To be, or not to be… Jewish


Cimetière MontmartreMort, at Octogenarian, wrote an interesting and well-documented post about the death of Cardinal Lustiger, The Catholic Church’s Jewish cardinal, and I started writing a reply on his blog but soon decided that it was too long to fit in there. So there it goes:

To me, a complete atheist, or worse, someone who just isn’t interested in religion at all, Lustiger‘s attitude makes sense.
I was born and bred in a Jewish family where no one was religious. Our Jewishness consisted of a Passover and a Rosh Hashana dinner a year, for which my mother cooked stuff that she remembered from home.
I never attended any synagogue, as the few times I went, for weddings or bar mitzvahs, I resented the fact that women or girls were treated like sub humans 😉 That’s how I felt when I was young. Now, I don’t even care!
My parents’ most Jewish traits, were what they told us about life in their respective native countries, being set apart as Jews.
Also, they wanted us, my brother and me, to marry Jews, something I didn’t do.

I don’t feel I belong to Judaism as a religion, but I am definitely Jewish. I would resent my daughter marrying in a church, Catholic or whatever. However, I couldn’t care less whether she marries a Jew or a non Jew.
I don’t feel that I belong to a community, but to a people, certainly.
Cardinal Lustiger was born Jewish and chose to convert to Catholicism, against his parents’ will. But he always insisted on his Jewishness.
As a non believer Jew, I was touched by the fact that he wanted the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead at his burial. I told my daughter that I would like to be buried as a Jew, a long time ago.
Maybe none of this makes sense to anyone else but to me it does.

Cardinal Lustiger said:

To say that I am no longer a Jew is like denying my father and mother, my grandfathers and grandmothers. I am as Jewish as all the other members of my family who were butchered in Auschwitz or in the other camps.

I think he had a strong point there and I share his views.

Mort wrote

So while France’s late Cardinal Lustiger still considered himself a Jew, the Jewish community at large did not. Nevertheless, had he been discovered in his boyhood shelter, even as a Catholic convert, he would clearly have been a candidate for the German death camps because of the dictates of Nazi racial theories.

I quite agree with the second part of the statement, but what is the Jewish community at large?
France’s rabbis and traditional Orthodox Jews? Well, then, I am Jewish, but I certainly don’t belong to that community.

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10 thoughts on “To be, or not to be… Jewish

  1. I think we all find our own way to God. I find myself at odds with the Catholic church now and again but I’m never far away from it. The God I believe in cares about all of us no matter what theology we espouse — or reject. I guess I’m sort of a renegade for such a belief and that’s fine with me!

  2. Claude,
    Unlike you, I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish environment. I didn’t eat pork or shellfish until I was 18 and in the army. Nevertheless, my religious views are similar to yours. I am not religiously observant. In terms of religious belief, I consider myself a secular humanist (a more respectable term than atheist).
    But I am staunchly Jewish in an ethnic or cultural sense. In the U.S. there is a term, hyphenated Americans. People whose families have been in the country 3, 4 or more generations still call themselves Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, German-Americans, etc.
    In that sense, I am a Jewish-American. Again, this is ethnic terminology that is normal in an ethnically heterogeneous country like ours where everyone’s forebears came from somewhere else. So even though there is thorough cultural and linguistic assimilation, the links–mostly psychological–to the countries of origin of one’s forebears remain. My parents came from Poland and Belarus. But I would never consider myself a Polish- or Russian-American. My ancestors were considered Jews in those countries in both a religious and ethnic sense and were treated as second-class citizens.
    Incidentally, my reference to a Jewish “community” does not refer to an organization but to the Jewish population at large, affiliated formally or not.
    Both my children are married to non-Jews. But my Chinese daughter-in-law converted to Judaism before her marriage to my son. There was no influence or pressure exerted by me or my son. She came from an aristocratic Chinese family, most of whom, if not Christian converts, don’t consider religious affiliation very important. I think she decided that to be a typical American (she was born in Taiwan), one must have a formal religious affiliation of some kind. So she picked her future husband’s. She said she was delighted to learn that all the moral or ethical principles of Judaism were no different from the tradition in which she was raised. (Her grandparents were nominal Buddhists.)
    My grandsons receive a Jewish education in a Reform synagogue. Unlike Orthodoxy, Reform (and Conservative) Jews do not treat women like “sub-humans.” Indeed, there are many Reform and Conservative rabbis who are women.
    I did encourage that the boys get exposed to a Jewish education for cultural reasons. I want them to know that if they unfortunately ever encounter anti-Semitism what the hatred is about. I don’t know, however, how to train them to cope with racial hatred based on their Chinese heritage. They’ve got a double whammy, possessing the genes of two minority groups who have had their share of discrimination here.
    Sorry to take up so much space.

  3. My husband was born and raised a Jew, both of his parents were Jewish and his maternal grandparents Orthodox. His mother wasn’t practicing, but his grandmother was strict and went to temple. She would sit with the men to talk politics because she didn’t want to sit with the women to talk… “women talk”. David loved that about her, and even though she was strict, he was very close to her until the day she died, when he was 16 years old. Our wedding rings were made from her ring stones.

    David was sent to Hebrew school and grew up hating the language, and he kept all of his bar mitzvah items in a drawer until one day when he took them out and showed them to me. He didn’t identify with the religion at all, but culturally he was very much a Jew, including his sense of humour. I could relate to his feelings about Orthodox Judaism because I was raised strict Seventh-Day Adventist, which is Christianity using the Old Testament in the Hebrew Bible and therefore following many of the same rules about food and the observance of Sabbath — Friday sunset to Saturday sunset. We didn’t work on Saturday and I had my first taste of bacon and shellfish when I was 18 and living outside of my parents’ home. My parochial high school had no dances or proms, jewellery wasn’t allowed, and I never learned how to play cards. If there was someone my husband could commiserate with about rules, that would be me!

    In our minds, we could separate the religions from the cultures, but I think to a staunchly religious person, that is impossible. There is also an idea that non-religious people dislike religion, but I think that is a fallacy. It’s not a case of rejecting the religion as it applies to everyone, it is a case of accepting that there other ways to live. My husband read about Taoism, Buddhism, and other Eastern religions, and also native spirituality. If anything, he was VERY interested in religion. He wasn’t about to believe wholesale what was spoon-fed to him as a child, that’s all.

    But that didn’t stop us from seeing “Jewtopia” in New York City 😉 If you ever get a chance to see it, it’s hilarious! It touches on both the religion and cultural aspects of being Jewish.

  4. @ Mort, I reacted strongly to the term ‘community’, because of what has been happening recently in France, namely, the government trying to deal with Muslims as a community or Jews as a community. The result is they deal with the “heads” of a community, and this is really a new trend here, and one that I don’t like. I married a man who was born a Catholic, like the majority of French people, but one who was not religious at all.
    We decided not to give our daughter a religious education, but of course tried to give her cultural landmarks.
    I found what you said about your daughter in law quite interesting
    she decided that to be a typical American (she was born in Taiwan), one must have a formal religious affiliation of some kind.
    This is ever so different from the way things go in France and it is something that never ceases to surprise me when I go to the US.
    Most people here would never think of defining themselves as having a formal religious affiliation, except if specifically asked for it.
    Anyway, there’s so much more about all this than meets the eye…
    Thanks for commenting here.

  5. That was very interesting. It helped me to understand a friend of mine beter. She is French but of Polish/Jewish origin and although she doesn’t really practise her religion – she doesn’t eat pork (but shellfish, yes) and goes to the synagogue once or twice a year – she is obviously proud of her Jewish roots ( her elder son is much more serious about the Jewish faith) and is in close contact with the local Jewish community.
    Is it a bit like all the English people who claim to be C of E more for social reasons than religious conviction?

  6. claude, what you have taken the time and courage to write impacts very personally for me. have read, come back a couple of times to read again–and the comments.

    as a secular (an adjective first used toward me by catholic friends) american jew, how i respond to my own jewishness has had many sides. unaware as a young child in new york city, made conscious as “the only” in a little farm town in marylandm then punched and called a “christ-killer” (had no idea what that meant) as a ten year old in st.louis.

    the world has been trying either politically or socially to project an identity onto me and my children for a very long time. always keeping a certain distance, i know the best decision i ever made was to marry a man with a stronger ethnic/cultural identity to his jewishness through a yiddish education–nothing religious.

    thank you for moving my thinking along. onw day i need to post about the commection between myself as a jew and a feminist. yours, naomi

  7. @ Gail, I guess that my lack of religious education offered me quite a bit of freedom. I can still remember my Catholic girl-friends racking their brains to have something to confess on Saturday mornings and be able to receive Holy Communion on Sundays. That always struck me as weird 🙂
    @ Naomi, you and Mort have both used the word ‘secular’ in a sense that I had never seen before. It looks like the word atheist is not politically correct, or am I mistaken?

  8. Very interesting post and comments.
    I’ve always considered myself an “American” but then if the conversation warrants, go on to say, “My dad was Polish, my mom was French.”
    As for the religious aspect of it….I was raised Catholic, sent to parochial school, raised my children Catholic and sent them to parochial school. They in turn have raised their children Catholic.
    But I totally fell away from the religion by my late 30’s. The only time you’ll find me in a Catholic church now is a funeral, a wedding, or to visit Notre Dame and St. Julien le Pauve in Paris, for my own reasons. I do not want a Catholic funeral or burial, nor the Mass that goes with it.
    I wouldn’t say I’m an agnostic nor an atheist, but….for me….I’m totally against organized religion.

  9. Claude, you have posted the issue that starting troubling me 25 years ago, and look what happened! Being raised an assimilating Jew in America, I wondered what on earth people meant by “the Jewish community?” Whatever it was, I didn’t belong to it, even though I was Jewish. In search of an answer to the question, I ended up complicating it by moving to Israel. Hah!

  10. I don’t know if my parents were Jewishly observant, but they were Polish Jews, by birth and ancestry. The Nazis didn’t care whether they were observant Jews or what they believed in: they were taken from Paris where we lived and, and they were killed at Auschwitz when I was four years old. I wound up with American relatives after WWII. My aunt and uncle were Jewish culturally but didn’t do much religiously, and so neither did I. But I did marry an observant Jewish woman, and when we had children I became observant myself. We have two sons in their thirties: one is Jewishly observant, the other is not interested in religion. I consider myself agnostic, but I chose to be observant to honor my parents who died because they were defined as Jews. I became observant(Conservative, not Orthodox) as an adult when I researched what had happened to my parents.

    When it comes to religion–and this is especially true for Jews I think–there are two possibilities: you can be defined by others, and/or you can define yourself. In the case of Cardinal Lustiger, he apparently defined himself as both Jewish and Catholic. Observant Jews consider this an impossible contradiction and define him as Catholic only,since observant Jews believe that once you believe in a divine Jesus you are no longer Jewish, religiously speaking.

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