I’ve never been particularly religious. Perhaps this is because I was raised by a Catholic mother and a Jewish father who also aren’t particularly religious. Their relationships with their born-into faiths were more cultural than anything. If I inherited any “religious” traditions, it’s those that happened around the actual religious observances – the family meals, mostly, that came before or after a visit to the church or temple. Instead of learning prayers, I learned how to cook pasta. I know a few Baruch atah Adonai’s, but mostly I know where to get the best bagels.
In college, I became briefly obsessed with religion. I suspect a lot of people who weren’t raised particularly religious experience such a thing. With so much religion swirling around us – in the headlines, in our neighbors’ homes – how could you not have some questions in need of answering? But my inquiries were also driven by a set of feelings that I suppose you could call spiritual.
These feelings, strong and mysterious, were evoked by good books, acts of kindness, beautiful sights, and those long meals with family and friends that satisfy not only your stomach and palate, but also your heart and mind. My study of religion remained mostly that – a study. I think, now, that I was looking for a place, a history and community, that I could anchor those spiritual feelings in, but for whatever reason, I could only engage with the established religions on an intellectual level.
But recently, I had a bit of an epiphany. You might not think much of it, or might have arrived at a similar conclusion yourself long ago, but for me, it was a big deal. It was like a leak had been sealed in my brain. Like a bridge had been laid over a gap somewhere lower, and deeper down, inside of me. A religion is defined as a particular system of faith and worship. And don’t I have that? Haven’t I, in fact, had it all along?
Every winter, I know I’ll head home at least once or twice to light the menorah and eat some latkes. And I know, even a year in advance, where I’ll be and what faces will surround me on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. And instead of such predictability being boring, with each repetition it somehow grows more meaningful and thrilling, and inspires in me more profound feelings of gratitude and awe.
And maybe it’s heresy to call the certainty and knowledge of where I’ll eat Christmas dinner faith, maybe my observation of traditions such as trying at least one bite of every single dessert isn’t strictly worship, and maybe I’m just way too motivated by and obsessed with food. But I don’t think so. Because even when we’re eating matzah, even long after the leftovers have been packed up and divvied up and put away, those feelings remain, as strong and mysterious ever, but clearly rooted in the people around me, and in the history and community we’ve made.
Happy Holidays, wherever your faith lies and whatever you worship.