The problem—well one of the problems—with being raised atheist is that no one instills in you a polite respect of others’ religions. Even when slavery and holocausts are involved.
So when in the course of making dessert for a Passover seder you learn, for instance, that 18 minutes is the kosher cutoff point for the fermentation of a bread product—not 17, not 19, but 18—your reaction isn’t so much Well isn’t that interesting? as What the hell? Is 18 minutes exactly how long the Jews fleeing Egypt had for their breadstuffs to rise? And how would we possibly know that? And why the big fuss about getting rid of everything leavened before Passover begins? Surely if the Jews fleeing Egypt had had a bag of bagels in the freezer, they would have brought them along, not burned them, right?
I’m sorry to be irreverent and inappropriate, but I did warn you. Religious custom is no different to me than the cleaning rituals of someone with OCD or the voting habits of a rural Alabaman. All equal targets for questioning and mild mockery.
I apologize. I’m a bad lady.
That said, I cannot abide by all those rules. No, that’s not true—I have trouble half-abiding by the rules. No leavening agents or grains in the meal—but at tonight's seder with two Jewish men and their non-Jewish wives and either half- or 0% (depending on who you ask) Jewish babies—we will drink non-kosher wine. Beef for dinner, but no one minds if the dessert involves dairy and we eat it right after the beef, possibly even off the same plates. (I asked!)
It’s confusing, especially from the outside—and suddenly I understand all those parents insisting that their way is the only right way to raise children. Attend to them every time they fuss, otherwise they’ll have no self-esteem. Or: let them cry themselves to sleep, otherwise they’ll have no manners. It’s tricky—and exhausting—to navigate every modern parenting issue, to figure out what your policies are over and over again each day. It makes sense why so many people choose a philosophy and stick by it. And in sticking by it they come to believe it’s the best way, the right way, and so of course they want others to join them.
When the baby was up four times in the night last night I wished I’d had a guiding set of principles to help me cope—or, more to the point, to successfully get her back to sleep for the rest of the night. Instead I had my own feelings of exhaustion and frustration and confusion—was I spoiling her or eroding her sense of self-worth or making no impact whatsoever?
I have no idea.
All I know is that she always goes back to sleep eventually. And she always greets me with a smile in the morning, even after the nights when I silently curse her for being unable (or unwilling!) to keep a damn pacifier in her mouth for longer than 15 seconds.
And today she was very good company as I made a batch of largely kosher macaroons (no leavening, no grains, no dairy to complicate matters) for tonight’s seder.
And she remained good company as I drove to the local bakery and bought a stash of certain-to-be-non-kosher but also certain-to-be-more-delicious-than-anything-I-could-make-without-butter Parisian macaroons also for tonight's seder.
And while I was there and the baby wasn’t looking, I bought a chocolate bunny to give to her on Sunday—even though she’s not old enough for candy, and atheists most definitely do not celebrate Easter.