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Why this chaplain sees her atheism as a gift

Vanessa Zoltan says the theology that she was raised in was the Holocaust.
Vanessa Zoltan
Vanessa Zoltan says the theology that she was raised in was the Holocaust.

To start these conversations, I usually ask the guest to define their spiritual identity. And when I asked this of author Vanessa Zoltan, she replied that she's a Jewish atheist.

That is interesting enough, but within a couple minutes it started to become clear that what actually defines her outlook on the world and her spiritual life is the Holocaust.

All four of her grandparents survived the Nazi concentration camps, and it shaped so much of their lives and, as a result, hers. She writes about it in her new memoir, Praying with Jane Eyre. And no, Jane Eyre doesn't have anything to do with the Holocaust, but they are both integral parts of Zoltan's life.

For her, the idea of God didn't survive the horrors of the Holocaust, so she has had to find a different kind of spiritual center. And she found it in literature — specifically Jane Eyre.

But that will be part two that we'll share next week. Today, in part one of the conversation, we talked about how Zoltan built a spiritual identity out of the Holocaust and how that led her to be an atheist chaplain.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vanessa Zoltan: I would say genuinely, like the religion that I was raised in and the theology that I was raised in, was the Holocaust.

Rachel Martin: The theology you were raised with was the Holocaust?

Zoltan: Yes.

Martin: That is a really provocative sentence.

Zoltan: I'm really not trying to be provocative, I know how it sounds, but all four of my grandparents were Auschwitz survivors. My parents were both born right after the war to recent survivors. And every law I was taught, as to how to walk through the world, was through the orientation of the Holocaust.

Like, you don't get in lines, you know, our people have stood in enough lines. You always get involved if you see anything — that you don't understand that's going on with a neighbor, you get involved. The course of bureaucracy is always to be questioned. And we were taught to sort of look at our friends and wonder whether or not they would hide us if we ever needed to be hidden. So I think very much the theology that I was raised in was a theology of the Holocaust.

Martin: And that wasn't like a grim joke, like, "Hey, the Joneses around the corner, do you think they would hide us?" That wasn't funny, it was serious when your family talked about it.

Zoltan: Yeah, it was really serious. My father was a refugee from Hungary. He had to leave with his father one day, you know, pretending that they were going to Austria for tooth surgery. And it was certain neighbors who were able to help them get out and get the right paperwork to get out.

My dad wasn't just raised with these stories, it's very real for him that at any moment you can have to leave your country. And this is the lived truth of probably half the globe, right? That at any moment you might have to leave. And so you keep your eye out for who could help you.

But also at any moment, someone else might be the person who needs to leave or needs help. So keep your eye out as to who you can help. Even just a seamstress who lived next door to my dad's parents hid my grandparents' wedding album. They got married before the war and both survived, which is wild. But we have their wedding pictures because this woman saved them for us. And like, this was not like a great heroic act. She didn't risk anything. And yet my family is very grateful to her.

So, what are the things that you can do literally for your neighbors? I watched my parents do that my whole childhood, and that was all Holocaust response.

Martin: You're describing ways to be and behaviors that are attached to your grandparents' survival of the Holocaust, but you specifically called it a theology. How did your grandparents experience in the Holocaust, and then by extension your parents, how did that shape your perception of whether or not there's a God?

Zoltan: I asked my dad once about God and he said, "If there's a God, he hates us." And by "us" he meant the Jewish people. My dad's historical understanding of Jews is that every generation there's an attempt at total eradication. And I grew up around Iranian Jews in Los Angeles who had moved from Iran because of that and Jews from Russia.

So this was also something I was very much just exposed to. And I understand that that can sound paranoid, but I also don't think it is. So yeah, the belief was that of course there's no God, because what God would do this.

But I think that the absence of God can be really beautiful. It means it's our responsibility to take care of each other on this earth. And everything courageous and beautiful that we do is on us. And so I see my atheism very much as an act of optimism, that it is our job to make this world as good of a place as possible for as many people as possible.

Zoltan and her brothers, David and Jonathan, during Hanukkah with her grandfather in the early 1990s.
/ Vanessa Zoltan
Vanessa Zoltan
Zoltan and her brothers, David and Jonathan, during Hanukkah with her grandfather in the early 1990s.

Martin: Do you remember any prayers in your home when you were growing up, to God specifically? Did your parents do that?

Zoltan: Yeah, we did Friday night Shabbat dinner. So we did the prayer over the wine, over the challah, over the meal. My father would bless the three children and my grandparents, when it was at their house, would bless all seven grandchildren. It wasn't to God, you did it because it's what you did because that's what Jews do. And it's just ungrateful not to.

My grandfather was not only an atheist, but really spat in the face of religion a lot of his life. He had a very complicated relationship with religion, but when his wife of 50 years, my grandmother, passed away he went to Temple every day, twice a day to say the mourner's prayer for her. And when it wasn't time to be reciting the Kaddish, he would read The L.A. Times. Like, he was not following the service at all, but then would stand up and do the Kaddish.

We asked him if he thought it mattered, if God was paying attention or if my grandma heard him or anything. And he was like, "No, it's just what she deserves."

There still didn't seem to be any sort of belief in God. It was just, that's how you show someone you love them, is that they die knowing that that is what you will do for them and then you honor that commitment and do it.

Zoltan hugs a listener at a <em data-stringify-type="italic">Harry Potter & the Sacred Text </em>live show in Washington, D.C. at Sixth and I Synagogue.
/ Vanessa Zoltan
Vanessa Zoltan
Zoltan hugs a listener at a Harry Potter & the Sacred Text live show in Washington, D.C. at Sixth and I Synagogue.

Martin: How have you fixed on atheism instead of taking an agnostic approach? Which would leave open the possibility that something is out there, something bigger than us. How are you so firm?

Zoltan: I'm a chaplain and so I see myself as one of the things that religion has to offer. I would like to be one of the positive things that religion has on offer. I think religion has a lot of great things, and I think atheist chaplains are a necessary part of that tapestry.

Someone who is going to say, "It just sucks that your mom died. She isn't in a better place. It just sucks. She's just gone. You're just not gonna talk to her again." And sit with someone in that. I think I have a role and a call on this planet to be that person.

Most of the community members who I work with and serve are ex-evangelical and ex-Mormon who have somehow been really hurt by traditional religion. And to offer a safe space where that's not going to happen again feels important to me.

For me it's about the afterlife. I think the afterlife is a tool of oppression. Obviously with big exceptions.

Martin: Say more.

Zoltan: It's really easy to say to someone, "It's great that you're suffering in this life because you'll get your just rewards in the next life." It is a form of Christianity that has been taught to enslaved people across the globe, you know, for 700 years.

I think that it can be a way to keep people from revolting. By telling them that they're gonna get their just desserts in the next life. And there are very few forms of the afterlife that are appealing to me. I don't like the idea of the prosperity gospel. I need things to have good results on this planet, I'm results oriented, Rachel. I'm data-driven in my religion. I want us to be solving these problems on this planet.

Martin: You don't think you can hold both those ideas at the same time?

Zoltan: I think intellectually I can. But I don't want to. I want to marvel at the fact that lions exist and despair at the fact that they're dying from being overheated because we've ruined this planet and not leave myself the option to put a silver lining on it.

I'm not saying that religious people have only cheap grace. I want to just confront the realities of the suffering. And I don't think enough people take that position. And I was raised to take that position. I don't think everybody should. So I feel like this is a muscle that I have and I don't know why, but I think it's a gift that I have to offer, my atheism.

Part 2 of this conversation will publish on Sunday, August 27.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.