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Avoiding Jewish "Nothingness"

Review of Secular Jewishness for Our Time, edited by Barnett Zumoff and Karl D. Zuckerman (The Forward Association).

Can a person really be secular and Jewish at the same time? If so, what makes him or her "Jewish"? Does it matter? Why? These are the among the questions posed and answered, sometimes comprehensively, sometimes anecdotally, sometimes dogmatically, by three generations of writers, educators, and cultural activists in Secular Jewishness for Our Time.

This volume presents itself as a three-part "symposium," comprising articles that appeared in Kultur un Dertsiung (Culture and Education), the Yiddish monthly journal of the Workmen's Circle, a 100-year-old secular, progressive Jewish communal organization, during 1938-39 and 1968-69, followed by invited papers written from 1998-2000. Each series of essays, penned mostly by Workmen's Circle educators, professionals, and lay activists, is centered around the same overarching question--"how one can be Jewish and yet not 'religious'?"--and each is framed by its different historical context over a 60-year period.

As such, the essays present a bit of a time capsule: reading the earliest set, one can almost palpably sense the hustle and bustle of blue collar union activists and revolutionary idealists on the pushcarted streets of the New York shtetl that was the Lower East Side. Yiddish, knishes, and payes (sidecurls worn by some Orthodox men) were everywhere; even the most radical atheist socialist was surrounded by and enmeshed in Jewishness, in those years on the cusp of the Holocaust. Not so in the late '60s; the essays reflect the movement of Jews, religious and non-religious, to the suburbs, away from their street corner society; consequently, they reflect a people drifting toward assimilation in the Levittowns and Scarsdales of America, while searching for ways to hold on to a Jewish identity. Finally, the most contemporary of the articles more or less mirror the deliberations of activist, 21st century secular Jews today: Jews who are becoming more and more comfortable building and promoting a vibrant and viable alternative to religiously-based Jewishness.

Secular Jewishness began in earnest more than 200 years ago, with the Haskalah, a European movement intended to bring the Enlightenment, with its embrace of this-worldliness, rationalism and humanism to the Jewish people, as a counterpoint to the perceived exclusivity, coerciveness, and superstition associated with religious dogma and practice. But the Haskalah did not seek to destroy Jewishness; rather, it hoped to redefine its contours by infusing modern, secular culture and thinking into a society previously dominated by traditional religious ideology. This book is addressed to the progeny of the Haskalah movement: those Jews of today who are uncomfortable with the worship of a personal, omnipotent God--and the religious trappings that accompany that belief system--but abhor, as the editors put it, "Jewish nothingness." Its intended audience is those of us who proudly affirm our Jewishness principally through secular culture, broadly defined, in its many and varied manifestations. That culture, peopled by such literary lights as Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, and countless thinkers, composers, playwrights, and social activists, is a very rich one indeed.

The essays in large measure offer each writer's vision of the elements of a sustainable Jewish life that doesn't depend on religion as its lifeblood. The early essays tend to focus on the centrality of Yiddish (the 1,000-year old language of the Eastern European shtetl, spoken by 70 to 80 percent of world Jewry at the beginning of the 20th Century), on progressive, socialist politics, and on simply living "Jewishly" in the home. As author and teacher Abraham Golomb put it: "Jewish noodle-pudding and tsholent contain more Jewishness than seventy-seven philosophical systems of Jewishness…" Another key theme, for each generation of essays, is holidays: which to observe; how to render them meaningful and beautiful; which traditional observances to keep and which to replace. This theme reverberates throughout the book, reflecting a common quest for new and emotionally satisfying expressions of Jewishness that, as author and poet Joseph Mlotek tells us in 1968, are "free of dogma… but are nonetheless rooted in the history of our people." It's reflected in Yiddish philologist Yudl Mark's observation that Yom Kippur may indeed be observed by a secular Jew, since "he, as an individual, can be enlightened by a twenty-four hour dialogue with his soul." Additionally, several of the essays explore whether secular Jewishness, like its religious relative, requires its own, newly crafted "table of laws" for the non-religious.

Where does all this leave the secular Jew of today? Still searching, certainly. But also, perhaps, finding. In the most recent crop of essays, Motl Zelmanowicz notes that of the current six million Jews in this country, a million no longer acknowledge their Jewishness, and another two million do identify with the Jewish people but aren't affiliated with any synagogue or other Jewish organization. Many of these, no doubt, are secular Jews who would value a Jewish community "home" if they could find one. Do such places of secular Jewish belonging exist in the contemporary American landscape? (Several of the authors note that secular Jews, bound together by their national identity and not by their religious belief, comprise a substantial percentage of the Israeli population.)

William Stern's essay acknowledges Rabbi Sherwin Wine's pioneering contribution to this cause, through his establishment in 1963 of the non-God-centered Birmingham Temple in suburban Detroit, Mich. Since then, the Society for Humanistic Judaism that he helped establish has spawned non-theistic congregations in a number of communities throughout the United States, as well as the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, a worldwide association of like-minded national organizations.

Ellen Bates-Brackett, Detroit field director for the Workmen's Circle, also offers such a home, as she writes convincingly about how involvement in secular Jewish community life can satisfy an impressive list of fundamental human needs: finding one's identity, having a sense of belonging, transmitting culture and values to progeny, having purpose, order, and ethical guides in life, dealing with personal and global adversity, expressing a sense of wonder and gratitude, and finding spiritual meaning.

At Boston Workmen's Circle, for example (of which this writer is a member), we recognize the human needs that Bates-Brackett articulates, strive to address them, and, hopefully, in many respects, succeed. Our community offers shule (secular Sunday School) for the children, including a festive annual graduation-Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremony; an 80-member Yiddish Community Chorus that performs in such venues as the National Yiddish Book Center, multi-cultural festivals, nursing homes, and Yom Hashoah and Warsaw Ghetto Uprising commemorative events; Yiddish and adult education classes; non-religious, but deeply moving, holiday celebrations (our Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur observances, for example, draw upwards of 450 participants); social action involvement, including Middle East peace work, labor and immigrants' rights support (including an annual children's protest against sweatshops), and Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue, among other projects. Each year, as our community broadens and deepens, we find ourselves addressing our needs, and expressing our progressive, secular Jewishness, in new and exciting ways.

As this collection demonstrates, secular Jews have been exploring what it means to be Jewish, and also non-religious, for several generations. And the path going forward is clear: we will continue to question and to find new answers, all the while cherishing, and nurturing, our sometimes tangled but always deep Jewish roots.

Hebrew for "Head of the Year," the Jewish New Year. With Yom Kippur, known as the High Holy Days. Hebrew for "daughter of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish girls come of age at 12 or 13. When a girl comes of age, she is officially a bat mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bat mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The male equivalent is "bar mitzvah." Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." A language, literally meaning "Jewish," once widely used by Ashkenazi communities. It is influenced by German, Hebrew and Slavic languages, and is written with the Hebrew alphabet. It is comparable to the language of many Sephardi communities, Ladino. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.
Michael Felsen

Michael Felsen has lived in Jamaica Plain, a neighborhood of Boston, with his wife, Tolle, for 30 years; their three boys attended the Boston public schools and the Workmen's Circle shule. A senior attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor, Michael currently serves as president of Boston Workmen's Circle and treasurer of the national Workmen's Circle organization (and he sings bass with A Besere Velt).

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