Readers respond to that question with a variety of personal stories and reflections. (For related essays, see our special project Choosing My Religion.) To share the most important religious decision of your life, or remark on one of the accounts below, please drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have quite an interesting (at least to me) journey that is ongoing when it comes to religion/spirituality. I was raised in a non-denominational Christian church and always had a million questions. When I was a college student in my 20s, I ended up meeting an older guy who I enjoyed having philosophical and political discussions with, and he ended up introducing me to Kabbalah.
It was interesting because I had already been studying various religious ideas ranging from Eastern philosophy (Bhagavad Gita, Tao te ching, Buddhism) to the autobiography of Malcolm X and even took a course called “Catholics, Jews, and Buddhists” (which interestingly enough focused on the Beatniks; we read On the Road and Dharma Bums). I was always searching, and when he gave me a book called The Thirteen Petalled Rose, it opened me up to the world of Kabbalah.
I was fascinated by the depth and breadth of philosophy and esoteric teaching in the Kabbalistic universe. Mostly I was listening to audio teaching and reading books from the Chabad Chassidic world. I have now been studying Kabbalah for 11 years and considered converting to Judaism, but I’ve never done so, nor do I feel that I need to at this point.
I have recently been reading about Zoroastrianism and other lesser-known ancient religions of the Middle East and I am realizing that there is so much beauty and knowledge out there that I don’t ever want to limit myself to any one “Way.” I have gathered that the one takeaway from all that I have learned is that every person matters and we all have a role to play in the ultimate outcome of a utopian future that we create every day when we choose to love others and ourselves and look to bring beauty into the world through acts of lovingkindness (in Kabbalah called Tikkun Olam).
I really hate to see so much division and hatred that has happened throughout history done in the name of religious zeal, whether it was the Crusades or modern-day ISIS. I am now and plan to continue to always search and learn more about what makes us similar and brings us together as human beings rather than what divides us.
If you also have a relationship with Kabbalah that you’d like to talk about, please let us know.
Last night I was at the grief support group meeting I attend every month for people whose spouses have died suddenly. Today I read the note by Angelle, the Millennial reader who said “God meets us where logic ends.” What bothered me about Angelle’s testimony is that her faith became secure through experiences she credits to god. My life events have not been so fortunate, and the sudden death of my husband from a previously undiagnosed cancer was not a miracle; it was a blow, both to my life and to my Methodist-tinged-with-Anabaptist beliefs. It wasn’t logical to me that my husband had died so suddenly, and it didn’t seem like a lesson in faith, either.
My support group has had numerous members who were faithful and caring Christians who experienced tragedies. Where would Angelle’s faith have been had her father died of cancer and the scholarships not appeared?
After years of reflection, I’ve concluded that I will never stop wanting to believe in god, and that Jesus is the expression of god I choose to take seriously. However, I’m still in conflict with the institutional church (or the many institutions Christianity has begotten), because I haven’t found a congregation where I’m comfortable with the spirit and amount of doing-unto-others-as-you-would-have-them-do-unto-you that’s going on, in addition to the common preoccupations of established Christian congregations. Reading Rachel Held Evans has provided me with a lot of perspective during the course of my searching. Nevertheless, I lack a Christian community, and I know it impoverishes my faith.
I also think there’s a human tendency to want to believe in some deity and to want to belong to at least one group. I think the greatest gift of Christianity can be the offer of membership in a tribe that is unselfish and welcomes any and all. It disturbs me when a Christian group is exclusive and excluding. I have found a renewed faith in believing that all should be welcomed by Christianity rather than believing that god will do good things for me. I hope the atheists and agnostics out there are finding communities where they are loved and accepted, too, and are welcoming to others.
Update from another reader, Ted:
Human beings are intelligent. They can’t help endlessly wondering about everything that surrounds them. My religious choice ended up between the comfort of faith or the reality of science. In truth this problem never goes away. Does the end of physical life mean the end of my existence and awareness of life? Does faith give me a way out of this problem? Yup, it does. So being confronted by this problem I will look for an alternative form of experience that transcends the problem.
Enjoy life everyday you have it, practice self respect, listen more, talk less, care for others, stop complaining. See you in heaven ... maybe not.
That’s the path Fred followed when his life was hitting rock bottom:
I read a few of the reader stories in your religious choice series and, to me, it looks like a lot of empty hearts trying to find a way to fill the emptiness. And in some cases, some hearts don’t even know or admit they are looking for a fill. It’s all about happiness and unsureness.
I was brought up in a Catholic household, although now that I look in hindsight, my parents weren’t too much of an example of practicing Catholics. We all have our stories. When I was 12, my mother told me that my dad was not my real dad.
I was so lost when she told me that. I remember going for a walk, with many thoughts, not knowing what to do or what to think about. I was broken.
I went through a lot over the years. I didn’t trust anyone, I protected my heart from ever getting hurt, and when I did let someone in, my heart got broken. For the next 23 years, my life was still the same: broken. I got married, had kids, financial problems, numerous fights with my wife—to the point where she wanted a divorce. I didn’t want to lose her and the kids, but most importantly, I was tired of the person I was. I was tired of carrying my past on my back, and I was tired of trying to fix everything.
Then I went for a walk and, not knowing what to do next, got on my knees and started talking to Jesus. I told Him I was tired of my life and my past, tired of trying to fix everything in life. I told Him, “I’m tired and I give You my troubles, I give you my life, forgive me, I give you my heart,” with tears pouring out of my eyes.
Something happened that day... I asked my wife for forgiveness, I forgave my past, and I became a Christian. It wasn’t a choice of what religion to follow; it was a moment I had with Jesus that changed my life. He gave me a new life and filled my heart with His love that no religion can fill. He doesn’t want religion; He wants our heart. God wants a RELATIONSHIP.
I now know my purpose in this world, and I know where I’m going. My heart is at peace. Not because of what I did but because of what He did (on the cross). I now encourage anyone, no matter what you are going through in your life, to go for a walk and turn to Jesus, not religion.
That’s a perspective we haven’t heard from yet. Here’s Lily:
I’ve been really enjoying your reader series on Millennials and religious choice. I suspect a lot of us—alienated economically and politically as well as from dominant forms of religion—are starting to engage with these questions in a more existential way.
I’m a 26-year-old lesbian trans woman. I was raised in a right-wing corner of Texas Episcopalianism just around the time that church was facing schism over the openly gay Gene Robinson’s consecration as a bishop. [CB note: Robinson is profiled in the above video, featured by our video team earlier this year.] I grew up imbued with a worldview full of moral absolutes, with little middle ground between good and evil.
My biggest religious choice involved letting go the notion of all-or-nothing universal standards and instead embrace the value of relationship and community. I left Christianity as a teenager due to my parish’s anti-LGBT teachings and family’s intolerance. However, I kept the absolutist sensibility, becoming a hardline, Dawkins-quoting atheist. Even with different ideological content, anything short of unchanging and uncompromised beliefs still felt like “selling out.”
A series of intense mystical experiences forced me to reconsider. Not everyone had those types of encounters, or perceived the world in the same way—and that was OK. I embraced Hellenismos, a polytheist religion centered around the pantheon of ancient Greece. Modern Hellenismos has no creed. Instead of orthodoxy (right belief), it emphasizes orthopraxy (right practice) through reciprocal relationships with both Gods and other people.
Letting go of the “one truth” idea has allowed me to become a more tolerant, community-focused, and socially-oriented person. Part of that involves the values of my chosen faith, but it also stems from rejecting the underlying attitude I imbibed as a child. That stuck with me long after leaving the church, but this is a world of relationships, not black-and-white dichotomies. Figuring that out has allowed me to become a more whole and authentic person.
One of the criticisms that neo-Pagans make about revived or reconstructed religions such as Hellenismos is that we live too much in the past and that our religion isn’t a living, evolving and relevant spirituality. That we are slaves to the past, treating our religion as a museum piece.
Frankly, sometimes this can be true. Sometimes we do spend too much time with books, losing ourselves in the minutia of the past. It can be difficult to see the relevancy of rituals and concepts from 1500 years ago as being valuable and vibrant in a much different time, place, and culture.
But this is how we see it—why reinvent the wheel when you can put some air in the one you’re given and get back on the spiritual path? There were reasons why our ancestors interacted with deities in the way that they did. Because it worked. It’s spiritually fulfilling. It makes sense. It allows for a deeper connection with deities and the world around you. It has meaning and depth and beauty. It is timeless. It vibrates in our very souls.
But the key is to regularly engage in rituals, observances and practices. To adhere as close to what the ancients did, in order to learn from their wisdom and experience, and then to translate that into a slightly more modern form that is still ‘true’ to its origins.
Schulz points to this wedding ceremony as an example of one of those rituals:
An American veteran, Jon, describes his religious journey while deployed overseas:
I didn’t feel like I had a choice when it came to religion. Just as a child who has touched a hot stove knows what “hot” is, I knew three things about what just happened to me after I called out to God in one of the darkest moments of my life.
I knew he heard me.
I knew he knew me.
I knew he loved for me.
Out of the billions of people on the planet and the vastness of space, I knew the God of the cosmos had just taken a moment to step into my life in a tangible way. In that moment he revealed himself as a real, personal and loving God. That’s why I didn’t feel like I had a choice.
There was no going back. I fell to my knees and asked God to take over my life because I had made a hot mess of it.
I was a soldier (who had spent four years in the Marines) deployed overseas after 9/11. My responsibilities as a squad leader were to make sure my men were ready for their mission. I could teach them to shoot, get them in shape, and inspect them before every mission, but I couldn’t help them when their dark hours came.
On the day we deployed, one of my young, married soldiers who had a two-year-old “had his heart ripped out” when his wife said she was leaving him and taking the kid. He was destroyed and depressed, and I didn’t know how to fix him.
About halfway through the deployment, one of my soldiers had a nervous breakdown on patrol. He threw his loaded weapon down and refused to be a soldier anymore. I later found out that his wife and six kids were struggling at home. I reacted the wrong way and missed the opportunity to help. I had nothing inside to give him.
And then tragedy hit. One of my older soldiers had three sons at home, and the oldest died due to swallowing his tongue during a seizure. The captain of our unit and I had to bring this soldier in, sit him down and tell him that his son had died. He was absolutely devastated. We told him that he had 30 days to go home, bury his son, take care of his family and come back to the mission. I had no hope for him.
These situations led me to start reading a small pocket Bible my not-yet father-in-law had given me. I started in Ecclesiastes hearing how a great king had chased every frivolous pursuit and found nothing could satisfy him. It said, “everything is meaningless,” and “there is nothing new under the sun.” The king’s pursuits of wisdom, wine, women, wealth, work, and worth had left his soul empty. All of that resonated with me, so I kept reading.
When I got to the Gospels, the person of Jesus intrigued my mind and inspired me beyond anything I’d ever known. His insight into the condition of the human heart and his words stirred in me a desire for truth.
When I read Jesus’ response in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me,” the exclusivity of his claim, power of his person and reality of my new relationship with him all came together. I believed he died and rose again, taking my sin with him, and I called him Lord.
The choice to follow Christ as Lord has made all the difference in my life.
In a previous reader note, a U.S. veteran lost his religion after seeing the horrors of Iraq while a fellow veteran stuck with his faith. Update from another reader, Dwight:
Coming to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, to be born again and to become a Christian, is NOT a religious choice. Christianity is not a religion, and if you think that’s all it is, then the chances of you being saved are slim and none.
Being a Christian, being saved, is all about having a personal RELATIONSHIP with the Creator of the universe, with the God who became human flesh at the same time as being God and came to earth to die for the sins of man and to reconcile man to God the Father. The Lord isn’t looking for religious people; He’s looking for people who will have a personal relationship with Him as Redeemer, Savior and Lord.
Being religious is of no value and is a man-made thing. God is much higher than religion. Religion is man looking for a higher authority, power or God; Christianity is about a relationship and it is God coming to man, not the other way around.
Our Choosing Your Religion special project has run its course, and we’ve already aired a ton of your personal stories and reflections centered on the question “What Was Your Biggest Religious Choice?,” but there are still many more excellent emails worth posting, so we’ll continue to do so every Sunday, indefinitely. This next one comes from Maria, who as a teenager chose secular works of art over her family’s stifling religion and grew to favor the lessons of a Swedish auteur over her father’s:
I’m so pleased with the “Choosing My Religion” series! Much like the reader who submitted “The Security Blanket of Christianity Was Actually Smothering Me” and the accompanied email from Libby Anne, my biggest religious choice stemmed from the non-choice I faced during my childhood/teen years: I grew up in a self-proclaimed “non denominational” Christian church, one that boasts a literal interpretation of the Bible—one that, after many deep-internet sessions, I’ve found to be a cult.
I have only truly felt “myself” for the past five years, and I’ve thrown myself into books, film, and the depths of Spotify to counter years of starvation in these areas. This year I received Bergman on Bergman as a Christmas gift and found that Ingmar Bergman grew up with a strict religious father, a parish minister prone to harsh physical and psychological punishments. In these interviews, Bergman explores the effect such an upbringing had on his psyche, noting Christianity’s penchant for shame:
If I’ve objected strongly to Christianity, it has been because Christianity is deeply branded by a very virulent humiliation motif. One of its main tenets is, ‘I, a miserable sinner, born in sin, who have sinned all my days, etc.’ Our way of living and behaving under this punishment is completely atavistic.
He expands upon his objection to Christianity and its effects, thinking of his idol, August Strindberg:
It was just that [Strindberg] expressed things which I’d experienced and which I couldn’t find words for. I was stuffed with inhibitions—that’s something we mustn’t forget in this connection. I had difficulty in speaking, sometimes I even stammered a little, as I still do at times to this day. I also found it hard to express myself in writing—a tremendous resistance. I couldn’t draw. I couldn’t sing. I played a little, but wasn’t much of a hand at any musical instrument, either—I found it hard to read the music. I couldn’t dance. I was shut in every way.
I identified strongly with these words, and became even more obsessed with my personal narrative, as well as the effects of mandatory religious devotion on children.
My dad and step-mom were “reached out” to in the park where I played as a first grader. Until this point, my father wasn’t religious at all. He wore his hair long, was a devout vegan, he self-published an autobiographical comic, and looked like an extra from Slacker.
At first, he was outraged and offended at the invite. His (then) girlfriend was more receptive and started going to their church. She was drawn in by their seeming niceness and well-behaved kids; these folks emitted undeniable confidence.
After attending many church functions and completing their set of Bible studies, she was “born again” and became a Christian / “Disciple.” She promptly moved out of our house with the new conviction that to live with a man before marriage (read: premarital sex) is a sin in need of repentance.
My dad was heartbroken, unfulfilled by his art, unresolved over his failed marriage to my mother, and was moved in observance of his ex’s extreme change. When it became clear that he would permanently lose her if he did not convert, my dad followed suit.
He was transformed into a completely different person. One of the core beliefs of the church is living for your “treasure in heaven,” taking pride in possessing a strict outsider attitude towards the temporal world. With his newfound doctrine, he passed judgments on his extended and immediate family. He burned many bridges, losing friends from within the art community.
I was denied access to anything deemed “impure,” anything declared ungodly or “worldly.” Any piece of media that I watched, read, listened to, looked at, etc. was to be screened. This meant censorship of movies, TV, music, books, internet, questionable company (anyone outside of the church), extracurricular activities, teachings on evolution, overnight field trips … anything that contradicted their beliefs was a crude waste of time.
When you have someone consistently telling you that the things that you enjoy are sinful, evil, superficial, unimportant, negative, you may start hearing and believing, as I did: you are sinful, you are evil, you are unimportant. I felt that I lost my father to Jesus Christ, and it was not safe to be myself.
I went along with everything, believing what I was taught. I think I wanted to “win” my dad back—his approval. I was baptized at 13. My dad was thrilled with the choice, which in retrospect was not a choice at all. After all, I was a kid only getting one side of the story, being told that this story was The story.
I tried very hard to be the best little Christian. I invited my schoolmates to church, reached out to strangers at the mall, read the Bible and prayed daily, attended summer camps, Friday “devotionals,” Tuesday bible discussion group, Wednesday “mid-week” church service, and regular Sunday service. I had a “discipler” with whom I was to check in, reporting any sin, sharing “good news” of successful outreaches and getting life advice (approval) regularly.
When I left these beliefs behind at 15, the majority of my knowledge base was nullified. Having been programmed to devalue the secular, I was left with crushing depression and anxiety. My reason for living was revealed to be false logically, scientifically, and so on.
I left home after a falling out at 19, as it became too hard to live in their household as a non-believer. Since then, I’ve been trying to understand myself (and them), trying to deprogram.
These years following my departure from the church have been tumultuous. I am now 25 and have moved eight times. I’ve broken up with a few boyfriends who really loved me. I have had nine different jobs. I have a good amount of credit card debt. You could say my personal life has been unstable, and that I struggle with impulse control.
This year, I’ve been trying a new form of therapy: DBT, or Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. In a recent session, my therapist wrote down two phrases and suggested that I look at them everyday until our next session, taking note of any feelings that arise:
1. I have to hide my interests and authentic self or else I’ll be rejected and unloved.
2. I have to prove my interests and authentic self or else I’ll be rejected and unloved.
She articulated the constant internal conflict that I feel which contributes to extreme self-hate, depression and anxiety. I am always seeking love and wanting to share myself and to be validated because I was not validated or loved in a healthy way in my childhood.
At the same time, I’m crippled by potential or perceived rejection: Anything not overtly positive is understood to be negative. I understand this now to be hyper-vigilance as a result of excessive criticism and control. My behaviors and symptoms are defense mechanisms, acting as a form of PTSD.
I was deprived of so many experiences and pieces of media, and I feel triggered when I don’t know or haven’t done something. I feel like a perpetual alien, always playing catch-up, feeling shame for not knowing the *thing* everyone else knew ages ago.
I’ll end with another Bergman quote, as there are no neat conclusions:
My basic view of things is—not to have any basic view of things. From having been exceedingly dogmatic, my views on life have gradually dissolved. They don’t exist any longer.
This story from reader Heather is short but powerful:
I left the Baha’i faith because they shunned a former member. The reason for the shunning was that she had lied when she was trying to leave an oppressive regime. She told the officer at the airport that she was Muslim like her eight-year-old son and husband. Baha’i leaders said she should have told the truth about being Baha’i, even though she would have become a martyr. Yes, she knew for sure that they would have killed her. She should have endured this for her faith. She should have left her son motherless in order to be an example to the world.
If you’re a follower of the Baha’i faith and would like to respond to this email or share your own experience, please let us know. For those who are unfamiliar with the small and relatively new religion, here’s a brief introduction from the Bahai National Center:
Update from a reader:
I grew up as a Baha’i, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s when the Khomeini regime was at its height, many Baha’is were being martyred on a regular basis in Iran. It was definitely something that was a sorrowful point of pride—horror and sadness that people were losing lives, strength and solidarity that people would not recant their religion. Many of us in the United States wrestled with these ideas to no solid conclusions, but I will say it still pisses me off when Christians in the U.S. claim to be oppressed when people around the world still are actually being martyred for their faith.
That said, no one, even at that time, would blame someone for escaping with their lives using any means possible. What Heather may be confusing this with is the treatment of a shadowy splinter group of (usually) ex Baha’is who—much like the Sunni/Shia schism—decide to disavow Baha’ullah in favor of the Bab. This would be like saying John the Baptist is the true lead figure of Christianity rather than Jesus Christ.
It wasn’t something that came up very much and I certainly never met one of these people. For me, the Faith was not a good fit—politically, personally, and theologically—but I still love and respect my former fellow believers very much!
That’s where Christopher Gerlica came across Taoism:
Hi there! I’m really fascinated by your reader series on religious choice. Some basic facts before I get into my little story: I’m 32 years old, I’m white, grew up outside of Detroit in a religiously diverse city/high school, and now I live in the most Catholic state in the union (Rhode Island). Oh and I’m gay and married to an atheist.
My biggest religious choice, hands down, is when I decided to convert to Daoism (please note the spelling, as there are some different opinions about that). My family is “Catholic”—by the quotes I mean I was never baptized, we never went to church, and I didn’t actually see a real live Bible until I was in college. Basically, we were very secular, but I think my parents felt they had to give me some religious upbringing and would ask me randomly if I believed in God (I said yes, because that was the socially acceptable answer). But that was it when it came to religion.
Around the time I was 16 and finally coming to terms with my sexuality and the fact that frankly all the branches of Christianity weren’t too hot about the gays in the early ‘00s, I turned to my family’s set of World Book Encyclopedias. At the time we didn’t have internet or a computer, so these were my only real outlet to explore what else was out there.
I started by looking up “religion” and found what the book classified as the eight main world religions at the time. I pretty much immediately counted out the monotheistic/Abrahamic religions for two reasons: 1. not gay friendly and 2. I have always struggled believing that if there is some higher power, it was just one being. The structure of a team of deities always made much more logical sense. After reading up on Hinduism and Buddhism, they got the cut once I realized that Brahma was kind of confusing at the time and I’m too materialistic, respectively.
I can’t remember the other religions, but I really soaked up the belief system of Daoism. And when I say Daoism, I mean both the philosophical aspect of the Yin and Yang, as well as everything in the Dao De Jing (Tao Te Ching), and the religious side too, which admittedly is derived more from the Chinese folk religions than anything Lao Tzu said.
By the time I graduated high school and entered college, I was trying to read up on anything I could about Daoism and started wearing a sweet Yin and Yang necklace (did I mention this was the early ‘00s?). I went to undergrad in Michigan’s Bible belt—everyone basically seemed very religious, and specifically Protestant, so during that first year people would totally ask what kind of Christian I was, or where I went to church, etc, and being asked that a lot and not wanting to go into a whole “no being agnostic is not the same as atheist” I really did realize that I am a Daoist.
(Side note: I learned early on in college that even the most conservative religious person would never question or try to convert me, but respected me in a way I know they would not respect an atheist, because I had some type of faith. Maybe a bit of a religious privilege? Not sure, but that always fascinated me.)
It was an unplanned move to be vocal about this new religious choice I’d made. Since then, I’ve thought about if my heart was truly in my religion or if it was just some fad, like pooka shell necklaces. But I’m very happy to say that it’s not been some random choice, but really was the path that was meant for me.
A couple last things (I know this got long, sorry!) in reference to some of the themes I think this series is touching on: the ready availability of information today and how my age group views science, logic, etc versus religious dogma. To the former, I would not have originally discovered Daoism if not for my World Books, but my faith would not have grown without my ability to have the internet to research Daoism, its traditions, holidays, and deities. The internet has really enriched my religious experience, something that would have been prohibitively difficult if I had come of age at any time before I did.
As to the latter theme—how my age group views science versus dogma—I’m a lawyer, so I think in terms of facts and logic all the time and I don’t question evolution or any scientific theory, whether or not it puts into question some myth within Daoism. I think the tricky part that those of us who are religious in this day and age have to do is re-think our beliefs to see if they are congruent with scientific reality. I’m just very lucky that Daoism is actually quite a free-wheeling and poorly defined religion in comparison to, say, Christianity or Islam.
The formative experience of my religious life took place in Sunday School when I was about six. The local Presbyterian church was down the street and down the hill from our house, and somehow Mom let me “drive" my “car” (a small black toy car with little pedals that would turn the front wheels) down the hill and leave it in one of the parking spots during the service, much to the amusement of the congregation. Sunday School typically consisted of reading a children’s version of a story from the Bible, discussing the various themes, and having a snack.
This all went off without a hitch, until we came to Genesis.
At the age of six, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. My favorite toys were dinosaurs. My favorite movie was about dinosaurs. My favorite TV show was Paleo-World, which my parents would let me stay up an extra half-hour on Monday nights to watch. From this “research” I knew that the dinosaurs had died out 365 million years ago, which I understood to mean “a really long time before people existed.”
Now back to Sunday School. When they introduced the story of Genesis, they said it was about how the world was made and how we came to be. I was extremely excited, because I knew that somewhere in between the creation of the world and the creation of man, there were dinosaurs. I was about to hear a story about dinosaurs. I couldn’t wait.
But then a funny thing happened: God made the world, and then God made man. No dinosaurs.
I asked our teacher where the dinosaurs were in the story, and while I don’t remember what the answer was, my little mind didn’t find it particularly satisfying. It was clear to me that dinosaurs were real, and if this explanation of world history did not include them, then it must be wrong.
At that moment, I ceased to believe anything they said in church. I came to view them as liars. This germ of skepticism has stayed with me my entire life. Everything I have since learned about history, archaeology, physics, cosmology, biology, and religion has been in some sense aimed at trying to answer the question, “Why aren’t there dinosaurs in Genesis?” On this matter, my 30-year-old self and six-year-old self are in perfect agreement, because Genesis is wrong.
That question is addressed in the following video alongside the question, “What makes someone Black?”—and it’s a really great complement to our reader thread:
Here’s an overview of that documentary, Little White Lie, which our video team featured last summer:
Lacey Schwartz was raised in a typical upper-middle-class Jewish household in Woodstock, New York, with loving parents and a strong sense of her Jewish identity. Others often remarked on her dark skin, but her family always said that her looks were inherited from her Sicilian grandfather. “I would tell myself, my dad gets really tan in the summertime or my mom’s hair is really curly just like mine,” Schwartz says in this excerpt [embedded above] from her documentary Little White Lie. It wasn’t until Georgetown University admitted her as a black student—based off a picture—that Schwartz started to question the identity that her parents gave her.
The nine-minute video ends on a big cliffhanger, and you can buy the full documentary on iTunes or Amazon, but I discovered it’s also streaming on Netflix. I jumped into the stream and heard the following quote from Schwartz (the irony of her name is just too perfect), remembering a moment at her bat mitzvah when a member of her synagogue told her, “It’s so nice to have an Ethiopian Jew in our presence.” That made me think of an email that just arrived from Alex, the first reader who responded to the story from Abby that started this whole discussion on Jewish identity and conversion. Here’s Alex:
It was good to correspond with you a few days ago. I found a recent Times of Israel article about members of the African Selwi tribe in Ghana converting to Judaism. You can also look up additional information from Kulanu, an organization which helps isolated communities (African and Asian tribes, etc.) to reconnect with Judaism. Also try B’Chol LaShon, with a similar mission: reaching out to people who want to become Jews by Choice.
There’s a small post I did several years ago on the “Lost Jews” of Zimbabwe that also might be worth checking out if you’re interested in the more complex areas of Jewish identity in Africa.
Abby also emailed a followup:
Thanks again for this opportunity. It’s been enlightening and interesting to follow along with the responses you guys have been posting to my submission. My friends and I have also been laughing all day about how many angry emails you must have received from Jews obsessed over what makes someone a Jew.
Actually there haven’t been any angry emails at all. (Perhaps there’s anger over on Twitter, but I wouldn’t know.) It’s been remarkable how gracious but candid readers have been over this topic. Our latest email comes from Aaron, who doesn’t introduce an especially new angle to the discussion but does an eloquent job of highlighting the best parts:
I want to address a few things that came up in other readers’ responses. First, Alex draws the line on openness to conversion between traditional and liberal forms of Judaism: “The more liberal streams, the Conservatives and the Reform, are much more open.” I don’t disagree with that, but I think it has to be majorly qualified with another line, one that Lekha alludes to: “So in my case, choosing Judaism is not so much a religious choice, but a cultural identity that I was born into, and that I have chosen to reclaim in my own way.” This is the line—presumably only present in the liberal forms of Judaism—between religious Judaism and purely secular Judaism.
I’m a Jew who spent his childhood attending High Holy Day services at a Reform temple, and although as a college student I still attend these services sometimes, it’s never been a matter of spirituality. I have no connection whatsoever to the religious side of Judaism; the reason I still attend services, and the reason I consider myself a Jew, is entirely a matter of culture and heritage.
This is true for most of my family, as well. For us, to be Jewish is to connect with a familial history of having been Jewish, and nothing more. I wouldn’t even say we draw on Jewish cultural values in a big way; if we have “Jewish values,” they’re the values inherited from, say, American secular Jewish culture rather than from a millennia-long religious culture.
So, that someone like Evan would find the sentence “I identify as Jewish” bizarre is, to me, extremely bizarre, at least for anybody who recognizes that there is a substantial chunk of the Jewish population whose connection to Judaism is rooted only in heritage. I do firmly believe that it’s not meaningful for someone to identify secularly as a Jew if they don’t have that heritage, in the same way that someone cannot identify racially with a heritage they don’t have; but it’s important to recognize that some of us call ourselves Jewish not by virtue of adherence to religious practice, but rather solely by virtue of identification with cultural heritage.
In fact, I take the significance of this identification to be something externally imposed more than anything else: As Jon wrote, “[having standards for acceptance] is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions.”
My identification as Jewish is most deeply rooted in the fact that throughout most of history I would have been labelled as Jewish no matter what I said; that I would have been sent to a concentration camp if I had lived in Nazi Germany in spite of my secularity; that even today I would fear being beaten for talking about my Jewish heritage if I had grown up in Malmö rather than in a major city in the U.S. For me, and for many of the secular Jews I know, identifying as Jewish is tantamount to publicly recognizing that this past is still very much with us, and to standing up to that past, to saying “There is no accepting us as people without accepting as people with this heritage, with this culture—without accepting us as Jewish people.”
As an aside, I want to address something that’s come up in a few of the more religious Jewish readers’ responses: namely, that one is a Jew only by virtue of being born to a Jewish mother or converting. I have no problem with this as a doctrine for religious Jews, but I’m extremely wary of applying it to secular Jews. My mother happens to be my Jewish parent, so it’s never been an issue for me, but I hate seeing this kind of exclusion among other secular Jews. The fact of the matter is that, as I wrote above, secular identification with Judaism is largely the result of external labelling, and since a lot of the people doing the external labelling didn’t care at all which parent was Jewish, neither should we.
To identify as a secular Jew is to have Jewish blood and to choose to embrace the label for yourself as a sign of resistance—and nothing more.
One more story, from Maia:
I was adopted as a baby into a Jewish family and was “converted” at two months old by a Conservative rabbi. We did the mikveh and the baby naming and all that. Same with my older brother.
I am now basically a reform/secular Jew, in that I enjoy all the rituals/holidays but I’m not particularly drawn to the theology or keeping kosher etc. My brother is more observant, but when studying with ultra-orthodox Jews in Brooklyn, he was told that he was not Jewish because his conversion wasn’t done by an Orthodox rabbi. Very upsetting, to say the least.
Even though I am not an observant Jew, when I got married (to a lapsed Catholic), we had a Jewish wedding ceremony and agreed to raise our kids Jewish. His family understands this generally, but I have struggled to explain why I’m uncomfortable celebrating Easter or Christmas with them. Basically, their question is, if I’m not actually concerned about the theological differences between Christianity and Judaism, why do I care if we celebrate Christian holidays as well?
The best explanation I can come up with is that it’s helpful to view Jews as you would various Native American groups—that is, as members of a particular tribe. This means that there is both an ethnic/nationalist component to the identity as well as a religious/cultural component.
Now imagine that this tribe is expelled from its homeland and scattered throughout the world. What remains? As the group fractures, the rituals and religion are kept alive but because the tribe is scattered throughout numerous countries, the ethnic identity is muddled (except, of course, when it is used as a point of discrimination).
This means you end up today with ethnic Jews who don’t practice any of the traditions, religious converts who have entered into the “tribe” by agreeing to adopt the belief and ritual system, and everything in between.
For me, it’s fair to say that I don’t adhere to all the laws and rituals of the Jewish tribe, but they are still the framework within which I learned about Judaism and eventually chose how to express myself as a Jew. For me this means that I don't want to celebrate Easter—not because it’s Christian per se, but rather because it is notJewish and, thus not part of my identity, ethnically, religiously, or culturally.
Finally, I agree that it’s terrible that Jews of any stripe would be unwelcoming to converts, but every religion and ethnic group has their own internal strife about who is “authentic” and who isn’t. The truth is, these discussions don’t have a “real” answer; they just serve to highlight what is important to a particular person about his or her own religious identity.
That’s a good note to end on with this Jewish discussion, unless someone has an exceptionally new experience or angle to share. We’ll post more of your stories on other religious choices soon.
Two more Jewish readers continue to debate that question—raised by Abby, the young Catholic-turned-Jew, and then complicated by Lekha, the young Southerner with a Jewish father and Hindu mother. First up is Esther, an Orthodox Jew who is “very normal, but you’d describe me as ‘ultra’ because of the way I look and because I don’t have a TV”:
Jews are Jews by way of being born to a Jewish mother or by converting and following the Torah.
I think some of the people who are writing in and saying they “converted” to Judaism are saying they are Jewish, but at the same time, their lifestyle and practices reject the most important parts of Judaism, so I’m not quite sure why they would expect others to embrace them as fellow Jews. Someone who converts to Judaism but by word and deed refuses to embrace real Jewish practices (eating kosher, belief in God, belief in the Messiah’s anticipated arrival, fasting on fast days, learning Torah on a regular basis, saying blessings before eating, and on and on—there are hundreds of commandments!) is naturally going to be viewed as an inauthentic outsider.
To those who have shared their stories, please understand that God made some people Jews and some people non-Jews. Non-Jews can lead good holy lives; God does not expect them to become Jews, and Jews don’t either. Maybe this is hard for followers of other religions to understand because it is so different than other religions. For example, Christians believe that their religion is the right path and universal, but Judaism is unique in that we believe that everyone is equal in the eyes of God, and not everyone has to follow our religion—only the members of the Jewish family do.
And here’s Evan Kominsky, a senior at Washington University in St. Louis:
I was raised in a Jewish household and went to a Conservative synagogue. If you asked me how I would label myself today, I would reluctantly say Orthodox. I say reluctantly because I firmly believe a Jew is a Jew if they have a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish law. All of these other divisions are extremely harmful to the cohesiveness of the Jewish people.
One of the hot topics nowadays (or at least on college campuses) is how people “identify.”
At first I heard it applied to sexual orientation, gender, or political stance. But I have increasingly heard people apply this paradigm to religion and even race. To me, the sentence “I identify as Jewish” is bizarre. Identity has nothing to do with it. As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying “I identify as Korean,” regardless of one’s actual heritage. I think this stems from a larger trend of radical individualism that is such a prevalent attitude nowadays.
It pains me to hear about those in the Jewish community who feel excluded. And this is certainly something that needs to be addressed. But the tension described by readers Abby and Lekha between their Jewish identity and their beliefs is an outgrowth of this philosophy, which, when taken to the extreme, falls closer to the antithetical side.
In Jewish practice, there is a balance between the rights and experience of the individual and the obligations that the individual has towards the community. When you swing too heavily to one side or the other, problems start to arise. If you view the “strict religious expectations of what Judaism is” as rules that are meant solely to help the individual connect to God, it’s no wonder they are left by the wayside when they don’t jive 100 percent with how you relate to God.
But there is another aspect. Take for example the commandments surrounding the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher). They are given no explanation in the Torah. Later commentators have explained them in context, adding depth and breadth to their significance, but at their core, they are not meant to be understood by human logic. Were each person to say, “I don’t relate to these laws, so I am not going to follow all of them,” the concept of community would be destroyed. No one would be able to eat at each other’s houses.
Another example is Shabbat observance. Jewish law prohibits driving on Shabbat (due to the prohibition of lighting a fire). The collective observance of this law ensures that all members of the Jewish community live within walking distance of the synagogue, and thereby each other. Setting aside the philosophical reasons for this law for the moment (there is a lot of rich material here), the moment people began to privilege their personal feelings to whether or not they relate to a law over the needs of the public, the communal structure of living next to the people you pray with and go to school with and socialize with collapses.
There is a lot to be said here, but the main point I want to get across is that when experiencing a tension between what you believe and what “traditional” Judaism mandates, instead of automatically criticizing what to you seems restrictive, perhaps it would be beneficial to turn a critical eye to the individualistic tendency that idolizes personal preference as the supreme value.
Update from another reader, Jon:
There is so much more nuance to Jewish identity than the strawmen and facile explanations of Jewish law that some of your readers are offering. By one version, you can stick a Post-It on your head that says “I’m Jewish” and you are; by another, unless a certain select set of rabbis signs off on your conversion or your ancestors, you aren’t.
The latter is only the case if you accept one interpretation of Judaism as the only one and assume that the people who have interpreted them have made no mistakes. Under this interpretation, people who have fulfilled the requirements for conversion even under the auspices of the Haredi-controlled Chief Rabbinate in Israel can have their conversions annulled decades later, even if most of their ancestry is Jewish—something which simply is not in the rabbinic sources regarding conversion rites and amounts to as much of an innovation as anything else. Also under this version, people whose ancestry may be unclear due to war or other tragedy may have to convert—in some cases even from communities that have been Jewish from time immemorial, simply because they aren’t on the right lists.
Under the former version, the Post-It one, people are expecting to have everyone accept them as Jewish no matter how little of the various traditions he accepts. In a different way, this too is asking your liberal interpretation of Judaism to be accepted by all. And while I agree that this seems to mesh with people feeling at liberty to pick their identities regardless of actual facts and expect everyone to agree, the difference here is that conscience or beliefs are at least part of being Jewish—and those can change, even if who your parents are cannot. We ought to make that distinction.
Finally, while you can cite important central distinguishing rituals like kashrut, shabbat, and circumcision, anyone who thinks that these are the only obligations of a “traditional” Jew is being just as selective as any reformer. There are responsibilities to the community and to the “stranger” as well. And being a “traditional” Jew alone does not give you a carte blanche to all walks of Jewish life. Indeed, the majority of the population of the State of Israel is secular. One could argue service in the IDF and an Israeli passport is just as much a symbol of Jewish peoplehood as anything any rabbi could issue. Do these secular Jews who eat non-kosher food and turn lights on and off on Saturday not count? If they do, why doesn’t a convert who is more observant? Who’s to say?
The answer is: each different group will have its own standards for acceptance. Failing to recognize all of these different Judaisms, all of these different ways of being Jewish, are problems both the recent converts who think they’ve checked all the boxes and the haredim who think they alone hold the spiritual keys to Jewish peoplehood share.
All in all, however, this is a luxury that Jews can only afford in relatively safe times. Our enemies have never made such distinctions, so we should probably all give each other a break. It’s one thing to build a fence around the Torah to protect it from false change, another altogether to build a fence to keep genuine believers away.
Here’s one more Jewish reader, Steve, with “yet another perspective on the ‘Who is a Jew?’ question”:
I had a good laugh when I read “As your reader Alex pointed out, it is the same as saying 'I identify as Korean,' regardless of one’s actual heritage”—since I am an Orthodox Jew, as is my Korean-born wife, an Orthodox Convert completely accepted by my “ultra-Orthodox” cousins with absolutely no thought that she doesn’t “look Jewish.” You’d get a blank look from them if you mention “cultural appropriation.”
My wife is still very much a Korean-American, but now she is also 100% Jewish—as Jewish as Golda Meir. Indeed, I kid her that she should have taken the name Golda when she converted, as my Jewish name is Tovye and we have five daughters between us …
You’re probably realizing at this point that this conversation is a perpetual motion machine. I think it’s so fascinating because this is one of those places where the Western Liberal Tradition meets Torah and neither one is backing down.
The reader who prompted that question, Abby, was raised Catholic and converted to Conservative Judaism in college but feels she hasn’t been fully accepted by traditionalist Jews. I updated Abby’s note with a really thoughtful response from a Jewish reader, Alex, who described how “our religion is tribal-based, in a way,” and that “Judaism does allow conversions, but the process is difficult.” Building on that discussion is Michael, an Orthodox Jew:
First of all, the Notes section is absolutely amazing. It’s hard to find a place on the internet which hosts thoughtful and civil conversations about sensitive subjects.
As an Orthodox Jew, I want to add the following point to give context to the discussion about conversion: Judaism discourages potential converts because it does not view being Jewish [as] the only path to a relationship with God and a life well lived. According to Jewish beliefs, all that is asked of gentiles is to recognize that there is only one God and to commit to observe basic moral obligations (a set of seven commandments commonly referred to as “Noahide laws”).
Being Jewish is to be part of the covenantal relationship that God established with Abraham and his descendants, a relationship that comes with added responsibilities that are not demanded of the rest of humanity. Because this level of observance is not for everyone, we typically dissuade potential converts and recommend the universal means of serving God, unless they are truly committed to Judaism on principle and not for ulterior motives.
That being said, the Bible does repeatedly remind us to love converts and not hurt them in any way, including emotionally. I echo Alex’s suggestion that many Jews’ questions to converts are a result of curiosity more than anything else. Observant Jews struggle with the tension of leading religious lives in modern society on a daily basis and often wonder how a convert would choose to accept that tension when it would seem much easier to avoid it entirely.
Our next reader is Lekha, who grew up in North Carolina with a Jewish father and a Hindu mother:
As someone who both considers herself Jewish, but is not recognized as such by many other Jews, Abby’s experience as a Jewish convert brought up a lot of feelings for me. I myself often feel like an outsider to Judaism in many ways.
My mother is not Jewish; she is a South Asian Hindu. So to many people I do not “look” Jewish, but I was raised in the religion of my father’s family. I have been lucky enough that people do not generally question my Jewish identity when I claim it, but I’ve had a few uncomfortable experiences where people try to explain Judaism to me because they assume that I could never have that background based on how I look.
Also, unlike many Jews in this country, I was raised in a small Southern town with a very tiny Jewish community and no synagogue. I attended a Jewish Sunday school run by the local Jewish group, but I did not have the experience of being raised in a vibrant, large, Jewish community with an established synagogue and lots of opportunities to participate in religious life. Outside of regular Shabbat dinners, and some Sunday school attendance, I didn’t have much access to the kinds of resources that would bolster my knowledge and identity within Judaism.
This has also left me feeling a bit insecure about my Judaism with respect to others who grew up in large (usually Northeastern) cities and thus had access to those resources, feel part of an established community, and make other Jewish friends. This was very different from being part of a very small community in an area where Jews are mostly looked upon with confusion or curiosity (and sometimes prejudice—the number of times I was told I was going to hell / asked to come to Jesus during my childhood is staggering).
Throughout my childhood I only had one Jewish friend, and most of my other friends were Protestants of various stripes who were kind but convinced that my religion was sinfully wrong. This, combined with the lack of community support and being a Jewish person of color, left me feeling very much an outsider to Judaism and Jewish identity—especially when I went to college outside Philadelphia and encountered people who had spent their whole lives surrounded by other Jews, engaging in BBYO, Jewish summer camps, and other activities that reinforced that identity.
As I got older I realized that my actual beliefs about god(s) were not in line with traditional Judaism. However, I still very much claim myself as a Jew, and while I don’t attend regular services, I do celebrate holidays with friends and family. In fact, I’m very much looking forward to the annual vegan, feminist Seder that a close friend and I hold every year next Friday!
So in my case, choosing Judaism is not so much a religious choice, but a cultural identity that I was born into, and that I have chosen to reclaim in my own way.
I must admit that I often feel confused when I meet Jewish converts. I think this is because many Jews, especially most of the relatively secular American Jews I know, look on being Jewish as a cultural identity more than a religious identity. People would be confused (or rightly offended, as evidenced by cases like that of Rachel Dolezal) if someone tried to “convert” to a culture or ethnicity that they were not raised in. Many people who claim their identity as Jews, including myself, don’t keep kosher, don’t attend services regularly, and otherwise don’t conform to strict religious expectations of what Judaism is. Yet they can still see themselves as Jewish, because for them it’s primarily a cultural identity.
The president’s mindless nationalism has come to this: Americans are not welcome in Europe or Mexico.
There is a lot of learned material written about nationalism—scholarly books and papers, histories of it, theories of it—but most of us understand that nationalism, at its heart, at its very deepest roots, is about a feeling of superiority: We are better than you. Our country is better than your country. Or even—and apologies, but this is the precise language deployed by the president of the United States: Your country is a shithole country. Ours isn’t.
In this sense, nationalism is not patriotism, which is the desire to work on behalf of your fellow citizens, to defend common values, to build something positive. Nationalism is not community spirit either, which seeks to pull people together. Nationalism has nothing to do with democratic values: Authoritarians can be nationalists; indeed, most are. Nationalism has nothing to do with the rule of law, justice, or opportunity. At its core, nationalism is rather a competition, an ugly and negative competition. There’s a reason nationalists build walls, denigrate foreigners, and denounce immigrants: Because our people are better than those people. There’s a reason nationalism has so often become violent in the past. For if we—our nation—are better, then what right do others have to live beside us? Or to occupy land that we covet? Or even, maybe, to live at all?
In France, where I live, the virus is under control. I can hardly believe the news coming out of the United States.
I returned to Paris with my family three months after President Emmanuel Macron had ordered one of the world’s most aggressive national quarantines, and one month after France had begun to ease itself out of it. When we exited the Gare Montparnasse into the late-spring glare, after a season tucked away in a rural village with more cows than people as neighbors, it was jarring to be thrust back into the world as we’d previously known it, to see those café terraces overflowing again with smiling faces.
My first reaction was one of confused frustration as we drove north across the river to our apartment. The city had been culled of its tourists, though it was bustling with inhabitants basking in their reclaimed freedom. Half at most wore masks; the other half evinced indifference. We were in the midst of a crisis, I complained to my wife. Why were so many people unable to maintain even minimal discipline?
In the beach towns south of Melbourne, everyone, it seems, knows someone who’s been attacked.
About a week after Steven Mikac began taking antibiotics for the strange spot on his leg, the flesh around his ankle started to tighten and swell. The moist orifice of a wound opened up and took the form of a small bullet hole. A plug of tissue had gone missing—dissolved into pus and slime. Walking was excruciating. Working, unbearable. In early October of last year, Mikac showed his ankle to a colleague at the hospital where he works in Melbourne, in the Australian state of Victoria. She suggested that it might be Buruli ulcer—a disease caused by a strain of flesh-eating bacteria.
Though Mikac had seen local television reports about an outbreak of this tropical disease in Victoria, it sounded so freakish, so unlikely, that he hardly considered it a possibility. But like hundreds of Australians before him, he was about to become all too familiar with Buruli, a slow-moving horror show that has proved, in many ways, even more baffling to infectious-disease researchers than the novel coronavirus. After decades of research, scientists still aren’t certain who, or what, is spreading this strange malady around the world.
For most of the past three years, the only thing more futile than looking for Donald Trump to pivot was expecting the American people to do so. No matter how successful the president was, or, more often, how chaotic and disorderly his administration was, nothing seemed to be able to shake up people’s views of Trump.
Popular approval of Trump hovered in the same narrow range, roughly from 39 to 45 percent, through Charlottesville and tax reform, supposed border caravans and mass shootings, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report and impeachment.
As the election approaches, the president’s approval rating becomes less important than how he’s polling against his challenger. And in the past few weeks, something has shifted. After months of Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, leading by single digits, a series of polls has recently shown him building a sizable lead. Surveys from The New York Times/Siena College and Harvard/Harris have Trump trailing by 14 and 12 points, respectively. A series of swing-state polls shows Biden tied or leading in states that Trump won comfortably in 2016.
The writer and activist has the painful, powerful words for this political moment. America just needs to heed them.
“There are days—this is one of them—when you wonder what your role is in this country and what your future is in it. How, precisely, are you going to reconcile yourself to your situation here and how you are going to communicate to the vast, heedless, unthinking, cruel white majority that you are here. I’m terrified at the moral apathy, the death of the heart, which is happening in my country. These people have deluded themselves for so long that they really don’t think I’m human. And I base this on their conduct, not on what they say. And this means that they have become in themselves moral monsters.”
James Baldwin made this somber observation more than 50 years ago. I included these words in my film I Am Not Your Negro, which explored Baldwin’s searing assessment of American society through the lens of the assassination of three of his friends: Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X. It is a film that cruelly shortens time and space between acts of police brutality in Birmingham in 1963 and images of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the killing of Michael Brown; recent images of protests over the death of George Floyd extend that tragic connection to the present-day.
Imagine if the National Transportation Safety Board investigated America’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Coping with a pandemic is one of the most complex challenges a society can face. To minimize death and damage, leaders and citizens must orchestrate a huge array of different resources and tools. Scientists must explore the most advanced frontiers of research while citizens attend to the least glamorous tasks of personal hygiene. Physical supplies matter—test kits, protective gear—but so do intangibles, such as “flattening the curve” and public trust in official statements. The response must be global, because the virus can spread anywhere, but an effective response also depends heavily on national policies, plus implementation at the state and community level. Businesses must work with governments, and epidemiologists with economists and educators. Saving lives demands minute-by-minute attention from health-care workers and emergency crews, but it also depends on advance preparation for threats that might not reveal themselves for many years. I have heard military and intelligence officials describe some threats as requiring a “whole of nation” response, rather than being manageable with any one element of “hard” or “soft” power or even a “whole of government” approach. Saving lives during a pandemic is a challenge of this nature and magnitude.
Sixteen states have reported record caseloads since Sunday.
The American pandemic is careening out of control. Yesterday, the United States reported more than 52,000 new cases of the coronavirus, setting a new all-time daily record, according to the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic. The surge has put the country’s supply of coronavirus tests under strain, especially in some of the worst-hit states, such as Arizona, Texas, Florida, and California. But unlike in past weeks or months, the outbreak is no longer limited to a handful of states or cities. Many places across the country are seeing caseloads spike.
To the degree that the U.S. ever built an infrastructure to contain and suppress the coronavirus, it frayed this week.
Along the way, nearly every previous landmark for measuring the pandemic has been overwhelmed. The country reported about 300,000 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, more than in any previous week of the pandemic so far. This shattered the old record of more than 215,000 new cases, which was set last week. On June 16, Vice President Mike Pence bragged that the U.S. was seeing an average of 20,000 new infections a day, a decline from the April high of about 30,000 new daily cases. Since Pence’s boast, the U.S. has recorded more than 30,000 new cases on every day but four. Six days ago, the country reported more than 40,000 daily cases for the first time. Now it has smashed through the 50,000 mark.
The revolution wasn’t only an effort to establish independence from the British—it was also a push to preserve slavery and suppress Native American resistance.
“We hold these truths to be self evident.” Say these words, and many Americans will be able to recite what follows: “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The opening words of the Declaration of Independence—and easily its most remembered part—are widely celebrated as signifying the beginning of an exceptional American history, one characterized, despite setbacks, by a progressive expansion of rights.
The closing words of the Declaration are far less known. The last of a list of 27 grievances against King George III, they read as follows: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” These words call attention to hard truths about America’s founding that have often been brushed aside.
The disease’s “long-haulers” have endured relentless waves of debilitating symptoms—and disbelief from doctors and friends.
For Vonny LeClerc, day one was March 16.
Hours after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson instated stringent social-distancing measures to halt the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, LeClerc, a Glasgow-based journalist, arrived home feeling shivery and flushed. Over the next few days, she developed a cough, chest pain, aching joints, and a prickling sensation on her skin. After a week of bed rest, she started improving. But on day 12, every old symptom returned, amplified and with reinforcements: She spiked an intermittent fever, lost her sense of taste and smell, and struggled to breathe.
When I spoke with LeClerc on day 66, she was still experiencing waves of symptoms. “Before this, I was a fit, healthy 32-year-old,” she said. “Now I’ve been reduced to not being able to stand up in the shower without feeling fatigued. I’ve tried going to the supermarket and I’m in bed for days afterwards. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced before.” Despite her best efforts, LeClerc has not been able to get a test, but “every doctor I’ve spoken to says there’s no shadow of a doubt that this has been COVID,” she said. Today is day 80.
Moving in with your parents is often seen as a mark of irresponsibility. The pandemic might show the country that it shouldn’t be.
Photography by Caroline Tompkins
Image above: Marielle Brenner, age 25, in the living room of her parents’ house in Melville, New York, in June. She moved back in with them after the economic fallout from the pandemic made her rent in Chicago unaffordable.
For the most part, the pandemic has restricted motion in America. But one exception has been a large-scale nationwide reshuffling of humans between homes. Before the coronavirus came to the United States, many of the country’s young adults were working, studying, and building lives on their own. Now a great deal of them are back to living with their parents.
The number of American adults who have returned to living at home is enormous. A recent analysis of government data by the real-estate website Zillow indicated that about 2.9 million adults moved in with a parent or grandparent in March, April, and May, if college students were included; most of them were 25 or younger. Their sudden dispersal into their parents’ homes is, for some, the result of the suspension of spring classes on college campuses and, for others, the result of miserable economic conditions. A survey from the Pew Research Center in March found that the younger an American adult is, the more likely that the pandemic has deprived them or someone in their household of work or earnings. Rent and other expenses got harder to cover, or simply to justify, for a large group of young people, so they moved home.