I’m Jewish, but … That’s how I felt for most of my life.
Many things follow the “but.” I’m an atheist. For most of my life, I didn’t belong to a synagogue or any other Jewish organization. I didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays. I harshly criticized Israeli policy toward Palestinians. So what makes me Jewish?
My Jewish grandparents migrated from Eastern Europe to New York City 100 years ago. Although they spoke Yiddish, they, too, were atheists. My maternal grandfather, Joe, was a rabid atheist, perhaps because he was rebelling against his own orthodox father. When the topic of religion came up, my grandfather would go off on an anti-religious riff that was difficult to interrupt.
On the day after his wedding night, according to my mother, Joe’s aunt came to inspect the sheets for proof of virginal blood. Joe threw her out and wouldn’t speak to his father for months.
My grandparents were also communists and members of Jewish labor unions and fraternal organizations. My paternal grandfather was on the board of directors of the “coops,” a predominantly Jewish cooperative housing project that was known as “Little Moscow.” Their Jewish identities and their political identities were strong.
My parents, born in New York, followed in their parents’ footsteps. They attended Camp Kinderland with other Jewish Red Diaper Babies (i.e., children of communists). They were atheists and would eat pork sandwiches outside local synagogues on Yum Kippur when everyone else was fasting. Although they spoke Yiddish, English was their main language. They were active in communist organizations and both were blue collar workers, my mother in the garment trades and my father as an upholsterer and slip cover cutter. Like my grandparents, their Jewish and political identities were both strong.
Then there was me. My parents told me that I was Jewish and sent me to a progressive Jewish after-school program called a shule (pronounced shu-le). It focused on history, culture and a little Yiddish. I hated going since I wanted to be playing outside with my friends. “This is worse than Hitler,” I was reputed to have said in the late 1940s. Neither the holocaust nor Israel were major topics of discussion in the shule or in our house.
We didn’t formally celebrate the Jewish holidays, except for the eating of traditional food with my mother’s extended family. One of my cousins wanted to do a seder one Passover but both the adults and children cruelly laughed at her. We didn’t follow Jewish dietary laws, mixing dairy with meat along with bacon and pork at times. In Los Angeles, after moving from New York in 1947 when I was 5, few people sent their children to overnight camps, Jewish or otherwise. We did, however, attend a nominally Jewish day camp.
Growing up, I had Jewish and non-Jewish friends. None were very observant. More important than ethnicity and religion was whether or not they, too, were Red Diaper Babies. Growing up during the McCarthy period, we Red Diaper Babies shared a common bond, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
As my thirteenth birthday approached, there was no talk of a bar mitzvah (the Jewish right of passage for boys) in my family. None of my Jewish, Red Diaper Baby friends had bar mitzvahs although many had large 13th birthday parties without any ritual.
This sounds good to me I remember thinking to myself. I thought about all the presents I would get.
“It’s just another birthday,” I heard my mother say about one of my friend’s party. “It’s hypocritical throw a big party when you’re not religious.”
Being a dutiful son who liked to please his parents, I didn’t ask for a large 13th birthday. I don’t remember anything about that birthday.
My first experience in a synagogue was a Yum Kippur [day of atonement] youth service that I attended with two of my high school, Jewish Red Diaper Baby friends. We sat in the back of the synagogue and suffered through the long, boring service.
“Where should be go for lunch,” my friend whispered.
“Shush,” I said, giggling. “Everyone else is probably fasting.”
“But I’m getting hungry,” he said.
“Me too,” I said, “but let’s talk about it after.”
My parents always taught me to be respectful of the religious beliefs of others.
So, my nominal Jewishness was less important than my Red Diaper Baby status and the normal hassles of teenage years. I was more concerned with being masculine and popular than with being Jewish. I didn’t reject being Jewish – it just wasn’t very important.
In college, I dated Jewish and non-Jewish women. My first wife was a non-observant Jew whose parents rejected me because they wanted a son-in-law with an M.D. rather than a PhD. We had a civil ceremony that her parents didn’t attend.
My second Jewish ritual was a Passover seder held in a friend’s house. Nina, a graduate student colleague, gathered some fellow graduate students who had never attended a seder and recruited a cousin to lead the ritual. About a dozen of us gathered around a long dining room table decked out with matza, chorosis, wine, etc. The haggadas (books containing the ritual story and prayers) were well used, containing red wine stains and and brown food stains from past seders. Manishevich, who issued the free haggadas, had several pages of advertisements. The cousin rushed through the service (about an hour) and we dug into a traditional meal of matza ball soup, brisket, potatoes.
I enjoyed the seder as my first real, adult experience with Jewish ritual. Maybe it was like having sex for the first time – to get it over with. Still, there was too much god-talk for me. My Jewish identity remained at a low level.
Moving to Baltimore after graduate school, my new professional identity as a sociologist was paramount, soon to be joined with my identity as a political radical. Jewishness remained present, but secondary. An orthodox colleague invited me to a family seder outside Washington and I mistakenly accepted. Since I was new to the area, I accepted most social invitations. The seder was long and tortuous. I finally got to my car to drive back to Baltimore at about 1:00AM.
At about this time, I began a romantic relationship with Helen, a non-Jewish social worker and fellow peace activist that I had met at a meeting. Although she initially told me that she was of German heritage, it wasn’t until we had been seeing each other for a few months that I learned the full story.
“I have something to tell you,” she said one day, grimacing.
“What’s that?” I replied.
“Promise me that you won’t get upset,” she said, her eyes widening.
“Ok, just say what you have to say,” I said, starting to worry a little.
“I told you my father was a psychologist,” she said.
“Well, he was also a psychologist in the German army.”
“Ok, so what?”
“He was in the army during World War II?”
“What!” I exclaimed, jumping up from the chair. “He was a Nazi!” My Jewish identity suddenly shot up the priority ladder.
“I’m really embarrassed about this,” she said softly. “It’s horrible. He says that he wasn’t very high up and never had anything directly to do with the concentration camps.”
“Jesus. Your father was a Nazi. In addition to the six million Jews, they also killed several million communists and political dissidents. ”
“I’ve been afraid to tell you this. I didn’t want it to jeopardize our relationship.”
“This is a lot to take in.”
As we talked, I thought about what my parents taught me about judging people as individuals, not as members of a group. I told my students the same thing. Helen had certainly rejected her father’s politics and I was dating her, not him. I decided to continue the relationship.
I couldn’t wait to share this with Mom and Dad because I knew it would upset them. I wasn’t disappointed when I called them.
“How could you date the daughter of a Nazi,” Mom said, her voice rising.
“I didn’t know this when I started seeing her.”
“Now you know and you’re still seeing her,” said Dad, his tone was steady but stern.
“You always said I should look at the individual, not the group,” I replied. “Helen isn’t a Nazi, she’s a radical, like me and like you. I’m doing what you taught me to do.”
“But, a Nazi!” After a while, we went on to a different topic.
I met Dr. Nazi once, while Helen was recuperating from surgery at her parents’ home. He seemed like an ordinary, pleasant person and kept telling me how smart Jews were. We didn’t discuss the Holocaust. When the relationship finally ended, her father’s past was not an issue.
Natalie, my second wife, was also a non-observant Jew although she was brought up in a nominally religious family. Her mother could understand why we had to live together for ten years before getting married. After all, we were both Jewish.
During our ten years of shacking up, a Jewish, radical friend invited Natalie and I to their annual seder for the first time. We were asked to bring a poem or other short reading about freedom and liberation (the Passover themes) to share. About 20 people, Jews and non-Jews, but all political radicals, gathered in their living room. There was little text, no prayers and lots of sharing of radical music, poems and readings. A perfect blend of Jewishness and radicalism – I felt at home. As far as I knew, none of the attendees did anything Jewish for the rest of the year.
When Josh was born, we had to decide about circumcision. Neither of us wanted a briss, the Jewish ritual of circumcision. Natalie wondered if we should circumcise him at all, but I said that we should so he wouldn’t be different than his friends or than me. The midwife who delivered Josh did the deed while I watched. “Should we say a prayer?” the mid-wife asked. We both giggled.
We talked about how to provide him with a Jewish identity. Natalie was more concerned about this than I was, but I did want him to feel Jewish. When he was 2 or 3, we began to light candles on Chanukah. Natalie said the prayer, which I found foreign. We had matza on passover, although we also ate bread. His Jewish friends had more ritual but he never asked us for it.
I had never thought about Josh having a Bar Mitzvah. I never had one, although Natalie was the first in her synagogue to have a Bat Mitzvah. Neither of us were religious and we were among the hundreds of thousands of Jews in the United States that weren’t affiliated with a synagogue. Natalie’s mother had given us some money for his Bar Mitzvah when he was born, but we just put it in Josh’s bank account.
When he was 12, Josh began the routine of attending the Bar Mitzvah’s of his friends and classmates in New York. One day he said, “I want to have a Bar Mitzvah.”
“Oh,” I said, “but we’re not religious and the Bar Mitzvah is a religious ceremony.”
“I’m Jewish, right?” he replied. “Why can’t I have a Bar Mitzvah.”
“It required a lot of study and preparation,” said Natalie, “and you would probably have to attend Hebrew school classes.”
“What do I have to do?” he said. “I want a Bar Mitzvah.”
“Mom and I will talk about it,” I said.
Later that day, when we were alone, I asked Natalie what she thought.
“He wants a Bar Mitzvah, just like his friends,” she said. “That’s what most Jewish boys do.”
“I know,” I replied, “but he hasn’t shown any interest if Judaism before this. He just wants a big party so let’s throw him a big 13th birthday party.”
“It’s not the same,” she said. “Besides, the Bar Mitzvah would make my family happy.”
“I don’t know what my family would think about all this,” I said. “Neither my dad nor I had Bar Mitzvah’s. It will also cost a fortune.”
“Fred, this is what he wants. Maybe we can find a secular Jewish group that does Bar Mitzvah’s.”
“Okay, okay,” I said. “I’ll leave it in your hands. I’ll do what I have to do to make this work.”
After looking around, Natalie located a secular Jewish group that did Bar Mitzvah’s. We attended two of their functions and Josh hatred it. Since we were planning to move down to Baltimore for Natalie’s sabbatical, we all agreed to put the question on hold. Maybe he’ll lose interest, I hoped.
After arriving in Baltimore for the beginning of the school year, the Bar Mitzvah parties continued and Josh became even more interested in having one. Natalie spent time looking for a secular group or a progressive religious group.
That winter, Josh flew to New Hampshire for a ski weekend with Natalie’s brother and his family. When he returned, he said, “Uncle Eddie and Aunt Carol said that a secular Bar Mitzvah wasn’t the real thing. I want a real Bar Mitzvah.”
“Neither Carol nor Eddie are experts on this topic,” said Natalie.
“A secular Bar Mitzvah is just another way of doing things and it’s more consistent with our beliefs.”
“No,” he said. “I want a religious Bar Mitzvah.”
Since we couldn’t find a local secular Jewish group anyhow, Natalie redoubled her efforts to find a rabbi that would accept Josh even though he had no prior training in Judaism. Finally, Natalie and I interviewed the rabbi of Beit Tikvah, the local reconstructionist synagogue that happened to be very close to where we lived. A slender, clean-shaven man in his forties, Rabbi David, as he was called, said that he had previous experience with boys like Josh. “A Bar Mitzvah is like trying on a suit of clothes to see how it fits,” he said, and he outlined the requirements:
We would have to hire a tutor to give him intensive instruction for at least six months. Okay, this makes sense. We’ll give him a crash course in Judaism. At least he won’t be required to learn Hebrew. He would have to attend the synagogue Sunday school which met twice a month. Fair enough, even though Josh won’t be happy. He would have to attend a Jewish summer camp. A sleep-away camp will be good experience for him. We would have to attend some of the synagogue’s Saturday services. Oh my god. Sitting through services will be an ordeal. Finally, we would have to join the synagogue as a family. What? I have to join a synagogue! I’ve never been a member of a synagogue! What will my parents say? The things we do for our children!
As we drove home, I said, “Natalie, this is going to be very hard for me. I’ll try to do the best I can because Josh wants it. I don’t like it.”
“It will be a good experience for him,” she said.
“One thing,” I said. “I don’t want to be in a position to force him to study for this. If he is self-motivated and will do his lessons, I’ll do whatever I have to.
“Let’s see how it goes,” she said.
Natalie contacted the tutor that Rabbi David had recommended and he agreed to begin almost immediately. As luck would have it, a neighbor had a son in a similar position and we agreed to share the tutor. We set a date for November 4, 1995, seven weeks after his 13th birthday. Josh agreed to Rabbi David’s requirements.
I then called my parents to tell them the news. “You should plan to come to Baltimore for the November 4 weekend,” I said.
“Okay” said Mom, “but what’s special about that date?”
“Josh is having a Bar Mitzvah,” I said.
“What?” said Dad. “I didn’t know he was religious.”
“I’m not sure that he is,” I said, “but he wants to do it. All his Jewish friends are having Bar and Bat Mitzvahs.”
“Does he have to learn Hebrew and prayers?”
“Yes to prayers, no to Hebrew.”
“We’ll be there,” Mom said, “but I’m pretty surprised. You didn’t have a Bar Mitzvah and neither did Dad. What do you think about this?”
“Well, Josh will be the first in the family,” I replied. “He really wants it so we are doing it for him. It’s certainly not something that I would have chosen for him.”
“I didn’t think it was your idea.”
“While we are on the subject,” I said, “I didn’t want a Bar Mitzvah when I was thirteen but I would have loved a big birthday party. Some of the other Red Diaper babies had big 13th birthday parties.”
After a few seconds of silence, Mom said, “I had no idea. You should have asked us.”
“Mom, you and Dad ridiculed other radical parents for having big 13th birthday parties. You said that it was hypocritical since 13th birthdays were just like any other birthday. Bar Mitzvahs were only for the religious, you said. How could I ask you for something that I knew you would disapprove of?”
More silence. “We would have given you a party if you had asked,” she said softly. “Have you told your sister yet?” End of discussion.
Of course, we had to ride heard on him for the next six months. Josh approached being a tutee the same way he approached being a middle school student: “What’s the least amount of work I can get away with to get the grade I want.” Normally, this worked well for Josh who generally got A’s in most of his classes. We rarely had to ask him whether he had done his homework.
Unfortunately, this “least amount of work” approach conflicted with the tutor’s goal of exploring the culture and religion of Judaism. It also conflicted with the learning style of Nat, the neighbor who was receiving his own crash course in Judaism along with Josh. We continually cajoled Josh about his Jewish studies and had to give him private lessons, separate from Nat.
Josh also hated going to Sunday school and reluctantly went to a Jewish summer camp, along with Nat. He also hated going to Friday night and Saturday services.
My own approach to attending services was more nuanced. Maybe this is an opportunity, I thought to myself. I’ve never attended services before and I’m older now so maybe they’ll be meaningful. Maybe I can get in touch with my Jewishness. I have to go anyhow so I’ll try having an open mind.
The first service began with some music. A large Jewish star hung suspended from the ceiling, covering the large cross that normally looked over the church sanctuary that Beit Tikvah used on Friday nights and Saturdays. I fumbled through the prayer book to follow along with the English prayers. Next came some prayers in Hebrew and it was difficult to follow the English translations in the prayer book. After a few minutes, I fidgeted in my seat and grew bored. It’s all the same – praising God, giving thanks to God, Everything is God, God, God. It really doesn’t matter if I read along or not.
What did you expect, Fred? This is the sabbath service at a synagogue. They pray to God. That’s what religion is all about. That’s why you never attended services before. You are an atheist.
After another hour, the service finally ended and the congregation filed into an adjacent room for refreshments. Josh went off with some of the kids, and Natalie asked, “What did you think?”
“This is not for me,” I said. “Everything is God, God, God.”
“That’s true,” she replied, “but it reminded me of when I went to Hebrew school as a kid. Some of the prayers came back to me and I loved the music and the singing.”
“Okay,” I said, “but we didn’t do this in my family. You can take Josh to services.”
“Hold on,” she said. “You have to come too. If you don’t come, Josh will also refuse to come.”
“He’s the one that’s wants the Bar Mitzvah,” I said, “so he had to attend. I don’t.”
“Yes you do,” she repeated, sternly. “We can’t give him any excuse to opt out. It’s only for six months.”
“Okay, but I wish I still used pot. That would help. Maybe we can attend every other service.”
And so it was, until the big day came. The sanctuary filled with our friends and relatives. Josh did a credible job reciting his prayers, reading his Torah portion and giving his talk. Natalie read her prayer, written in Hebrew letters, and I read mine, written in phoneticized English letters. Natalie’s mother beamed while reading her prayer. My parents smiled politely while reading theirs. As parents of the Bar Mitzvah, Natalie and I both gave short speeches about Josh. Then, it was over.
As we boarded a charter bus to take everyone down to the Inner Harbor for lunch, I noticed that Josh wasn’t carrying any books.
“Where’s your prayer book?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he replied.
“When is the last time you remember having it?”
“During the service, I guess.”
“Let’s go look for it,” I said.
“I want to be with my friends,” he said, not at all concerned about losing the book. “You look for it.”
“Josh, we have to find it. It’s your Bar Mitzvah prayer book!”
We looked around and saw lots of identical prayer books, but none had his name inside. Josh left and told Natalie, who came to help in the hunt. Many of the books had already been packed into boxes to be stored until the following week, so we had to unpack the boxes and open every damn book. Nothing. Was this some kind of symbolic sign about Josh’s connection to Judaism?
After a 20-minute bus ride, we climbed aboard the Sprit of Baltimore, a small ship that cruised around the harbor for two hours. We had reserved one of the two decks and provided a buffet lunch the guests. This was not the run-of-the-mill Bar Mitzvah party, generally held in large halls with a fancy sit-down dinner. The cruise was substantially cheaper than renting a hall and was great fun. It was a beautiful, windy day and friends, family and Josh’s classmates all had a good time.
My sister-in-law, who had told Josh that a secular Bar Mitzvah wasn’t authentic, said, “This is the best Bar Mitzvah party that I’ve ever attended.” We couldn’t have dreamed of any higher praise .
After the big day, Josh severed all ties with religious Judaism. Using Rabbi David’s metaphor, he had tried on the suit and didn’t like it. He did, however, treasure the gold, Jewish star that his aunt and uncle had given him for the occasion and wore it around his neck constantly. When he lost it several years later, he used his own money to replace it.
Natalie wanted to continue going to services. Josh, of course, refused to go with her. I also declined. “I did my time and that’s enough.” She went once or twice, and then stopped going. A few months later, our membership lapsed and we were once again “unaffiliated Jews.”
Three years after the bar mitzvah, Natalie showed me an article in our community newspaper titled “Rabbi Seeks a Community of Culture.” The article featured an interview with Judith Seid, described as a “Secular Humanist Judaism rabbi.” She wanted to start a new community of Jews who were not served by mainstream, religious-oriented synagogues.
“Who is this person,” I said to Natalie. “I know you can be a non-religious Jew; I grew up that way. But how can you be a “secular rabbi?”
“It sounds pretty strange to me too,” said Natalie, “but I still don’t understand how you can be Jewish and not religious.”
The article ended with a quote from Seid: “I’m ready to hear from people. I know it will be exciting.” I dialed the phone number at the end of the article.
“Hello” said a friendly voice at the other end of the line.
“Hello,” I replied. “May I please speak with Judith Seid.”
“This is she.”
“I saw the article about you in The Messenger,” I said, “and I have some questions.”
“OK,” she said, “I’ll try to answer them.”
“I grew up in a secular Jewish family in Los Angeles,” I said, “but I never heard of a secular rabbi.”
“Oh,” she laughed, “I’m not a rabbi. The writer got it wrong. I’m a Wegweiser, which is a Yiddish word meaning ‘guide.’ The writer didn’t understand this.”
“I never heard of a Wegweiser either,” I said.
“The International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism, outside of Detroit, trains people to be leaders of secular Jewish communities,” she replied. “I got that training. But enough about credentials. You said you grew up in a secular family. Tell me about it.”
“Both my parents and grandparents were left-wing, atheistic Jews that were part of the labor movements in the 1920s and 1930s,” I replied. “Although we were Jewish, we never went to synagogue and we never had any rituals among the Jewish holidays.” I went on for several minutes, filling in some of the details.
“I come from a similar background,” she said, “but my family had secular rituals around the holidays. We didn’t pray but we did celebrate the cultural meaning of the holiday.”
“Really,” I said with some surprise. “I never heard of secular Jewish rituals.”
“Next Monday, I’m going to lead a Cultural Rosh Hashanah [New Year] Celebration in Cromwell Valley Park,” she said. “Why don’t you and your family come. You can see what a cultural celebration is like.”
“I don’t usually celebrate Rosh Hashanah,” I said warily. “How many people will be there?”
“I really don’t know,” she said. “I’m putting the word out to people like you and I hope that at least 10-15 people will show up. Some of the people will be from backgrounds like yours and mine. Others probably grew up in more religious backgrounds but have not been involved in organized Judaism for many years.”
“I’ll talk to my wife about it.”
“Ok, I look forward to meeting you.”
I wasn’t sure what to think. Do I really want to get involved in a Jewish organization? This is certainly consistent with my childhood roots but do I want a holiday ritual? Judith certainly sounded like a good person. Natalie and I discussed it and we decided to check it out. Our son, Josh, also agreed to come.
At 3:00 on Rosh Hashanh, we entered the park and looked around. The heat and humidity hovered like a cloud over several picnic tables scattered around the park. Under a large tree, about 15 people crowded around a single table. As we walked over, a diminutive woman got up and walked toward us. “Hi, I’m Judith,” she said. About five feet tall, she had long dark hair and a broad smile. After we introduced ourselves she said, “Come have a seat. We’re just getting started.”
After a round of introductions, Judith passed out a four-page program, got her guitar and began to sing “Heveynu Shalom Aleikhem” (“Let’s all greet each other.”) One of her principles was that anything spoken, written or sung in Yiddish or Hebrew had to be translated into English. I liked that. Another principle: “Sing the songs whether you know the words or not.” Cute.
We lit candles and said in Hebrew and English “We rejoice in our heritage which has given us the tradition of lighting the Shabbes candles.” After another song, we drank some wine and said “We rejoice in our heritage which has given us the cup of wine as the symbol of our happiness.” We then passed around the challah, sang a song and said “We rejoice in our heritage which teaches us to love our earth which gives us wheat and to honor the farmers who grow it and the workers who make it into bread.”
I can deal with this, I thought.
We then talked about what we wanted for the new year and, in the midst of dozens of hungry yellowjackets, ate honeycake, apples and honey, the traditional Rosh Hashanah treats. Judith also talked about secular Judaism and the type of community that she envisioned. She invited us all to a potluck Succot [harvest festival] brunch at her house the following week. After two more songs, the celebration was over. We hung around for a while, chatting with each other. Everyone seemed pleased and excited.
As we walked back to the car, I said to Natalie: “I liked that. The ritual was short and sweet. I think I can live with this. What do you think?’
“I liked it too,” she replied. “I also liked the people. I’m willing to go to the Succot pot luck. What about you, Josh?
“It’s Ok,” he said.
From these modest beginnings back in 1998, the Baltimore Jewish Cultural Chavurah (BJCC) was born. We describe ourselves as “A home for those who identify as Jews primarily through culture, history and family. We provide a welcoming and enriching Jewish environment with no demands for religious beliefs.”
At the age of 66, I was finally a member of a Jewish organization. Although my Jewish consciousness increased somewhat, it still rested below my professional and political identities. I felt comfortable, even though others in the chavuah felt more Jewish than I did.
I now think of myself as a secular Jew – without a “but…”. Although I often have to explain what “secular Jew” means, I have found a place under the broad umbrella that is American Judaism.