Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years Eve

The secular Jewish year begins at midnight between December 31 of last year and the first minute of the New Year. Even religious Jews call January 1 “Secular New Year.”

Are secular Jews as drunk as their fellow celebrators? Well, some of them still conform to the old stereotype of Jews drinking less than other Americans or other immigrants. We know when we are outclassed – by the Irish, say. Or the Poles.
Q. Why don’t Jews drink?
A. It dulls the pain.
Old joke.

Top 10 Lists

It's the end of the year, and everyone is publishing their "Top 10." Here are a few more that I find relevant to the spirit of "hero or anti-hero" --

How sees Jews

Here's another "Top 10" for the New Year: Top 10 Jews of Year - 2010 -- Jon Stewart, Elena Kagan, Ofer Merin, Michael Bloomberg, Ahuva Tomer, Peter Beinart, Mark Zuckerberg, Drake, Barbara Picower, Eric Cantor. Bonus: the 2010 Honorary Jew: Stephen Colbert -- "Just like Jon Stewart, but Catholic." If you don't know who they are, follow the link!

Some of these figure in my "hero or anti-hero" thoughts. Some not so much. Interesting list, though.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

How the Chinese See Jews

Newsweek has an interesting article about Chinese views of Jews. Chinese business writers and consultants (who personally may have never met a Jew) have been recommending Jews as business gurus and models, and especially writing about the Talmud as how-to-succeed in business manual. "The guides are like the Chinese equivalents of books such as Sun Tzu and the Art of Business."

The historic background to this trend is summarized in the article:
The Chinese perception of Jews as expert moneymakers does not have the religion-based antagonism that often accompanies the same stereotype elsewhere in the world, and probably had its start in the mid-19th century, when investors began flocking to China. Many of the first foreign real-estate tycoons, such as Silas Hardoon and the scions of the Sassoon family, were Jewish. Michael Kadoorie—who hails from a wealthy Jewish family that dates its China connection back to 19th-century Shanghai, and who’s made his fortune in power generators and hotels—currently ranks as the richest non-Chinese in greater China, with an estimated net worth of $5 billion.

The admiration for Judaism stems from a history that goes beyond business. About half of the dozen or so Westerners active in Mao Zedong’s China were Jewish, and that also led to increased interest in Jewish culture among Chinese intellectuals, says Xu Xin, professor of Jewish studies at Nanjing University. That’s resulted in mostly glowing portrayals of certain Jewish individuals in the official Chinese press.
The article suggests that Chinese views of Jews is mainly not as harmful as similar stereotyping in European history. I wonder.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

John von Neumann (December 28, 1903)

Von Neumann was a person of vast accomplishment in many fields. He was a mathematician with accomplishments in several areas; he worked on the Manhattan Project; he was an inventor of game theory and automata theory, a contributor to developing the first computer, a developer of computer science, and even a pioneer in weather forecasting. His influence was vast – for example, Benoit Mandlebrot studied with him at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas, Where are you having dinner?

2010 was the year of the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice.
During the hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Kagan: “Where were you on Christmas day?”
Kagan replied: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.”

I’m very aware of the common meme that Jews go out for Chinese food on Christmas because that’s the only kind of restaurant that’s open. It’s the subject of a song.
I even know the owners of a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland Heights who say that it’s their best day all year – and they believe that all the customers are Jewish. Personally, I’ve never eaten in a Chinese restaurant on Christmas, but I concede the point: it must be where all my fellow Jews spend the afternoon or evening (and then go to a movie).

Food writer Mimi Sheraton, writing in 1990, summarized the long-term Jewish love of Chinese food (which in fact continues for the rest of the year, not just at Christmas. She wrote:
The longstanding love affair Jews have had with Chinese food ... was a well-known fact of the restaurant business in Flatbush 50 years ago. Even many Jews who observed kosher dietary rules at home went to Chinese restaurants, and for those who were not kosher, Chinese was the traditional takeout fare on Sunday nights.

We can only guess at the reasons, ranging from historic speculations - such as, perhaps, one of the lost tribes of Israel having wandered through China - to more practical surmises like a shared taste for chicken soup, tea and dishes seasoned with garlic, celery and onion. It is also significant that Cantonese restaurants use no dairy products, a comforting fact even to Jews who are not kosher but are still unaccustomed to the flavor of butter and cream with meat.

References to Jews eating in Chinese restaurants go back as far as the late 19th century – yes, more than 100 years ago. In the 1920s, Jews ate in Chinese restaurants so frequently that a Yiddish paper ran an article titled “Who won the war between gefilte fish and chop suey?” I think most secular Jews have expanded their interests and explored restaurants of many other ethnic origins. And several generations of rejection of the dietary laws mean that one doesn’t even have a sense of transgression when eating moo-shu pork or shrimp-filled egg rolls: it seems perfectly natural.

Friday, December 24, 2010

I. F. Stone (December 24, 1907)

Izzy Stone was an independent left-wing journalist, who published his own “I. F. Stone’s Weekly” from 1952 until 1971 as well as articles in other publications and several books.

He described his early life: “I had become a radical in the ‘20s while in my teens, mostly through reading Jack London, Herbert Spencer, Kropotkin and Marx. I became a member of the Socialist Party and was elected to the New Jersey State Committee of the Socialist Party before I was old enough to vote. I did publicity for Norman Thomas in the 1928 campaign while a reporter on a small city daily, but soon drifted away from left-wing politics because of the sectarianism of the left. Moreover, I felt that party affiliation was incompatible with independent journalism, and I wanted to be free to help the unjustly treated, to defend everyone's civil liberty and to work for social reform without concern for leftist infighting.”

In the fifties, just as McCarthy was beginning his infamous investigations, Stone founded his Weekly. It became a welcome independent voice – often a solitary voice -- in that era of persecution of the left. He became one of the most respected figures for his original and penetrating views on many subjects, including challenges to government claims about nuclear testing and many others.

“I believe that no society is good and can be healthy without freedom for dissent and for creative independence,” he wrote in 1963. If you had to invent a secular Jewish hero in journalism and political analysis, you couldn’t make up a better one.

Quotes from The Official Website of I.F.Stone

Thursday, December 23, 2010

William Kristol (December 23, 1952)

Kristol is a neoconservative political analyst and commentator who happens (embarrassingly, if you ask me) to be Jewish. His credentials include founding the Weekly Standard, appearing on Fox News, and working for Dan Quayle. Definitely not my idea of a hero!! Tomorrow is the birthday of I.F.Stone, and I can't resist putting Kristol in as his antithesis.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Where am I ? I'm in St.Lucia in the Caribbean. Nothing to do with this blog but I'm posting about the trip at and

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Steven Spielberg (December 18, 1946)

Can you find Jewish content in Jaws, Indiana Jones, E.T., Jurassic Park, or Back to the Future? What about Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Spielberg has made so many films I can’t begin to name them. Two that do have Jewish content: Munich and Schildler’s List. Spielberg’s generous support of Jewish oral and filmed history projects is where he’s really earned my respect.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Morris Dees, Jr. (December 16, 1936)

Morris Dees, Jr. is the co-founder and chief trial counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Like many activist American Jews, he has lived his belief in social justice by founding the SPLC and leading its efforts for many years. Effective court cases pressed by SPLC lawyers, including Dees, have produced justice and thwarted some of the ugliest racism and prejudice our society manages to produce. Educational materials from SPLC seem to contribute to an effective improvement in tensions between various groups in some schools, and even to increasing tolerance of many minorities. The SPLC tracking of American hate groups is so important that even the government (which maybe should be doing its own work) relies on their research and observations. The organization that Dees created is thus of great importance to Jewish well-being as well as to that of many other groups.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Hyman Feldman (December 15, 1905)

“Revolutionary” is a key theme that I think of when I try to characterize my father, Hyman Feldman. He had a strong interest in social and political justice, and he believed that social change for the better would happen through some kind of socialist revolution. His interest in education and science and his commitment to the family were equally strong. Although he hoped that revolution would some day change the things he disliked, he never during my lifetime actively paticipated even in non-violent political action – he said he’d learned his lesson from the McCarthy persecutions.

My father’s ideas on socialism were extremely well thought out. Frustratingly for me as a teenager, he didn’t see any need to rethink his views, but would react to any events or changes in the world by categorizing how the news fit into his existing framework. Yes, I thought he was rigid, though unlike many people with fixed views, he wasn’t negative about other people, and was tolerant of many things, and above all wouldn’t do harm to other people. My experience is that many people with such firm ideas often dismiss the rights or even the humanity of other people who don’t agree, and he never did that.

Wide reading in both his field of mathematics education and general history and culture characterized my father’s interests. At some point, for example, he recommended the novel The Brothers Ashkenazi by I.J.Singer, published around 1936. My father always said he preferred I.J. Singer to his more famous brother I.B. Singer. When I read the book, I could see why: I.J. is political and not nostalgic about mystic Jewish life in Europe.

In The Brothers Ashkenazi Singer makes an explicit comparison between Hassidic Jews around 1900 waiting for the Messiah and radicals waiting for the Revolution — which confirms some of my suspicions about Jewish revolutionaries. Singer’s description of the chaos of the Russian Revolution, which takes place at the end of the book and the end of his characters' lives, is very interesting – a bit parallel to a few of my father’s memories. Many of the themes of the book are quite relevant to understanding life as my father sometimes described it, recollecting his experiences with Germans and Poles and Czars.

Although he celebrated his birthday in December (due to circumstances of his immigrant status) .my father was actually born in the summer of 1905, probably in July. This puts his birthdate just in the middle of the Revolution of 1905 when peasants and others revolted unsuccessfully against the Tsar. I think it highly appropriate that my father, who openly or secretly believed in revolution all his life, was born during a revolution.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

George Mason ( December 11, 1725)

George Mason, one of the Founding Fathers of the USA, wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Adopted in 1776 by the Virginia Constitutional Convention, this document became the model for the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution and similar individual state documents. I admire  him for defining many of our constitutional rights, and in this context, especially appreciate the following:

Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
Section 16. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Felix Nussbaum (December 11, 1904)

Felix Nussbaum began a successful career as a modern painter in the 1920s in Germany. Things did not go well for assimilated Jews like him. I first saw his works in a retrospective at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, and was astounded that he's so little known. I think this painting "Self-portrait with Jewish Identity Card" expresses everything that I'm unable to say.

Nussbaum escaped from one concentration camp, and used his modernist vision to express much about what was happening. He died in Auschwitz around a year after he painted this work -- unfortunately he didn't escape a second time.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Clarice Lispector (December 10, 1920)

From the review:

“What the legendary soccer player Pelé is to sport in Brazil, the author ‘Clarice’ is to that country's literary culture. Stunningly brilliant, beautiful and enigmatic, the daughter of Russian-Jewish émigrés achieved instant celebrity at the age of 23 with the publication of her debut novel Near to the Wild Heart. From that auspicious beginning in 1943, she emerged during the post-war decades as one of Latin America's greatest modernist writers and ambassadors of Brazilian culture and avant-garde thought.”

 Clarice Lispector, like many writers with a mingled heritage, wrote little directly about her background; although she attended a Yiddish-speaking school, she became highly acculturated into Brazilian life, and she married a Brazilian diplomat and also lived abroad. She's claimed as the voice of Brazilians, feminists, and so on. I suspect that those who see Jewishness in her work are associating Jewishness with Otherness and a sense of alienation. That happens a lot.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mark Kurlansky (December 7, 1948)

Mark Kurlansky is a wide-ranging writer, a few of whose works are especially enjoyable to a lover of Jewish culture like me. I especially enjoyed A Chosen Few: The Resurrection of European Jewry and Nonviolence: The History of a Dangerous Idea – both are very interesting books about religion, ethics, and Jewish history. I also loved his books about food such as Salt and Cod.

I don't know about Kurlansky's personal beliefs or religious practices, but I think his works are helpful to a person creating a secular Jewish identity. I plan to read his latest work of fiction soon.

Noam Chomsky (December 7, 1928)

Chomsky hates Israel and loves Palestinian terrorists. Chomsky claims to be anti-Zionist, not anti-Jewish, but in the end it's hard to see what difference that makes. He encourages antisemitism whether he means to or not. For some secular Jews, this makes him a hero; for others, an anti-hero. It's tempting to consider his vast accomplishments in his field of linguistics, which I have no reason to think anyone disputes, but don't know firsthand. These accomplishments sometimes seem to give him a podium from which to encourage his fellow antisemites.

Another thing that's tempting  is to dismiss him as simply a self-hating Jew who has come to hate most other Jews during a long life of contrarian behavior. Way too many demonstrably self-hating Jews have the same attitude, that Palestinians can do no wrong, and that Israelis have no rights.

Chomsky probably tries to complicate the issues; some of his followers and imitators don't even bother. I think for a lot of them (and I can't know which as I don't see the insides of their minds) the reality is, they are indifferent to the Zionist project -- they just hate Jews.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Is God Dead? A New York Times Article

According to Sean Kelly, writing in today's New York Times, Nietzsche's view of the death of God can have many meanings. One, he says, " is that the social role that the Judeo-Christian God plays in our culture is radically different from the one he has traditionally played in prior epochs of the West."

The following description of this current and different social situation resonates with the way I see myself and other secular Jews in our society:’s religious believers feel strong social pressure to admit that someone who doesn’t share their religious belief might nevertheless be living a life worthy of their admiration. That is not to say that every religious believer accepts this constraint. But to the extent that they do not, then society now rightly condemns them as dangerous religious fanatics rather than sanctioning them as scions of the Church or mosque. God is dead, therefore, in a very particular sense. He no longer plays his traditional social role of organizing us around a commitment to a single right way to live.
I think that the global view of plural "right" ways doesn't always include those who are religiously unobservant or unbelieving, but it can be extended that far. And this is important to me.

The New Antisemitism

Writing in The Nation, Jonathan Schell puts Glenn Beck's recent attack on George Soros in perspective. He provides a long and interesting analysis of classic antisemitism. Specifically of the Soros attack, Schell writes:
But not until the attacks on Soros did Beck's crackpot vision of a grand conspiracy acquire a human face—as it happens, a Jewish one. Like the Protocols, Beck's presentation—titled The Puppet Master?—discovers a single malevolent force operating behind the scenes to control history. While horror-film music plays and clips of history's disasters are shown on the screen, a voice intones, "Eighty years ago, George Soros was born. Little did the world know then, economies would collapse, currencies would become worthless, elections would be stolen, regimes would fall. And one billionaire would find himself coincidentally at the center of it all." Going on to accuse Soros of creating a shadow government, the show states that this "greatly resembles" similar organizations "he has created in other countries," supposedly "before instigating a coup" (among the countries are Czechoslovakia, Georgia and Ukraine). Thus, Beck falsely charges that Soros instigated coups abroad while also implying that he plans to carry out one in the United States. (What Soros has actually done is give support, through his Open Society Foundations, to democracy movements in many countries.)
In a novel and especially vile (and also false) twist, Beck, while heaping the classic anti-Semitic slurs on Soros, insinuates that Soros, a Holocaust survivor, is himself anti-Semitic. Beck, who denies that he is an anti-Semite, accuses Soros of having had to "go over and take the lands from the people, his Jewish friends and neighbors, who were being sent to the gas chambers" when he was a boy in Hungary during World War II. (In reality, as Michael Kaufman reveals in his book Soros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire, Soros's Christian protector was ordered to inventory the estate of a Jewish aristocrat who had escaped Hungary. He brought Soros, 13 at the time, with him. Soros wandered the estate and rode a horse. He never took any lands or anything else from Holocaust victims or anyone else.) In a perverse way, the libel is a perfect complement to the history of anti-Semitism: now the Jew is found to be guilty of, on top of all of history's other evils, his own people's persecution.
The article is well worth reading.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Abbe Grégoire (December 4, 1750)

Abbe Gregoire wrote about why blacks and Jews should be equal citizens in Revolutionary France. The consequence of his writing and activism was to create a new society where Jews were free to do what they wanted religiously, and were recognized as citizens with the same civil rights as Christians. This was truly revolutionary! The consequences were complicated, and of course the changes were backed out when the revolution was defeated. Nevertheless, his contribution to the rights of Jews to determine their own religious destiny is significant.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Fire in Haifa

The tragedy of death and destruction by wild fire in Israel is deeply distressing. The Israeli government is humiliated because they had to ask the international community for aid in fighting the fire -- this too is deeply distressing. Why should they not be afforded help when their government has so often volunteered to help in other countries' emergencies?

Thursday, December 2, 2010


My goal in this blog is an exploration of questions of identity -- how can a person like me (and I assume many others) have a strong Jewish identity without believing in the religion? Who can influence me, inspire me, serve as a model? How have selected individuals approached these issues?

Identity has lots of consequences, including who one chooses as a hero. Here is an interesting essay about religion, politics, and identity: KEEP YOUR IDENTITY SMALL by Paul Graham.

His most important point:
I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on. So it's not politics that's the source of the trouble, but identity. When people say a discussion has degenerated into a religious war, what they really mean is that it has started to be driven mostly by people's identities.
He concludes: "The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you."

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Hanukkah Again

In today's New York Times, another way to look at Hanukkah from the author of The Finkler Question:
Hanukkah, Rekindled by Howard Jacobson
Hanukkah, Rekindled

Why it’s so hard to get excited about a holiday with the Hasmoneans.

Jacobson looks at things a little differently than I do (see my post from a few days ago, Happy Hanukkah!), but he's also wondering how the Maccabees can be heroes to Jews today.

Sarah Silverman (December 1, 1970)

Sarah Silverman invented/led the Jewish grandmother-in-Florida voting action in 2008 election, where she encouraged young Obama supporters to go visit Bubby and convince her that she shouldn’t vote Republican. Although Silverman has the same birthday as Woody Allen, I will resist making any comparison about gender, generation, or taste.

Woody Allen (December 1, 1935)

Woody Allen defined Jewish humor for many non-Jews, and perhaps extended the concept for Jews. Is it funny when his alter-ego character converts to Christianity and then – in order to be consistent with his new faith – buys a jar of mayonnaise and a package of Wonder bread? Discuss.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Allan Sherman (November 30, 1924)

Allan Sherman was born in Chicago, and enjoyed a long career as a TV writer, comic songwriter, and performer of Yiddishy parodies. In the sixties he had a major hit LP (remember those?) with satiric songs called "My son the Folksinger."

His best-known song begins:

Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh,
Here I am at Camp Grenada
Camp is very entertaining
and they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining.

Clearly a hero to all Jews.

I. J. Singer (November 30, 1893)

Israel Joshua Singer was a successful and widely-read writer before his younger brother I. B. Singer became known as the defining writer of the Yiddish world. The older brother was eventually eclipsed by the younger. I. J. Singer worked as correspondent for the Jewish Daily Forward beginning in 1921; he eventually obtained work there for his brother.

I. J. Singer's novel The Brothers Ashkenazi is a painful book to read, at least I found it so, as it stresses the stark realities of life in Poland between the wars. If I remember correctly, The Family Carnovsky – about German Jews -- is even more painful! Like many Yiddish writers, he's important if you are trying to develop an understanding of Jews in Eastern Europe before the War.

Abbie Hoffman (November 30, 1936)

Abbie Hoffman was a high-profile counterculture and New Left figure in the 1960s, now all but forgotten. He espoused a kind of anarchy, especially in the “Yippie” movement, which he founded with Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner. 

Why were so many Jews in the 60s counterculture? (“Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Identity,” November 11, 2010). A recent New York Times article about the new Jewish Museum in Philadelphia brings up this question. The museum, it points out, has a focus is “on particular Jews, their migrations, their political positions, their achievements, their enjoyments of American possibilities — all social or material aspects of identity. This is one reason so much of the final gallery is given over to the ’60s counterculture, to feminism and to political protest: the emphasis, here as elsewhere, is on civil rights (though there is little exploration of why so many Jews were drawn to the counterculture).”

Abbie Hoffman was certainly part of the counterculture as well as political action of the time, perhaps most famously as a member of the Chicago Seven. The Seven were tried for conspiracy and inciting to riot at the Democratic National Convention of 1968. All the defendants were acquitted of conspiracy; some including Hoffman were convicted of other crimes, but the convictions were eventually reversed.

His best quote: “Conspiracy? Hell, we couldn't agree on lunch." He also said: “I don’t know whether I’m innocent or I’m guilty.”

It’s hard to remember how important all this seemed at the time.

Happy Hanukkah!

Hanukkah is the most secularly accessible of Jewish holidays. For one thing, it was invented, some say, in a secular way – imitating the habits of the Hellenists in proclaiming a festival to celebrate a military victory, instead of getting the holiday directly from God. For another thing, it provides an alternative to secular Christmas: we have candles, they have trees. Even in the shtetl, it was kind of secular – a chance to gamble and give treats to the kids, maybe.

American Jews might see the Hanukkah story as a reinforcement of American values – religious freedom, standing up to tyranny, self-determination. We are free to ignore the elements of religious fanaticism in the actual Maccabee family as presented in the sources: they were rejected as part of the Jewish canon a long time ago anyway. And skeptics among us naturally can deal with the miracle of 8 days of oil in a variety of ways.

The Maccabees have always provided lots of ambiguity – something for anyone. Here are eight ways various people have seen Judah Maccabee as a hero – one for each night of Hanukkah.

1)   Judah Maccabee, freedom fighter. Judah Maccabee’s commitment illustrates the importance of following one’s own conscience. As American Jews in the 20th century I think we learned this one in Jewish schools from Conservative to Reform to Secular.
2)   Judah Maccabee, defender of the Jewish state. The Israelis have their own view of Judah the heroic soldier. In modern Israel, he not only stands for American-style freedom, but also for defending the Jewishness of the Jewish state:
“For modern Zionists, no group in Jewish history was better suited for the role of heroes than that band of irregulars whose guerilla war against the imperial rulers (in this case, Greek-speaking Hellenists based in Syria) ended in victory and national liberation – the Maccabees.” From “A Zionist Hanukkah
3)   Judah Maccabee, military genius. This is another one that seems appealing to Israelis. It definitely comes right out of the original sources. For Jews of practically any persuasion, the idea that the small, underpowered Jewish fighters could defeat the well-equipped regular armies of one of the world’s biggest empires has evident appeal.
4)   Judah Maccabee, religious leader struggling against defilers of pure Judaism. This one is a little anti-heroic for secular Jews like me. If you look closely at the actual motives of the Maccabee family, they wanted everyone to be a more orthodox Jew. The Temple needed purification after the battle – but there were also questions about how pure the prior practices had been, before the fight began. The Maccabees threw out the corrupted hereditary priests who had held power before the battle.
5)   Judah Maccabee, martyr for his cause. Remember, he died before the oil miracle took place. Another not-too-secular aspect of our hero.
6)   Judah Maccabee, anti-assimilationist and anti-Hellenizer. The Hasmoneans, another name for the Maccabee faction, did not like the introduction of Hellenistic political structure, art, literature, and outlook into their own culture. They especially and most famously opposed Jews who capitulated to adding pagan cult objects and practices into the Temple rituals. The Hasmoneans weren’t the most fanatic anti-Hellenizers (that would be the isolationist Qumram sects), but they were obviously very opposed to much assimilation with the tempting Hellenistic ways. Since secular Jews in modern western countries are mainly assimilationists, we do a little glossing over here. Anyway, no one  has made us worship the emperor recently.
7)   Judah Maccabee, warrior for God. In Medieval and Renaissance Christian art, many artists included him as a kind of generic Biblical military hero and symbol of Christian triumphalism --  the Old Testament prefiguring the New Testament. Not a popular view with Jews.
8)   Judah Maccabee, hero of Handel’s Oratorio. Handel dedicated his magnificent treatment of the Book of Maccabees to a military victory by William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland, celebrating his triumph over the recent Jacobite rebellion. England at the time had a very small Jewish community, but they were active patrons of the arts, and quickly made this work a favorite of theirs, and commissioned more Handel works. Check Youtube to hear the beautiful aria:
“See, the conqu'ring hero comes!
Sound the trumpets, beat the drums.”

Monday, November 29, 2010

Rahm Emanuel (November 29, 1959)

Hero or anti-hero? You decide. Or maybe it's too soon to tell.

Joel Coen (November 29, 1954)

The Coen Brothers: Joel Coen (born November 29, 1954) and Ethan Coen (born September 21, 1957) have made some pretty spectacular movies. Ethan at Princeton University wrote a senior thesis entitled: "Two Views of Wittgenstein's Later Philosophy" – but that’s not how they qualify as being models of secular Jewishness.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Jon Stewart (November 28, 1962)

Of all the heroic and anti-heroic figures in my calendar, Jon Stewart needs the least said about him. His view of the news may keep our insane political scene just a little more rational, because he sees the poisonous humor in so much that is being done to us. His TV personality incorporates his identity as a secular Jew. What could be more heroic to someone like me?

Just don't miss The Daily Show.

Claude Lévi-Strauss (November 28, 1908)

From an obituary – November 2009 – in the Forward: “Like Emile Durkheim, the great sociologist whose mantle he picked up and wore very comfortably, Lévi-Strauss was a Jew. But in neither case, nor in those of many other Jewish social thinkers, is it easy to find explicit Jewish references in their lives or work.”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

Here I am, surrounded by family, smelling the ritual foods cooking, and beginning my thankful day. One can be thankful without a formal, giving deity, after all, just as one can be moral without the threat of eternal punishment. (That could be a theme for another time.)

In my last post, I talked about the long history that led up to this beautiful day of enjoyment of food and relationships. The result of evolving this holiday from a celebration of gratitude to the Pilgrims' demanding and fanatical god to a celebration of our excellent society is my favorite holiday.




A theocracy of their own was the goal of the Pilgrims in whose honor we supposedly celebrate Thanksgiving. They wanted to create a state where they dictated belief and behavior, instead of living in one where someone else dictated -- or worse yet, one where lots of choices were available. Fortunately for us, America instead ended up as the most pluralistic society ever known -- and the most friendly to Jews, whether believers or not.

Thanksgiving is no longer a holiday of hero worship at all. Who wants to make a detailed study of the fight against starvation and against the nearly-decimated Indian tribes? In any case, the local native Americans had died in large numbers from Western diseases a few years before the Pilgrims stepped onto Plymouth Rock. In short, Thanksgiving has morphed into something that scarcely resembles its beginnings. And why we choose to celebrate this particular band of fanatics is lost in historic this and that.

Like Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving centers around a ritual meal. In fact, it almost mirrors Jewish holidays: we almost died (for Jewish holidays it's "they tried to kill us"); we survived; let's eat. Also like Jewish holidays, Thanksgiving doesn't fall on the same date every year. It has a completely different schedule from Jewish holidays or others -- it can come a few days before Hanukkah or almost a month earlier. So if you love things to be complicated, there's more for you in Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Baruch Spinoza (November 24, 1632)

Spinoza, according to Rebecca Goldstein, was the first person to live without a religious affiliation – that is, to live openly in European society as neither a Catholic, a Protestant, nor a Jew. After he was excommunicated for life by the Jewish community, he did not convert to Christianity (which Goldstein points out, would have been a good career move for him). Instead, he lived on his own terms as a philosopher.

Goldstein’s book Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity presents a full portrait of Spinoza along with her reminiscences of how he was presented to her all-girls Orthodox Jewish school a generation ago. She betrays Spinoza, she says, because she wrote for a Jewish book series – and above all, Spinoza did not consider himself a Jew.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Operation Moses (November 21, 1984)

Operation Moses was “a three-way collaboration between the Mossad, the CIA and Sudanese State Security (SSS) to smuggle nearly 8,000 Falash Mura [Ethiopian Jews] out of refugee camps in Sudan in a massive airlift to Israel.” (Jerusalem Post) The operation lasted several months, beginning on November 21, 1984.

A few years ago, I heard an Israeli pilot who participated in the rescue describe the terrified Ethiopian Jews, whose experience was in back-country villages, as they saw a plane for the first time. “We had to fly under the radar,” he explained. “We didn’t really have the complete permission of the Sudanese government.” The Israeli soldiers coaxed or forced them to enter the planes – which kept their engines running in order to fly out again as quickly as possible. Our friend showed us a video of the fire-spitting engines, the open cargo doors, and the terrified refugees holding hands as they were led into the plane.

I'm aware that not all of my fellow secular Jews think that it's worth while to rescue the Ethiopian Jews from starvation and persecution, but my friend the pilot is a hero to me.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Isaac Bashevis Singer (November 21, 1902)

I. B. Singer is the only Yiddish-writing Nobel prize winner. He was also a hands-on participant in translating his work into English, and consciously became a literary voice for the lost culture of Eastern European Jews. He wrote about their religion, their superstitions, their peculiarities, and their lives, and for me this makes him heroic even if he spun too good a tale. My father vastly preferred the more political and realistic works of his brother I.J. Singer.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Benoît B. Mandelbrot (November 20,1924)

Benoit Mandelbrot, who died last month, was a pioneer in mathematics and its applications, and also a nearly mythical public figure. For example, one of his recent obituaries stated:
“He is best known for art based on his work.”
Among more mathematically educated individuals than those referenced in the quote, Mandelbrot is known for his original work on fractal geometry, which he described and named. His book The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1982) remains a very important classic.

I met Mandelbrot and his wife while accompanying my husband at a number of conferences about the applications of his work. I found his reminiscences of how he fled the Nazis in wartime France especially fascinating; as I’m not a mathematician or scientist, I am only a bystander in understanding his great contribution.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Really Outnumbered

I just glanced over the new study on Jewish population in the United States. Jews are only .9% of the population here in Michigan; 2.1% of the total US population (6,543,820). The study is published by the North American Jewish Data Bank, a joint project of The Jewish Federations of North America and the University of Connecticut, and is available for download here.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Felix Frankfurter (November 15, 1882)

Frankfurter was a Supreme Court justice from 1939 to 1962, replacing Brandeis, the first Jew to serve on the court. Today, with three Jewish justices, it’s hard to see how the two were both symbolic and significant as Jewish members of the court.

Frankfurter viewed being Jewish as "an accident of birth" – though he was influenced by Brandeis to support Zionism, in particular in support of the British Balfour Declaration of 1918 commiting to the development of a Jewish homeland in Israel. Frankfurter helped to found the American Civil Liberties Union.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Louis D. Brandeis (November 13, 1856)

Brandeis was the first Jew ever appointed to the Supreme Court – in a day when anti-Jewish sentiment was much more common than at present. President Wilson’s choice to appoint him was frankly and openly contested because people didn’t want a Jew to serve.

Brandis’s parents, Jewish immigrants from Prague to Louisville, were secular Jews -- the family celebrated Christmas and other non-Jewish holidays. They were supporters of Lincoln and of abolishing slavery, and had to flee north during the Civil War, while many southern Jews actively supported the South.

Brandeis became a leader in defining civil rights and other liberal commitments while on the Supreme Court from 1916-1939. His support of Zionism was extremely important in the American context.

Friday, November 12, 2010

A Constant Jewish Book Fair

"Non-Jewish authors are jealous of us because we still have the Jewish book fair in these times of declining interest in books," said the moderator of a panel of authors this week at one of the events of the Ann Arbor Jewish Book Festival. Simultaneously in November -- Jewish Book Month -- Jewish Community Centers all over North America hold book fairs like ours. New books and authors are featured, but many classics and general interest Jewish books are also normally for sale. A central organization offers an opportunity around 6 months earlier when volunteers and professionals from the local book fair committees can hear short sample talks, and select the authors who will travel a circuit of book fair events in November.

Jews love books. The most religious Jews spend their lives minutely studying the Torah, Talmud, and commentaries on them. The Israelis have a museum called "The Shrine of the Book," which is not a religious shrine, but a display of archaeological finds, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls. The least religious Jews, like me, preserve this tradition by a more general love of books, Jewish or not. Many attend these book fairs. Jewish life in a sense is a constant Jewish Book Fair.

Yesterday I attended a book talk by a professor of history on the subject of war, diplomacy, and intrigue during World War I as it affected the potential for a Jewish State in Palestine. My estimate: around 60 to 70 people were present, and they seemed fascinated by an erudite talk of over an hour in length. The panel of authors that I mentioned, a talk by Joan Nathan about Jewish food in France in her latest book, the author of a thriller about the Temple Mount, and many others have been attracting sizeable audiences for our two-week festival. Enough sponsors are available to allow all talks to be free to anyone who wants to attend.

Books are our thing! We Jews of all persuasions write them and we read them all the time. I think the author of a book is something of a hero to any Jewish person.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Sad Day

Nov. 9, 1938, Nazis and others attacked Jewish synagogues and businesses in Germany, an event known as Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass. Commemorations of the event attempt to put it in historical perspective, in the trajectory from November 9, 1918, when the defeated German Kaiser abdicated through November 9, 1923, when Hitler was arrested after his first attempt to seize power, and forward to November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and which, according to the New York Times, now has much more attention from German memorialists.

The Times on the commemoration of 1938 and 1989:
If there is one way that Nov. 9 unites these two narratives, it is in the fear that time is slowly diminishing the memories of both events. At the gathering hosted by the mayor to commemorate the wall’s coming down, several people who lived in Berlin when it was divided said they were worried that the next generation would forget what they lived through.

Twentieth century German history dominates all Jewish history before and afterwards, in many narratives. For many people, it's difficult to see previous or subsequent Jewish events without comparison or other consciousness of the Holocaust -- which in some sense started on Kristallnacht.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Mumbai Massacre

Two years ago this month, terrorists murdered 170 people in Mumbai, India. Most of the deaths occurred at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower Hotel, one of the most upscale in Mumbai. While the terrorists chose the hotel for its symbolic value, most of the victims seemed relatively randomly selected. In addition, the terrorists sought out the Chabad House, where victims were selected not at random, but because they were Jewish.

The actual attack took place November 26, 2008, but in the Jewish calendar, this week is the anniversary of the deaths of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg and the other Jews killed in the attack.  Last night I attended a memorial held by the local Chabad rabbi's wife; the dominant theme was the way these two victims welcomed Jews who were traveling in the noisy, dirty, challenging city, and committed their lives to the Chabad ideology. I appreciate the meaning of the Jewish victims as martyrs for the Chabad cause; however, to me and probably to other secular Jews, the event has an extended and profound meaning, reminding us that any Jew is vulnerable to not-in-the-least dormant anti-Jewish hatred that proliferates in our world.

This week President and Mrs. Obama are the first heads of state to stay at the hotel in the 2 years since the attack, and among other things are commemorating the victims. For international diplomacy, the event has a different meaning than for Jews, of course. Obama's statement: "By striking the places where our countries and people come together those who perpetrated these horrific attacks hoped to drive us apart . . . (but) today the United States and India are working together more closely than ever to keep our people safe." (L.A. Times)

Friday, November 5, 2010

Bernard-Henri Lévy: November 5, 1948

Bernard-Henri Lévy was born on November 5, 1948. A French Public Intellectual he appears on ultra-intellectual French TV shows and is so well known he’s just called BHL. He doesn't seem to make it into internationally compiled lists of everyone's favorite public intellectual -- at best this is because he is a kind of a buffoon.

French worship of their BHL hasn’t affected American indifference to him. From Publisher’s Weekly review of his book (now out of print) Who Killed Daniel Pearl?
“The author's moments of gonzo journalism are thrilling, as when he penetrates a forbidden madrasa (seminary) by posing as ‘a special representative of the French president.’ The earlier passages of the book, which take some literary license in describing what Pearl must have felt, is alone worth the price of admission. This book is a controversial bestseller in France, where Levy has long been a leading philosopher and writer. Here, interest in Pearl and the larger issues makes this both fascinating and essential, even if you don't quite buy it all, and a credit to the investigative reporter whose work it seeks to honor.”
So I'd say that most Americans who have heard of him at all don't have much respect for his French pretensions.

I chose to celebrate Lévy's birthday because I was reminded of him when I recently read two Jewish-themed novels about public intellectuals: one British and one American. First is the character Finkler in Harold Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. Finkler has a lot in common with Lévy. Finkler's public reputation was built on a large collection of successful, and pretentious, self-help/philosophy books beginning with The Existentialist in the Kitchen and The Little Book of Household Stoicism. His work-in-progress was The Glass Half Empty: Schopenhauer for Teen Binge Drinkers. BHL's books seem as ridiculous as these made-up titles. Many social phenomena, especially Jewish ones, were parodied in Finkler. The contradictions of Finkler's status as a public intellectual who leads Jewish anti-Zionists and self haters plays a big role in the book.

The second fictional public intellectual who ponders his Judaism is the character Cass Seltzer in Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. Seltzer is a more sympathetic character, but in his role as a public intellectual he also finds quite a bit of contradiction with his personal wish to be taken seriously as a philosopher and philosophy professor. The issues I have with the hollowness of Lévy and his lack of any academic stature whatsoever are more thoughtfully explored in Goldstein's book.

Lévy in sum isn't anywhere near as interesting than these fictitious public intellectuals. For example, Lévy's book American Vertigo described a trip he made to the United States with a translator to interpret our difficult and to-him-unknown language and a chauffer because he can't drive a car. Total immersion, no? I can't tell you how banal and without insight I found this work. (I read the pre-book -publication version in the Atlantic which was one of the reasons I didn't resubscribe to it.) His reputation is described thus:
"A philosopher who’s never taught the subject in any university, a journalist who creates a cocktail mingling the true, the possible, and the totally false, a patch-work filmmaker, a writer without a real literary oeuvre, he is the icon of a media-driven society in which simple appearance weighs more than the substance of things. BHL is thus first and foremost a great communicator, the PR man of the only product he really knows how to sell: himself." From In These Times "The Lies of BHL."

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Chaim Weizmann: November 2, 1874

Chaim Weizmann, first President of Israel, was born November 2, 1874 in Motol, a village near Pinsk (at that time part of Russia). From his youth he combined science with political activism -- Zionism --and became a leader in the foundation of the State of Israel. His passport, I learned recently, is number 1 -- as you can see in the above photo (click on photo to see larger version).

Weizmann's scientific and technological accomplishments won him wide recognition and reward in his adopted country of England. His diplomacy and influence on high-level public figures in Europe and the US was essential in pre-state Israeli negotiations. His influence on Truman was especially important in the last stages of the founding of Israel.

Weizmann was among the founders of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and of the Weizmann Institute for Science in Rehovot, Israel. The photo shows his grave, located near his home on the Rehovot campus.

Weizmann was outstanding in an entirely secular academic discipline (chemistry), in Jewish political representation, and in visionary creation of institutions. I suppose that secular Jews who have decided to reject the entire Zionist enterprise retroactively might find him an anti-hero. I find him a remarkable combination of admirable leadership for Jewish purposes and secular accomplishments.

In any case, Weizmann doesn't seem to be a hero to the ultra Orthodox sector today. On our flight to Israel to visit the Weizmann Institute in 2006, about 1/3 of the other passengers seemed to be Haredi -- ultra-orthodox Jews in 18th century clothes. They used up a lot of bin space for their hatboxes: Haredi men wear black felt hats. The young man sitting next to us kept his hat at his feet. He told us he was a seminary student in Jeruslam, originally from LA.

I said "My husband is a visiting scientist at the Weizmann Institute."

He said "What's that?"

I said "A science institute in Rehovot. It's named for Chaim Weizmann."

He said "Who's that?"

We said "He was the first President of Israel, and an important figure in the Zionist movement in the first half of the 20th century. He was also an important chemist who worked in England, so he had lots of contacts there that were important to Zionism."

He said "That's great." We understand that the ultra Orthodox in yeshivas aren't allowed to learn about history, basic mathematics, literature, or any other subject except religion. This really shows how far they go. It's like an American who had never heard of George Washington.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Election Day

Election Day falls on November 2, 2010 -- tomorrow. The old joke is that Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans -- this is probably just as good a bon mot about secular as of religious Jews, maybe moreso. Large numbers of Jews of all religious persuasions have run for political office and served in the Senate, the House, and various state and local offices, having gained the trust of electorates who are mainly not Jewish at all. In the US Senate and on the Supreme Court, Jews are very well-represented at the moment. (Some of these individuals will be listed on their birthdays as I proceed with this calendar.)

Meanwhile, as I understand it, my fellow secular Jews will vote tomorrow in large numbers, predominantly for liberal-leaning Democrats. And we'll maintain our enthusiasm for the country where we have been privileged to participate on such equal terms. Unlike the court Jews who led such a precarious existence in earlier political situations. We hope.

Of course Jews are also represented on the other side of the political spectrum. At another time, I'll discuss the political neocons and anti-heroes like Joe Lieberman and Arlen Specter.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Forward 50

Needless to say, I'm not the only person making lists of Jewish figures. Today the Forward published their list of "people whose religious and cultural values propelled them to engage, create and lead in a decidedly Jewish voice." For a list and bios see:

Forward 50, 2010

Monday, October 25, 2010

An Old Question

Before we go on, let’s ask: What’s a secular Jew. First tell me what’s a Jew. Judaism is variously an ethnicity, a culture, and a religion, and confused with Israeli nationality. Further, Eastern European Jews had a different culture from Jews in other geographic locations – they brought it with them to America and to Israel in the early years of Zionism. Other groups brought different cultures. Moreover, being called “a Jew” has often been a slur with multiple shades of meaning.

Some secular Jews have no interest in any of the definitions, but they don’t deny their Jewishness because they don’t want to seem like cowards. Some secular Jews hate themselves and their fellow Jews. Some secular Jews belong to Jewish congregations or to one of several competing Secular Humanist, Jewish Humanist, or similar organizations. Some may be Unitarians, Buddhists, Pagans, or even Republicans. (I have said that secular Jews are generally unaffiliated. However, they sometimes join religious organizations to please relatives or to conform to social expectations, even though their outlook is more secular than religious. Jewish secular humanist congregations directly address these conflicting wishes.)

Maybe the distinction “secular” vs. “religious” is confusing. In the course of my calendar I’ll give lots of examples of secular Jews, which will maybe lead to a concept, if not a hard-and-fast definition.

Here's one thing that being a secular Jew can be about: stereotypes. How many of us remember Jack Benny answering a threatening: "Your money or your life" with a long stare, like he couldn't decide between them? I remember this skit but I don't think I ever actually saw Jack Benny do it. I do remember a Woody Allen character taking out a loaf of white bread and a jar of Hellman's mayonnaise because he had converted to Christianity. Novelists such as recent Booker-Prize-winner Howard Jacobson and Pulitzer-winners Phillip Roth and Michael Chabon have explored the stereotypes. Fake-news pundit Jon Stewart has expanded on the old stereotypes. He's one of a number of contemporary definers of Jewishness, as opposed to Jewish practice.

For some secular Jews the stereotypes might be the only thing left in their Jewish identity. Or not. Believe me, I will have more to say about this.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Secular Israelis

Israelis have a kind of a lock on secular Judaism. It’s actually their national religion, at least for the time being, institutionalized the way that secular Christianity is institutionalized in the USA (think about Christmas trees in public places -- skip thinking about the Tea Party and what they want to do here).

Ongoing fights perpetually pit secular, orthodox, and fanatic authorities against one another – but what could be more Jewish than fights? The minority religious parties have played a pivotal swing-vote rule from the beginning, with increasing success. I'll pass on discussing the current effort to put a Jewish loyalty oath in the Israeli citizenship/residency test.

Israeli school and national holidays, for example, follow the Jewish religious calendar, but the practices observed by the mainstream are secular, with a sort of odd glance at the growing Orthodox movement in Israel. That will come up throughout the calendar. It’s confusing because some branches of US religious Judaism get ideas from Israel for modernizing their completely non-secular practices. Maybe a victory if there is such a thing for secular Judaism. If there's such thing as victory.

Ironically Israelis also have a lock on legal definitions of who is a Jew and for what purpose -- in the sense that no other country has a legal definition at all. If you arrive in Israel as a Russian refugee, false papers about a vague Jewish grandmother get you in. But if you are an American who wants to get married there, the officially-recognized Israeli rabbinic establishment can question whether your grandmother’s Jewish wedding in New York in 1926 was sufficiently kosher to let you in the tribe. Civil marriage, divorce, or burial do not exist in Israel, despite most of the Jews there being secular Jews. The Israelis either like it that way (they all unite in  hating Reform Judaism) or they are too busy with endless war to work it out in their complex political system.  

Thursday, October 21, 2010

NPR Fund Raisers

Seekers of secular Jewish heroes and anti-heroes often have no further to go than NPR on their car radio (or whatever radio). And October -- right now -- is one of the many times during the year when our NPR stations do their fundraising. So let's talk about NPR.

NPR covers many exploits reflecting the values of the general American demographic that we secular Jews belong to. Yes, they try to have something like balance. And they often offend if you listen closely. But really, NPR is the radio home for a secular Jewish listener.

Also, consider NPR hosts and announcers: Peter Sagal, Michael Feldman, Andrei Codrescu, Teri Gross, Mara Liaison  -- all themselves Jews of one sort or another. And that's not an exhaustive list at all.

Sagal and Feldman definitely represent the Americanized version of Jewish humor that got its start in the not-at-all secular Jewish resorts and clubs in the heavily Jewish East. I hope I don't need to explain why they're secular Jewish heroes! Codrescu doesn't seem quite so Jewish, but he's connected to an older middle-European sort of Jewish irony.

Here's a quote about Teri Gross: "I know what Gross's pantheon is: American outsiders, blues players and rebels like Dennis Hopper and edgy artists. There is something Jewish in that; a cultural identification with other outsiders." (This in a blog criticizing her for not attacking Israel. You see what I mean.)

And another quote "She challenged Bill McCartney, founder of the evangelical Christian men's group, Promise Keepers, on the lack of diversity within its group. McCartney responded, 'Hopefully our outreach would influence those that have not yet subscribed to the tenets of Jesus Christ to be saved...the consequences are eternal.' Gross, who is Jewish, felt McCartney was saying 'it's OK to look a little different as long as they think exactly the same.'"

Further, this morning there's relevant news about NPR: "NPR has terminated its contract with Juan Williams, one of its senior news analysts, after he made comments about Muslims on the Fox News Channel." In my opinion, this makes NPR still more likable by many secular Jews.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Hero or Anti-Hero?

Secular Jews aren’t simply atheists with Jewish ancestors or simply parallel to lapsed Catholics. It’s more complicated than that, especially since demonstration of belief was never required for participation in traditional Judaism. It’s nice, but not required as it is in Christianity. Jews are supposed to follow a set of moral, behavioral, ritual, sartorial, and culinary commandments (plus guilt) based on the Torah – their interpretation varies in time while the exponents claim they are eternal. Judaism also provides a code of ethical conduct. Many secular Jews feel they’ve left all the belief, rituals, and taboos behind but kept the moral code.

I can't speak for all secular Jews: nobody can do that. They are by definition unaffiliated. But I believe that a number of prominent individuals in modern life and in history can be viewed as heroes to secular Jews. Many of these heroes represent the highest accomplishment of secular Jews in diverse fields such as science, mathematics, literature, anthropology, philosophy, economics, politics, law, and stand-up comedy. And if your ancestors’ weekly worship consisted of reading, you are bound to be interested in books. So there are huge numbers of Jewish authors – mainly secular.

Some of the heroes of secular Judaism aren’t Jewish. For example, Abbe Gregoire, active during the French Revolution, was instrumental in freeing European Jews from discrimination by defining them as human. Buddha and Martin Luther King are heroes to many secular Jews. Their lives have meaning or they are recognized heroes of secular Jews.

Conversely, there are lots of anti-heroes: individuals who are intensely not-respected by most if not all secular Jews. If you like Yiddish, another word for a Jewish anti-hero is a shanda far di goyim – a shame or embarrassment for non-Jews to see. Thank goodness Phyllis Schafley is safely not Jewish at all so we can leave her out, but Orly Taitz is a good anti-hero because she’s nuts, noisy, dangerous, and Jewish. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if a particular person is a hero or an anti-hero. Like Karl Marx. Or Irving Kristol. And I don't mean people like Hitler: he's a fiend, not an anti-hero. I mean people who are respected by some, not by others. 

On this blog, I plan to create a calendar of secular Jewish heroes and anti-heroes. For the most part, I'll post about individuals on their birthdays, but I may also comment on holidays and events of interest to secular Jews.