Thursday, August 28, 2008

Interview with Abandoning Eden

Commenter Moshe emailed me a bunch of questions for a sociology project he is working on which looks at blog comments. So I figured I would repost my reply here. :)

Can you share with me your personal experiences with commenters on your blog? How do their backgrounds inform their comments?

I'm not sure what you mean by "personal experiences" Like personal experiences on the blog? The only thing that sticks out is Jacob Stein- that guy is insane! Around last thanksgiving he spent a whole bunch of time telling me how I'm going to go to hell, and how I must believe in god, otherwise "Who am I thanking on thanksgiving!!1!!!." Otherwise, I definitely feel an affinity to certain bloggers more so than others; people who are more similar to me, and who talk about personal experience rather than argue about the minutia of religion are commenters I like the most.

I don't know most of my commenters in real life, I do know a few in real life, and they tend to post a lot more regularly. I also don't know what commentors backgrounds are; there are only 3 regular commenters who I know in real life who post comments on my blog regularly. I think the commenters are mostly split- about half are fellow skeptics, maybe 1/4th are still orthodox jews and are coming to tell me I'm going to hell or something, and about 1/4th are people whose blogs I read and comment on, but have nothing to do with Judaism. Their comments are of course very different- most skeptics are very supportive, while the people who are still orthodox tend to be very critical of me and my relationship with my parents (understandably).

What subjects do people respond to in the highest volume? Are they antagonistic or do they listen intently to what you have to say and then offer constructive comments?

The most comments I have gotten have been on posts dealing with my parents, and especially posts where I cut and paste emails to or from my father. I'd say they are about split 70-30; 70% people being supportive, giving advice, being constructive. Roughly 30% are people telling me I'm going to hell, that I'm ruining my family, that I am a terrible person, etc. Also included in that 30% are a bunch of people who seem confused that I would go off the derech, and ask questions about why what I'm doing- usually with the intention of telling me how wrong I am. Once in a while I get a Jacob Stein type, who is completely insane and rants about how atheists all have a ton of abortions or something. :)

From your point of view, why do you talk about these subjects?

I started my blog shortly after my grandmother's funeral. During the funeral, my dad used around half the Eulogy to talk about how he has to honor his mother's memory by making sure his children were religious. He knew at the time that I had not been religious for years, and that I had been dating my then-boyfriend/now-fiance, who is not jewish for several months. I was pretty upset by this whole experience, especially since I had to change vacation plans and tickets to get to the funeral, which my fiance had really helped me out with, and I had spent a lot of the day before making sure my brothers were getting on planes and that the rabbi knew everyone's names, etc...basically I felt that I had done a lot more than my siblings and cousins to make sure the funeral and travel went smoothly, and I was really hurt when my dad turned around and used the Eulogy to try and shame me about not being religious.

When I got back home I went searching on the internet for some kind of former-religious-person's support group. I didn't find one, but what I did fine was Jewish Atheist's Blog. I spent almost an entire day reading his back entries and commenting on them. A few days later I decided that the best way I could find support, and also talk about jewish-related things that were bothering me, was to start a new blog.

Prior to starting this blog, I had (and still have) another blog over at, which I started in 2001. That blog has identifying information, and is not open to the public. I felt like for a while all my posts over there were bitching about my parents, and that I had a lot to say on the subject- and that I also wanted the blog to be public so that random people on the internet looking for someone like them (like I had been) could access it. Hence my blog began. :)

What goals do you seek to accomplish by maintaining this blog? Are they personal goals, or do you seek to promote change and understanding?

Well mostly I want a place where I can complain about the way my parents are reacting to my relationship and non-religiousness, talk about the ridiculousness of religion, and have a supportive group of people who will be sympathetic to what I am going through, and also who understand exactly what I'm going through. My fiance is very sympathetic of course, and has had similar experiences, but did not grow up orthodox jewish, so doesn't understand the minutia of religious insanity.

I was not anticipating that a lot of crazy orthodox fundementalists would come over to my blog and tell me I'm going to hell, but they don't really bother me (I usually just don't respond). I think I have achieved that community goal; many skeptic bloggers have told me they are starting blogs because of me, and I get comments all the time that say things like "I'm so happy to see there is someone else out there like me, my story is so similar to yours!" Those comments always make me smile, and I like to feel like I am helping people who were like me a few years back, or who are like me now, but don't have a sense of community with other skeptics that I have. I don't really want to change people who are religious (except maybe my parents and their reactions to me), and I don't have some mission to go changing a bunch of religious people into atheists. Rather, I want to establish and continue a community of former-orthodox-jews who have already become skeptical, and are looking for other people going through the same experiences. Kind of like footsteps, but online.

Why do you personally feel your family reacts to you the way they do (specifically your parents)?

Well, they live their entire lives based on certain premises- that the orthodox jewish religion is correct, that there is a god, that god cares that they do things the orthodox jewish way, etc. At least once every few minues they do something differently than most people because of these premises, whether it is my mom covering her hair, my dad wearing a kippa, eating certain food, praying at certain times, not doing certain things on certain days of the week, etc. My parents don't even really have non-orthodox friends that I know of, and all their lives are about judaism.

And then I go living my life under an entirely different paradigm; that I can do whatever I want, as long as it doesn't hurt other people, that there is no god, and that if there is a god, ze probably doesn't care what I'm doing on a day to day basis as long as I'm not hurting other people. That's my paradigm. And even though in my view my paradigm is perfectly normal and moral and ethical, just by living my life the way I want to I am directly challenging the foundation of all their actions. There's no way that they can accept that what I'm doing is correct, without accepting that the entire basis for the way they live their life is wrong. And that's a scary prospect. So of course they have to stick to their guns.

Apart from that, my dad is the child of holocaust survivors and my mom is the child of someone who faught for the US in world war 2. They both are very concerned about passing on jewish traditions and their way of life to their children, and feel that if they don't pass on their traditions they are a failure. I also think there is a very high amount of community pressure about religion. Me marrying someone not jewish is very embarrassing to them- in the town I grew up in, people talk in whispers about people going off the derech and marrying someone not jewish, and do not talk kindly about them. Unfortunately, even if it is not my parents fault (and I don't think it is), my parents will be blamed and looked down upon because of my actions. Which is sad.

Finally, when I was *just* not religious, they could comfort themselves by telling themselves that it was a teenage rebellious phase, and that I was going to grow out of it. But getting married has a kind of finality and permanency that *merely* not following religion for a time; I think at this point they are having to accept that I will never again be religious.

Why do you think you chose a different lifestyle?

Well, I think it's a combination of a few things-
The first is that I was always skeptical about the existance of god, and if there is a god, that judaism as a religion had it right. It seemed to me that every religion was claiming to be right, so what made Judaism more right than those other religions? I had a lot of questions as a child, and not a lot of answers; and the more questions I asked that there were no logical answers to, the more skeptical I became. I don't know if I ever really believed in god; I remember in first grade just moving my mouth during davening instead of actually davening, so the teacher wouldn't bother me about it. If I had actually believed in god, wouldn't I have actually prayed? Actually now that I think about it, there have been times I have prayed to someone- but it was never in an organized setting like the jewish community, and it was never using the words of davening. I instead used to pray by basically asking god for things I would need or things to go well in a certain situation. I think there was definitely a time period when I believed in god, but didn't believe in the jewish religion.

Ok so that was the first part. The second part is that I never really felt like I fit in with the jewish community. Part of that might have just been my personality, and that I was kind of a misfit of a child. Part was that I was pretty intelligent (I know that sounds super arrogant, but now that I'm almost done with a PhD at an Ivy League University I feel it is partially justified)- I remember getting made fun of a lot on the schoolbus for reading books when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. Maybe it was partially due to my skeptism; other orthodox jewish young women could sense that I wasn't really one of them, in that I didn't quite drink the koolaid to the extent they did. In any case, I never felt like I fit in to the jewish community.

There was one part of the jewish community I did fit into - there was a bunch of other kids at NCSY who were like the "bad kids." Most of them were actually kind of geeky in retrospect, and not 'bad' at all (but maybe they seemed bad to naive sheltered people?) And most of those "bad kids" ended up breaking the rules of religion. I think being in that community definitely made me feel more normal when I was breaking those same rules.

Another part was maybe that I didn't like people telling me what I could or couldn't do. As a woman, it seemed the only career options to me were to be a housewife, or to be a teacher. Nowadays there are a lot of young jewish women working in PT and OT and all that, but I don't think those jobs were really popular when I was in high school. Meanwhile, in my high school we were taught all about how to be a good housewife and mother. My dad also has pretty sexist views in general- for instance when I started grad school he kept telling me how I would never go on to be a professor or even finish my program, since my 'biological clock' would turn on and I would want to have kids. And then if I had kids, how could i also have a career? He didn't seem to think that was possible. In college, when I started learning about women's studies, and feminism, I started questioning my own experiences. It seemed to me that women in orthodox judaism were kept down, and were told they could only have certain types of jobs and lifecourses because of their gender. And being someone who didn't like people telling me what I could do, it really bothered that people were telling me I would act a certain way in the future because I happened to be born in one gender instead of the other. I think it was around then that I truly stopped following religion- up until then I kind of half-assidly kept kosher (like I didn't eat non kosher meat), even though I hadn't kept shabbas for years- during college I stopped keeping everything religions, and stopped keeping kosher and holidays, etc.

And here's a bonus question from an anonymous commenter: Did you stop following the religion because you stopped believing in G-d or did you stop believing in G-d because you stopped following the religion?

Ah, the chicken or the egg question. Well I think I stopped following the religion because I didn't believe that if there was a god, that god made that religion. And then once I stopped following the religion, I was able to critically examine my own notions of god, at which point I started feeling a little silly. It seems to me that god is a concept that is very comforting to people, and that religion definitely has a purpose, in that it helps organize society and people's morality. As Karl Marx said, "Religion is the Opiate of the People." So yeah, back to the god thing...once I began to really think about it, the concept of god seemed ridiculous to me. Like believing in invisible pink unicorns or flying spaghetti monsters. So yeah in sum, yes? :) I stopped following the religion because I stopped believe in the jewish conception of god, and then once I had stopped following the religion and examined many more conceptions of god (and in college i did go through a period where I studies a whole bunch of different religions), I gradually stopped believing in god entirely.

I was about to write that I think there is a possibility of god that no religion got right, but once I wrote it down I realized I don't believe in that at all. I believe in random chance, and that I better live this life the best possible way I can, cause I won't get another opportunity.


  1. you are not supporting other non-religious jewish bloggers. you are assisting them in burning in HELL for their sins!

    (ps. this is not joodah. :) yup, definitely not joodah)

  2. BTW, This weekend, I dug up a picture of your mom and my dad playing in a band together. It's pretty awsome.

    Just like you, i never fit in, not to the community we grew up in, not to my school, and not to NCSY. i call our group the "fringe kids", those kids who would go to orthodox programs, but didn't fit in and started their own anti-community.

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  4. Fascinating interview! Interesting details about yourself, some of which I identify with.

    To play devil's advocate (or God's advocate?) for a moment: I take issue with the implied assertion that people disagreeing with certain details in how you conduct your relationship with your parents (insofar as you reveal it on your blog) necessarily do so out of religious-based motivations.

    Personally, even while I'm pretty much on the same page as you theologically, I've felt some of your comments (and actions, perhaps) demonstrate a certain lack of understanding of your parents' point of view -- even while being justifiably pissed at their lack of understanding of your point of view. So I think people may disagree with the way your relationship with your parents seems to be going to hell in a handbasket, even if they don't really think YOU are going to hell (in a handbasket or otherwise).

  5. JP- So you do have a sense of humor! :)

  6. baal devarim-

    well I think it usually goes hand in hand, but not necessarily all the time. I was trying to state things in more general terms. :)

  7. joodah- you should totally scan that picture into a computer and email it to me or something. :) Or bring it over next time you visit. :)

    Yeah in retrospect, I was thinking about the people in our "fringe kids" group there, and most of them didn't seem "bad" at all. In fact, a good chunk of us were just geeky kids. I think if we had gone to schools that were bigger or organizations that were more diverse, our 'fringe' group would have actually been a bunch of different groups- but since there were so few of us who were out of the ordinary, we all kind of banded together.

  8. I do have a sense of humor, but what's funny about evil scumbags?

  9. Jacob-- you sure do know how to persuade people!

    As to what's "funny about evil scumbags," I think you're probably not all that evil (although your obsession with other people's sexuality makes it harder to defend you against the scumbag charge).

    My guess is that you experienced abuse as a child and, consequently, you've lost your ability to feel much empathy for your fellow humans.

    Of course, if I'm wrong, and you weren't abused, then (ironically), your inability to feel empathy for others is a remarkably un-Jewish trait (in spite of all your professed belief). Perhaps you're really not one of us after all... ever think about that?

  10. I think that post he linked to contains the answer- his father was an atheist and a promiscuous drunk! According to him anyways. Maybe that's why he thinks all atheists are sex addicts, and delusional.

  11. Great interview, I identify with a lot of what you had to "say" and especially like the way you answered the "what came first" question.

  12. "while the people who are still orthodox tend to be very critical of me and my relationship with my parents (understandably)."

    Well I am orthodox and I understand you quite well, because I go through similar problems with my anti-orthodox parents.

    Your blog is at the same time a great relief and very interesting to me.
    A great relief because I discover that my parents are not the only .... (fill in things ont is not allowed to say about his parents) in the world, there are also orthodox parents who behave the same way.

    And very interesting, because it shows me what my children could feel like if I had any and raised them orthodox...

  13. Interesting interview. Some of the previous comments are a little, um, over the top.

    I think your blog does a service to people, by presenting the range of responses that people have to orthodox judaism. I would suggest that you distinguish cultural and philosophic judaism. I have one brother who, for serious reasons, also is an atheist "philosophically", but that has not inhibited him from reading torah at his synagogue and participating in family rituals. (I realize an orthodox synagogue would not want an atheist reading, but his reform synagogue doesn't care). He just doesn't believe in the rituals as relates to God, only as relates to his community and family.

  14. conservative sci fi- for a while I did that- celebrated holidays and stuff and pretended that it was a cultural thing rather than a religious thing. And I still do to some extent...last year I celebrated rosh hashana by having a fancy meal with B, where we had pomegranate and challah with honey. But a lot of the holidays (like pesach) I just don't like, so haven't been celebrating...

  15. Just a few thoughts:

    Being intelligent and well educated and being an observant Jew does not need to be mutually exclusive. I know a shlucha who went through the Jewish High School/Seminary system and ended up getting her master's in computer science from MIT.

    Heck I'm observant (I try to be) and I'm getting my B.A. in chemistry...

    I feel like if you would have grown up in a different community imbued with the fire of chassidus and learned chassidus, you wouldn't be nearly as estranged from yiddishkeit. Ever opened a Tanya?

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