Taking the First Step: The Introduction to Judaism Course is Full of Surprises

By Julie Slotnik Sturm


In her monthly column, “Taking the First Step,” Julie Slotnik, a Jewish woman, writes about her experiences in the Introduction to Judaism class she is taking with her Lutheran boyfriend.

The Introduction to Judaism class I’m taking with my boyfriend Marc is almost over. Only a few more sessions to go in the four month course, but this week’s assignment threw us a real curveball.

On Sunday morning, Marc asked me if I’d done the reading for the upcoming Wednesday night class. I said I’d get to it soon. Later that day he asked again. He brought it up a third time the night before class. After thirteen weeks, this was the first time he was concerned, almost insistent, that I complete the assignment. I assured him that I would read it during my lunch break and be finished in time for class. I kept my promise, and now I understand why he felt so strongly.

The assigned reading included a discussion of Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” in Nazi Germany, 1938. On this one night, windows of German synagogues and Jewish-owned stores were shattered, 91 Jews were murdered, and 30,000 more were sent to concentration camps in what has been called the largest pogrom in world history. This pivotal event convinced many German Jews that their situation was hopeless and that the anti-Semitism would not dissipate.

Our textbook, Jewish Literacy, stated, “the Nazis announced that Kristallnacht had been carried out in honor of the birthday of Martin Luther, the 16th century anti-Semitic religious reformer whom Hitler greatly admired.” This piece of information surprised me. As a Jew, I’d had years of Holocaust education in public and religious school, yet had never encountered this theory about Kristallnacht. I’d never even heard of Lutherans being associated with this part of history.

But Marc was more than surprised; he was hurt, confused and even skeptical. As a French Lutheran, he had had a very thorough religious education. How was it possible that Martin Luther was an anti-Semite and Marc didn’t know? He had never been told that to be Lutheran was to be anti-Semitic. In fact, growing up in the suburbs of Paris, he’d been instructed just the opposite. His father, an active member of the Lutheran church, had taught him that anti-Semitic statements and jokes about Jewish people are wrong and should not be tolerated. Plus, his church was involved in multi-faith conferences and charities that included work with French rabbis. And Marc knew the history of his grandfather, a Protestant minister from Alsace, the region of France close to Germany. Required to fight for the Germans in WWII or be exiled to Siberia, he disliked either option and fled. He first hid his family in southern France for a year. Then, after he spent some time as a military prisoner, he and his family fled to Algeria. These were not the actions of an anti-Semite.

The information in our book about Martin Luther didn’t add up for Marc. He needed to know if it was correct, and if so, what did that mean for him? Also, he wondered what it would mean for us if the founder of his religion hated my people and my religion?

I, however, wasn’t as concerned. Maybe it’s simplistic, but I knew that regardless of Martin Luther’s beliefs in the 16th century, Marc’s values and ethics are not anti-Semitic. Sure I was interested to find out if anti-Semitism was actually part of his religion, but it wasn’t going to change how I felt about Marc.

Marc protested on my behalf, “but what if you were dating a Native American, wouldn’t you feel guilty that your people, “‘the white man,’ stole his land?” I explained that, hopefully, this fictitious boyfriend could see me for who I was and not hold me responsible for something I had had no part in.

Regardless, Marc needed to know more and planned to speak with our teacher and his father. I did a little research of my own. We basically found the same information. Martin Luther was an extreme example of a Jew-lover turned Jew-hater when Jews refused to convert to his ideology in the 1500s. He broke away from the Catholic Church to establish a faith that would become the Lutheran Church, thinking that he could also bring Jews to Christianity. When it became clear that he couldn’t, his advocacy on the Jews’ behalf ceased, and he authored incendiary anti-Semitic writings that Hitler regarded favorably 400 years later.

Despite Luther’s personal animosity toward the Jews, the Reformation that he began did have some favorable results for them. Previously, Jews had been the only major group outside of the Christian church. But with the breakdown of Christian unity, many different groups developed in Europe. Gradually, this change helped to produce greater tolerance for all faiths.

We also learned that the Lutheran church of today is not “Luther’s church” and that anti-Semitism is not a tenet of the religion. Perhaps naming the religion after him was not the most accurate reflection of what the religion is based on.

While still shocked that he had known nothing of Hitler’s connection to Martin Luther, Marc was eventually able to stomach the information a little better.

As for me, I felt this experience reinforced what we’ve been challenged with all along. We are two people from different countries and cultures who love each other and want our relationship to work. We have to stay alert, keeping our minds and hearts open, because you never know when religion is going to throw you another curveball.


About Julie Slotnik Sturm

Julie Slotnik Sturm is a freelance writer and producer in New York. She has been part of an interfaith relationship for over four years.