Sunday, September 24, 2006

The nature of being Jewish

Shlemazl and I have been emailing back and forth about the nature of what it means to be a Jew. He posted some of the emails on his site - you can see it right here. But, ultimately, there are some hard questions that I do not have the answer to, and I was hoping all you Culture for All readers would send in your imput about this... I grew up in a very secular Jewish home. My parents never kept the Sabbath, and from the age of 7 onwards, I was an avowed atheist. I remember sitting in the car with my dad, and he asked me, "Red Tulips, do you believe in God?" Being asked that question was something new to me. I never really thought of questioning the existence of God prior to this. So I said "Sure, yeah, I guess so!" And then my dad replied "Well, I wanted to know, because I don't." Those words had a seminal impact upon my life, and I started to question the existence of God. At age 7, I found I could not muster up feelings of a belief in God. When I went to Hebrew School, I took bible classes, and I remember that the bible teacher gave a plethora of secular, historical, and scientific explanations for miracles seen in the bible. And those explanations always just made sense. So I never believed that Moses really parted the Red Sea, or that he saw God in a burning bush. But I always did identify myself as 'Jewish,' since my parents, grandparents, and all my relatives were Jewish, and I was going to Hebrew School. (after school activity) During Hebrew School, I learned the bizarre dietary laws that make up the Kashrut, and I never understood the modern need for it all. I learned Israeli songs and history, and I of course rote memorized prayer and learned about all the Jewish holidays. I am happy that I learned all of this. I would not trade this knowledge for the world. And yet...this knowledge never really made me feel as strongly Jewish as I do today. Why do I feel so strongly Jewish today? In large part because of having discovered an antisemitic friend, the infamous friend who wanted to sue me for libel for calling her out on her bullshit, qrswave. Reading her rants about Israel and the 'Zionist conspiracy' certainly made me feel Jewish. Not only did I feel Jewish, but I felt a strong surge of protective instinct wash over me...a desire to DO SOMETHING about the hatred that I witnessed. And so now I am taking Hebrew classes, and I hope to eventually go to Israel. I also used to not think that I had to even raise my (faux) kids Jewish, because it never was something that important to me. I used to be convinced that I wanted to send my kids to Unitarian Universalism school (as an after school activity). And yet now, I am thinking that if I have kids, I would like to send them to Hebrew School (as an after school activity). In short, while I still am an atheist, the response to antisemitism is to FEEL more Jewish. I feel sad that the concept of Judaism has been reduced to a negative amongst secular Jews in the world. Namely, it takes antisemitism for Jews to feel Jewish. Ironically, it is antisemitism that appears to fuel the continuance of the Jewish people. And yet, if it is antisemitism that seems to be the largest factor in the intangible connection that secular and atheist Jews have to the Jewish culture and tradition something that I should concern myself with propogating? There are so many positive reasons to associate oneself with Judaism. Why is it that the associations that secular/atheist Jews have with Judaism seem to mostly come from a negative place? And in a world relatively without antisemitism, is there a place for secular/atheist Jews outside of Israel?


shlemazl said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
shlemazl said...

Judaism is a faith. The word "Jew" has two meanings: adherent of Judaism and identity.

Secular Jews cannot follow Judaism by definition - you cannot be a follower of a religion without believing in it's god. Nothing stops secular Jews from learning about Judaism or from studying Jewish history and tradition, but that still won't make them a part of Judaism.

As for your other point, I would agree that antisemitism is the only way to keep secular Jews Jewish in the west in the long term. Unless there is a huge increase in antisemitism, there will be very few secular Jews in the USA in 50 years' time.

Red Tulips said...


The ironic thing is that it is hence antisemitism that actually holds together modern secular Jewry.

This reality deeply saddens me.

Thomas Forsyth said...

Growing up in New Orleans, it wasn't until I was about 10 that it dawned on me that not everyone else in the world was Catholic...this is slightly amusing as half of my father's family (his father's half) are Episcopalian. I was alos not exactly perceptive when I was young and I still have troubles today.

Now, from what I have learned Judaism is both a religion and a culture. Catholicism is a religion, but by no means a culture, even though various cultures (Irsih, Polish, Italian, French) have a Catholic identity, though that is subject to change especially in North America. My mother is Irish Catholic, but she was raised only minimally with the Irish aspects of her culture and sees herself as only American, though this is also because she moved away form metro-NYC at 10 and was raised in DC away from her family. My father grew up Catholic but was riased in rural Virginia, so is more culturally an Episcopalian of the American South. He went to Georgetown prep as well as an Epsicoplaian Boarding school until his Senior year. His faith lapsed when a priest hit on him and wasn't resumed until his heart attack 11 years ago.

Culturally I was raised a middle-class American, but in New Orleans. Religiously I was brought up a modern semi-progressive Catholic courtesy of my mother. While I went to Catholic school, it was not because my motehr was especially religious. It was instead because the public schools in New Orleans are failures with a few exceptions.

The religion classes in grade school were more focused on learning what my religion is and why we do things, but a lot of it I cannot remember now. In High School, those classes were basically a lot of memoirzation and more about morality than about doctrine. It was also pretty open. My Eighth grade religion teacher said that the Ten plagues could all be traced to natural events, but didn't rule out divine intervention. He was a Christian Brother and had given up the right to ever marry or own property for his faith, though he also did not have any use for fundamentalism.

As time went on, I did become very religious, but I think it was more due to my conservative nature and love of tradition than anything spiritual. If I was raised a different faith, I would have been that more devfout with that faith (except Protestantism which is so young...I may have gone Catholic because 2000 years exceeds 500).

In the last few years my faith began to crumble around me, and I only stayed somewhat devout as long as John Paul II lived, since I feel a grandfatherly affection for him. My faith and spirituality have crumbled for a variety of reasons. I began to realize I really have no sense of spirituality or faith and my only reasosn for my religiousness was my love of tradition.

I still have Roman Catholic on my dogtags, and since I was Confirmed one, I guess I still count that, and I know that is part of my identity, but now I see that as an equal part of my identity as being Scottish and Irish, as well as growing up in New Orleans or being from an old Southern family (though that would be the Logans).

I hope I haven't drifted too far off topic, though from my own experiences I guess for you Judaism is a part of your identity and a very important part. The traditionalist in me (and history lover, too) finds something very good about belonging to something that has exoisted for 4,000 years and has also survived every form of persecution out there and is still kicking ass.

Red Tulips said...


Very interesting background on how you grew up.

I know that Judaism is both a culture and a religion, and I think Shlemazl and I are struggling through semantics.

But no matter.

In any case, I am very proud to be a Jew, and to identify with such an old and interesting culture. The Jewish New Year just occurred - it is year 5767! Incredible!

The issue simply brings up many conflicting emotions in my head.

Jason said...

Well, I can't offer any advice in this area since I somewhat lack an identity in this sense.

shlemazl said...

Hey, Jason,

Don't hesitate to offer advice.

I am not homosexual, but I can sure offer you lots of useful advice on gays :-)

Sword of Truth said...

So KKKwave has threatened to sue you as well, Tulips? Is there a merit badge that gets handed out when you get your first KKKwave legal threat? ;)

She threatened to sue me as well, but she chickened out when I asked her who was behind 9-11 and how many jews were murdered in the holocaust. She knows quite well that if she drags anyone into court and her beliefs are brought into the open that she loses automatically.

Her claims that she is not a raging anti-semite are clearly bogus. She blithely allows the most venomous filth to be posted to her blog without a word of objection and she freely associates with the scum of the net.

I used to be involved with a group whose beliefs were similar to those held by KKKwave, at least the ones not specifically related to Judaism and Israel. But I felt that despite our common beliefs, I had to cut myself off from those people when some of them started spewing anti-semitic garbage.

KKKwave has chosen to associate with nazis and white supremacists just as I chose not to.

Red Tulips said...

sword of truth:

You said it exactly right. There was definitely a choice for her to involve herself with antisemites and jew exterminators. In any case, she believes 'zionists' took down the WTC, and 'zionists' control the media, and 'zionists' control the government. If you replace 'zionist' with 'jew' it is quite clear that in fact she is a raging antisemite.

Oh well. She is no longer in my life. I cannot believe I used to be good friends (IN PERSON!) with her.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

It might be sad but it is true. Hitler didn't ask Jews whether they believed in God or not before murdering them (us).

Ironically, Hitler's actions must have created a lot more Atheist and Agnostic Jews.

Bint Alshamsa said...

Thomas, I also grew up in New Orleans but I disagree with you on a few things. First, with the plethora of churches (the majority of which are not Catholic) in New Orleans, I don't ever remember being unaware that there were many, many other religions. There were so many holidays (Tet, Kwanzaa, Cinco de Mayo) celebrated in the public schools that I think your experience is the exception and not the rule.

By the way, for the record, students have always been able to do well in public schools here when they are given the proper home environment for learning. My parents were big believers in public school and we all went to them. Our magnet school program is one to be envied by many places. One of them, New Orleans Center For Creative Arts, is the absolute best school in the state with many parents sending their children from out of town and even other states just to attend it. The same can not be said of any of our city's Catholic schools; Their students do not take the rigorous standardized tests (used to measure school performance), so there's no way of proving that they do a better job at education.

Anyway, for hundreds of years, New Orleans has taken great pride in its religious and cultural diversity. Nevertheless, New Orleans provides proof that Catholic culture does exist. As a matter of fact, whenever a significantly large number of adherents to a particular religion reside in a distinct geographical location you'll find that their religion plays a large role in what constitutes the culture of that area.

In New Orleans, we have the Carnival season which is a distinctly Catholic holiday. I can not think of a single upscale restaurant in the city that does not offer a Lenten menu during that time. The culmination of the Carnival season is Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, which are also Catholic affairs. There's also the fact that our entire state of Louisiana is not divided up into counties but instead into parishes modeled after the Catholic divisions of territory. Several of these parishes are even named after Catholic saints: St. Bernard, St. Tammany, St. Helena. Indeed, none of the parishes are named after non-Catholic religious figures.

While there are several distinct ethnic groups here most share the Catholic culture regardless of their actual religion. I also come from a very old Southern family (We are descendents of Gilbert du Montier Lafayette himself amongst others). My mother's family is Irish-, African-, and Native-American while my father's family is French-, Irish-, African-, and Native-American. All of the Louisianian members of my family have been a part of the Catholic culture that exists here despite the fact that they were not all practicing Catholics or even any sort of Catholic at all.

That said, I don't see "Jewish" as an identity and as a descriptor for adherents of a particular religion to be a unique or even uncommon phenomenon. There are many others. A big example of this would be the term "Hindu". It can mean those who live in a particular area of the world or it can mean the adherents of a religion.

I think it's generally true that culture plays a major role in creating religions and, conversely, religion greatly affects the formation of the cultures where its adherents reside.

Red Tulips said...

bint alshamsa:

Thanks for stopping by! That was certainly a very informative bit about the history of New Orleans and public education.

As far as Judaism...I happen to disagree with you for many reasons.

First of all, Jews share a genetic link with each other, because it is a birthright as well as a religion. You have to realize that until recently, Jews rarely intermarried, and in fact there was a Jewish disease as a result of this - Tay Sachs.

Secondly, Jews, until recently, lived cut off from the broader populations in which they resided. And thus, a unique language formed - Yiddish. Unique songs, dance, and rituals formed. These are separate and distinct from the religion.

Thirdly, Adolph Hitler never asked if someone believed when he sent them to the gas chambers. This ironically created many atheist and agnostic Jews.

Much of this unique culture and tradition formed as a result of antisemitism. However, in a post-antisemitic world (mostly a fairyland, as that does not quite exist, even in America, and certainly in Europe and especially the Middle East is only a dream) Jews are able to mix and mingle with the broader population. In this world, Jews are able to own businesses and run for Congress and even the vice presidency. And so in this world, I would argue it is difficult to maintain a unique cultural identity of Judaism for atheist and agnostic Jews.

I believe that it is antisemitism that in fact helped to create the Jewish culture, which absolutely exists, separate from the religion.

Just remember that given that the Jewish status of someone is a birthright, one can actually be an atheist Jew.

Bint Alshamsa said...

Actually, Tay-Sachs is not a Jewish disease. This is a myth. If you look up information about this disease you'll find that it does indeed occur in people who are not Jewish. The genetic link that Jews share with each other is also shared in those who are not Jewish. In other words, what genetically links Jews to one another also links them to the other Semitic people in the areas where they lived.

It is utterly impossible for Jews to have always lived cut off from broader populations if one is to believe that this more than one Jewish genetic branch. At some point, the groups (e.g. Ashkenazi, Yemeni, Lemba, Sephardic) acquired enough genetic variation to make them into distinct groups instead of one, as they were in the first place. That genetic variation didn't just fall out of the sky. It came from the groups around them. This intermingling is why the Yiddish language contains elements from the languages of those who Jews lived amongst.

There isn't a single culture that exists in the world that does not have unique songs, dances, and rituals. However, being unique does not mean that any total separation from other cultures exists. It simply means that these features form a distinct combination.

It is also a myth that the Nazis didn't care anything about one's beliefs before they sent them to the gas chambers. Many people went to those very same gas chambers because of their beliefs and not because of their ethnic heritage. Living through this period did play a role in many people adopting atheist and agnostic beliefs but it also had the opposite effect in others. Many found their religious beliefs strengthened through seeing the tenacity of those who never gave in to the Nazis no matter how difficult things became.

No culture forms because of being hated. It can be affected by hatred but that's true for every single culture. Native American culture is affected by the oppression we've faced. The various cultures of the African diasporic people was and is affected by hatred. The whole world is affected by hatred and hatred can motivate people to engage in positive or negative behavior. It all depends on what each individual wants a reason to do.

It isn't so much a post-antisemitic world (which I think would require nothing less than a miracle) that threatens the unique cultural identity of Judaism. The main threat to it is the same as the main threat faced by every other unique culture on the face of the earth. That is the globalization made possible by technological advances in transportation.

In the past, intermingling was (in general) a rather slow process. Cultures had more time to absorb elements from surrounding populations and alter these elements to suit their cultural environment. Today, cultures are bombarded with a barrage of cultures. We may get our coffee from Columbia, our fruit from America, our grains from Asia, our television shows from India, our kids toys from China, coats from Canada. All of this commerce brings with people along with it. No matter what the religious tenets of a people (within a community) are, there are always those who intermarry, reproduce with, and adopt elements of these people who they come in contact with. Such people have always existed. If not, then we would eventually cease to belong to the same species. The fact that people from opposite sides of the globe can come together and produce offspring is proof that humans have been mixing and mingling consistently since our hominid ancestors became homo sapiens.

P.S. I responded to the message you left on my blog too. Thanks for stopping by! I am really enjoying this conversation and I think I'm going to cross-post this message on my blog too.

Red Tulips said...

bint alshamsa:

You are somewhat right and wrong re: Tay Sachs. I guess I wasn't clear - of course Tay Sachs is not just a 'Jewish disease,' but Ashkenazi Jews carry the Tay Sachs gene at a rate higher than the rest of the population. Why? Inbreeding. :-p

You can read more about Tay Sachs here:

As far as the other items you mentioned...

Well of course Jews were not LITERALLY cut off from the greater community. And I already mentioned the Ashkenazi/Sephardic distinction. But nonetheless, that does not dispute the fact that Jews did form distinct communities where they lived and that helped to develop a Jewish culture distinct from the religion - but tied to the religion.

The Nazis did not ask if a Jew believed before throwing them in the oven. They also threw Gypsies, dissidents, communists, etc into the ovens - don't get me wrong. However, in terms of how they attacked Jews, they did not ask 'do you believe in Judaism' before killing them. Mere identity was all it took.

Of course the Jewish culture was not formed by Nazi hatred. But I do believe that Nazi hatred helped to preserve a stronger link to the Jewish culture amongst atheists and nonbelievers.

As far as the rest, I agree with it.

I also don't want it to be said that only Jews have a culture separate from the religion. I just happen to be Jewish and an atheist so I can atest to the existence of Jewish culture separate from the religion.

Bint Alshamsa said...

Sure, Ashkenazi Jews carry the genes for Tay Sachs at a rate that is higher than some populations. However, as even your link points out, there are some non-Jewish ethnic groups where the Tay-Sachs genes are just as prevalent as it is in Ashkenazi Jews. The existence of this gene simply can't prove that Jewish groups were ever isolated from the other religious and ethnic groups they lived around. Sure, Jews did have communities but those communities were also a part of even bigger communities and, as inevitably happens in such situations, a steady flow of different genetic material was injected into these Jewish communities which is why Jews do not have any particular genes that they alone carry. Too much intermarriage occured for that to have ever developed.

The terms "culture" and "religion" are not synonmymous but religion is a part of what makes up culture. That is why a culture can not develop without incorporating the religious beliefs of the people in the community.

I think that the Nazi situation is a bit more complex than you're stating. There were reasons why of all of the groups inside of Germany, certain ones were targeted. Identity was only one factor in why Jews were amongst these. Even Hitler himself signed the exemption orders for Jews serving in the military and it is now known that there were thousands of Jews who continued to do so throughout the war. Some of them were even highly-decorated officers, generals, and admirals.

"Hitler's Jewish Soldiers" is a very good book to read if you're interested in this subject.

Red Tulips said...

bint alshamsa:

I know about kapos, but in fact kapos were also killed by the Nazis. Also, there have been self hating Jews throughout history. Not sure what you are referring to here?

As far as Tay Sachs - note that other self contained populations also suffer from it.

Bint Alshamsa said...

Some Jewish soldiers were killed by the Nazis but many were not. I'm simply saying that if the targetting of Jews were simply because of their identity, then this phenomenon wouldn't have existed and persisted throughout the war. The fact that other groups besides the Jews were also targetted and killed in large numbers shows that the holocaust was not just about eliminating people of a particular ethnicity.

I think it's rather simplistic to refer to those Jews who served in Nazi Germany as "self-hating Jews". They had their reasons why they related to the Nazis more than they did to those in the concentration camps just as many Jews today have their reasons why they do not support Israel. It isn't necessarily self-hatred that motivates some Jewish people to take a different stance (on any particular issue) than that adopted by other Jews.

The other groups that suffer from Tay-Sachs aren't self-contained. There are very few populations that we can make a decent case for calling "self-contained" at this point in history. Furthermore, if these other groups (that are known to be affected by Tay-Sachs) were self-contained then they wouldn't have Tay-Sachs unless the disease developed separately in several different ethnicities and we have no proof of that. That Tay-Sachs is found in non-Jewish ethnic groups is more proof that Jews have always been a part of an ever-changing mix of people migrating across the continents and countries.

Thomas Forsyth said...

Bint Alshamsa> Welcome, fellow New Orleanian. Now, to explain my own ignorance as a child, I was neevr the most aware person, and I really didn't understand much about religion until I was older. Even though, for some reason I will neevr understand my mother sent me to a First Assembly pre-school (their Principal was arrested last I heard), and later to Holy Name, which has ties to my paternal grandmother's family (Villere).

To me the Catholic culture of New Orleans is more a French culture, which also happens to be Catholic, just as Boston has an Irish culture overshadowing its old WASP elements. Parish is also a French word, though we seem to have a difference of perception as what you see is Catholic, I se to be French (though also Catholic, as the Huegenots are more in the Carolinas). Of course there are many other Catholic ethnicities to add to the gumbo of New Orleans culture, but I'd still say the primary flavor is French. I do understand what your saying though.

Now, I do apologize if I offended you on my commenst about public education. I do admitteh magent schoosl are excellent. Ben Franklin is the best school in the state of Louisiana, and McMain, NOCCA, and Carr are also excellent, along with Lusher. I have friends at Loyola who went to public school in New Orleans and their families later moved to Jefferson parish and the change blew them away. That and the state of the BESE board, along with my mother's comments did not paint a positive image of the NO Public school system. I again apologize for not mentioning the excellence of the magent schools.

My own family has old Southern roots (Governor Villere on one side and the Logans of South Carolina on the other side), but your Marquis De Lafayette beats my Scottish Barons :)

I understand what you mean by Catholic culture, though to me it is more due to Catholic ethnicities and I will definitely admit to a Catholic flavor, as New Orleans would be an extremely different city if it was founded by WASPS or Scots-Irish Presbyterians. Also, I guess we may quibble over a difference between culture and flavor, since I tend to see Catholicism blending into the culture that it converts, though some additiosn are made, especially in regard to first names.

I do see a distinct Jewish identity as there are traditions held in common by all Jews and there are also secular Jews, including the founders of Israel. I do not know of too many secular Christians, though to me Christianity is just a religion (with internal cultures only coincidentally connected to the faith), while Judaism is both a religion and a culture.

Bint Alshamsa said...

Hey Thomas,

I think that your view has a lot of merit too. I think that it all overlaps when it comes to what is French and what is Catholic. I think it is quite impossible to separate the two really. I think that many of our traditions here are both Catholic and French. I'm not Catholic myself but I think Catholicism influences even those who identify as adherents of other religions. I mean, who doesn't celebrate Mardi Gras done here? Very few people, I think!

I appreciate the apology. I am just a very proud New Orleanian. That said, the BESE board should go to hell wearing gasoline BVDs as far as I'm concerned. Those public schools that have produced excellent students mostly do so because the parents and teachers have been willing and able to come out of pocket to provide the schools with all of the components needed to give a child a decent education. One small example of this was when the swimming pool at my daughter's public elementary Montessori school needed repairs. The school board decided that instead of spending the money it would take to fix it, they would just close down the program. The children were just devastated because they loved that class and us parents were furious because this was one of the few schools where children actually received real physical education. So, the parents baked and raffled and auctioned until we were able to get the money needed for repairs. However, I can't help but think about what would have been the case if this had occurred at a school where there weren't so many at-home moms available to do this stuff or so many families that could afford to supplement what the school system didn't provide, these students may have missed out on this program what wasn't a part of the core curriculum but very essential in the eyes of parents. Incidently, this very same public school featured vocal and instrumental music lessons for all of the students, mixed-grade classes, and French language classes (taught by a teacher from France). My youngest brother (an accomplished Grammy-nominated Jazz musician) got his start at a non-magnet elementary public school and then went on to graduate from John McDonough 35 high school and N.O.C.C.A. back when it was in the old building.

While it is pretty neat to have relatives with streets and cities named after them, I really don't believe in the whole snotty attitude that some people take when it comes to their ancestors. I'd rather take pride in what I've accomplished because that is something I'm responsible for; I had absolutely no say in what family I was born into so it seems kind of silly to me when I see people who get impressed by their or other people's lineage.

I think this ties into the conversation we've been having too. As fine and up-standing a citizen as my parents may be, I realize that some people aren't born into families like mine. When Red Tulips talks about the Bielski brothers as heroes, I can't help but think about how I'd feel if my parents did engage in behavior that I found unethical. Could I stop them? Perhaps. I certainly hope that I could but what if I couldn't? Well, it seems to me that Red Tulips is basically saying that she feels it would be justified to kill me even though I might be completely against what my family did. I just don't see how that could possibly be considered heroic. Heck, it's not even self-defense.

My biggest problem with Palestinian bombers is that they often kill people who have committed no crime simply because they may feel sympathy with those who enforce Israeli policies. If we start saying that those who kill innocent people can be heroes, then how can we also have any grounds for saying that people should stop killing innocent Jews? If the Bielski brothers are heroes because some people believe their actions saved lives, then so are the Palestinians who go into pizza parlors and wedding receptions and kill people because for every Jew who thinks that Israel is justified in killing innocent people, there are as many Palestinians who take the same attitude when it comes to supporting their folks who kill innocent people.

And if we say that the innocent should die along with the guilty, then why should anyone refrain from becoming violent? After all, it will do them no good to try and be peaceful since even that is not good enough for some to feel they should be able to go on living.

When it comes to Christianity, I think there are many who are secular Christians but they may not really refer to themselves by that label. I think that those who really believe in all of the tenets of Christianity are quite few. A lot of people enjoy the warm and fuzzy Christmas imagery, the youthful curiousity of the Easter holiday and the romance associated with Valentine's day but when it comes to the who shebang, I just don't see a lot of folks who seem to think that the love thy neighbor, turn the other cheek concepts should apply to them. Then there's also the fact that being a Christian simply means being Christ-like, so technically anyone can be a Christian even if they are Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, or atheist depending on their behavior towards others.