No more chags.
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No more chags.

For some, we are entering the holiest time of year. For Hilary Freeman, that’s all in the past

This Rosh Hashanah, like every other, will be an ordinary day for me. I won’t be going to synagogue and I won’t be taking the day off work. I’m what you would call an entirely secular Jew –  not a ‘three-times-a-year’ Jew but a ‘no-times-a-year’ Jew.

So it might come as a surprise to hear that, as a child, I was totally immersed in Judaism. It was my  life. Brought up by observant parents in a kosher home, I went to a Jewish primary school (based at my local United Synagogue in Wembley) and spent my Shabbat mornings at the children’s service and the afternoons at Bnei Akiva, with my exclusively Jewish friends.

By 13, I had become far more frum than my parents, to the extent that I would not turn on lights or even tear toilet paper on Shabbat. For me, it was all or nothing: if Judaism meant something, if it was my ‘true path’, I had to do it properly.

No compromises. In my recently rediscovered teenage diary, I wrote, aged 15, of my indignation that anybody could marry out. I was very self-righteous and, I’m ashamed to say, I looked down on ‘three times a year’ Jews.

And then something changed. It wasn’t a sudden epiphany, but a gradual dawning, which began in my late teens, that this way of life wasn’t right for me. I had been brought up by intellectual parents to question everything, and I realised that, for me, the answers no longer lay in Judaism. I started to observe that I was practising it out of habit, not faith or even desire.

Going to university to study philosophy  – where I wrote essays debating God’s existence – was the final nail in the coffin.

One Friday night, in my first year, I lit my Shabbat candles and then went out to the union bar to get drunk and dance. The next morning, I battled with the cognitive dissonance of doing such conflicting things. That was the last time I blessed the Sabbath. I stopped going to synagogue or fasting on Yom Kippur. I had become ‘secular’.

Since then – it’s now 30 years later – I haven’t looked back, even though I know it makes my parents unhappy. And to what would be the consternation of my 15-year-old self, I married out (we’re now divorced). My current partner, Mickael, is not Jewish either.

We’re bringing up our four-year-old daughter, Sidonie, without any religion, but with an awareness of her Jewish identity. We sometimes visit my parents for Shabbat or Yom Tov dinners, and when Sidonie stays with them they take her to shul.

Hilary Freeman

But some habits are hard to break. For example, I won’t let Sidonie eat pork or seafood (it’s never been an issue for me because I’m a vegetarian).

I’m only too aware that this is not a rational choice, it’s more the result of being conditioned. They just seem as wrong, as alien, to me as eating dog or cat. Similarly, I feel guilty when I eat  lunch on Yom Kippur and half expect something bad to happen, even though I know the fear of being struck by a lighting bolt  – real or metaphorical – is superstitious nonsense.

Being Jewish is still a huge part of my identity. In some ways, I’m more consciously Jewish since I stopped being religious because I’m not surrounded by Jews. I am a Zionist and  do what I can to educate and campaign against antisemitism.  But the religious observance side is not for me. I don’t believe in God and am not someone who likes to live by a set of rules. It’s probably why I’ve been self-employed for more than 20 years.

If you want an analogy, my relationship with Judaism is like my relationship with my family. While it’s a huge part of me, and I love it, sometimes it really annoys me, and I don’t want to be held in its embrace all the time.

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