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dear gefilte

Dear Gefilte: How Do I Come Out as a Jew to My Atheist Family?

star of david necklace

Dear Gefilte,

I am a college student, and I am new to Judaism. After some seriously long and extensive research, I feel like I have found my home. Even though I grew up as an atheist (surrounded by my atheist parents, who still think I am one), I feel I have connected to God. 

What do you do when everyone you’ve been thinking of coming out to as a Jew blasts religion (mercilessly and without open-mindedness)? My family, my extended family, even my best friend and college roommate. (I’m at a small Lutheran college in the Midwest). What do you do when the only Jews you can find online are those who believe that the Exodus really happened? I want to be part of a community that doesn’t believe we received the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai, and still finds ways to celebrate the holidays.

What do I do? How do I come out as a Jew without leaving my family and friends behind? How do I connect with other Jews that think like me? Are there any?

Sincerely

Closeted Jewess

READ: How Music Helped Form My Daughters’ Jewish Identity


Dear CJ,

Welcome to this merry band of wanderers. I am so impressed by your honesty and the way you are daring to believe.

Question: Have you, by any chance, heard a song called “Frere Jacques”?

Yeah, I wrote that.

One of my earliest works, of course. Catchy yet plaintive in tone. Easy to play on a recorder while esoteric in meaning.

I remember being so proud of myself as I crooned this ditty with my best gefilte friend in the back of the station wagon. The longer the trip, the louder I sang.

Until that inevitable yet heartbreaking day when an older sibling who shall remain nameless asked me did I know the words were actually not, “Somay lemon tina” but something ridiculously coherent in French?

Also, that it was written about 200 years before I existed. Duh.

I stopped singing for a while after that.

CJ, I tell you this not because you’re a French chanteuse with a rude awakening coming towards you. I’m telling you this because your song is just beginning. And sometimes you’ll be in harmony with the people around you, and sometimes people will try to tell you there’s no such thing as middle C. There will always be somebody trying to knock you off your center, but it doesn’t have to topple you completely.

Whoever started this song doesn’t matter any more.

You are singing it. So I dare you to be loud.

READ: A Family with Multiple Identities

I love that you’re exploring what can be possible even while you’re swimming through a sea of doubt—your own and the guppies around you. I think your family and your roommate have a lot of doubt, too. If not in their words, then definitely in their minds. Here’s my gefiltosophy: Nobody really needs to scream NO! that loudly unless part of them is shouting over a tiny inner voice squeaking, But what if…?

Here’s the deal—you won’t get anywhere besides Crazytown trying to defend your beliefs, and you are still discovering them for yourself so I would hate to see them harpooned. So I think it’s time for B to the O to the UNDARIES.

B: Be honest

O: Open up with something like, “I respect your beliefs and I’ve been thinking about what I feel and believe too…”

U: Understand that they still could respond harshly

N: No one is “right” or “wrong” when it comes to faith

D: Darwin was…

A: An amazing man and…

R: Researcher

I: I believe in…

E: Evolution and miracles, mystery, and the fearful power of unknowing

S: So, where were we?

Yes. CJ, your roommate and family will say or think whatever they say or think. It sounds like you want to tell them where you’re at, and I commend you for it. I’d say, focus on what you know and feel about your connection to God. Speak openly, honestly, and then let go.

Also, watching this video for Jewess Power is always helpful to me.

READ: I Hate Identity Politics. Here’s Why

Speaking of skin-tight jeans and brilliant comediennes, it sounds like a Midwestern Lutheran college might not be a hotbed for Sukkot parties. But, that opens the door for you to find connections in lots of new ways.

Here are some of the circles I joined in my college days:

-Students for Peace
-No Blood for Oil (not so peaceful)
-Improv Shenanigans
-Russian Speakers’ Collective (couldn’t get past “Have you seen the KGB?”)
-Hillel (a Jewish group that was much more conservative than the reform upbringing I had, but still I could hum along)

I spent most of my time with the improv freaks. I stayed up ‘til dawn writing ridiculous skits about dolphins in tiaras and Oedipus line-dancing with his mom. I laughed my tail off with people I truly admired. Before shows on Friday nights I often stopped at the Hillel house to hum a few tunes and grab some challah too. I didn’t really laugh much there though.

I think it takes a while to find the community of religious connection you’re seeking. I know I’m still searching. So for right now, maybe it could be helpful for you to read books about Judaism, or take a synagogue road trip and sing the Shema in a new cornfield, or join a meditation group and hear what comes up for you in the stillness.

And just to reassure you, there are lots of flavors within Judaism where we don’t reenact the Book of Exodus. I found this article fascinating about all the 50 shades of gefilte within the soup of Judaism—Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Humanist, Transdenominational—just for starters. You could even get a fishball pen pal.

Just remember, faith isn’t always in fashion. But whether you call yourself Jewish, Muslim, or Darwinian Revolutionary Evangelists with a side of Agnosticism, we all are brought to a point in our lives where we ask: 

Why am I here?

dear gefilte

For me, it’s to sing loudly in a language I don’t know. To laugh my tail off and give love wholly, and believe in an all-loving God.

READ: Actually, I am Jewish, Even if You Don’t Agree

Phew.

That was scary to admit. But it felt good.

With love and schmaltz,

Gefilte

Have a question for Gefilte? Send it to deargefilte@kveller.com, and you might just get an answer. 

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