When Judaism Isn’t Kosher

By David Weintraub


Some might call me a bad Jew. For me, being Jewish never meant going to temple, attending shabbes (Sabbath) observations, or mumbling religious prayers over dinner.  Instead, my secular Jewish upbringing included learning Jewish history, the culture of Judaism–the poetry, literature, music and dance of my forefathers and mothers, and becoming conversant in Yiddish. It meant finding parallel connections with the struggles of the Jews throughout time and the liberation struggles of other peoples. I discovered that secular Judaism was not so much the absence of religious observation as the presence of an intensive education (and practice) based upon the cultural life of the Jewish people throughout history.

Secular Judaism and its social justice components arose during the time of the Prophets, flourished in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, (particularly in Yerusolayem of the East–Lithuania) and was steeled in the Warsaw Ghetto. Jews of the diaspora were forced, by necessity, to ready themselves for the inevitable exile to another country when conditions were no longer favorable to Jewish continuity. As a result, for over 1,000 years, they created a portable homeland, planting their heritage and cultural legacy from country to country, and shtetl to shtetl as conditions dictated. Emerging from its religious traditions sprouted a cultural identity derived from hundreds of generations of Jewish law, literature, music, dance, education and more. Jewish culture flourished in Eastern Europe and blossomed anew upon its arrival on American shores, planting its ethnic legacy deep within the new country’s soil.

It is not surprising then that more than 20,000 books of Jewish poetry, literature, political essays and children’s books were published in America, mostly in Yiddish; that thousands of Jewish songs were written here, that over more than Yiddish literary movements prospered in the new country from the late 1800s until World War II; that hundreds of Jewish choruses and folksingers arose, and Yiddish cultural schools flourished, educating tens of thousands of students. In the world of music, Klezmer rose and fell and then rose again enchanting every corner of the globe and incorporating within its niginum (melody) every strain of world music. Of course, given that Jews faced the brunt of oppression in the old country and given the many battles for liberation throughout our history, Jews were often in the forefront of struggles for social justice both in the old country as well as the new.

As a result of this vibrant cultural history, secular Judaism took its rightful place as one important approach toward revitalizing Jewish life and making it relevant to twenty-first century Jews.  I received a Jewish education from the age of 7 until 16 at a Yiddish secular school (“ shule”) which, when coupled with my enrollment in a Jewish secular camp for half a dozen years, helped to nurture a meaningful connection with my heritage, my history, the cultural life of my people and a reason to be proud of my ethnic background. I learned important Jewish rituals, celebrated Jewish holidays, learned to read, write and speak Yiddish and the value of Jewish life cycle events. These activities helped to develop a sense of community as enlightening and stimulating as many of my more “observant” brethren were receiving.

In lieu of a traditional Bar Mitzvah, I instead took part in a graduation ceremony from my secular Jewish school, which included preparing a major presentation, in Yiddish and English, on my favorite poet, Dovid Edelshtat. And I learned to practice the true meaning of mentchlakayt, social justice, through working with a number of organizations from United Farm Workers to campaigning for progressive politicians.

According to the Jewish establishment, the twin scourges on the Jewish community today are intermarriage and “disaffiliated Jews,” those not connected to temple life. Yet these may be less troubling signs than indications that the nature of Judaism has evolved. As times change, how we define Jewish practice must likewise change along with it. Years ago Jews defined themselves by their direct lineage to Abraham.  Over time Jewishness was based on one’s connection with Israel. Later the focus was on the rabbinic tradition. Today a greater number of Jews are realizing that twenty-first century Judaism is based more on one’s personal connection with Judaism rather than the dictates from some exterior source. Those who are part of an intermarriage understand this principle well.  For them, marriage was not primarily entered into to perpetuate the Jewish heritage. For modern Jews, the bond is forged from love.

Secular Jews, as well as a growing number of Jews who consider themselves (or are considered by others) outcasts to their religion understand that defining oneself as a Jew in this century continues to evolve just as it has since biblical times. In other words, one’s connection to Jewish life is no longer defined merely by faithfulness to traditions of the past. Instead there is a growing acknowledgment that a Jewish practice is just as valid if culturally based as that which is temple-based.

In fact, in many ways Jewish secular humanism has more to offer an interfaith marriage because it does not require that the non-Jew sacrifice his ethnic and religious upbringing on the altar of Jewish values and teachings. The cultural Jew understands the importance of valuing all cultures and traditions and acknowledges the richness of what the non-Jewish spouse brings to the marriage, understanding that his/her family, religious and cultural history is just as vital as that of the Jewish partner.  The organized Jewish secular movement has many trained individuals who are certified to officiate at weddings, lead baby-naming ceremonies, provide training for secular Bar/Bar Mitzvahs, and participate in all manner of life-cycle events. Few events were as profound in my life as the bris/baby naming ceremony we held for my son last year that in addition to Jewish content incorporated principles of humanism and even elements of Catholicism from my wife’s roots, leading to a truly moving celebration for the birth of our child.

Does this take more work? No question. There is no “Happy Meal,” 10-second-sound-bite-fast-food version of a truly balanced multicultural marriage. However a quick review of recent news reports makes it clearer each day that our world can no longer exist by strict definitions that serve to diminish the value of all human experiences. Even when one spouse agrees to forego his or her ethnic and religious practice in favor of another spouse with a more developed sense of ethnic linkage, it is axiomatic that over time, as the children grow and ask questions, the non-Jewish spouse may resent his/her decision and feel that sense of self, heritage, and cultural background has been sacrificed, ultimately adversely affecting the marriage and the family unit.

So, how does this work during the holidays? Secular Jewish Passover seders may include linking the Jewish struggle for liberation with (among others) the Irish fight for freedom against British oppression. The Purim story of duplicity, sacrifice and redemption echoes in the Haitian struggle to overthrow their French oppressors, Jose Marti and the Cuban fight for independence against the Spanish conquerors, etc. Sukhes (Sukkot) and the harvest story ring true in numerous cultures that celebrate nature’s bounty and the continuity of life from season to season.

The worrywarts in our Jewish community rightfully concern themselves with the less-than-perfect education our younger people might suffer at the hands of the more ecumenical Jewish practices I have described. Yet if we take the time to impart our values and traditions to our children through formal and informal means, Judaism will have the profound meaning it had for me and many others. These days, Jewish education often ends at the Bar/Bat Mitzvah party. If Judaism is a once-a-year affair with a night of overindulgence at age 13, what are we really passing along to the next generation? Jewish education in the secular Jewish tradition often means a lifetime of study and commitment.

Secular Judaism may not be your bubbe’s (grandmother’s) Judaism. It may not have to be. Jewishness is no longer defined in terms of temple affiliation or ritual observance.  As Judaism evolves, so does religious and cultural practice. Cultural Judaism has something to offer at the banquet table of Jewish continuity, a perspective on our history, the hope for a better world, and a drive to work alongside our brethren and sisters of all cultural and religious traditions.

Obviously raising children in interfaith marriages raises a number of issues that can be trying on the relationship as well as the kids. The grandparents may start applying guilt and recriminations, the religious community exerts its influence and families are forced to make decisions that they don’t necessarily agree with in order to compromise.  How the InterfaithFamily.com Network might help those of us raising children in such a climate is to inspire a dialogue among us. How do we plan our children’s cultural/religious education? How do we incorporate the legacies of both parents into the children’s life, or do we decide for the sake of ease or acquiescence to ignore the heritage of half the family? I’d like to hear from you and I’m sure so would many interfaith/intercultural parents.

For more information about the secular Jewish movement, please check out the following organizations:

Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations – www.csjo.org
Society for Humanistic Judaism – www.shj.org


About David Weintraub

David Weintraub is a writer, an attorney and the executive director of the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture, a Jewish cultural arts center. His most recent book, for which he is co-editor, is, PROLETPEN, America's Rebel Yiddish Poets (Wisconsin 2005).