The Jewish Atheist Meet-Up

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A couple of more people enter, a man in his 70s with a white beard, hawk nose, and frameless eyeglasses, and a tall soignée woman in black whose nose looks unnaturally bobbed. I feel an affinity for everyone in the room, everyone who felt strongly enough about their Jewish identity to come to my meetup.

Time to begin. Maybe my soulmate, my bashert, will come late. I’ve prepared a brief, introductory spiel. “You may wonder why atheist. Why Jewish? Why now? Well, as you know, there are many synagogues out there – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist – that provide community, intellectual stimulation, and emotional solace while we’re left out in the cold. We’re fiercely Jewish, yet atheistic, alone, without a community. And yet, just as others do, we treasure our Jewish heritage, art, culture and history.” I leave out the part about me looking for a soulful, sexy man.

They nod enthusiastically, and the white-bearded fellow says, “Amen!” in a joking voice, and everyone laughs, including me.

I’m just about to ask the members to introduce themselves, when the door creaks even louder than before, and someone enters. I note immediately his loose-fitting pinstripe suit, the yarmulke on his head, and the [/glossary]tzitits[/glossary] sticking out of the suit jacket. “Hello,” he says in a laid back, deep voice. “Sorry I’m late.”

For a moment I wonder if someone is playing a trick on me, like one of my bandmates sending a friend decked out in religious garb to intimidate me. “You must be lost,” I tell him, staring at his yarmulke, sign of a religious Jew, placing him to be about my age.

“Jewish Atheist Club?” he asks, and the group nods at him. “Then I’m in the right place.”

He sits directly across from me, and I sense that Yarmulke Guy is the real thing, not a trickster sent to knock me off my game. He has the young Bob Dylan thing going on – dark curly hair, blue eyes, slightly hooked nose, fair skin. I’ve always had a thing for that look, and he resembles the early album covers of doe-eyed Dylan in a big way. My breath catches in my throat as I deliberately avert my eyes.

“Let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves.” I pull myself together, avoiding looking at Yarmulke Guy.

“I’m Mona,” the orange-haired woman says. “I was raised Orthodox, but I rebelled big time.”

Yarmulke Guy seems content to wait for his turn. I force myself to keep my eyes from wandering to him as I listen to “my Jews,” as I’m already thinking of them — the orange-haired woman, the young couple, the woman in black, and the white-bearded man — as each speaks in turn of their yearning for community.

Finally, it’s Yarmulke Guy’s turn, and now I stare directly at him, memorizing his strong nose, square jaw and deep blue eyes. A current runs up my spine. I cross and uncross my legs. His shoulders are broad, and I imagine his hips to be narrow, a swimmer’s physique. I feel a magnetic pull from him that I must resist.

He speaks in a deep, masculine voice. “I’m here to change your minds, to show you that you cannot be both Jewish and a non-believer. Without G-d, there is no Judaism.” He smiles widely right at me, like a flirty Dylan seducing one of his fans. “The fact that you call yourself Jewish,” he nods first at me, holding my gaze for a beat, and then the others, “shows that deep down you do believe.”

I’m feeling dizzy, lightheaded. This is the last thing I expected – a heckler of sorts, even though now and then one shows up at the gigs my band plays, criticizing our covers as lacking the pizzazz of the originals, which never bothers me because I think we’re good at what we do, even if we’re not the most ambitious band on earth.

But such a handsome heckler Yarmulke Guy is, albeit with yarmulke and tzitits. The air is tight in my lungs as I listen to him.

“If you don’t observe Shabbat,” he continues, “if you don’t observe our dietary laws, no meat with milk, no shellfish…. If you don’t believe that the Prophet Elijah sits unseen at the Passover table, what kind of Jew are you? If you call yourself Jewish, you must embrace these things.” He opens a bottle of water and takes a sip, looking at me. His eyes grow hooded, and I feel my own doing the same.

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  • Fantastic story. How does one negotiate a Jewish identity without belief in the religious aspects of Judaism? I love the exploration of secular Judaism in terms of sexuality. Thank you for sharing your work with us, Janice!

  • Ayo Oppenheimer

    There are so many things that divide us in this world, and differences can breed tension. But, as this story demonstrates, perhaps sexuality, attraction and the “search for the soulmate” can bridge those gaps and bring people together in positive ways. Thank you for writing this piece, Janice!

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