When my son Jack was small, he hated Passover. He had a real dread of the Seder that I couldn’t understand and he couldn’t articulate. You see, he’s on the autism spectrum; language is challenging for him on a good day. And the more anxious something makes him, the less access he has to the language he needs to express why.
The clue to his issue with the holiday came when he was in fourth grade, the year he first studied Greek Mythology in school. In the weeks leading up to Passover, he busied himself with a project – creating, of all things, a polytheistic Haggadah (yes, just as you would imagine: “We thank you, Dionysus, for the fruit of the vine. We thank you, Demeter, for the fruit of the earth…”)
Oh, dear. Not exactly in keeping with the Exodus story’s One God who “drew us out from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm…” Why was Jack so intent on this ambitious but, um, rather singular project? This was a puzzle, and while he’d handed me some of the pieces, I needed at least one more.
I suddenly remembered that Jack had bolted from the table the year before, right as we got to the Ten Plagues, and wouldn’t come back for some time. I’d also left the table at that time to go sit with him, but he gave me no clues as to why he’d fled. But a peek at the Olympic Haggadah he was now working so hard on showed that the Tenth Plague – normally written as “the Slaying of the Firstborn” – read instead, “And the firstborn were sent down to Hades, where Persephone could take care of them until they could return to their mothers.”
Ah. I had a glimmer of what was going on, and a conversation with Jack confirmed my suspicions. Jack is blessed and cursed with outsized empathy. He feels so strongly on behalf of others, that the Tenth Plague – brutal to us all – was simply excruciating to him. So unbearable, in fact, that he dreaded the whole holiday for weeks in advance, simply for making him recall it. And so Jack was attempting, through his Greek-mythology-inspired Haggadah, to put a gloss he could abide onto this horrific event. He wanted to participate in the Seder with his family, and had found a way to do so. And so we adults all decided to swap in the names of the Greek gods for our own that year (even if the believers in God among us switched the names back in their own minds) so that Jack could participate at the table with us.
Today, Jack’s polytheism has faded away and at thirteen, the boy is an avowed atheist. My concrete thinker is very clear about it: He doesn’t understand how people can believe in anything not bolstered by scientific evidence. He also doesn’t understand how people of any one faith can think it’s OK to suggest that their version of a deity is the “true” one, to the exclusion of other people’s different versions – he finds this terribly ethnocentric. He’s also offended that God is usually referred to with male pronouns and as a “King.” This feels sexist to him. He just doesn’t want any part of it.
So for a while after adopting this mindset, Jack was unable to see how he could possibly be a Jew. After all, our religion is predicated on monotheism. Heck, we were the original monotheists – we introduced the concept to the larger world.
Jack was intrigued, though, by the notion that there are a great many Jews who either question the existence of God or reject believing in God outright but nonetheless identify very strongly as Jews. This year, as he’s been preparing for the Bar Mitzvah he at first questioned why he should even be having, we’ve had lengthy and involved conversations, often while on long car rides together. I told him about the proverb: “On three things the world stands: On Torah (wisdom), on Avodah (service, i.e., worship) and on G’milut Chasadim (Acts of Lovingkindness, which includes Justice). Jack has loved attending our shul’s “Justice Club” this year and has always been an inherent activist. It intrigued him to think that this pillar is considered in Judaism to be just as important, if not more, in bearing up our planet as its two more overtly “religious” counterparts.
He himself has come up up with all sorts of ways that by attending worship services one can be “in service” to oneself and to one’s community, by supporting a grieving member with one’s presence during the Kaddish, for example. He sees ritual as being in service to one’s heritage and history by repeating words spoken by our people for over 2500 years. He likes the feeling of peace, love and understanding he gets at shul, even without directing prayers to a deity. Gratitude is gratitude, even if it’s generalized and not beamed at a Higher Power.
It has helped that we are active members of Lab/Shul in NYC, the tag-line for which is “Artist-Driven/Everyone-Friendly/God-Optional.” This remarkable community is thoughtful about every decision, and Jack is a big fan. He loves the choice to replace “Melech” (King) in the liturgy with “Ruach” (Spirit), for example. At a recent meeting of his “Justice Club” there, Jack actually called himself “A Jewish Atheist.”
Which brings me back to Passover. Jack’s hard at work now on a new Haggadah, this time with language geared towards both believers and atheists alike. All these years that Jack “hated Passover,” as it turns out, he has in fact really badly wanted to show up, he’s wanted to participate fully and enthusiastically. He’s just so earnest and sincere that he’s had to find a way to do so authentically. He couldn’t simply go through the motions because they were expected of him. And so, in steps, he found his way.
Jack’s leading our Seder this year. It’s going to be awesome.