Ear­li­er this week, Jus­tine Hope Blau wrote about grow­ing up in an intel­lec­tu­al but chron­i­cal­ly home­less fam­i­ly. She has been blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

We grew up with my moth­er’s spe­cial brand of reli­gion: Eccen­tric Judaism. My two old­er broth­ers and I were allowed to eat shrimp and lob­ster, but we wouldn’t dream of tast­ing pork. On Sat­ur­days we weren’t allowed to write or spend mon­ey, yet that was nego­tiable, depend­ing on our cir­cum­stances. We spent six years with­out a home, mov­ing from hotel to hotel in Man­hat­tan, always short of mon­ey. So there were times when, giv­en that we often didn’t have a kitchen, we’d spend mon­ey on Shab­bas to get food. Even Yom Kip­pur, the holi­est of Jew­ish hol­i­days, was mal­leable. We drank water and fast­ed until about 2 pm because that’s as long as my moth­er could take it before suc­cumb­ing to her appetite. Life before Torah,” my moth­er would say, and she invoked it when­ev­er it suit­ed her agen­da.

In my recent­ly pub­lished mem­oir, Scat­tered, I write of los­ing faith in Judaism in 4th grade, when my class at PS 111 on West 52nd put on a play about King Arthur. I audi­tioned for the role of Mer­lin the magi­cian, after my broth­ers coached me for the part, teach­ing me to speak in a low voice for max­i­mum grav­i­tas. I land­ed it, beat­ing out two boys.

My moth­er nixed it for me though, when she saw me kneel­ing as I rehearsed in front of the mir­ror in our hotel room. At the end of the play, every­one had to kneel to King Arthur.

Jews don’t kneel to any­one but God,” my moth­er said. I could bow, but she for­bade me to kneel. Back at school, Miss Yalowitz put the issue to a vote before the class. Could Jus­tine bow instead of kneel? I won by one vote. Then Geof­frey Wolf, anoth­er Jew­ish kid, piped up, say­ing if I couldn’t kneel, nei­ther could he. At that point, Miss Yalowitz took my part away. The play went on with anoth­er kid read­ing Merlin’s lines from a script on stage since he didn’t have time to learn them by heart.

The after­noon when I lost the role, as we wait­ed for our moth­ers to pick us up, my best ene­my, Lau­ra Nuss­er, praised my piety. You’re a good Jew, Jus­tine,” but the words were hol­low to me. I had few clothes, few toys, and we had been liv­ing a mar­gin­al life in seedy hotels for a long time. I was will­ing to sac­ri­fice when nec­es­sary but this wasn’t worth it. I real­ized that my moth­er had a choice; it wasn’t Jew­ish law, it was her inter­pre­ta­tion of it. If she bent the rules when she pleased, then she could have allowed my kneel­ing. I couldn’t have artic­u­lat­ed it then, but I knew that she was using reli­gion in a self­ish way that negat­ed the deep joy and ful­fill­ment that anchors Jew­ish peo­ple today to our fore­bears, and us to each oth­er, tran­scend­ing doc­trine.

Maybe that’s why I react so strong­ly to the sto­ry of Isaac and Abra­ham—how God test­ed Abra­ham to see if he would sac­ri­fice his only son for God. There’s been lots of intel­lec­tu­al debate about this sto­ry, but it’s a deal break­er for me. Clear­ly it’s a sto­ry writ­ten by a human being; in any case, I reject this sto­ry because it por­trays God as so sadis­tic. But I do not total­ly reject Judaism. One of the beau­ti­ful things I got from my moth­er, which I gleaned from her despite her flaws, was that things are nego­tiable. Just as she could have been flex­i­ble about the kneel­ing scene, so I can appre­ci­ate the val­ues and the soul­ful­ness of Judaism even if I don’t agree with all of it.

I iden­ti­fy as Jew­ish (as well as Human­ist and as a pagan). I loved Hebrew School, espe­cial­ly for the his­to­ry and the ele­giac songs. I sent my chil­dren to a Recon­struc­tion­ist Hebrew School and am glad they had their Bar and Bat Mitz­vahs, and that those warm, soul­ful hymns — like Ein Kelo­heinu, Adon Olam and and Eliyahu Hanavi—res­onate through them and con­nect them to Jew­ish tra­di­tion and cul­ture.

Thou­sands of years ago, Jew­ish schools were the first in the world that were for all the boys in the com­mu­ni­ty, not just for the sons of the rich. And the Recon­struc­tion­ist syn­a­gogue where my chil­dren went to Hebrew School, the Soci­ety for the Advance­ment of Judaism, was the first in the world, in 1920, to let a girl be Bat Mitz­va­hed. This same Recon­struc­tion­ist belief dis­pensed with the notion that the Jews are the cho­sen, because all peo­ple are spe­cial. These are the kind of val­ues that keep me con­nect­ed to my Jew­ish roots. It helps me reach the con­clu­sion that my moth­er is not the final arbiter of Jew­ish law, and yet she was right that many things are open to inter­pre­ta­tion and nego­ti­a­tion. Life before Torah.

Jus­tine Hope Blau’s mem­oir,Scat­tered: A Most­ly True Mem­oir, is now available.