Ritual Confessions

February 18, 2008

Ritual wish

Filed under: Uncategorized — elissakaren @ 6:09 am

When we still lived in New York, Nick and I used to have brunch at the same diner every Sunday. We had no special eatery in Portland to serve as a replacement, but here in Vancouver, we’ve been going each Sunday to the aforementioned bagel cafe. There’s a small play area off to one side for children, with a carpet, a stationary structure resembling a bus, a plastic child-sized table with several matching chairs, and a series of storage bins stocked with dozens of toys.

Every weekend, Charlotte is joined in this area by two young girls dressed in their Sunday finery. Today the younger one (who looks about Charlotte’s age, although I wouldn’t be surprised if she weighs twice as much) wore a plastic, pastel-colored rosary around her neck. Their mother (who is plainly expecting a third child sometime very soon) and father are always nearby, and always looking spiffy as well. There is no doubt that they come to Sunrise straight from church. Looking at them, I was overcome with a familiar longing that I can hardly bear to articulate because it feels so… well, ironically, the best word for how it feels is blasphemous.

“Nick,” I whispered, because I can tell him nearly anything. “I wish…”


“I can hardly stand to say this, but… I wish we went to church.”

Nick raised an eyebrow. After all, this is a man who underwent Jewish surgery in order to marry me.

“I mean, I wish we had a weekly family ritual where we dressed up and felt… instructed and inspired. Of course, Jews have weekly Sabbath services, but there’s never the kind of sermon…” I trailed off without finishing the sentence.

My husband, who was Christian before he was Jewish, understood what I hadn’t said. “No. Jews emphasize the law. Christians emphasize relationships.”

“Exactly. And good citizenship.”

We sat there a moment with the comfort of understanding between us. I don’t always feel perfectly understood by Nick, not by a long shot, but I knew he got what I was saying then.

And that he knew, as well, why I was so reluctant to confess it: all the reasons it went against the grain of my identity and was patently irrational. I’m not a believer. I’ll always be a Jew. One of the aspects of Judaism that I love is that if you’re born a Jew, you’re considered Jewish all your life, even if you never observe a single Jewish law. I can’t say this with authority, but I imagine that in order to be a Christian, you need to believe in Christ. But although I don’t believe in God, which is the central tenet of Judaism, I remain Jewish. And I have no desire to be anything but Jewish.

But I envy believers. I envy churchgoers. I would pay money to feel less spiritually adrift. And although I’ve never known anyone else to cite this point, I have always been struck by the idea that “ritual” is at the center of “spirituality” (visual aid: spiRITUALity).

I wish we had a weekly family ritual. I wish we had a familial sense of spirituality. I wish we went to church.



  1. I know how you feel. I was raised Catholic until I was in second grade. Then we stopped going to Church and “believing”. As an adult, my ex didn’t want anything to do with organized religion so we raised our three children out of any organized religion. However, I did often wish that we’d go to church. For me, it’s also a cultural thing. Latinos are Catholic. So much of the Latino culture revolves around Catholicism or at least Christianity. I have been missing this. I don’t know what I believe but I know that it is good to have something to believe in.

    I think that a Christian wouldn’t have to necessarily believe that Christ is the Savior and Son of God. At least I wouldn’t have to believe that. I could believe in some of the teachings of Christianity, such as how to treat your neighbors and your family; how to conduct oneself. That kind of stuff. Does this make any sense?

    I do know what you mean. Ritual is good. Family ritual is a necessity.

    Comment by Corina — February 18, 2008 @ 8:15 am

  2. I know what you mean.

    I think it is possible to have extremely meaningful family ritual that does not revolve around religion … I don’t even think that spirituality has to have anything to do with religion. Reading certain kinds of poetry aloud can be a spiritual bonding experience for people. Reading aloud from a book kept specifically for that occasion. Finding a regular way to appreciate nature. There are a lot of things I think people can do together to deepen their awareness of the unseen important things in life, without being dependent on a fallible community of people whose motives aren’t always reflective of values that you or I might find to be palatable.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 18, 2008 @ 3:37 pm

  3. I think you need to think about what makes Charlotte’s mouth (and yours, and Nick’s) pop open with wonder–and then you need to go do it every weekend.

    Comment by thelittlefluffycat — February 19, 2008 @ 4:04 am

  4. I hear this wish so often, and it breaks my heart, the longing to be part of something larger than yourself, and yes the ritual that gives meaning to it all.

    It’s a very brave thing to for someone who doesn’t believe to admit they need spiritually fed.

    There are Messianic Jews, Elisa. Maybe you should try visiting one of their Temples. They concentrate less on the law and more on how to live. It’s not a required that you be a believer to attend church. (Though, I will admit, the churches goal is to turn you into one.)

    Comment by Shawn W — February 19, 2008 @ 4:07 am

  5. David, Corina, Shawn and Fluffy,

    Thank you so much for understanding, and for your excellent suggestions. Maybe without being too heavy-handed about it, we could make a point of appreciating creation, or attending a non-demoninational or unitarian service, on the weekends. Maybe it would be nice to attend ceremonies of many different kinds and just see what speaks to us.

    Messianic Judaism wouldn’t be for me, although I don’t feel the same antipathy toward them that most Jews seem to have. I like the idea of Messianic Jews, in that they illustrate the fact that the world isn’t divided into “us” and “them” — it’s a continuum. But Messianic Jews are religious Jews who believe that Jesus was the Messiah, so for me, it’s almost the “worst” (by which I mean least applicable to my own sensibilities) of both worlds. I have visited their temples, because we have distant relatives who have become Jews for Jesus. It was very interesting to be there, but again, none of it spoke directly to me.

    Comment by elissakaren — February 19, 2008 @ 4:55 am

  6. I think attending many services to find what speaks to you is a wonderful idea.

    But you might want to be careful.
    An old joke in the church:
    Q: How do you kill a preacher?
    A: Put two non-belivers in the front row, and he’ll preach himself to death. 😉

    Comment by Shawn W — February 19, 2008 @ 5:48 am

  7. You know, another thing you might think about doing when Charlotte is a bit older is volunteering or doing some kind of community/personal service as a family. There are lots of elderly people in care facilities whose entire lives light up when they see a child, or get to have visitors … many of them are terribly alone.

    Comment by davidrochester — February 19, 2008 @ 3:27 pm

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