When I was 13, I was what you might consider “difficult.” This time, I struck a nerve.
“Why do we have to go?” I tested for the zillionth time.
“Why can’t you be more grateful?” my parents snapped back.
The typical Saturday morning exchange between my teenage self and my parents never yielded answers. Why should I spend my Saturday morning listening to a shaggy man drone on in a strange language? It was bad enough when my teachers would do it in English. Never mind this happening on my day off.
The chasm between my beliefs and my parents’ widened as I prepared for my Bat Mitzvah. Committed to my role as “difficult teenager,” I tested again:
“How does singing a Torah portion make me a woman?”
According to their plans, I would be the star performer in a show intended to impress friends, family, and congregation members. I would sing in Hebrew for an hour and make my family proud. Then, after grazing on stuffed mushrooms during the cocktail hour, we would dance in a soda-fueled frenzy, bumping the hottest tracks of the mid-2000s. It would be spectacular, but unwanted. After more arguments (and lots of crying), I became a woman on May 28th, 2005.
We seldom control how we spend our time when we’re children. In the winter, we sit on Santa’s lap or spin dreidels on the floor. In the spring, we hunt for easter eggs or the afikomen. These traditions might represent memories of love and family. Scarcely, however, do we acknowledge the stranglehold these traditions have on us into adulthood and their broader implications. Are religious traditions simply regifting the genuine human experiences we most cherish—meaningful experiences with and for those we love?
Minimalism, for me, was about getting back to the basics. I glanced back at the rickety structure that previously housed my dreams, values, and beliefs and disassembled it. It was alarmingly liberating, removing layer upon layer until even the foundation itself was stripped. But this reckoning didn’t come without its challenges. When the first storm struck, hard and without warning, I realized just how vulnerable I was without a roof overhead. Thus began the difficult, hasty task of re-engineering my essential scaffolding.
Surrounded by all the deconstructed materials I could ever want or need, I rebuilt with a focus on strengthening my foundation and using the least number of studs to frame maximal life fulfilment. Instead of walls, the openness of the structure allowed new sources of light to grace my evolving philosophy. If minimalism was the pursuit, clarity was the outcome. But I learned that clarity can be uncomfortable. Especially when applied to spirituality.
In the years after my Bat Mitzvah, I was indifferent to discussions of faith. I never prayed, but I also never questioned. As I journeyed into minimalism, I found myself deconstructing my religious programming. My own powers of observation led me to draw conclusions to questions concerning my morality, identity, and purpose on this planet. I found that minimizing helped me gain the clarity and strength I needed to abandon religion. They say that atheism is a side effect of critical thinking, but maybe it’s the result of hitting the “reset” button.
If you find that your religious traditions and obligations still give your life meaning— groovy! It’s always satisfying, after deep reflection, to be confident in your actions. But if you’re like me and have lugged religion through life the same way one boxes and unboxes unused items after every move, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate.
Anything that challenges normalcy is scary at first. Many of my closest friends still don’t know. I wish to remain anonymous, but I created an Instagram account to reconcile my fears of venturing into the unknown with the sheer freedom its enabled. That has me helped immensely.
The greatest lesson I’ve learned so far as an atheist and a minimalist is that it pays to be adaptable. For instance, it’s never too late to start over and create new traditions. My husband and I discovered new ways of approaching the holiday season to better reflect our values. Instead of wasteful decorations and gift-giving, we cook ourselves a traditional meal from a new country every year— preferably a country we’d like to someday travel to. The joy of researching recipes and savoring striking flavors brings us focus and fulfilment. We eat together, grateful for the food on our table and the love that nourishes us.
My family is finally selling their home of 34 years. Boxes of my childhood belongings started appearing on my front porch this summer. Being the experienced minimalist I am, I sorted through each of them, methodically culling the collection to 6 or 7 items worth keeping. Among the boxes was a carefully wrapped picture frame. Inside the frame was a certificate acknowledging my Bat Mitzvah. In deceivingly flowery text it warns “Do not forsake my Torah.” I knew exactly what to do.