I’m writing this as I go and I think it’s not going to make much sense but I’m going with it.
I’m Jewish. I make no secret of that fact. I am, as Sigmund Freud described himself, “a godless Jew”. I do not believe in God whether it be Hashem or Jesus or Allah or Buddah or any of the other multitudes of supreme beings worshipped through the ages. I’m “culturally Jewish.” Over the years I have only half-jokingly referred to myself as an “oven Jew”, meaning by that that when the next Hitler comes along (and I have no doubt that he will), he won’t care that I don’t believe in God or don’t go to temple. “Your mother was Jewish, you’re Jewish. Get in the oven with the rest of them.”
I went to Hebrew School for six years. I no longer speak or understand Hebrew yet, oddly enough, I can still pretty much read the language, though I have no comprehension of what I’m reading. I was Bar Mitzvahed and spent a very brief period of my life – less than two years – trying to be religious. I went to services quite a bit when I was 13 or 14 years old but, after awhile, feeling nothing, I stopped.
My parents were both Jews. Neither of them were very religious. They didn’t keep kosher and they didn’t observe the Sabbath, though they did observe the major holidays. My father said it was because he was superstitious. While my father understood the religion very well, I think my mother knows next to nothing about it. However, over the course of decades, she raised thousands – if not millions – of dollars for Jewish and Israeli causes, and I went to a lot of luncheons and dinners held in her honor. I know she was trying to set an example for me, but it was one I did not follow.
Growing up, I knew a lot of people who had survived concentration camps. I saw the numbers tattooed on their arms. I was too young to ask them any details of their experience – not that I’m sure they would have wanted to share them.
I don’t know too much of my family history going back more than 2 generations. One can check records to find out when people arrived in the U.S., but before that? Most of the records in Europe were destroyed. Much of my family came to the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century, mostly fleeing Russian pogroms. There is the story of one aunt who somehow made it to the US alone at the age of six, presumably most of her family had been killed and there were people helping her along the way and waiting for her once she arrived. How many of my family never made it to the U.S.? How many were killed by Russians and eastern Europeans and Nazis? I will never know. I can only guess that it must be a signficant number.
My family name is not my family name. My father always claimed his father snuck into the U.S. and changed it to avoid being caught. I always figured he was joking and it was more like that scene in Godfather II – that he arrived at Ellis Island, didn’t speak English, was asked his name and perhaps thought he was being asked if he had a trade and that was the answer he gave and that was the name he got. (Curiously, in my paternal grandfather’s passport, he spells his name differently than my father and I do – but my father was dead when I found that passport, so I couldn’t ask him about it.) But the fact is that I don’t know for sure and probably never will know.
On my mother’s side, I have a cousin who is into genealogy. Her hobby has been tracing back the history of our family – though her work doesn’t help me much with my father’s side of things. Another of my cousins is currently working on a book and has shared an early draft with me – I won’t go into details since the book is still a year away from publication so I’ll just say that it concerns the Jewish experience in eastern Europe prior to WWII.
I have always lived with this spectre of death hovering in the background. I have lived my life knowing that for two thousand years the world has had this habit of killing Jews. Millions of them. Lenny Bruce would joke that he found a note in his parents’ basement that admitted that the Jews killed Jesus because he didn’t want to become a doctor or a lawyer. Mel Brooks reacted to centuries of mass murder by turning it into a several musical productions – The Producers, of course, and also the big musical dance number for the Inquisition in History of the World Part 1. Humor is one way we have always coped with unspeakable tragedy.
I can tell you that I have had to deal with anti-Semitism at various stages of my life. Growing up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood in The Bronx, there were a few times when I was chased down the street by people shouting “Jewboy” at me. It stays with you.
It’s perhaps difficult to put into words how one can be both Atheist and Jew and yet I believe I can be both. I think that trying to say, “I’m not a Jew, I’m an atheist,” would be a betrayal of the suffering of the millions who came before me. I know this probably makes little sense to others. I certainly can’t explain it. And yet I’m comfortable with the decisions that I’ve made.
What’s got me thinking this way? Why am I posting this?
“The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.”
Simon Schama is a British historian. His series “A History of Britain” has brought him much international acclaim. The BBC has just aired a new 5 hour series by him, The Story of The Jews. It aired in the UK last month and was easy enough to find via “the usual sources.” So I brought that with me to the U.S. and showed it to my mother. Although I hadn’t watched it, I guessed correctly that it was something that she would like. Unexpectedly, I found it enormously moving as well.
It’s not a strict chronological history. And it doesn’t go through a checklist of who is or was Jewish, like Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song.”
David Lee Roth lights the menorrah,
So do James Caan, Kirk Douglas, and the late Dinah Shore-ah
Guess who eats together at the karnickey deli,
Bowzer from Sha-Na-Na, and Arthur Fonzerrelli.
Paul Newman’s half Jewish; Goldie Hawn’s half too,
Put them together–what a fine lookin’ Jew!
You don’t need deck the halls or jingle bell rock
Cause you can spin the dreidl with Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock–both Jewish!
Each of the five episodes has a distinct theme and each moves somewhat chronologically, but also impressionistically through that theme. Schama asks questions, many of which cannot be easily answered, some of which cannot be answered at all. But they are all worth asking and all worth thinking about.
While the reviews in major press outlets have been almost uniformly positive, I should mention that many pro-Palestinian groups have had serious issues with some of the things said in the fifth episode, which discusses Zionism and the State of Israel. (I should also mention that while I am a supporter of Israel, I am not a supporter of apartheid and so I have never been to Israel and have no plans to go. I don’t even have a glimmer of an idea as to what the answer is to all of this.)
One thing I took away from the series is just how much the American Jewish experience in the 20th century is an anomaly – the degree to which Jews were assimilated and the cultural influence they’ve had, through films and music. I guarantee that all of you know at least a few Yiddish words, even if you don’t realize that they’re Yiddish in origin.
Another thing I took away – something I always knew but learned in much greater detail – is about how Jews were treated over the last thousand years. The series is very Euro-centric, so there are very few details given about just how extremely well Jews and Muslims co-existed prior to Zionism. And nothing is mentioned about Jews in eastern Asia, a topic that would be well worth covering in some form. (China welcomed Jews prior to 1949 because, unlike Christian missionaries, they made no attempts to convert others to their faith. And I have one Indian friend who is Jewish – though I’ve never really asked him how that happened.)
Okay, I’ve got no idea where I’m going with all of this. The series has weighed heavily on my mind, that’s for sure. I believe I will watch it again, and soon. I’ll buy – and read – the book from the series when it’s published. Will my Catholic regular-church-going gf watch it with me? (I also just purchased Criterion’s blu-ray reissue of Shoah and will see if she has the patience to sit through that with me (it runs over 9 hours).
Beyond that? Do I have a renewed sense of Jewish identity? Will I rejoin HK’s JCC and start participating in their events? Will I attend Seders and fast on Yom Kippur? It’s all too soon to tell. The point is that Schama has got me thinking about this more deeply than I have in a very long time. I hope that others will also view this series and start thinking about it as well.