I came to college as a practicing Catholic. So it was nice that, in addition to meeting such criteria as being located in New York City and offering a competitive program for my major, the school was built in the Jesuit tradition. Without my parents forcing me, I attended church on my own, smug with new-adulthood. Down the block and across the street from my dorm, St. Paul’s had a wrought-iron gate that was often closed — a detail my dad found ironic when he visited. (With me out of the house, his own atheism was taking root.) On Sunday evenings, though, with doors unlocked and candles lit, a consistent group of students filed into heavy wooden pews beneath vaulted, stained glass ceilings, to sit, stand and kneel. In awe of the building itself, I was soon one of them. The familiar choreography of the Mass comforted me.
The following year, I enrolled in a 100-level theology course, not as a matter of elective but as a requirement of graduation. Still attending church when I could fit it in, I wasn’t uninterested. The curriculum presented us with the world’s major religions, then gave us aeons of skeptics, from St. Augustine to Einstein. Our professor would not disclose his own religious points of view (a fairly professional stance, I thought), but he did end the semester covering people who’d chosen faith, not because they could prove God’s existence but because they believed it made them — and their lives — better.
Initiates to the city don’t last long before their Midwestern accents fade or are forced into hibernation and Yiddish words — schlep, schmear — creep like Christmas mice into their vocabularies. Similarly, they cannot roam the streets without eventually popping into one of the longstanding Jewish delis. Once they do, lox on an everything bagel is merely a gateway to other addictive Jewish foods: warm chocolate babkas, chicken soup improved by the addition of matzoh balls. I must have been preparing for my theology final when Hanukkah of 2006 rolled around, and the invitation to a friend’s party was like reaching yet another tier of non-native New Yorker status. I felt like I’d won a new high score on an arcade game played by many before me: dingdingdingdingding.
To properly rise to the occasion, I carefully Googled holiday-appropriate baked goods. Something achievable, not too obnoxious. I decided to braid a challah. After transporting it on my lap via the subway to Brooklyn, brown and sweet-smelling, my friends were suitably impressed. Later, they steered me away from the kitchen, a maneuver I drunkenly failed to understand. Finally, I snuck in and cut away a slice, only to find it completely raw and dripping through the middle.
You must knock on your challah and listen for a hollow sound to know when it’s done, I learned, along with many other bits of cooking wisdom that were passed on to me as I continued to befriend, travel upstate and to outer boroughs with, and meet the families of (mostly secular) Jews, who welcomed me into their homes for various celebrations throughout the year.
In September was Rosh Hashanah; December, Hanukkah; April, Passover. I skipped class, with and without penalty. There were, of course, more religious aspects of the holidays, as well as more sobering ones, like Yom Kippur, in which I did not take part. Still, I learned prayers and songs and found that the kitchen and the table were valid places to put my spirituality.
My theology class long over with, I was enjoying agnosticism — I had no evidence, after all, that being Catholic had made either me or my life better. Mostly, it had instilled fear in me, so I happily traded it for dinner parties.
The last ten years have involved the following: moving to California; reading the first few chapters of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists; intending to read the rest; listening to many episodes of On Being, including a few that featured Alain de Botton; finally choosing atheism over being agnostic (and over Christianity, Buddhism and Judaism); getting married in my childhood home by my non-denominational Reverend aunt; editing a manifesto my dad wrote about a religion he invented; discovering that my dad smokes weed daily; reading Yuval Harari; finding spirituality in many diverse places and practices (yoga, the ocean, art); vaguely reconsidering converting to Judaism; hosting and attending a variety of Jewish and non-Jewish holiday parties with Jewish and non-Jewish friends; learning that on Passover, octopus isn’t a suitable replacement for gefilte fish (it doesn’t have both fins and scales and therefore is not kosher); and saying, each year, that next year I’ll make the gefilte fish from scratch.
Last year for Hanukkah, I did make the latkes. Like all pancakes, each is better than the last. Like all fried potatoes, they are best when crisp around the edges yet sufficiently soft, their oil partly absorbed by layers of paper towel. But only latkes taste right topped with both sour cream and applesauce, which is perhaps the best way to frame why I’ve chosen Hanukkah over the winter holiday I was raised with. Its rituals are simple and true, having been honed and passed down over generations. They cannot be experienced elsewhere.
I have found Jewish people, however religious, to be inclusive of outsiders, even non-believers like myself. And instead of commercialism (or an industry) that’s explained away with platitudes like “giving is better than receiving” (however true that may be), Hanukkah can be centered around a table, among other ways of observation. It’s possible that enjoying food is no less about producing and consuming than rampant gifting is, but I have chosen my faith, so instead I see sharing and storytelling. And that, is a mitzvah like no other.