interested?
Is he hesitating to start a new routine for the family’s Friday nights because they’ve always had a different activity then?
Is Yom Kippur on the same day as his kid’s ball game or is one of his partners passionate about prosciutto?
He might choose what he wants to try doing based on how he assumes his family will feel about it. He might not take on any elements of personal practice but read tons of Jewish history and philosophy books.
His ability to access community: if he is able to begin attending services at a warm, welcoming synagogue where everyone is happy to see him and sympathetic when he’s not doing well, he might be able to do a lot more ambient learning and unlearning than if he’s watching services on a livestream or corresponding with a rabbi by email. If he started out his journey into his Jewish identity by reading a lot of blogs and watching youtube videos, then connects with a community, he might find that he has random holes in his knowledge based on what the bloggers and youtubers felt like talking about or didn’t. And if he connects with a community but they happen to be not as welcoming--every community is different, after all--then he might have a harder time learning customs by osmosis or struggle to live up to social expectations he’s not able to meet. That last one I’d be more comfortable seeing written by a Jewish author though.
In all of these options, experimenting with taking on new elements of personal practice to see if he can maintain them and how they add meaning to his life is something he can do regardless of his personal beliefs about God in particular. There are certainly some people who say “I do this because God wants me to” but “I do this because it makes me feel a connection to my ancestors who did this” or “I do this because I find it meditative” or “I do this and I don’t know exactly why I like it but I do” are all valid reasons for Jewish observances.
In addition to the things Shira listed, here are some Jewish practices he could try out, by incremental difficulty:
Trying to make time on Saturday for something restful and fun
Lighting a pair of candles every Friday night at Sundown
Lighting the candles and reciting a blessing over them
Lighting the candles and reciting a blessing over them and a cup of wine or grape juice and a pair of challah loaves
Taking the day off from work from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday
Attending synagogue services on Friday night and/or Saturday morning
Learning and observing the more specific types of “work” observant Jews avoid on Shabbat.
Learning the dates and meanings of the various Jewish holidays
Planning a nice family dinner for each holiday
Observing the special practices of each holiday, such as fasting on Yom Kippur, lighting a menorah on Chanukah, and visiting or building a sukkah on sukkot
Taking the day off from work on the holidays, even when they fall on a weekday and are not acknowledged by the Christian-dominated surrounding culture
Attending synagogue services on the evening and/or morning of holidays.
Avoiding eating pork
Avoiding eating pork, shellfish, catfish, or swordfish
Separating meat--beef and poultry--from dairy and not eating them together (fish doesn’t count as meat for this context)
Only eating foods that have been certified kosher by an inspector [mashgiach]
Replacing every dish and cooking utensil in the house with ones that have never been used for pork, shellfish, or mixed meat and milk
As for how to pass Jewish identity on to his son, one extremely common thing I see a lot in my day job is parents who don’t have a ton of Jewish education or knowledge themselves enrolling their kids in their synagogue’s Hebrew school and finding themselves extremely proud as their kid begins being able to teach them the history and traditions they are learning. Hebrew school programs typically run on Sunday morning and one to two weekdays after school, and kids learn Hebrew reading skills, Jewish culture and calendar, and Jewish history while getting to hang out with other Jewish kids their age.
As a last word, I want to commend you for questioning the idea of having him particularly enjoy celebrating the Christian holidays. We have plenty of holidays of our own, and they’re just as fun and way less represented. We not only do not feel any loss by not adding your two holidays to our dozen-plus, we would very much like for non-Jews to recognize that our holidays are every bit as real, every bit as meaningful, every bit as fun, and quite a bit more ours. Showing a Jewish character celebrating Christmas isn’t inclusion, it’s erasure, and you were very much on the right track in questioning whether it would be okay. That said, he doesn’t have to go hide in a hole when his non-Jewish family members are celebrating. It’s fine for him to show up for them, and if they’re not willing to also show up for him then it’s fine for that to create friction in his relationships.
“Do you love the color of the post?
….which one?” (posting this joke with Meir‘s permission and we both thank you for reading!)
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