A Jewish Atheist – Ian Weisberg’s Coming Out Story
Author: Ian Weisberg / Age: 43 / Sex: Male / Occupation: Computer Operator
With a name like Weisberg it should come as no surprise that I’m from a Jewish family. The synagogue that my family belonged to was of the Conservative denomination, which is a moderate group mixing Hebrew and English. The hard-core Jews were Orthodox, and the ones who needed more practice were the Reformed. There are many other sects within Judaism, but these are the 3 main groupings. My parents weren’t very religious, and they left my spiritual indoctrination/brainwashing up to my Rabbi and the temple. My father enjoyed attending weekly Sabbath services, but my mother rarely accompanied him.
As far as I can remember, I don’t know if I ever truly believed in God. Even at a young age, I was skeptical of the whole invisible man in the sky thing. When I was old enough to realize that there was no such thing as the Tooth Fairy, I started having my doubts about God. And since God never left me any gifts under my pillow, I think the Tooth Fairy had the upper hand. However, I continued through the traditional Jewish motions, went to Hebrew School for several years, attended the weekly services and the holiday performances, and got Bar-Mitzvahed at age 13.
What many gentiles don’t know is that it costs a lot of money to be a member of a synagogue. The annual dues for a typical middle class suburban temple can run anywhere from $1000 to $3000 per family, and those dues aren’t optional. It’s not like a church where you pay what you can. In a Jewish temple you pay what they tell you. Then again, I doubt that most synagogues could survive on the generosity of the typical Jew. In addition to the annual dues, members must purchase tickets to attend services on the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur). These tickets can be several hundred dollars per family, but at least there isn’t any scalping (or is there?). But wait, there’s more! The temple also expects voluntary contributions, urges members to purchase commemorative items to honor deceased loved ones, and for the children it costs an arm and a leg for Hebrew School and the Bar Mitzvah. The Jews invented guilt, and they’re the masters at it.
So what does the cost of being Jewish have to do with my deconversion? We were a middle class family, deep in debt, struggling to pay the bills. Every year when the invoice arrived for the temple dues, with an annual increase of course, my parents would flip out. Then they’d fight when another bill came for the tickets to the High Holidays. My father wanted us to go, but my mother said we couldn’t afford it. They always ended up paying it out of pressure from the synagogue, and feeling guilty about my upbringing. However, after my Bar-Mitzvah, that’s when the feces hit the fan. My father wanted us to keep going to services, but my mother was dead set against it. They asked me how I felt, and I didn’t care one way or the other. Judaism meant little to me. Just as an aside, I have a younger sister, and she didn’t care either. She didn’t go to Hebrew School or get Bat-Mitzvahed for a variety reasons (the cost, she didn’t care about it, it wasn’t important for girls to get a Bat-Mitzvah, etc). So this is where the fun starts. My parents were broke after my Bar-Mitzvah, and after conceding to my father’s wishes for 13 plus years, my mother finally put her foot down (she paid all the bills, by the by). My father wasn’t ready to give in so easily. He spoke to the Rabbi and the other synagogue leaders, whom he had known for many years, and tried to work out some sort of payment plan. They would have none of it; it was all or nothing. When we didn’t pay, we were tossed out like day-old bread (or decade-old matzoh – that stuff lasts forever). My father then contacted other temples, but to no avail. They all wanted too much money, and were unwilling to negotiate (after all, you can’t Jew down a Jew). As a last ditch effort, he went to a temple on a Friday night, sat quietly in the back, and didn’t bother anyone. It didn’t take long before one of the “bouncers” asked him to leave. He offered to make a weekly donation, but they demanded the whole dues enchilada (or would it be the whole gefilte fish? Is anyone counting the bad Jewish jokes?). After that, he gave up. I don’t think he ever attended services again.
As for me, I was totally disgusted at how my father was treated. If this was what Judaism was all about, then I wanted nothing to do with it. Does that mean God doesn’t exist? Not necessarily, but it means that God’s representatives here on Earth are greedy pigs unworthy of any devotion from me. It was a short journey from there to Atheism, with a brief layover at Agnosticism. I started questioning everything. I learned about other religions, and didn’t find anything that made any sense or was of any value to me. It was all fantasy and speculation at best, intolerance and violence at worst. I saw no evidence of anything genuine, and when I started looking objectively at the Bible and other religious texts, what I found was appalling. People have told me that my negative experiences with Judaism shouldn’t turn me away from God, but that’s not why I’m an Atheist. I would have become an Atheist anyway; the temple drama just gave me a swift kick in that direction.
By my early twenties I’d say I was 100% Atheist, but I kept quiet about it. Depending on who was asking, I might say I was an Atheist, or I might say I was Jewish, or sometimes I went with “I’m from a Jewish family”. So many people think Atheism equates to evil, and I was somewhat ashamed to admit it. When I entered my thirties I answered Atheist all the time, but I was still rather private about my beliefs. After I hit 40 (I’m 43 now), I started venturing into Anti-Theist territory, becoming increasingly confrontational about all the nonsense coming from the theists, and all the violence perpetrated by extremists and bigots. I know it’s not the best way to express myself, but that’s where I’ve been heading. I could do another 5000 words on how I feel now, but this story is about how I got here. Most recently (like about a week ago), I’ve decided to jump on this Humanist bandwagon. The brand name Atheist has gotten a bad rap, and I like the kinder, gentler name Humanism. As Don Draper once said, “The name has been poisoned. I’m not saying a new name is easy to find, but it’s a label on a can. And it will be true because it will promise the quality of the product inside.”