Thursday, December 30, 2010

Memorable Quotes from Harold Jacobson's The Finkler Question

That was what it was to be a Jewess. Never mind the moist dark womanly mysteriousness. A Jewess was a woman who made even punctuation funny.

....”You say you want to be a Jew — well, the first thing you need to know is that Jewish men don’t go out without their wives or girlfriends. Unless they’re having an affair. Other than another woman’s flat there is nowhere for Jewish men to go. They don’t do pubs, they hate being seen uncompanioned at the theater, and they can’t eat on their own. Jewish men must have someone to talk to while they eat. They can’t do only one thing with their mouths.

“A halber emes ist a ganster lign,” he said.
“A half truth is a whole lie,” Hephzibah whispered to Truslove.

They found themselves walking away from the grave together. “My name is Emmy Oppenstein,” the woman said.
The two men introduced themselves to her. There were no handshakes. Treslove liked that. The Jews were good at making one occasion not like another, he thought. The protocol alarmed him but he admired it. Good to divide this from that. Why is this night different from all other nights. Or was it good? They pursued difference to the grave.

Other Lost Things

I have also lost enough winter scarves to cross the Atlantic.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

A Non-believer's Christmas

I am a non-believer. I was baptized when my parents were briefly Presbyterian, but I received no religious education and was not confirmed as a member of any Christian denomination. At times during my youth we actually attended services, most consistently during my high school years in the mid 1960s, when my mother took us to the Unitarian Church in Urbana, Illinois. Urbana was a university town, and all our friends were liberals. The counterculture revolution and anti-war movement were under way, and everything was affected by the social forces in the air. Sermons at our church were more political than religious, and long before the current controversy about secularizing Christmas, our Unitarian congregation favored hymns and Christmas carols that were stripped of any references to god.

Naturally, I became an agnostic. Like most people, I held fast to the religion of my upbringing, which was hardly any religion at all. But it is difficult to avoid membership in the culture that surrounds you. Anyone brought up without religion in the United States is culturally a Protestant Christian by default. Like most of the families we knew, mine celebrated Christmas, sang carols, read the nativity story from the Bible on Christmas Eve, and occasionally attended church. The rest of the year you would never know what, if any, religion we espoused, because most of the time we espoused none at all.

There is much to like about Christmas. It is a holiday that celebrates children: the birth of a child and, through the Santa Claus story, the delight of children with the gift of toys. The innocence and promise of childhood are always worthy of celebration. Although a kind of self-interested and unrestrained consumerism is rampant at Christmas, we are often urged to “Remember the Neediest!” and give to charity at this time of year. It is a time when we all give to others. In addition, Christmas approximately marks the Winter Solstice, when the days begin to get longer. Candles and evergreens bring light and life into homes darkened by winter’s long night. This part of Christmas marks an important seasonal turning point and makes a connection to many ancient celebrations of the lengthening of the light.

And there is music. Yes, it is predominantly religious music, but I have no problem with that. I have always loved singing in church. For a time when my kids were young, my then-wife took them to Episcopal services, and though everyone knew I was a non-believer, I often came along to be a good sport. Singing hymns was my favorite part of the service, and I took to it with great enthusiasm. More recently, I have attended Jewish services on occasion, and where the siddur provided transliterations of the Hebrew, I did my best to sign along in a language I do not speak. My kids have been singers most of their lives, and I recently attended a Lessons and Carols concert to hear my daughter sing with her college choir. As is common for me, I got teary at several points while singing the carols. Religious music evokes emotion, and although I cannot endorse its religious sources, the melodies and the generosity of spirit in the lyrics move me like anyone else.

When it comes to religion, I am the kind of person who often seems to be hanging around clubs he cannot bring himself to join. Not quite the same as Woody Allen’s problem (“I'd never join a club that would allow a person like me to become a member”), but we are both outsiders. In the case of Christianity—and in contrast to Judaism—I am fully entitled to the cultural Christianity of my birth. I will never be a religious Christian—or a religious anything—but I am entitled to my Christian secularism if I so choose. So I can fully enjoy Christmas in the way that suits me. I may be an outsider to religion, but I am not an outsider to Christmas. I often find the sense of expectation surrounding the giving and receiving of presents somewhat stressful. There is the race to get everything purchased and wrapped and the worry that someone will be disappointed with what they get. As a result, I feel a great sense of relief once Christmas morning has passed. But everything else about Christmas is something I can choose to enjoy or not, and there is much to enjoy. It will never be for me what it is for a religious Christian, but I am happy to have the chance to celebrate Christmas in my fashion.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Having a Jewish Heart But Not a Jewish Soul: The Problem of Conversion to Secular Judaism

In her book, Choosing a Jewish Life, Anita Diamant recounts a famous episode of Louis Brandeis’ life:
A story is told about Louis Brandeis (1856-1941), who was a student at Harvard Law School at a time when there were explicit limits on what Jews could hope to achieve. Quotas were in effect and many law offices were completely closed to Jewish attorneys. When Brandeis was in school, his colleagues would say, "Brandeis, you're brilliant. If you weren't a Jew, you could end up on the Supreme Court. Why don't you convert? Then all of your problems would be solved."
Brandeis did not respond to such comments, but on the occasion of his official introduction to an exclusive honor society at the law school, Brandeis took the podium and announced, "I am sorry I was born a Jew." His words were greeted with enthusiastic applause, shouts, and cheers. But when the noise died down he continued. "I'm sorry I was born a Jew, but only because I wish I had the privilege of choosing Judaism on my own."
The initial response of stunned silence slowly gave way to awed applause. Ultimately, his anti-Semitic peers rose and gave him a standing ovation. In 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jew appointed to the United States Supreme Court.
Brandeis was, of course, a religious man. And he was right. Conversion is only possible when moving from one religion to another or from a state of non-belief to belief. If, like Brandeis, you happen to be born into the religion you love, you cannot enjoy the additional privilege of deliberately choosing the religion you love.

For the secular person who would like to convert to religious secularism, there is a parallel but opposite roadblock. The very term religious secularism may sound like a non sequitur, a contradiction in terms, but there are many secular people who would, nonetheless, align themselves with a religion—most often the religion of their birth. Many Jews, in particular, claim both their Jewishness and their secularism. In 2004, the Washington Post reported that 80 percent of Jews in Israel were secular. The percentage is undoubtedly much lower in the United States, but here, too, secular Jewish life is common.

But here is the rub. Just as conversion to the Judaism of one’s birth is impossible; so too is conversion from some other faith—or none—to secular Judaism. Conversion to Judaism is a particularly serious business. Jews are prohibited from proselytizing, and to convert you must demonstrate a strong desire to be Jewish and work hard to accomplish the goal. So the person who is born Jewish is granted the choice of being a religious or a secular Jew. Though it might never have occurred to him to be anything but a religious Jew, this was a choice that Brandeis retained. But for the secular person who is not born Jewish, Jewish secularism is another kind of impossible conversion. The path to secular Judaism must go through belief, and if belief in the Jewish religion is impossible, then Jewish secularism is unattainable.

While this may be frustrating for a small group of secular non-Jews who are attracted to Jewish life—people who might be said to have a Jewish heart but not a Jewish soul—I think, in the end, there is something fitting about it. Judaism is, after all, a religion. There is a Jewish culture, too, but it is a culture that grows out of a people with a common religion. It is one thing to be born into a religion and then, at some point in your life, decide that the religion does not work for you. This is a question that resides at an appropriately level. A question about whether or not to choose a religious life.

The secular person who would like to adopt the culture of a religion and who may also be drawn—in a spiritual but not truly religious way—to the teachings of the religion is not struggling with questions at the same level. He or she wrestles with a less central kind of life choice. In most cases, the secular person made the decision about a religious or non-religious life long ago. As a result, I think it is perfectly appropriate that the rabbis draw the line. Judaism is a religion. The synagogue door is open. You may come in and sit with the congregation. But the person who is not born Jewish cannot call him or herself a Jew without adopting the religion.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Ritual of the Dinner Party

Arrivals:      Kisses, handshakes, the discarding of coats and purses.
Before:         Drinks, snacks, getting to know the other guests, activity in the kitchen. The host(s) moving about while the guests sit together or kibitz in the kitchen.
During:       The table, candlelight, food, drink, conversation.
After:           Coffee, tea, dessert, more talk.
Departures: Kisses, handshakes, the gathering of coats and purses.

The phases of this ritual are designed to prolong contact over several hours. The dinner party accomplishes the simple function of bringing people together around food, but the different stages of the evening also provide natural breaks—points at which diners can change conversational partners or adopt different roles: helping in the kitchen, bringing things to the table, clearing, or jumping into someone else’s conversation to provide the missing details of a story. The familiarity of the ritual provides a comfortable foundation for various forms of risk-taking: the outrageous statement; the risque joke; the concerned but probing question; the tenderly offered confession. The dinner party is neither trivial—as in the case of the cocktail party, where encounters are brief and conversation is often superficial—nor ponderous. The different phases of the evening and the varying roles adopted by the participants keep the evening going.