Monday, September 18, 2006

Growing Up a Humanist (Unitarian) Jew: Reason and Celebration

September 17, 2006

This just past summer was a bad one for at least one anti-Semite and not a good one to be Jewish either. Actor Mel Gibson got pulled over for drunk driving and spoke his deeply held and thinly disguised truth about what he really feels about who causes all the trouble in the world-- and those of us who identify in any way as being a Jew once again found ourselves thrust into the ongoing muck of the state of things in Israel.

My husband and I were out of the states for the beginnings of this, learning a bit about the Gibson incident from fragments in the international Herald Tribunes that we read in hotels in the Czech Republic and in Poland, and about the Israel-Lebanon violence on satellite BBC.

It was not until we arrived back home and began to read our way through our stack of old papers that we saw how much ink had been spent on the arrest of an Australian movie star who took the opportunity to inform the arresting officer in Malibu California that the F’ing

Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world, his subsequent defense that his insane alcoholism was talking instead of him, but that he did apologize to anyone he MIGHT have offended, and the ongoing public discussion now about how he might atone and heal himself, including an offer to fly him free for a day at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

At one point Mel Gibson asked for help in healing from the Jewish community-- already another indicator of his ignorance if he believes we are one unified body after thousands of years of intertribal verbal warfare. While most of the responses have been somber and measured, one columnist at least, Lenore Skenazy,, a self-identified Jew from the auspicious New York Daily News, offered up a Mel-anon recovery plan for anyone who as she wrote ever even secretly suspected it’s all Barbra Streisand’s fault.

She proposed that Gibson check himself into the Bubbe Ford clinic, a residential anti-Semitic detox program with three meals a day-- just not before swimming-- with Medicare accepted, as is the fact that the Holocaust really happened. Days spent feeling guilty, and evenings reserved for group discussion. Tonight’s discussion topic: “ They gave us the kosher pickle, so they can’t be all bad, right?”

I admit I laughed and then felt badly for having laughed, which is apparently quite normal for those of us who identify as being Jewish. Humor , according to Czech writer Vladimer Karbuskicky, is the defense of those who are defenseless but intellectually stronger. In his collection of what he calls anecdotes from the almost unrelentingly troubled history of Czech Jews, he points to the argumentative and admittedly humorous relationship between Yahweh, God of the Jews, and his much beleaguered people. A God whom Job rebukes for injustice, with whom he debates, with whom he schmoozes.

This tradition of self parody and an earthy relationship with a bargaining and not so lofty God emerged, as in other Jewish communities in the Diaspora-- the exodus from Israel-- despite what has been described as the constant cycle, metaphorically, of forty good (meaning relatively stable and non violent years) and forty miserable years, centuries in and centuries out.

In Prague, the Jews lived freely in their earliest years there, somewhere around the 9th century, until the Crusades and their edicts of religious intolerance, when they were forced into a gated ghetto which offered them loose protection from the King from everyday murder and mayhem, but confined thousands of them into an area of a few hundred homes. Restricted in what kind of work they could do and where, forced to wear pointed yellow hats or conspicuous white ruffled collars in order to identify them as Jews if they left their settlement.

Trapped inside, they were unprotected when the local crowds got stirred up, usually at Easter time when Passion Plays retold the story of Jews killing Jesus and drinking the blood of Christian babies, During Holy Week in 1389, for example, a Prague mob attacked the ghetto in what is called a pogrom, massacring more than 3,000 of its inhabitants--- men, women and hundreds of children.

As humiliating and dangerous as that was, being locked into a small area, only let out to serve one royal master or another and then sent back home, the worse was yet to come of course after the Nazi occupation of Prague in l939. While the Jews there had experienced a recurrent history of discrimination, nothing prepared them for the scale of this persecution. They were excluded from most professional associations and organizations, their children were not allowed to attend schools, banned from traveling, going to cafes and restaurants, staying out after 8 p.m. in the evening, listening to the radio, reading newspapers, unable to get most of their food rations, and from September 1941 were forced to wear the yellow star of David.

In total, more than 45,000 Jews were taken from Prague to Terizinstadt and other concentration mass murder camps, where the vast majority of them perished. Those who returned, in the wake of the Communist take-over in l948, found themselves once again excluded from political, economic and cultural life, many of them sent to prison.

There are now perhaps 1500 Jews left in Prague, few of them in the former ghetto or Old Jewish Town, where mostly non-Jewish tourists stream in with their non-Jewish guides to visit the abandoned synagogues, the former shops now converted to souvenir stands , and to visit the Jewish cemetery, which was partially razed to build a new Hotel Intercontinental.

In fact, that’s what the Prague Jewish quarter felt like to me, a graveyard, a place to see where a people used to live, to see their artifacts under glass: their wedding crowns and Hanukkah menorahs, and the dishes used for the ritual foods at Passover. To hear about their history and culture, always in the past tense, and sometimes with false and disturbing commentary, like being told that the reason that there are so few Jewish people living there now is not because of the extermination and the post war imprisonments and disappearances, but because there was no longer any money to be made.

The Nazis apparently had a plan to place the confiscated Jewish religious and personal items they had stored in the so called Spanish Synagogue in a museum of an extinct race they would open after they won the war, artifacts of a completely dead people. They did not manage to completely destroy what they were set on calling the Jewish race, but they reduced it down to what is commonly called a Jewish trace in Europe, barely discernable and described nearly always in the past tense.

In so many ways, both in Prague and in Krakow, Poland where we also went also to directly experience some of our Jewish cultural roots, it was my everyday revelation that it indeed has come to pass, that Central Europe, in any case, has become the largest Jewish graveyard in the world, a stop on tourist sightseeing itineraries, where pictures are taken and documentary books and DVDS are sold, along with cokes, bottled water, and candy bars.

I had been somewhat prepared to see firsthand the increase in anti-Semitism there, partly the result of tensions around the state of Israel, which always extends to a wholesale indictment of Judaism and Jewish people in general. What I was not really not primed for it turned out, was really getting the stark fact that there aren’t but a symbolic handful of Jews left to be the victims of these attacks, a few hundred here or there, mostly old, or longtime Catholic converts, or no longer identified at all.

We thought we had been prepared to witness this, to take in its anthropology.

Indeed our reason for choosing this summer vacation, if vacation is the appropriate word for it, was an article we saw in the New York Times earlier this year about an 84 year old Holocaust survivor who is teaching traditional Jewish Klezmer music to non-Jewish students in Krakow, once home to 65,000 Jews, now with fewer than two hundred.

Since the ending of the Communist era in l989, and especially since the release of the blockbuster movie Schindler’s List, which was filmed by Stephen Spielberg in the Kazmirez district there, you can once again eat potato pancakes or eat gefilte fish or listen to this lilting kind of Jazz in the evening. But chances are that the café will not be owned or run by Jews and that none of the Klezmer musicians will be Jewish. The beautiful, lilting Klezmer tunes were heard being played under an arch near the Market Square may or may not have been played by the grandson of a Jew, who may or may not have told us this in order to either assure the sale of his CD or to make us feel better.

There is a renaissance of Jewish life here, Kolwaski told the reporter, but it’s a renaissance without Jews.

To read this is one thing, to comprehend this is another.


My mother’s father came from Krakow or somewhere near there apparently. She told me this when we talked about our trip. She was excited we were going to Poland especially, because if you ask her how she identifies ethnically, beyond her insistence that she is simply an American, she will tell you she is a Pole. But when she talks about her people from Polish town, she is referring to the Roman Catholic Polish cotton mill workers who lived in the small New England town she grew up in, not the Polish Jews like her family who ran the stores and other businesses, including the local Ford dealership, because that had been for centuries what was left for them to do.

If I had told her we went a third of the way around the world to search for Jewish remnants, she would have scolded me, told me that in this day and time, especially with what has come to pass in Israel, that being Jewish was an option we didn’t have to choose. In fact, we ought not choose it.

I used to argue with her, tell her that at the very least we owed it to those who had died for being Jewish: good, bad, or indifferent people; religious or atheists; people who identified and people who didn’t; tribalists or univeralists. It hadn’t mattered to the Czar and his armies when he took away all the young Jewish men and conscribed them in the most dangerous and vulnerable ranks until they were dead or middle-aged, or when the schtetls and ghettoes were attacked, the women were raped, the shabby houses burned. It hadn’t mattered to Hitler whether your family had practiced Catholicism for a hundred years or whether you knew you were a Jew or not.We should live openly as Jews, I used to tell her, not letting anyone define what that was, or make that our whole identity, because of this, because of the deaths and destruction.

I have given up arguing with her, or trying to understand the roots and depth of her own internalized anti-Semitism, her own internalized oppression. I know she is not alone in this, with her cosmetic surgeries and her name change, and her anger at the menorahs we set up in our window ( along with the Christmas tree) and the Seder meals we have held (along with Easter egg hunts).

The challenge now, the quest now is my own, for how and why I am willing, in fact increasingly eager to wear my Jewishness alongside my identities as a woman,a wife, a mother, a world citizen, a humanist, an existentialist, a Unitarian Universalist.This quandary that I am in is not of course a unique one. What it means to be a Jew has been a theme from our tribal and sectarian beginnings.

Bertram Rothschild, who is a member of the Society for Humanistic Judaism and Beth Ami Congregation in Colorado ( I will be getting back to Humanistic Judaism shortly, I promise) has written in an article aptly titled “Where do we Fit?” that “the stark truth is we Jews can hardly get along with each other. Even in the good old ancient days Pharisees, Sadducees, and Zealots ad nauseum literally tore at each other’s throats. Who was Jesus, he says ( if he existed) but a Jew who wanted nothing to do with those Jews who rejected his version of proper faith? The Orthodox put down Conservative and Reform, while the later are vaguely uncertain about each other but united in their quiet anger toward the Orthodox." And so it goes.

In terms of contemporary Jewish identity, a survey in 2001 ( one of the most recent) found that nearly 10 million Americans live in households where at least one person is Jewish or of Jewish background. Of this group 57 percent of those persons who identify as being of Jewish background whose religion is not Judaism have some other religion.

Among those who do not profess another religion, 73 percent agree strongly or somewhat that God exists; 27 percent are uncertain or disagree. Yet 49 percent of the same group consider their outlook to be secular or somewhat secular.

I would imagine that my mother, if asked, would not identity herself at all as being Jewish. I would also imagine that my father would at this point in his life say yes, and that he was entirely secular in his affiliation.

Last night I spoke to the gathering of the families in our religious education program, introducing myself-- if the kids could imagine-- as having been one of them once, growing up Unitarian. Because while my parents considered themselves entirely secular, they felt they wanted their children to have some exposure to comparative religious and ethical training . And frankly to have somewhere to bring them on Sunday morning, a respite. Being part of what I have come to see as a culturally Christian milieu-- a suburban subdivision in Maryland where many of the children went to Catholic schools-- they were more comfortable placing us in a Unitarian Sunday School, taking us to a church, than considering even a liberal Jewish Reform alternative. My father was the one assigned to taking us, so he was upstairs listening to the talks by the humanist Unitarian minister, the most common kind in that era of the 1950’s and 60’s, and the high quality classical music that was integral to those kinds of services, while we were downstairs learning about the bible as a wonderful collection of stories along with so many other myths and legends.

Growing up in a zealously secular Jewish home meant that, and it meant Christmas trees with elk antlers for a star, meant no bibles or religious literature of any kind but books like Bertrand Russell’s Why I am not a Christian. It meant never going inside a synagogue, except for my Uncle Irving’s wedding, never attending a Passover Seder, but once in a while watching my dad eating borscht and sour cream, or talking about some of the other foods he loved as a child in an ironically Kosher home. Or occasionally ( and for me wonderfully) slipping in some Yiddish, telling us about the beloved characters of Yiddish culture.

My exposure to explicit Jewishness was almost the same, I can only imagine, as exposure to secular culture is for the children of fundamentalists. I remember reading the Diary of Ann Frank, almost secretively, learning through her about the Holocaust for example.

After carting us to one Unitarian congregation ( or church) or another as younger children, as soon as we could get ourselves to youth group in other ways, my father became an entirely lapsed UU and found an Ethical Culture Society, a place I imagine we all might have landed if there had been one available. Ethical Culture, founded by Felix Adler, was founded by a Jew with the intention of severing his particular ties to Judaism and even Jewish identity for what is described as “ a religion of humanity, committed to the supreme value that all humans, whatever their race, religion, gender or political persuasion, are to be treated fairly and compassionately as fellow humans in one human family.”

Within Ethical Culture, I imagine that my father found the resonances of the best of what I see as Jewish values, the inherently humanistic nature of essential Judaism, that as its “credo statement” puts it, Ethical Culture affirms that the supreme end of human life is to live in such a way that we acknowledge the worth, dignity and uniqueness of every human being ( what theistic Jews describe as being created in the image of God) and work towards both personal relationships and broader social reform to encourage and enable all to develop their full human capacities.

Whether originally so or not, contemporary Ethical Culture identifies as being a religious community, based on current understandings of various religions around the world, many of which do not require belief in a supernatural being or supernatural reality. Ethical Culturists cite new definitions of religious affection, including one by Arthur Dobrin, a professor at Hofstra University, which states that religion is that set of beliefs and/or institutions, behaviors and emotions that binds human beings to something beyond their individual selves and fosters in its adherents a sense of humility and gratitude, that in turn sets the tone of one’s world-view. In other words, he has written, religion connects a person to the larger world and creates a loyalty that extends to the past, present, and the future.

This philosophical community, this religion, was sufficient for my father for many years, as he assumed leadership positions including Presidency of the Palo Alto California society.Eventually, literally the call of the wild was stronger than his ties, even to this, as he increasingly took off every weekend for nature spots where he could watch and count birds.

Typical, very typical of third generation Jews, and also because I married a minimally religious Jew( and then another), this break off from Judaism without any ritual connections, with no holidays or holy days, was not ultimately appealing. When I became a mother, I found no conflict at all between remaining faithfully connected to the Berkeley Unitarian Church, teaching in the religious education program, attending services, while beginning to drop in on community High Holy Day services-- the most liberal I could find- and finding friends who invited us to Seders while I learned what they were and eventually made our own The God talk was never comfortable me, but I could relate on an amazingly deep level to the metaphors of struggle and exile and liberation. The universalism within these stories and rituals, and the particular history of the Jewish people.

Why did I not affiliate with Humanistic Judaism then, a nontheistic alternative in Jewish life that in many ways combines the moral/philosophical underpinnings of Ethical Culture with some of the rituals and ceremonies of more traditional Judaism? Without God.

Very simply it did not exist as I grew up, in fact only was founded in l963 by Rabbi Sherwin Wine in his previously Reform temple in Birmingham, Michigan. Humanistic Judaism describes itself as a human-centered philosophy that combines rational thinking with a celebration of Jewish culture that offers a genuine expression of their contemporary view of life. Humanistic Jewish communities celebrate Jewish holidays and lifecycle events ( such as weddings and bar and bat mitsva) with ceremonies that draw upon but go beyond traditional literature.

In comparing itself to traditional affirmations of Judaism, what it means to be a Jew:

Traditionally, a Jew is someone born of a Jewish mother, while in Humanistic Judaism a Jew is someone who identifies with the history, culture, struggles, triumphs and future of the Jewish people.

Both traditional Jews and Humanistic Jews believe the preservation of Jewish Identity, the survival of the remaining Jewish people is important.

Traditional Jews believe that Judaism is the religion of the Jewish People

Humanistic Jews believe that Judaism is the historic culture of the Jewish People.

Traditional Jews believe that Jewish history is the saga of the relationship between God and a chosen people

Humanistic Jews believe that Jewish history is a saga of human behavior

Traditional Jews believe we are God’s creatures and must live according to his commandments.

Humanistic Jews believe we have the power and responsibility to shape our own lives independent of supernatural authority.

Traditional Jews believe that ethics and morality flow from obedience to God and the laws of the Torah.

Humanistic Jews believe that ethics and morality should serve human needs.

Traditional Jews believe that the goal of Jewish morality is to fulfill our obligations to God and humanity as expressed in Halakha.

Humanistic Jews believe that the goal of Jewish morality is the preservation of human dignity and integrity for ourselves and others.

Ultimately, Humanistic Judaism seeks to integrate the value of Jewish Identity with a belief in the value of human reason and human power.

Humanistic Judaism declares itself free from supernatural authority. Humanistic philosophy affirms that knowledge and power come from people and that the solutions to human problems can be found in the natural world.

Humanistic Judaism seeks to promote the dignity of all people. Life is worthwhile when people see themselves as worthwhile.

Humanistic Judaism holds that Judaism is the creation of the Jewish people. It is the celebration of the Jewish experience. Humanistic Judaism has its roots in this experience, in the history and culture of the Jewish people. Jewish holidays are responses to human events. Life cycle ceremonies are celebrations of human development. Music and literature are the expression of human needs.

Humanistic Jews want to educate themselves about historical Judaism and Jewish history, to understand the beliefs and behaviors of their ancestors without feeling compelled to agree with the beliefs of the past. They want their children to develop their own convictions honestly, on the basis of knowledge, not indoctrination.

Humanistic Jews endorse ideals derived from the Jewish experience--democracy, justice, tolerance, pluralism and the equal treatment for all individuals.

These premises, this combination of secular and cultural identity, this rich mix of reason and celebration, is what appeals to me in Humanistic Judaism. I cannot say that I might not have become exclusively a Humanistic Jew had this tiny denomination been available to me as a youth and a younger adult. At this point, I have spent more than 50 years as a Unitarian, an actively involved lay person and for the past almost decade as an ordained member of its clergy. There is too much about our religious community and movement in my blood and soul to abandon it completely.

I am in the process, however, of a dual professional affiliation, seeking to be recognized, if not as a Humanistic Rabbi ( how cool it would be to be a Rabbi-Reverend, probably the first ever) but what is called a Madrikh, meaning guide, assuming pararabbinic leadership in Humanistic Judaism. I have become involved in revitalizing the small Humanistic Jewish havurah here in Atlanta, formerly called Kol Chaim ( or community of life), and was last year invited as a speaker for the bi-annual convention of Humanistic Judaism.

Not reading or speaking a word of actual Hebrew, never having attended a Jewish service or Sunday school as a child, this feels to me like an almost overwhelming challenge. But this is the Jewish life I would like to live, the Jewish identity I want to have, the Jewish soul I wish to claim.

The question for me about God, like the question about God for Humanistic Jews is what has been described as ignosticism ( the question of God’s existence is not primary). I chose to focus on things, as it has been said, that I can determine and affect, such as my relationships with other people, and improving the world around me.

Which in Hebrew is called Tikkun Olam-- restoring and repairing a troubled world.