April 2, 2020

The Year I Wanted Out of Religion

Small stone pebbles placed as an act of remembrance and respect below the Star of David. Photo by Oleksandra Korobova/ Getty Images

If you view the religious practices of Orthodox Jews as over the top, you might want to skip to another column.

Come to think of it, if you’re on the fence about whether to have children, you, too, might want to read something else.

Let me say what many observant mothers were thinking over the past few weeks, beginning with Rosh Hashanah and ending with Simchat Torah:
It’s too much.

Before I had kids, I imagined that caring for children during the High Holy Days was a time of fun and learning at home — like a short summer break. I was an idiot.

Summer break? You don’t spend hours shopping in crowded kosher markets, cooking and hosting every few days during summer break — all while trying to be in synagogue with little ones and adhering to strict religious laws.

On Rosh Hashanah, I was tired but cheerful. On Yom Kippur, I was bitter and exhausted. And by Shemini Atzeret, I was done.

In fact, I feel bad for Shemini Atzeret, because unless you attended Jewish school, which I didn’t, no one seems to know what it is. We’re supposed to ask God to tarry for another day of connection and joy. Because it was 92 degrees that day, I grumbled bitterly.

I’m not proud of this, but I would dislike Shemini Atzeret because it adds another day of observance to an overwhelmed month, if not for the fact that deeper Jewish sources allege our judgment is sealed on this day. Now I’m just scared
of it.

Can we give observant Jews license to say they sometimes struggle with  the demands of religious life?

I struggled with connecting to God and community this year perhaps because attending synagogue services was the benchmark of the High Holy Days for me before I had kids. Our oldest son didn’t want us to leave him in the kids’ playroom, which meant that my husband and I spent most of our time in synagogue sitting on the floor and watching toddlers play, argue and wipe their noses with anything but tissues — sometimes for hours.

And then, the head colds arrived. Two sick toddler boys and two tired, starving parents on Yom Kippur. Not to mention the fact that school was closed for what seemed like an eternity.

Depleted and depressed, I uttered something terrible to my husband — something I never thought I’d say because as someone who didn’t grow up religious, I’d worked so hard to achieve:

“I think I want out.”

Out of religious life.

Out of not being able to hop in a car to take the kids out for the day because it was a holy Yom Tov and driving is forbidden.

Out of not being able to turn to my saviors — the prophets Bert and Ernie — on such days, because electronic devices are also forbidden.

At one point, I wondered bitterly, Didn’t God have anything better to do than to be appalled if I turned on a kids’ TV show just so I could get seven minutes of time to myself?

I’m not usually like this. I love Judaism madly. Deeply. Insatiably.

Can we give observant Jews license to say they sometimes struggle with the demands of religious life?

The day that school restarted was better than a trip to Disneyland. But as I looked around an empty home, I realized that I’d never get this year’s High Holy Days season back in terms of how our children were right in those moments: little, totally needy and begging to stay in our arms.

Yes, they were sick, and no, I didn’t get to hear the shofar this year. But one afternoon, after days of listlessness from being sick, our oldest son picked up his toy shofar and began to blow away. Though it sounded like a broken kazoo, it signaled that he was finally better. I was so grateful although that little sound made my heart yearn for the real thing.

I was still overwhelmed and struggling with disconnection, but I yearned for the discordant, redemptive sound of the shofar. Maybe I didn’t want out. Maybe I really, really wanted in.

Tabby Refael is a Los Angeles-based writer and speaker.