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.