Tonight, instead of taking my weekly French test, I will be going to a Seder. Those who know me, even in passing, might well see a sinister causation in the prior sentence; “religious obligation” as an express ticket to a Dean’s Excuse. After all, nobody would mistake me for a particularly observant Jew. My skull goes perpetually uncapped; I don’t know enough Hebrew to follow many of the conversations in the Slifka dining hall (even those ostensibly in English); and I ate a pork chop for dinner just last night. One could easily understand my French teacher’s assumption that I was just trying to get out of a test or go a step farther and suggest that I’m not religious enough to deserve having my test rescheduled. But the patchwork nature of some collegiate religious observances does not diminish their legitimacy but instead highlights a way in which religion remains meaningful even to those for whom it is not central.
I have never had an easy relationship with doctrine. While this statement could be the slogan for a significant portion of our generation, it raises necessary questions. When so few of us rigidly adhere to the tenets of our respective faiths, what does it mean to call oneself a Catholic, or a Jew? Does my self-declared Judaism signify anything beyond the fact that I get my wintertime presents over the course of a week, with no joyfully festooned tree in sight?
Some would say yes. They would tell me that selective observance amounts to little more than playing at Judaism. They would also be missing the point.
In my time at Yale, my Judaism has consisted of going to High Holy Day services, fasting for Yom Kippur, eating several Shabbat dinners and conversing occasionally with Rabbi Ponet. But from this ragtag arrangement, I have nonetheless been able to retain a Jewish identity. As Yom Kippur draws to a close, and I become most acutely aware of my thirst, it is impossible not to remember the first year I decided to fast. I remember the friends from Hebrew school who decided to do so with me, our baleful glances at our synagogue’s water fountain. And I remember celebrating our success, and the knowledge that somehow, our identities had been changed. Each small observance here at Yale carries with it all these formative memories; each Seder is a small affirmation of a foundation laid long before ever walking under Phelps Gate.
Tradition is at its best not when it tethers us to an inflexible past, but when it reminds us who we are by insisting that we not forget where we came from. Any act of religious observance, whether it is a surprising Seder or a regular Mass, is a reimmersion into an important tradition. However we live our faith (or lack thereof) while at Yale, it remains central to our understanding of ourselves.
The greatest reason that I am going to a Seder tonight is that my family will be doing the same. In New York, my grandfather will read from his own, highly abbreviated haggadah, and talk about Franklin Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms. In California, my parents will spend the evening with friends whose kids I grew up with. My cousin will have his last Passover in the States, before leaving for Israel to study to become a Rabbi. If I could, I would be with them.
My faith may not draw me to temple every week or dissuade me from eating a cheeseburger. But it is still bound up with who I am, and how I came to understand the world. Tonight, I will be celebrating childhood memories, but also ritual memories, communal memories. My relationship with God has always been too personal to be institutionalized, but religion must be understood as more than that. My Judaism, sideways though it may be, still shapes me.
So I say to my French teacher: “On all other nights, I’ll take your test. Tonight, it’s Passover.”
Ilan Ben-Meir is a sophomore in Trumbull College.