04/25/2014 02:02 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Pondering Religion's Absence as Son Turns 13

I have a teenager.

Yes. There is a 13-year-old in my house. With smelly armpits and the faint trace of facial hair on his upper lip. My baby is getting up there.

Terror grips me. There was no pomp and circumstance on the big birthday, April 15. For breakfast I got him his favorite mince pie from Dub Pies and a birch beer and we drove in the pouring rain to Long Island. He watched movies all afternoon with his brother as the wind rattled the windows, and for dinner he was joined by three out of four grandparents, two cousins, an aunt, a brother, parents, and a dog. The ice-cream cake was delicious.


There was no bar mitzvah, no ceremony where a rabbi and temple congregants congratulated him, no family and friends invited from far and wide. I am sad about this and, yet, here we are, a couple days away from the sleepover and paintball party that will mark my son's coming of age. There is no going back now, no way to alter the course so that he stands at an altar at 13 to sing his Haftorah.


We dropped out of the temple years ago. When I look back and try to remember why, it is slightly fuzzy. It didn't resonate enough. We weren't involved enough. It wasn't meaningful enough. From where I sit now, it seems I could have worked harder, but then I have always been hotheaded about dropping things when they don't feel right, when I don't feel like I fit in.

I never felt truly a part of Jewish ceremonies, despite having gone to temple nearly once a week for the first 17 years of my life, despite years of Hebrew School and being bat mitzvah-ed. The other day, I had a couple of friends over for Passover and I could barely explain the Seder plate and what the things on it represented, despite being present at probably more than 43 Seders in so many years.

I am not proud of my lackadaisical reaction to religion. I often find myself jealous of my Modern Orthodox friends with their strict rules and traditions, the way they know what every weekend will bring and what is to be done for every special ritual.


I cannot pretend to feel what I do not, and I certainly can't ask my kids to believe in things that I cannot fully stand behind.

It is a bummer.

"Couldn't you have just gone once a year, sent him to Hebrew school?" a neighbor asked when I lamented the route we've taken that has brought us here, with no great way to celebrate my teen in the community.

"Oh, I see," another neighbor, a psychologist said, nodding, when I explained my predicament. "You need meaning."

Yes, I thought. I need meaning. And meaning is so very personal.

I can't say why no temple seems to offer me what I need to understand the meaning of life and to pass that on to my progeny. There are some amazing lessons to be learned in the teachings of Judaism, in the questioning. But Buddhism has its great lessons too. Jesus and Joseph Smith have both motivated a lot of people. I became a writer, I suppose, because I can see that every story has some meaning to offer. And it seems I cannot in good faith just choose the one.

I am certainly not alone in Park Slope, not being affiliated with a specific religion, at slightly loose ends for the ways in which to celebrate rites of passage because of my failure to adopt one story. It is a problem of the loss of religion that we likewise lose traditions that can help us and our kids make sense of the changes time brings, the seasons, and the separations between one period and another.


I cannot go back in time, and I would probably do it the same way all over again given half a chance, anyway. I am not one to subscribe to group rules and rituals, even though I often wish I was, even though it would give some structure to what at times feels like a sea roiling with choices. My husband grew up with no religion, so he reassures me that our kids will be fine, upstanding citizens without it. I have to believe he is right.

This article first appeared as Steph Thompson's Fearless Parenting column in The Brooklyn Paper.