One midnight in late winter, at age 13, I rose stealthily from my bed. Moving quietly so as not to wake my parents and three brothers, I removed a leather box from the storage cabinet built into my wall. It was filled with jewelry, watches, pens, and savings bonds—thousands of dollars’ worth of gifts. They had been given to me that summer for my bar mitzvah.
For a long time, I had marveled at these riches, great wealth for a boy in the 1960s, even in the well-to-do suburb in which I lived. From time to time, I would open the box and arrange the jewelry in its compartments, touching the rattling identity bracelets, tie pins, and cufflinks. I would silently estimate the value of the haul.
But over time, that pleasure soured and died. The truth was, I had hated my bar mitzvah. The majesty and profundity of the Jewish coming-of-age ceremony—the majesty and profundity of Judaism itself—were lost on me. Or rather, they had never been instilled in me, for the simple reason that my parents did not believe in God.
My homemaker mother was, to the day she died, as certain an atheist as I have ever met. My father, an antic radio comedian, hedged his bets a little: it was not in his nature to defy a Gigantic Invisible Jew who could give you cancer just by thinking about it. Both my parents acknowledged that they had schooled my brothers and me in Jewish practices only in service to tradition. Their motivations were racial loyalty and religious guilt, not bringing us closer to the divine. Despite our dutiful celebration of Jewish holidays, God had no living presence in our family. We did not say grace before meals or prayers before bedtime. We did not read the Bible at home or discuss morality in terms of God’s nature or his will.
This rendered our Jewish observances absurd. Hebrew school, synagogue, the whole magnificent 4,000-year-old structure of Jewish theology and tradition: Without God, what was it but an empty temple, its foundations resting on nothing, its spires pointing only toward the dark?
Done with Hypocrisy
I was a boy who insisted that ideas, philosophies, even my daydreams make sense. Before I could imagine myself as some great warrior or superhero, the fantasy needed a logical context. This was good training for a kid who would one day become a writer of adventure and suspense novels, but it also taught me that words and thoughts should have integrity. I could not rid myself of the notion that when I stood at the synagogue podium for my bar mitzvah, when I declared myself a member of the Jewish faith, I was lying, betraying my deepest sense of self.
Why did I speak words I did not believe? Why did I sing those Hebrew prayers I did not even understand? And so, that winter night, after my parents and brothers had gone to bed, I crept quietly outside with the leather box full of riches.
There, beneath the kitchen window, beside the cellar door, two garbage receptacles were sunk into a concrete platform. I knelt, feeling the rough, cold cement through the knees of my pajamas. I pressed the foot pedal to raise the lid. With my other hand, I stuffed the box into a paper trash bag sodden with coffee grounds and egg shells. I worked it deep into the debris so that it would not be discovered before the garbage men came in the morning.
With this gesture, I hoped to leave behind not only Judaism but religious life entirely. No more hypocrisy and empty show. For most of the next 35 years, I remained a philosophical agnostic and a practical atheist. No shock of revelation changed me either. I never saw a flash of light like Paul on the road to Damascus. I never heard a voice telling me to “take up and read” like Augustine under the fig tree. Jesus never appeared to me while I lay drunk in the gutter.