An atheist, a Jew and a Protestant walk into a Catholic school
This week we’re continuing the theme of religion (and non-religion) with a guest essay from Stuart Waterman. You may remember him from previous essays on his son Kit and his love of filing. It’s nice to have him back.
My son starts school in a year. We’re very fortunate that he goes to a great nursery, which happens to be adjoined to a very well-ranked school. So—no-brainer, right?
It was, until fellow parents started fixating on the fact that this school has “Saint” in its name, and that there’s a fairly prominent religious theme in the artworks that adorn its hallways and classrooms.
There was a part of me that shrugged at this new information. I mean, loads of schools are kind of religious, right? And perhaps it’s just our liberal east London bubble that gives a hoot about this kind of thing. Loads of kids grow up having their schooling influenced by religion to various degrees. Like me!
When I was eight I was informed by my parents that we were moving to Wales, and when we got there I would be attending something called a ‘Church-in-Wales school’. I didn’t take the news too well.
My parents, as far as I could tell at the time, existed outside the bounds of religion. So what was with the church stuff? I’d been in a church maybe once or twice, tops, for christenings and the like. As far as I was concerned they were just another one of those Buildings Of Inconvenience—like garden centres or carpet showrooms—places you'd be dragged to on a Sunday purely because you weren't old enough to be left alone, with absolutely no concessions for children. And to really rub it in, they tended to occupy huge spaces that would be ideal for running around or playing football in, but of course your chances of indulging in either were zero. You might manage to eke out a cheeky little game of “War” with a sibling, but as soon as one of you was spotted army crawling it was game over.
So yeah, when my poor little brain immediately assumed that I would be going to a school, in a church, in Wales, it felt like quite the triple threat. And at that point in my life all I knew about God was that a) He lived in Heaven, and b) He now had the red balloon I once let go of for a second. And he seemingly refused to give it back. So I wasn’t entirely sure that this omniscient balloon-hogger was on my side.
I figured all the other kids in this school would be into praying, hymns and myrrh, and that they would laugh at me for being into Star Wars. Of course this turned out to be far from the truth—they were normal kids who enjoyed football, TV and trying out new swear words, just like me. And the religion element turned out to be pretty light-touch. To be fair to my parents, we’re talking about a little village in Wales, so they didn’t have an abundance of choice once they’d decided where we were moving.
But things feel a bit different when you live in a highly-diverse part of one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. And I’m probably not the only one who feels that the impact of religion on kids has started to feel a bit more high stakes in the last twenty years or so. Read the wrong newspaper and it can feel like every person of faith—and indeed non-faith—has had some kind of switch flipped inside them that’s led to this simultaneous worldwide polarisation.
But let’s assume this school we’re looking at is run by good eggs, and the only impact of attending a Catholic institution is that my child adorably demands we say grace now and then before dinner. Is that so bad? I genuinely don’t think it is; but it’s never quite that simple with religion, is it?
My dad’s side of the family is Jewish. My Mum was raised in a Protestant household. And my wife and I are atheists (I think?). Of those three, it’s the Jewish bit that I always come back to thinking about. It’s a bit odd because I am your cliched bad Jew. I can’t even claim to be Jewish, not really, because it’s passed down matrilineally. To a Jewish person, I wouldn’t be considered Jewish. To some non-Jewish people—such as Hitler, or my wife (not to conflate them)—I would be.
But I have little to no idea about the various festivals, ceremonies and prayers involved with being Jewish. My dad never forced it onto me and my brother, and given the choice of learning about thousands of years of Judaic ritual or the names of every minor character in The Empire Strikes Back, I’m afraid that as a kid it was a straightforward choice.
Now to Hitler, this wouldn’t matter. I’d still be carted away. But to my wife, my ignorance is the real crime. I am a continual disappointment when it comes to my knowledge of the faith. The exoticism of having a Jewish husband tends to fade when he responds to questions like ‘Why do menorahs look like that?’ with a shrug of indifference.
My dad has studied Judaism to an extent, and learned Yiddish. He was raised among family who observed the faith, and - importantly for his Judaic bona fides - was bullied and beaten up extensively at school as a result. He went to Israel and spent time on a kibbutz. He buried his parents in accordance with Jewish mourning rituals.
So it’s hard not to feel a certain recklessness as another Rosh Hashanah passes without me giving a schmegegge. Because, as with many faiths, it can never just be about religion. There are unavoidable cultural elements that feel as—if not more—important than knowing the scripture.
A while back my dad got into genealogy, and I helped him set up a website to catalogue the information he found so that distant relations might find it and get in touch. In the process of this I was exposed to certain layers of history that had previously been somewhat abstract to me.
The obvious one is the Holocaust, where my dad identified a considerable number of would-have-been relations who died. There’s always been an acknowledgement within the family that if we’d been born in a different time, in a different place, things could have been very different for us—but to some extent that’s true for everyone. It felt considerably more stark to see the names of distant kin—many as yet un-Anglicised—on lists of the dead from Auschwitz.
It was one of those instances where I found myself thinking a bit more deeply about the family line. Another came a few years later as my wife and I awaited the birth of our son. We’d already decided to create a new surname for him, combining those of mine and my wife’s, when I had to break the news to my dad that we’d decided not to have our new baby circumcised. I don’t remember him being particularly upset. But it wasn’t an easy decision to make or communicate. As a non-religious person it felt like a needless ordeal to put a baby through. But as a descendent of Jews it felt like one more example of how “the line” is being irrevocably altered.
And what of the rest of my child’s cultural heritage? I wasn’t raised to be close to the Jewish side of the family, and so he probably won’t be. How do you explain why it’s important to remember certain things about your ancestry when it’s bound up with a religion with which you have little relationship?
Throughout my life I’ve experienced moments where feeling Jewish has seemed important; where it’s made me feel vulnerable, or defensive, or proud. I still remember incidents where I’ve heard one person call another “a lying Jew”, unaware of my background. I recall how uncomfortable I’ve felt when hearing casual comments about Jewish people and money, or their noses, or their supposed thirst for power.
Overhearing things like this makes the pulse in my ears hammer like a drum, and they feel closer and more consequential than preposterous notions about sinister networks that rule the media, disguise themselves as lizards and drink babies’ blood.
So how do I pass that—the sense that there’s a part of him that is different, that people can’t see it, but that it’s important to know about it—down to a child who already has a visible difference that will probably feel far more consequential? Does attending a school attached to a different faith, one we have little connection to, mean there will be less room to accommodate his heritage?
We’re all built from bits and pieces of different faiths, nationalities and DNA strands. And at some point, the people above you in the family tree stop believing or observing certain things and those things don’t reach you. And yet life goes on.
I suppose it comes down to where you see your responsibility lying. Is it to your offspring, or is it to one of the bloodlines that brought you—and your child—into being? While people of strong, generationally-enduring faith may be able to manage both, for those of us with more fragmented backgrounds it’s a more complicated proposition.
And ultimately, if we’re all honest, can religion really be more important than an “Outstanding” from OFSTED?
3 things to read this week
“Kids Don't Want Cash Anymore–They Want 'Robux’” by Sarah E. Needleman and Sarah Donaldson in The Wall Street Journal Not a completely new trend—I can remember younger cousins asking for Xbox Live credit for Christmas, in the Xbox 360 days—but one that’s becoming more prevalent, especially amongst friends with older boys. Cash is no longer king—Robux, PokéCoins and V-bucks are now the preferential delivery method for pocket money (or what you’d call an allowance on the other side of the Atlantic). “The concept of a piggy bank—or even cash—is really archaic.”
“The Reassuring Truth About Lies” by Melinda Wenner Moyer in Is My Kid The Asshole? A helpful reminder for those of us with older children—kids fib, and you don’t have to worry too much about it. “And of course, kids learn how to lie because parents do it all the time — often, in fact, we encourage white lies. A few years ago during holiday break, my husband and I decided to take the kids to an indoor trampoline park. But when we woke up that morning, our daughter had a fever. My husband told our son that he would still take him, but that it would be best to tell his sister they were just running errands, lest she feel sad for missing out. My son was shocked by the suggestion. “But, Daddy, that’s a lie!” he said, mortified.”
“The Questions We Don’t Ask Our Families but Should” by Elizabeth Keating in The Atlantic. This one hit hard, and something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. Keating, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Austin, has written The Essential Questions, a guide to uncovering the stories from your family’s history. The time to ask my own grandparents these questions has sadly passed, but that may not be true for you. Carpe diem. “Your parents and grandparents may have experienced modernization, new technologies, changes in parenting attitudes, and even political revolutions. You may hear fascinating snapshots of what it was like to be a child when World War II gasoline shortages suddenly brought back ponies and carts in Ireland, what it was like arriving on Ellis Island with only a few articles of clothing, or what it was like to grow up when the stock market crashed in 1929, your family struggling to survive in a world falling apart. But even hearing about ordinary life can be interesting—because what was ordinary for your grandparents is likely not what’s ordinary for you.”
Last call for Christmas
Got a friend or family member with a kid? Here’s my very short TNF gift guide:
#1. An annual subscription to The New Fatherhood. This includes all essays, past and present, access to the community, regular online events, occasional in-person events next year (in London and Barcelona, other locations TBC), and an eBook containing some of the best essays on what it means to be a dad today. This subscription is perfect for current dads and dads-to-be, and comes with a pin badge and sticker set you can gift on Christmas Day. A portion of this money will also go the Therapy Fund, helping dads who need mental health support.
#2. The pin badge and sticker set, solo, minus the annual subscription. I mean, look at it:
Previously on The New Fatherhood
Last week’s essay on spirituality drove a fair few messages of self-reflection that I loved reading. Here are a few from the comments and the anonymous feedback form.
Spirituality and religion is a huge part of my daily struggles in life. Finding out what I believe or don’t believe when I grew up very much in a Christian family. I have gone away from traditional religion but feel some spirituality still in my life. Having kids adds to this feeling. Thanks for sharing this essay.
I've started to reconnect with the possibilities of religious, or spiritual, thinking. I'm a soon-to-be father (my wife is due at the end of March). A few months ago, I was reading about genetic testing and we had to make some decisions about what we would want to know, and what we would do, if they were able to detect a genetic abnormality with the growing baby. Thankfully everything is looking healthy so far, but in preparing for that decision and knowing that we are open and willing to bringing a child into the world regardless of what the tests showed, I found myself having a deeper appreciation for the role of religion and spirituality. Being faced with such a major life change and understanding that there will soon be so much in my life that is out of my control, I'm feeling humbled. I'm still making sense of all of it and I'm sure will be for some time, but investing some thought and appreciation for something deeper than what's available through sense perception in front of my nose suddenly sounds far more reasonable, and maybe even necessary, than it ever has for me before.
I think this ties up and into the sense that something “bigger” exists. But, it’s certainly “bigger” than just culture, as I think most spiritual people would agree with. I like how you approach the “woo” here, self-consciously acknowledging that a former version of yourself would have rolled your eyes all up and down the state. I strongly identified with that feeling. I, too, have shifted many beliefs, many to the degree that a former me would have shunned. But, such is the nature of growth and change, and, perhaps, perspective. Caleb
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