in Introspection, Personal History


I’ve been doing a lot of genealogy work lately, researching my family history. It’s a great hobby, makes the hours fly by like nothing else.

As my research continues, I understand more how deeply my roots are embedded in this area: not only Oregon’s Willamette Valley, but specifically the ten mile radius around Zion Mennonite Church.

My Roth ancestors came here in 1889. They helped found Zion in 1893. My Sharp ancestors settled here soon after. Now many descendants of the Roths and the Sharps still live here, as do descendants of the Kropfs and the Yoders and the Kauffmans and the Gingeriches from which the original community was built.

I’m still here. I’m tied to this place by deep roots of tradition.

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here in our little village of Anatevka you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy.

You may ask why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

Because of our traditions we’ve kept our balance for many many years. Because of our traditions everyone of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.

Who, day and night, must scramble for a living,
Feed a wife and children, say his daily prayers?
And who has the right, as master of the house,
To have the final word at home?

The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.
The Papa, the Papa! Tradition.

Who must know the way to make a proper home,
A quiet home, a kosher home?
Who must raise the family and run the home,
So Papa’s free to read the holy books?

The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!
The Mama, the Mama! Tradition!

At three, I started Hebrew school. At ten, I learned a trade.
I hear they’ve picked a bride for me. I hope she’s pretty.

And who does Mama teach to mend and tend and fix,
Preparing me to marry whoever Papa picks?

The daughters (sons), the daughters (sons)! Tradition!
The daughters (sons), the daughters (sons)! Tradition!

Without our traditions, our lives would be as shaky as a fiddler on the roof.

I was raised in Anatevka. I live there still, but in the past I have turned my backs upon its traditions, have mocked them even.

I am older now, and see things differently. Maybe I do have room for these traditions, even if they serve a different role in my life than in the life of others. Maybe it is possible to reconcile these traditions with who I am today.

So I’ve been thinking: where is it written that in order for me to attend church I must profess a belief in a god? Where is it written that my presence at church is an admission that I believe in a god? As Jenn said yesterday: “People go to church for a lot of different reasons,” only one of which is a desire to worship a deity. Nick wants to visit Zion this Sunday for the singing. He misses it.

If I choose to spend my Sunday mornings at Zion Mennonite Church, do not take the wrong impression. I will not go there to worship; I will go there to be with my family, to participate in the traditions of Anatevka.

I want to do so without expectations being placed upon me. I want to do so without causing distress to Kris or to anyone else. I want to do so with the understanding that it is not god that brings me to this place; it is the bond of family which ties me to this church, to this congregation, to these people.


On 19 December 2002 (01:48 PM),
Joelah said:

You bring up an interesting question: Can/Should we celebrate traditions without believing in or honoring that which inspired them? The whole singing a song about God, in a setting that is constructed for the worship of said God, in amongst a group of other singers who are singing FOR God… being part of a situation and only participating in it fractionally? What would/will the true believers say about this? A lot of them, I suppose, would cheer you on, appreciative of the values that bring you there, or hoping that from a partial participation would grow a full one. Others, though, might be disturbed by the motions you’re going through.
As far as the whole, “Tradition” angle, I say chuck it. We cannot ever fully free ourselves from our cultural underpinnings, we must always be aware of our biases and influences, but why celebrate them?

On 19 December 2002 (02:50 PM),
Dana said:

It sounds to me like you are missing the sense of community that Church provided (as well as the music and the traditions of your childhood). There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia, of course.

However, I think there is something a bit disingenuous about attending a religious worship service when you are an atheist. If people who are there worshiping know you are an atheist and accept your presence, that’s one thing, but if they actually think you believe, well, I think they would be within their rights to be upset and/or exclude you.

You ask where it’s written that you have to believe in god to partake. I think that’s sort of implicit in churchgoing — that’s the primary purpose, and the singing and community are secondary manifestations of that purpose.


On the other tentacle, unless they ask and/or you volunteer the information, I can’t imagine anybody would really know. Of course, Canby isn’t exactly a big town, and you have history in the church, and there is such a thing as gossip.

On 19 December 2002 (04:58 PM),
Dave said:

And a weblog…

On 19 December 2002 (06:28 PM),
J.D. said:


I’ve made no secret of my atheism, but neither have I been evangelical about it. My fear is that attending church would lead others to believe, incorrectly, that I had returned to a life of faith. Kris is already afraid this is true.

On 20 December 2002 (12:41 AM),
Drew said:

It sounds like your desire to attend church is a longing for community and ritual – both fine reasons for participating in a religious organization – ITWATA (in the world according to Andrew). It seems peculiar that you are so concerned about other people’s reaction to your participation. If it gives you something you need then that should be enough. ITWATA a church is a place where one goes to delve for a personal revelation of truth. It is not a place where prepackaged dogma is force fed like bad fast food. This is probably why I’m a Unitarian. At the risk of sounding evangelistic, you might enjoy a Unitarian service – cerebral, often political, heavy on music, light on dogma. The sum of UU doctrine basically amounts to seven principles:

The inherent worth and dignity of every person

Justice, equality and compassion in human relations

Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations

A free and responsible search for truth and meaning

The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large

The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all

Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”

Oooops, that probably is evangelism. I’d better stop.

Happy holidays.

On 20 December 2002 (07:09 AM),
J.D. Roth said:

It seems peculiar that you are so concerned about other people’s reaction to your participation. If it gives you something you need then that should be enough.

To an extent, I agree. However, one of the hallmarks of J.D.-ness is empathy; I do worry about how others feel. Not because I’m afraid of what they think of me, but because I do not want to make them uncomfortable. I don’t want to create marriage strain by going to church; it’s not worth it. I don’t want to cause the church members any anxiety; it’s not my intent.

ITWATA a church is a place where one goes to delve for a personal revelation of truth.

That’s not really what I’m after, though. You hit the nail on the head when you said I wanted “community and ritual”. These are missing from my life. (I get some community via friends and book group, but on a much smaller scale than what I crave.)

At the risk of sounding evangelistic, you might enjoy a Unitarian service – cerebral, often political, heavy on music, light on dogma.

This doesn’t sound evangelistic, but it also is not what I’m looking for. I do not want to participate in just *any* church service; I want to participate in the services at Zion Mennonite Church in Hubbard, Oregon. It is in this one place that my family roots are deep, with which I feel kinship to the congregation. I don’t want to create new family bonds, I want to revisit the old ones.

On 21 December 2002 (01:29 PM),
Dana said:

Do or do not. There is no try.

As I said above, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. I expect that if you were to revisit for a service or three, no one would mind at all. However, if you are going to actually formally join the church, the church members might have a problem.

But if that’s what you want to do, then there’s not really going to be a substitute. You should try it out and see how people react.

If you know Kris is going to have a problem with it and you aren’t willing to add that strain to your life, then that pretty much answers that right there.

If you know what you want, and you aren’t willing to live with a known consequence of attaining it, then your only real option is giving that up and trying to find something else to satisfy your desire.

If your current life does not provide the ritual and community that you crave, and you feel you cannot get it at the familiar, childhood source, where else can it be found? Can things like book club provide more of it than they do now?

  1. Another ‘now it can be told’ moment:

    This meditation was inspired by a Sunday morning breakfast at Joel and Aimee’s. The four of us sat around there table talking about god and childhood and life. I mentioned that I was feeling a strong urge to begin attending Zion again, but that I had no religious inclination whatsoever. Kris, Joel, and Aimee all loudly decried this as a Bad Thing. Ironically, three years later, Joel and Aimee would be doing the same thing: attending church for the community. Humbugs!

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