How Not to Be Jewish

John Haber
in New York City

What Judaism Means to Me

It was an innocent mistake. Honest. At least I own up to it.

Visitors to my Web site only think they know me: I am Jonathan. Really. "God has given" in Hebrew. "Let not the name of Jonathan be cut off from the House of David." Still, everyone writes my nickname John, and that is how I came to sign all the essays on this site. For many Jews, assimilation begins with a change of name. I just got mine wrong. Or, like most mistakes in life, it was my parents' fault.

So what does Judaism mean to me? It sounds serious, and I am. My answer will be innocent and paradoxical as my name. "Not a whole lot," I want to mutter, and yet my greatest heroes have been secular Jews.

When I remember that Einstein, Marx, and Freud were disbelieving Jews, as is Derrida, I like to think of myself. Sound self-aggrandizing and flippant? Maybe my Judaism explains why I titled this short essay with a joke. Only Christians are allowed true confessions.

I do not feel a Jew . . .

One thinks of Judaism as a religion, a culture, or a race. I do not feel a Jew in any of those ways.

I cannot embrace a Jew's religious doctrine.

Jewish myths appear to me as superstitious obstacles to a healthy human relationship to the cosmos. God is impossible for me to accept in a harsh world, and I do not need him to explain it. As a moral force, the religion has far too many authoritarian, sexist biases. Thank goodness, then, for more than enough creative thinkers and writers outside its boundaries. Some sit comfortably even within the fabled European canon.

I cannot embrace a Jew's rituals.

I have been appalled at their symbolism set in place of reality since I first encountered it. As a child growing up without the old rules, I found with horror and amusement that others took them seriously. People needed grave authorities to tell them which brand of marshmallows is kosher? But they did, much as the kids I knew recited dogma phonetically. They did it in services at my summer camp; they did it at their own Bar Mitzvahs. Except in Jewish art, other traditions—world traditions, western traditions, and American traditions—can serve me better.

I cannot embrace a Jew's loyalties.

Race is undefinable, and the government of Israel must be judged on its merits. I search the Holocaust not for an end or a beginning, but for an artist's tears. I will not be the assimilated Jew who no longer believes but clings to the holidays. I cannot root for the Jew team, and I have no apologies for a childhood of hiding eggs for the Easter Bunny and waiting for Santa. At least I did not try to worship them—or the store-wide sales they brought. An art critic prefers looking up to graven images anyway, cherishing a visual heritage. As a critic, I also take after the other John, witness to the light.

. . . but I know I cannot deny it

I do not affirm Judaism, then, but I know that I am a Jew. As a Jew, I have been given the chance to learn something as precious as a conscience.

I cannot be ashamed of being in the minority.

That is the majority's hangup, not mine. I can live with, or even value, alienation and rebellion. If European universities left Einstein in the patent office, only American culture talks so blithely of individual success and team play; it speaks fearfully and punitively of hidden enemies. Meanwhile, it isolates minorities while condemning them for their burden of alienation and rebellion. These feelings are my heritage, too, and I have no need to run from them.

I can live without dogmas that most people take for granted.

If Judaism looked silly to me as a child, imagine what Christianity looks like to a stranger. I vividly remember learning about Christian holidays that I myself celebrated. You mean, people believe this? Stifling dogma need not be occult either. If I can occasionally see past something called common sense, that is all to the good, too. Science and art create truisms quite as much as popular culture.

I can accept Jewish hopes for a just society of laws in this world.

A Christian sees its ethic of mercy as an advance on "an eye for an eye," but Judaic law has a lot to teach a vindictive society. In pursuit of mercy, Christianity resurrects a personified evil, the devil, and another world. I am condemned to an unthinkable eternity of punishment and pain, but God can forgive me if I accept Him. With mercy like that, or even compared to Hobbes's state of nature, Judaism's convoluted legalisms come as a relief. They start with "an eye for an eye" as a strict limit, and they strongly limit its application. Like Marx confronting Hegel, they look to concrete reality rather than grand ideas. In this way, they create and sustain a community.

I can feel a Jew's obligation to build such a world.

Heaven and hell make good reading. Homer and Dante inspired impressive new translations from American poets in just the last two years. In their stories, however, as in reality, people on this Earth have to figure out how to live. I shall rely on a message that the British enunciated, "a government of laws, not of men." That task looked back to the Bible and ahead to a democracy. Compared to it, mystic love and the afterlife offer only escapes. A Jew has no escape from mutual regard and political activism—from changing the world for the better. Pissarro, one more Jew, was the only painter determined enough to show at every single Impressionist exhibition, and Amedeo Modigliani fit right into Montparnasse. George Segal has a comparable determination to probe Pop Art's conscience.

I can accept an ethics that cultivates the intellect, reading, and skepticism.

Freud approached the mind as an interpreter of symbolism. Derrida takes literature as his model for philosophy, and Chantal Akerman, the French artist, reads aloud from the Bible as if to reassure herself that she can still work with images. Perhaps it is not crazy to recall that Jews do pretty well in standardized tests.

I am not talking about genes; I am talking about responsibilities—responsibilities that centuries of hope have kept alive. A Jew's hope calls me to my best, not as a member of the sales team, but as a reader, a thinker, an interpreter, and a male human being responding to the emotions and sheer opinions of others.

I am caught in the paradox of recognition . . .

I have another reason for not denying the name of Jew: my story is getting way too easy.

I distrust myself already. A modest disavowal is turning rapidly into a bold statement of personal identity. Recognition and refusal: I will not serve. They say the devil got his start that way. Religions do, too.

Maybe Judaism did, for one. At least it anticipated my strategies. Do I seem not to know which to refuse first—belief, tradition, or a race? Neither does the Bible, for no one can ever be sure which defines a Jew. As Robert Alter has said, the uncertainty left dissenting voices right in the Old Testament, sometimes side by side.

You figure it out. Has Joseph found a happy ending serving the Pharaoh—or a fool's respite before the exodus? Are the Jews the line that cast out Ishmael—or the community of Ruth, a Moabite? Is the kingdom the Jews' moment of glory—or does it abandon God and enslave the people? Thomas Hobbes and Tom Paine found contrary morals in that one, and Paine's anger helped create America.

If the Bible knows more about dogmatism than I let on, my role models may know less. All have disdained rebellion as others might understand it. They instead harnessed and understood the past in order to overturn it. Derrida seeks words that can be read even under erasure, so that he can erase the dogmas of the past. Freud turned to the unconscious, so that he can face down the conscious mind's superiority to sexual desire. And yet they all led to movements of a terrifying narrowness.

I can picture Marx's quiet desk in the British Museum. It is already morphing into Krushchev's fist, pounding his desk at the UN. I relish Derrida's warnings against trying to overturn the past. And then I wonder at the short memory of American deconstruction. Einstein, as everyone knows, made everything relative.

. . . and I relish it

Yet the conundrum works the other way, too. Did Freud expel enough followers to found all the world's religions? Perhaps he kept trying to preserve a fellowship of words and inquiry, when it was turning rapidly into a doctrine. The narrative of recognition, refusal, and self-acceptance has to be retold every day, or it becomes a lie. As a secular Jew, I can expect that retelling. In the shifting mirror or the eye of another, an identity is born.

In Eric Auerbach's essay "Odysseus' Scar," Abraham's "words and gesture" to God address an "undetermined, dark place" behind the ordinary landscape. I see that, and yet the Biblical text hangs on only the most concrete and burdensome details—an ass, a child, a knife. For me as a Jew, the background takes on unarticulated meaning, because the foreground has nothing to hide.

Judaism is something I shall never want to affirm. Thankfully, however, it also requires a sense of self strong enough that I shall never feel obliged to deny it. Perhaps I may offer that thought as a helpful rule of thumb for others.

Any minority group is torn between ethnic pride and assimilation, but those ideals may at any time prove dangerous or impossible. I think especially of African Americans today. When they are told that affirmative action will hurt their self-esteem, they are denied their full measure of success. When they are told some nasty things about Jews, too, they are denied their full measure of humanity. It is no win.

If others like, then I am a Jew, and in so many ways I am. I am grateful that I did not have a Jewish upbringing but was allowed to know who my ancestors are. My name is a mess, but then so, a Jew will recognize, is life. Fortunately, however, I can accept even my parents' mistakes.

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