A secular discomfort with holy days

I realized that my secularism is not compatible with even the most secular Jewish practices.

Kids ride scooters on Yom Kippur 390 (photo credit: Darren Whiteside/Reuters)
Kids ride scooters on Yom Kippur 390
(photo credit: Darren Whiteside/Reuters)
I don’t like the holidays.
Maybe it’s resentment toward the rigidness of organized religion. Maybe it’s the result of years of rebellion against my father the rabbi. Maybe it’s that I can no longer tune out the religious significance of Jewish holidays now that I speak Hebrew. Or perhaps, my distaste for the High Holidays is because they represent a time of year when even the most secular Jew in Israel is forced to confront the religious significance of living in a Jewish state, and the complexities of a Jewish identity he or she is more comfortable not thinking about.
The last time I actively and willingly participated in a religious event of any kind was December 21, 1996, the day the Jewish people started calling me a man. Ever since, my presence and occasional lip-synching has been solely to please my parents.
I had no expectations about religious life when I moved to Israel six years ago. My move was not motivated by a search for Jewish identity; it was not to flee persecution; it was not a desire to participate in or fulfill Zionist ideology. I never thought of using the word aliya to describe my move. Love was my compass; to be more specific, I followed a girl. But of course, intentions, expectations and personal significance be damned, I moved to a Jewish, Zionist and religious state.
Judging by the extremely informal survey that is my life experience, there are very few actually secular Jews in Israel. In the contemporary Israeli lexicon, secular (hiloni) is a misnomer. Most “secular” people cling to Jewish traditions despite their weekly absence in synagogue or the fact that their bare heads lack the most basic symbol of Jewish observance, the kippa.
For many “secular” Israelis, Jewish tradition has taken on new meaning. Shabbat dinner became more about family than prayer. For some, fasting on Yom Kippur became a non-religious, non-repentant spiritual process, or for some, even a new-age Jewish “master cleanse.”
Slowly, I embraced elements of the Israeli brand of secularism.
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For the most part, my family in Israel is secular in the more traditional sense of the word. My (much older) siblings were raised on a kibbutz in an era when Communist Labor Zionism stripped holidays of all religious contexts and reinvented them as paganlike harvest festivals and sing-alongs, complete with their own unique songs and texts devoid of religious references or meaning. Those traditions too felt foreign at first, but I eventually embraced them. Like any other vacation, going to the kibbutz for the holidays became a welcome escape from studies and work. The holidays were about family, and I liked them. But it didn’t last.
A few years ago, one young member of my family came home with a newfound appreciation for – or at least an interest in – religious Judaism. The whole family played along. Some of the secular holiday songs were replaced with prayers. I respected her decision to explore religion, but it didn’t take long before I noticed a growing resentment that her religious exploration was encroaching on my secular holy day experience.
Displeasure quickly turned to guilt and introspection.
Who was I to assign secular meaning to religious rites, rituals and holidays? Why did I think that celebrating Rosh Hashana could be anything other than the religiously prescribed prayer and traditions that have defined Judaism for thousands of years? How did I believe that my zealous secularism could be reconciled with the most persevering religion in the history of mankind?
I realized that my secularism is not compatible with even the most secular Jewish practices.
That said, this year I will once again rent a car and sit in unbearable holiday traffic in order to spend Rosh Hashana with my family, though with different understandings, intentions and appreciations. I will no longer attempt to make the holy day my own by telling myself it is all about family; I am going because my family likes celebrating holidays – and I love my family.