I was raised in the Jewish tradition, but my parents did not really believe in God. Over time, this made the entire magnificent structure of Judaism seem to me like “an empty temple, its foundations resting on nothing, its spires pointing only toward the dark.” My bar-mitzvah was therefore an act of hypocrisy. In this passage from my memoir The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ, I describe the after-effects:
In that neighborhood, in those days, a bar mitzvah boy received a fortune in gifts. Cash and savings bonds. Gold watches and gold pen sets, not one but half a dozen of each, maybe more. Silver identity bracelets that were the current fad. Money clips and tie clips, chains and rings set with diamonds and other precious gems.
I’ve never worn jewelry much. I don’t like the feel of it against my skin. For decades, I never even wore a wedding ring or a watch. So a lot of these baubles weren’t actually useful to me. But I was absolutely dazzled by the worth of them. It was the first wealth that ever belonged entirely to me. Before that, I had once saved my allowance for months to put together forty dollars to buy a rare stamp. This though — this was — who knows how much? — thousands and thousands of dollars worth of precious metals, gems and legal tender. Riches beyond my imagination, and it was all mine.
I collected the haul in an elegant leather box that was itself one of the gifts. I stored the box in a toy cabinet built into my bedroom wall. In the days and weeks that followed, I would sit on my bed sometimes and take the box out of the cabinet. I would hold it on my legs and open the lid and gaze down at the contents. I would run my fingers over the chains and pens and watches. I would sort them in the box’s various compartments and try to guess at their value. It seemed a sparkling treasure to me, like the contents of Aladdin’s cave.
I don’t know how long my enchantment lasted. Six months maybe, maybe eight, summer into spring. But slowly, over that time, a deep misgiving grew in me. I would open my treasure box and find my delight in my wealth had become intermingled with a sense of self-reproach. There was something wrong with this, wasn’t there? At first, I couldn’t admit to myself what it was. But then I could, and my guilt soured to anger. I would sit on the bed and stare down at the open box on my legs. I would stare down at the gold and the silver and the gems and the bonds. I would run my fingers over them and hear them clink and rattle. And I would think, Why did you do it? Why did you let them make you do it? Why did you say those things in front of everyone that you did not believe? Why did you sing those prayers you did not even understand?
I didn’t think this then but I think so now: if deep-down I had not believed in God, it would not have troubled me as much as it did. If you had asked me the question at the time, I probably would have come out with some pseudo-sophisticated agnostic blather about the unknowability of the infinite. But I’d have been conning you; posing, parroting the adults. I believed, all right. It was in my nature to believe. I felt God there. Why else would I have been so distressed? If it had not mattered to me that I had lied in a temple, at an altar, with the Torah open under my hands — if it had not mattered, I mean, in some essential spiritual way — I think my guilt and shame would have been less intense. I think they would have faded away in time.
But they did not fade. As the months went on, they grew stronger. I grew angry at myself. I grew angry at my parents. I grew angry — not at Judaism specifically but at religion in general. I resented the whole machinery of godless ritual and mindless tradition. I resented its authority without integrity, big people wielding their power over small. With great pomp and sacred ceremony, they had made me declare what I did not believe was true — and then they had paid me for the lie with these trinkets! I felt that I had sold my soul.
When I opened the leather box, when I looked down at the gold and silver and gems and U.S. Bonds, it was a bitter, bitter thing. Even the pleasant chill of metal seemed to have faded from the stuff. It felt warm and clammy under my fingertips. I took the box out of its cabinet less and less often and finally not at all; I just left it in there. I pushed it to the back of its shelf, stacking old board games in front of it. Even so, even with the cabinet door shut, I felt its presence, a weight, a sorrow, an accusation.
Finally, one night, after I’d gone to bed, I forced myself to stay awake. I waited in the dark for over an hour. My father had to go to work so early in the morning that he was often asleep by nine, by ten at the latest. By midnight, usually, the whole house was quiet. When I felt I’d waited long enough, I opened the toy cabinet — quietly, quietly. I slid the boxes of board games aside. I drew out the leather box, full of jewels. Barefoot in my pajamas, I crept downstairs with the box tucked under my arm.
Just in back of the house, down a flight of three steps, there was a concrete platform. It was set beneath the kitchen window, beside the cellar door. Two garbage receptacles were built into the cement, side by side. When you wanted to open one, you would step on a foot pedal to lever up the iron lid. Then you could lower in the old grocery bags full of kitchen trash.
I remember — I can feel as I write — the cold of the concrete on my bare feet as I hurried tiptoe down those steps. I can still feel the rough surface of the cement through the knees of my pajamas as I knelt on the platform beside the receptacle. I pressed on the foot pedal with one hand to lift the iron lid. I can feel the cold of the iron against my palm. With the other hand, I stuffed the leather box into the sodden garbage bag. I remember — I can feel as I write — the damp coffee grounds and the brittle egg shells that rose around my forearm as I worked the box deep, deep into the trash. I wanted to make sure it would not be discovered before the garbage men came in the morning and took the bags away. When the leather treasure box was well hidden, I lowered the heavy lid carefully so it wouldn’t make a noise.
I crept back inside; crept quickly back upstairs, two stairs by two. I slipped back into my bedroom, closing the door behind me.
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