Once again, sorry for the gaps in posts. Traveling internationally takes a toll on the blogging! If you want to be updated when I post a new interview, you can subscribe via email (at the bottom of the page), via WordPress, or you’ll see it when I post it on Facebook (since I assume many of you are my Facebook friends). But let’s get to the point–my interview with Emily!
I met Emily over seven years ago, at nerd camp–the Governor’s Honor’s Program in Georgia. We were both selected as “Communicative Arts” majors, a fancy way of saying “bookworms”. The first time I saw her, I knew I was looking at a kindred spirit. I don’t really know why. But we’ve been friends ever since. We went to different high schools and different colleges, but in Atlanta, so we saw each other at least a few times a year and spoke frequently.
Emily once wrote on her blog (check it out, it’s witty and poignant and fantastic) that she feels about me “roughly the same as Leslie Knope feels about Anne Perkins,” which is probably the nicest thing anyone has ever said about me. And if I am Anne Perkins, she is definitely my Leslie Knope. She’s smarter and more focused, positively adorable, and overall a better person than I–and I would HAPPILY punch anyone for her or make her a last minute wedding dress. She’s also wickedly funny. And I know if I needed her, she would drop everything and be here for me in a second. She’s that kind of friend.
When transcribing interviews, I usually have to edit out a few shared jokey moments or make some things clearer because of my history with the interviewee. What I discovered during my interview with Emily is that not only do we have a habit of understanding where each other is going and interrupting–we also don’t finish sentences because we know the other knows what we are thinking. The result was an interview that made me laugh out loud while I transcribed it and also required a lot of editing for clarity. I’m still not so sure that some of my questions are clear–but Emily knew what I meant. There’s also a bit toward the end where we both started crying–I didn’t keep the actual crying in the transcribed interview, but you’ll probably be able to tell where. We managed to pack a LOT of interview into less than thirty minutes–so this one is a bit long, but it’s definitely worth the read.
Interview 9: Emily
“To be remembered, and remembered well by people you have helped, is a motivation for doing good works, and also for making as much of an impact as you can in your time on this planet.”
Me: If you would go through how you were raised, and how that brought you to where you are religion-wise today?
Emily: Sure! So…my mother was raised as a practicing Reform Jew, and kind of quit practicing herself when she was in high school, and didn’t really identify as a practicing Jew past that point. My dad was raised…my paternal grandfather was raised fairly strictly Baptist and my paternal grandmother is the daughter of a Methodist minister and went to a Methodist college on scholarship as a result. Both of them, I think, had fairly aggressively lost their faith by the time they went to grad school, and they were both in a PhD program, that’s how they met…they were super into the Beats, that was their whole deal, so they super didn’t believe in anything. They identified, I think, my grandfather in particular identifies as an atheist, and so raised my dad not as anything, and my dad pretty aggressively identifies as an atheist at this point, but an atheist descended of Christian stock, so I grew up celebrating Christmas and Easter as non-religious but family holidays. We’d go visit my grandparents.
We always did Thanksgiving with my mom’s side of the family so as a result—because on that side of the family, everyone else is still practicing Jews—we would do Hanukkah then, just called it good. Beyond that, my cousins on that side of the family were all named growing up, so we’d go to my grandmother’s synagogue for the naming; when my grandmother died we had an unveiling after a year–so that side of the family is actually Jewish, and my sister and my dad and I are kind of the anomaly there. So yeah, I was raised—that was kind of roundabout—was raised not really believing anything, didn’t have to go to church, didn’t have to go to synagogue, didn’t have to do any of those things, which was considered super weird by the standards of Tulsa, which is where I grew up. My sister and I used to joke that we’re Jewtheists, but like—there’s a difference, I think, between atheists who …walked away from the faith they were raised in versus people who just weren’t raised with any of that, and we fall into the latter camp. We were never rejecting anything, we just weren’t raised practicing as anything. So as a result, my sister and I both went to Emory, my dad works for Emory, my mom worked for Emory—which is…Methodist affiliated—and so, I don’t think we ever had any issues with that particularly, liberal Methodists being the Unitarians of the Protestant denominations, and so my sister was in the Glenn Methodist Youth Group growing up, and did that kind of stuff; I was involved in the Inter-Religious Council in college…we weren’t really ever like “Fuck religion, it’s the worst,” but we just didn’t—it wasn’t ours.
Me: Is Tulsa kind of like the South? I don’t really know where Oklahoma counts as being…
Emily: Tulsa—they identify as the Midwest—but Tulsa is fairly Southern Midwestern city, in terms of culture.
Me: Right, okay. So you said that you guys were an anomaly—did you ever feel like you were outsiders, or was it just that you guys didn’t go to church and everybody else did?
Emily: We went to this—it wasn’t really a Montessori, but it was very nearly one, it was a magnet school—so a big chunk of the people we knew growing up were Unitarians, there’s actually a very large Unitarian community in Tulsa for whatever reason. So in terms of the people that our families were close with, no. I do pretty clearly remember being in sixth grade and having a girl witness at me for not believing in God. It was like this fucking National Enquirer picture that showed angels in the cloud and she was like, “How can you not believe?” and I was like, “This is bullshit, you’re dumb…”
Me: (laughs) Have you heard of Bat Boy?
Emily: Basically! It was weird. So I remember that. But the people we were super close with were either Unitarians, or also sort of similarly “whatever”, or went to church but weren’t…there’s a whole category of people who might go to church because you go to church, but they’re sort of hippie-dippie spiritual—it’s a thing you do on Sundays and they’re not crazy about it the rest of the time. That was kind of who we ran with in Tulsa. Actually it became more of an issue moving here. Not like a ton, but I got witnessed at a couple of times by a couple of kids in middle school, because middle schoolers are assholes and shouldn’t be allowed to be talk about religion. Middle schoolers are so dumb.
Me: They really are.
Emily: So dumb.
Me: Gosh, I can’t believe you got witnessed at. I have never been witnessed at, actually
Emily: You went to Christian school!
Me: I guess they just assumed I was Christian…
Emily: You’re a member of at least some Abrahamic faith, you’re fine.
Me: Oh gosh. I can’t believe it. Wow.
Emily: Yeah, so when I was in eighth grade, there was this girl…who a good friend of mine in college knew in high school—we only went to middle school together and then she went to a different high school. By all accounts, she had some other shit going on at home, but—really really sheltered, filled with the Christlove, evangelical kid, and came up to me at some point—this is eighth grade—and was like “Emily?” and I was like “Yeah?” and she was like “Are you a lesbian?”
Me: Are you are serious?
Emily: Yeah, this was an actual conversation that happened at my locker. So that happened, and I was like “No…” What had happened was I had slept over at my friend’s house and gotten her cold or something, and that friend had, unbeknownst to me, told them it was because we’d been “makin’ out”, because she just wanted to fuck with this girl. So there were three or four girls who were like “Are you a lesbian?” led by this girl. So that was weird. There was this whole other weird thing that’s not really about religion, but that eighth grade year we had this science teacher—super great science teacher, she was a hoot—really good younger teacher, really engaging, did some interesting stuff with the science curriculum. I really really liked her class. She was also just kind of goofy. But she was a lesbian, though not out at work because eighth graders don’t need to know shit about their teachers’ sex lives, and it came out as a thing at some point, the kids figured it out—possibly either because someone was nosy or if it just became less of a big deal—it was after I had finished middle school. But one of those kids was talking to a friend of mine who had come out as gay in high school and said to him, “If she’s a lesbian, I don’t want to get better grades just because I’m a girl,” and he was just like “God damnit.” So I don’t know if that was just…kids are slightly less assholes as they age or we just happened to be in middle and high school right at the turning point where being that way to people was less publicly acceptable in the Atlanta metro area.
Me: Yeah, I mean…Decatur is probably one of the most open-minded parts of Atlanta.
Emily: Yeah…we’re unincorporated Dekalb County, thank you.
Me: Oh, I’m sorry. (Ed. note: this was sarcasm).
Emily: Anyways, that was a random segue…so the last time I got asked both about my sexual orientation and about my religious beliefs was probably eighth grade.
Me: Wow. (laughs)
Emily: Middle schoolers are the worst.
Me: Yeah, they are. I mean, I’m sure I was the worst in middle school—but I still didn’t do that.
Emily: I can’t imagine you being bold enough to go fuck with someone at their locker like that.
Me: No, I think I would have thought daggers at them.
Emily: Righteous, righteous daggers.
Me: Um…what was I going to ask you? Oh. Okay. Since your mom was Jewish, technically that makes you Jewish. Did you ever feel very Jewish? Does that make sense?
Emily: Like do I ever feel that identity more strongly than other times?
Me: Yes. That.
Emily: Um…some. The part that was weirdest about moving here is we went from being the only Jewish kids at school-—and we’re like, Jewish with big ol’ air quotes—in Tulsa, we went from that to moving to Atlanta, and my class had not only actual no-shit practicing Jews of all the denominations—we had some Orthodox kids and a lot of Reform kids, couple of Conservative kids—so that was the first time I’d seen actual no-shit practicing Jews, but on top of that we had a lot of other kids who were in the same boat where one of their parents was Jewish and one of them wasn’t, to varying degrees of practice: several of them went to church, a couple were moderately active in synagogues. So that was the first time that had ever happened. I had been pretty secure in whatever Jewish identity I had up until that point because it had never really been challenged, and then when we moved here, I started to feel super weirdly defensive about it, because I wasn’t like a “real” Jew, and my last name isn’t Jewish, we celebrated Christmas—but we also did the unveiling, we also went to my cousin’s bat mitzvah, that kind of shit happened. So I don’t ever feel super Jewish, but I do feel more keenly defensive about kind of belonging to a group that I’m not really a practicing member of—I think there’s a difference between my mom, who was raised Jewish and could perform all of that but elected not to, whereas we weren’t raised with the ability to perform any of that, and so we can identify as that kind of, but when called upon to prove our Jewishness—I didn’t have to read through a Haggadah until this year. I went to a seder, and did the whole thing, and it was great and nontraditional and the guy who hosted it is a delight. But going to college—and high school, kind of—where people were actually religious and committed to being religious meant that I got to see the ways in which I was a failure in doing those things, a little bit. There’s this whole weird thing about religions that are also big cultural things, like you can convert to Methodism and it’s not a big thing—well it’s a thing, but you get baptized and the liturgy is all in English. I could struggle my ass through a Methodist ceremony at school, no big deal. I went to Nine Lessons and Carols, did the whole thing, was never uncomfortable in any of those situations despite not having grown up in a church because so much of that is either already in English or already just built into the fabric of how we approach formal events in the US. None of that was true of Jewish things. And Judaism has this additional thing where all of the liturgy is in Hebrew, which I don’t read. On top of that, a lot of it is sung, and it’s sung in different ways, depending on where you—I don’t know how familiar you are with Jewish services…
Me: I have been to two bar mitzvahs.
Emily: Alright! So if you’re going through a service, there’s things that you sing, they’re prayers and things, and it’s all sung, but it’s sung in not an eight tone scale, and the melodies that you sing to are totally variant depending on where you go.
Me: I was wondering that.
Emily: So yeah, there’s melody families that each synagogue will adopt, so you can go between synagogues and sometimes they’re the same, and they often fall on denominational lines, like if you’re a fairly left-leaning Reform congregation, you likely sing the same tunes for the prayers that my aunt and uncle’s congregation in Austin sings, which going to a service at a synagogue in Austin is of course kind of insane, because the cantor is a fuckin’ singer-songwriter and everyone can sing, whereas that isn’t necessarily true depending on where else you go. So on top of not being able to even mouth along to the words for a long time, I couldn’t sing the songs. I can’t sing most obscure hymns, but you know, everyone kind of knows some hymns if you grew up in the US.
Me: Even accidentally!
Emily: Yeah! I never set out to learn them or anything, but you just kind of know them. So I think rather than feeling super Jewish I tend to feel insufficiently Jewish, sometimes because people are kind of assholes about it.
Me: I kind of know what that’s like, from a Persian perspective.
Emily: Yeah, sometimes when you talk about Persian shit where you’re Persian but not really, it is I think, perhaps similar.
Me: But for mine it’s an ethnicity, and with Jewishness it’s kind of both. That’s what’s confusing to me, you know, it seems unfair for people to exclude you when it’s a cultural thing!
Emily: It is a cultural thing, but it’s a cultural thing that I wasn’t raised practicing. No one would ever call me out as being Jewish. I don’t look Jewish, my last name isn’t Jewish…you know. I could tell everyone I was raised Methodist and be lying about as much, and could perform that with about as much skill. And on top of that, because Jews are so tied into that being the culture and the culture that you grow up in and the culture that you raise children in, they’re not hostile to people in my boat, and certainly there are a lot of reform congregations that are actively welcoming to people who are in my boat, because there are a lot of children of people who made the choice that my mother made, whether or not they married a Jew, where they didn’t raise their kids practicing because they had wandered away themselves, or there’s a lot of congregations trying to figure out how to deal with that, so the Jewish equivalent of the contemporary worship thing in Protestant churches, though less super-cheesy. But on top of that, because people don’t convert into Judaism very often, there’s not as much of a culture of learning—I’m sure that if that was something I wanted to do, I could go do it and would be welcomed–
Me: You could go on Birthright!
Emily: I could, I don’t want to. My mom wanted me to.
Emily: Not for any religious thing, she just thought it was dumb to not take the trip.
Me: I mean you’re Jewish…you can go for pretty cheap…
Emily: That’s the point of Birthright, of course, is to bring young people back to the flock. It doesn’t always work very well, and in light of Israel’s recent actions I don’t want to go…
Me: Fair! That’s fair!
Emily: Well there’s this whole additional thing with Judaism also being a political thing to some extent, though of all of the young Jews that I know, hardly any of them are Zionists, because they’re also all, you know, liberals.
Me: Yeah, that’s another conflicting thing I would guess. It’s kind of easier for me, because I grew up on the side of Palestine, I guess. Though it’s hard to take anybody’s side.
Emily: The situation is just unilaterally terrible!
Me: It’s horrible. But when you’re Jewish—in fifth grade, my liberal friends were Jewish, because we were the only liberals, but they were pro-Israel and I was pro-Palestine and it was the one thing we could not talk about.
Emily: I never honestly thought about it one way or the other until high school and by the time I was in high school the most pro-Israel I’d get is “two-state solution”-y. Like [a mutual friend], you know, was raised practicing, and still goes home and does shit when her parents need her to, and she feels similarly. And I think a lot of Jews in our age bracket who are Reform feel like they don’t support the Zionist state particularly. I think that’s because I am the age that I am, I think if I were ten years older it would have been. I think young American Jews are about the same as young American liberals, at a point where they don’t feel a religious calling to the state and the state is clearly fuckin’ up things.
Me: Probably the internet helps with that.
Emily: Some of it, certainly. That was kind of a derail…
Me: We went from talking about religion to talking about…politics…that’s just a whole ‘nother issue…
Emily: That’s a different blog.
Me: (laughs) Okay, so I guess since I know you’re atheist there are certain questions that I wouldn’t typically ask an atheist—I assume you don’t believe in heaven and hell?
Emily: Nah. Even my mother sort of fuzzily believed in “maybe there’s an afterlife, but probably not”. She didn’t have a Jewish funeral, we cremated her and then she asked that her ashes be put at the headwaters of the Chattahoochee, and we did that. So like, clearly, the last Jewish burial in my line of the family is likely to be my grandmother, who got the plain pine box and the unveiling.
Me: So when your mom died, was that at all—did you ever think, “I wish I could think that?” Or were you already just so upset that it wasn’t even on your mind?
Emily: There’s this great quote—I think it’s Jonathan Safran Foer, about how just because you’re an atheist doesn’t mean you wouldn’t like for there to be a reason why things are. It’s not that I don’t wish that there was a larger cosmic plan, I think that that would be comforting, if I could legit no-shit believe that, but I don’t. For me to believe the universe is anything other than indifferent to my well being would—I just can’t. I don’t do that. It’s not true, it’s just not. Sorry guys. The flip side of that point of view was that to some extent when my mother was ill—(puts on radio voice) for those of you at home who are not Lillie, my mom died of cancer a year ago, and was in remission briefly and then it came back, it was great—I think it would have been harder for me to grapple with if I did believe in an omnipotent god and I did believe in an afterlife. Like “fuck you! Why does my mom have cancer? She’s nice. She’s literally an oncology nurse!”
Me: I would have a hard time reconciling that, I think.
Emily: Right, the universe is indifferent and sometimes biology is a motherfucker. Her mother died of cancer, she died of cancer, I will likely die of cancer—if I don’t die of cancer, I’ll live a long time and get Alzheimer’s. It’s a crapshoot and our genes are kinda shitty. I’m much more comfortable believing that it’s essentially a random drawing and we got the short end of that particular stick–after getting the long end of the stick in many, many other regards—than I would be with “there’s was an omnipotent god and he decided to kill off your mom at 53”. I’m more okay with “sometimes biology’s an asshole.” I think. In the grand scheme of things.
Me: I can understand that! It’s especially hard to believe when people tell you he’s a loving God and he just wanted your mother to be in Heaven.
Emily: Yeah, fuck you! I would prefer her to be here, I would prefer for my grandmother to be here, I would prefer for my mother’s brother who died when she was in college to be here, I would prefer for my mother’s father who died when she was in the Peace Corps to be here. (pauses) Yeah, so I think it was easier for me to handle that as not believing that there’s a thing and to just be present in the shitty, shitty moment. And there is a thing that’s sort of a Jewish thing about how no one is truly gone until people stop speaking their name, and that people live on the memories of those they have known, because to some extent there is this idea in biological sciences that our lived experiences are lived experiences only as we remember them, and that your memory becomes less a memory of it actually happening, and it becomes a memory of the story as it has been relayed to you, that’s why you can remember things that happened before you could remember them, or why your memories about things shift. And so in that sense, to some extent, the rawness of her being ill has faded, like I don’t remember the day to day fucking awfulness of that, and the parts that do remain are the parts that are better. So that, to me, is ultimately more comforting than “there’s an omnipotent god who killed your mom but heaven!”
Me: I can understand that. I think I would be in the same boat. So, do you believe in a soul?
Me: Yeah, I kinda figured, again…
Emily: (laughs) We’re very large apes.
Me: For the atheists, the idea of being remembered and what you just said, that seems like a more—
Emily: Yeah, it’s appealing to me as someone who doesn’t. I mean, when you talk about elephants, for example, they’ve done this thing where they go out and play the calls—because the elephants know each other individually—they’ll play the call or the voice of the elephant who has died, and the elephants who knew that elephant when they were alive react to it and know it and remember the elephant that it’s referring to. I think there’s something, in terms of how we are oriented towards pro-social behavior as a species—to be remembered, and remembered well by people you have helped, is a motivation for doing good works, and also for making as much of an impact as you can in your time on this planet. So I’m very project oriented. It’s comforting to me—the both pro- and anti-social behavior that you conduct on this planet makes an impact and that is what, ultimately, your legacy is. Your legacy is how you’re remembered by those around you, whether for good or for ill. I find that kind of comforting.