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.

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