Building Secular Communities

In July, I will be leading a panel discussion at the “Humanism at Work” conference sponsored by Foundation Beyond Belief in Rosemont, IL (near Chicago O’Hare airport) on “Building Secular Communities.” This is a topic on which Humanistic Judaism has much valuable experience to offer the broader secular and Humanist world, since we’ve been in the “secular community” business for 50 years.

Foundation Beyond Belief’s blog recently published an interview with me on my experience building secular communities. An excerpt:

Why do we need secular communities? Or are they unnecessary? 

I would never impose them on anyone, of course, since there are some secular people who don’t feel the personal need to join a group. In fact, one of our organizational challenges is that we appeal to individualists who like to think for themselves! And if they do show up to a group, they risk sounding like this hilarious clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. At the same time, the fellowship of like-minded people who don’t think alike (one of our unofficial slogans) is invaluable to support your own perspective as well as to feel like you’re not alone. The emotional support of such people through life’s challenges and joys is also invaluable. As one of my members said after I officiated at her father’s funeral (paraphrasing), ‘I have no idea what I would have done if I didn’t have this.’ It may be a tautology, but secular communities are absolutely necessary to those who need them – they meet very deep-seated human needs that historically religions met, and what kind of humanists would we be to deny, reject, or ignore basic human needs like community and friendship?

The entire interview is worth a read, as this is and will be a very hot topic in the secular/humanist community for the foreseeable future. FBB was also kind enough to make me my very own “meme,” though they could have been a little kinder with the grey hair…

Posted in Week of Action | 1 Comment

The Diary of Otto Frank

Originally a 2013/5774 Rosh Hashana [Jewish New Year] sermon, part of a series called “The Greatest Stories Never Told” imagining alternative voices from Jewish literature and history. Audio available through The Kol Hadash Podcast.

My name is Otto Frank, and I used to be my own person, not just Anne’s father. You have probably read her diary, or at least heard of it, and you know about our attic hiding place in a warehouse in Amsterdam, where we hid for 2 years until we were discovered and sent to Auschwitz. Only I survived the war. In the First World War, I was an officer in the Kaiser’s army. I ran a business in Germany until we left in 1933, and then I ran another in Amsterdam – in fact, we were hiding in my building. I was the father of TWO daughters, not one, Anne AND her older sister Margot, and I was trying to save NINE people. My associates who hid us and fed us, they were in danger too, and two of them were also arrested. I have my OWN memories of that upstairs annex on Prinzengracht. But after the war, when my loyal friend Miep Gies knew for sure that Anne was dead, she told me she had found my daughter’s diary in the piles of papers left behind. I read that diary, and I knew that the diary of Anne Frank would tell the story of the Holocaust in a way nothing else could. So I cleaned it up a bit; is that so wrong? Still, I sometimes wonder how it might have been different if I had kept the book for myself, or if I had written my own story of the annex. Instead of Anne Frank, Diary of a Young Girl, what about Otto Frank, Diary of a Middle Aged Man? Maybe not.”

Is it wrong to imagine what a real person might have said? It’s one thing to retell the Garden of Eden story in the voices of Eve and the Snake, but it’s entirely different to put words in the mouth of a real person, even more so a survivor of the Holocaust. I once was a teaching assistant in a class called Perspectives on the Holocaust, and one of the assigned readings was Cynthia Ozick’s short story “The Shawl”, a riveting narrative about two daughters and their mother in a concentration camp. My class was shocked to learn during our discussion that “The Shawl” was fiction and not memoir, and Ozick herself was not a survivor – born and raised in New York City, no personal or family Holocaust experience. The class’s reaction was: How DARE she write about the Holocaust when she hadn’t experienced it herself? How dare anyone create Holocaust fiction when some deny that it actually happened? How dare that Italian funny man, Roberto Begnini, create Life is Beautiful, a comedy film set during the Holocaust, where a man saves his son’s life by pretending a concentration camp is a game of hide and seek? How dare they, how dare I?

The Jewish New Year is a time for reflection: who are we, where are we going? We see no external author dictating the plot of our story, and we also know that we cannot always determine how our narrative develops – events beyond our control interfere all the time. Still, we can write our own pages in the book of our own life, if we are willing to tell our story. Perhaps by exploring how Otto Frank might have told his, we can learn something about telling our own.

How dare we do so? Three answers: humanity, necessity, creativity. First, humanity. From the evolutionary moment we discovered how to use language, we could learn from anyone what they felt, what they experienced, what they had learned. A newborn baby of any ethnicity can learn any language on earth. At the same moment we are male or female or Jewish or Irish or anything else, we are always human. A slave from North Africa who became a Roman citizen once wrote, “I am a human being; nothing human is alien to me.” Humanistic Jews draw inspiration from all human wisdom, whatever its ethnic origin, and we temper pride in our own people with the humility of knowing that human progress is a common human achievement. People all over the world celebrate weddings with wine, and many cultures light ceremonial fire in winter as nights grow longer – they’re just not lighting candles for the Maccabee children. Judaism, Buddhism, Islam, secular philosophy, they are all responses to the human experience. Our common humanity is why we CAN write what we have not experienced; or else women writers could have no male characters, nor Jewish writers embody non-Jews; there would be no historical fiction, no science fiction, no fiction at all. We CAN write because we NEED to create.

Here Otto jumps in: “You know, some people have objected to my publishing the diary at all! They claim Anne’s diary was private, personal, not intended for publication. Publishing it was a last violation of Anne’s personhood, they say. They forget, or they don’t know, that Anne herself heard a radio announcement to save war diaries and she wanted hers to be one of them. They forget that Franz Kafka, when he was dying, asked a friend to burn his writings, which would have cost the world such beauty! They forget that I was the ONLY survivor of my family – can you even imagine? I could have treasured Anne’s writing all for myself, and no one would have said anything against me. But that would not have helped me, and it would not have helped anyone else. What Anne wrote spoke to the world, not just to me, not just to Jews or to the Dutch. Anne’s voice was a human voice, putting a human face on a human tragedy. If it were not for Anne’s voice, would the world have been ready to hear Elie Wiesel by the time he was able to write Night? Night didn’t appear in English until 1960, eight years after Anne’s diary. If you read Anne’s diary, you don’t need to know HOW Anne died to know who she was while she lived. It’s not only survivor testimony that keeps memory of the Holocaust alive – sometimes it’s voices that speak from the grave.
“You see,” Otto says, “that’s the second reason your rabbi is speaking for me – necessity. Anne was 14 years old in 1943; today she would be 84. If we only rely on survivors to tell the stories and make the experience real, if we only rely on survivors to bring the dead back to life by giving words to grief and love, then we will stop talking. Of course, commit no fraud, but if you admit it’s fiction, of course new voices! I remember a novel imagining Anne survived the war secretly and lived in New York, or Einstein’s Dreams imagining what Albert might have imagined while changing all of science.
Here’s the lesson, here’s what I have to teach. My daughter did not plan to publish her diary because she did not plan to die! I myself was compelled to speak for her after she died. Many, many survivors have spoken of the need to bear witness, to tell the world what happened. How lucky was I, how lucky was the world, to have so many of Anne’s thoughts and feelings to hold on to! The lesson: if you do not speak for yourself, someone else will have to. I had to do it for my daughter; but will your children have to do it for you? What do they really know of who you really are? What will they say when the rabbi comes to talk with them after you are gone? If you consider yourself a humanist, a Jew, a good person, a loving parent, will they have enough evidence? And what would you WANT them to remember? I remember much more of Anne and our time in the Annex than just the diary, but when I read the diary I recalled many of the moments Anne described; others, like that first kiss, were hers alone. But now we all know her even better than I did then, even the day before we heard those terrible boots stomping up the secret staircase.”

Rabbi Chalom again. How dare I put words in Otto’s mouth? Humanity, necessity …and creativity. The Holocaust poet Avraham Sutzkever wrote “Step on words as on a minefield.” Be very careful in what you write and say, but do not silence yourself. You run the risk of disrespecting memory, but you might also touch people and move them in new ways as they remember the Holocaust, or the Shoah, whatever they call it. Perhaps you will motivate them to speak and to act when they might not have, and that is a good worth pursuing.

And new generations respond differently. 15 years ago, many were appalled when two children of Holocaust survivors made a comedy show from their experiences with survivor parents; they called it “Taking the Shoah on the Road.” It opened with the song, “There’s no business like Shoah business, like no business I know.” Too much, too soon? Steve Allen likely coined the phrase “tragedy plus time equals comedy” – and the very Jewish Mel Brooks got great mileage from “the Inquisition, what a show”; and now that I think of it, Mel Brooks also wrote, “Springtime for Hitler and Germany!”

I have no song and dance for you, even if I had more talent. There were jokes told in the secret annex in Amsterdam and in ghettoes and concentration camps, but context makes all the difference. What was it like reading Elie Wiesel’s Night in the original Yiddish, the language in which he suffered and mourned and raged? What was it like reading Anne Frank’s diary in her handwriting for the first time, and then for the second? And what if the diary had never seen the light of day at all?

            Otto again: “You have no idea how close that was, the series of fateful choices that led to that diary’s afterlife. I knew we had no future under Nazis – that’s why we left Germany early, in 1933, and that’s why again we tried to get out of Europe in ‘38 and ‘41. I had planned ahead to hide in the secret annex, though we had to run early when Margot was called for questioning, and we hadn’t planned on hiding everyone that wound up there. The Nazis who arrested us in 1944 just threw our papers around, and they left the diary. And if our friend Miep had actually READ the diary, she would have destroyed it because it named our helpers and their black market suppliers! In January 1945, Elie Wiesel left the Auschwitz sick barracks, afraid of what they might do to him and refusing to let his father leave and die alone. I, Otto Frank, was there in those very same sick barracks, and I stayed, and I was liberated, along with someone else you may have heard of named Primo Levi. If I had left, if Elie had stayed, if the hiding spot had not been betrayed, if, if, a thousand times if.
What’s the lesson? You don’t need a Holocaust to be surprised by life. Car accidents and cancer and chance happen every day. We cannot stop them all, we cannot always manage them, sometimes they manage us and we struggle to stay afloat. What’s the lesson? Prepare and plan as best you can, but you cannot be destroyed when the best laid plans are betrayed by an indifferent universe. Some survivors were broken and never recovered. And many came back to life from the land of the dead, creating new families and helping to build a new Jewish state or putting down new roots in the New World, even a New Amsterdam, now called New York. My Anne was a vibrant young girl whose only experience of the outside for two years was looking at a tree – but she was alive. The tree itself, that lived until 2010, and saplings from that tree have been planted all over the United States. I, Otto, lived for 35 years after the war, I married again, but one doesn’t get over something like that – at best you get used to it. And that’s another lesson: don’t plan to always get over, surmount, avoid tragedy. Sometimes, we have to face it, to get used to it. Yes, learn from it, but also learn to live with it when it cannot be changed, like the past.”

Ah, says Rabbi Chalom, that’s where I disagree with Otto. The past DOES change, it changes all the time as we ourselves change. There is no unmoving mover, there is no impartial observer of the course of human events. Every time we remember our own past or learn a detail of human history, that history changes because we ourselves have changed. If these voices, mine and “Otto’s,” if these ideas change your reading of The Diary of a Young Girl, the words on the page have not changed, but the experience of reading is still very different. As some of you know, this past spring my half-brother Dorian died rather suddenly. I was not very close with Dorian, over a decade older and from my father’s previous marriage. So I learned a lot about him and how he connected with others at his funeral; that experience that was both enlightening and disappointing. Why didn’t I know before? All the more reason to talk NOW. And what I learned about my brother, and the very fact of his death, have changed what I thought I knew. Text and Context dance a complicated tango in our minds.

Would The Diary of Anne Frank have been as impactful if she had lived? Would a book by Otto Frank about his daughter have been as beautiful? Impossible to know, but I doubt it. What we need to discover, each of us, is what we want in our own diary, our own sense of who we are. The Jewish New Year is traditionally a serious day, the beginning of ten days of reflection and repentance. We prefer apology and restitution here and now rather than repentance directed above, yet we still use these days for self-reflection. What would you write about yourself and how you understand the world?

            “And,” Otto adds, “that reminds me of one last thing, something your rabbi wrote about. The question of WHY? In Auschwitz, Primo Levi was struck and he asked ‘why;’ the guard said, ‘Here there is no why.’ We humans want there to be a why, a reason, a cause and effect we can understand – that’s how civilization is built. The problem is that sometimes, there just is no why.
Any Humanism in the face of a Holocaust, especially a Jewish humanism, must be limited. There will be no messianic, perfect age because we are working with flawed material – human beings! We invent antibiotics, eventually we make antibiotic resistant bacteria. Clean your home, you might increase your children’s allergies. The new problems may be better than the old ones – I would happily trade a dust allergy for cholera! But we must also accept our limitations, just as we accept that sometimes in the best of worlds there IS no why.
Why did my Anne die and I live? Survivors of Holocausts, or plane crashes, or earthquakes often ask themselves this. Why are you living in America when others are dying in Syria, in the Aleppo where your rabbi’s father’s family was born? Some see providence in their own survival, others see chance. My answer? Here there is no why. It’s the wrong question. Yes, I made the best of tragedy by sharing Anne’s beautiful words with the world. But I would easily trade my daughter’s diary for my daughter’s LIFE; any power that created such a trade deserves no praise, no gratitude. We in the Annex, we were always on our own, except for all the other people who kept us alive. Yes, some evil person turned us in, and many good people kept us alive. My humanism survives when I remember those good people in dark times.”

Rabbi Chalom again, at the end. In the Babylonian Talmud, it is asked why Noah in Genesis is described as “righteous in his generation” – was Noah was simply righteous compared to a wicked generation, like a barrel of waste in a vault of vinegar, only fragrant by comparison? Or, if Noah was righteous when others were wicked, would he have been righteous in any time, like perfume amid garbage – if fragrant there, how much more so elsewhere!

The righteous, the good, are not only the perfect, the heroic, the mythical. They are also the human, the flawed, the people we know and STILL admire. 2000 years ago, Rabbi Hillel said; “Bamakom sheh-ayn anashim, hishtadel l’hyot ish. In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person.” That is our perfection, that is our aspiration for the new year. Each one of us can be a hero in our own way – what will your story be?

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Criticizing Religion

I am generally intolerant of intolerance.

There is a limit to multiculturalism. As a Jew strongly affirming Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world, as a Humanist defending our right to believe what we believe and live by our values despite popular conventions or objections, I certainly celebrate diversity. And many people agree with the cliché, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” whether or not they really mean that to the point of actual death. But must that diversity and tolerance include those whose cruelty and criminality claim the defense of culture and religion?

Women’s bodies are the battlefield on which the dispute between religion and secularization, tradition and modernity, are being fought. The despicable behavior of Boko Haram in Nigeria (famous recently for kidnapping over 250 girls, having committed much violence for over a dozen years), political battles in the United States over contraception or abortion or the HPV vaccine, increasing rigidity and strictness of women’s “modesty” and “family purity” regulations in ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism – all examples of traditionalist religious groups who feel their way of life threatened, and so they clutch what they can control (their women) that much tighter as they feel their hold slipping away.

This spring, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a courageous secular critic of Islamist treatment of women who herself left Islam for a secular life, was offered an honorary doctorate from Brandeis University. The offer was withdrawn after controversy arose regarding her past remarks on Islam. Sometimes she does paint with too broad a brush (from 2007):

Hirsi Ali: Only if Islam is defeated. Because right now, the political side of Islam, the power-hungry expansionist side of Islam, has become superior to the Sufis and the Ismailis and the peace-seeking Muslims.

Reason: Don’t you mean defeating radical Islam?

Hirsi Ali: No. Islam, period. Once it’s defeated, it can mutate into something peaceful. It’s very difficult to even talk about peace now. They’re not interested in peace. . . .

I think that we are at war with Islam. And there’s no middle ground in wars. Islam can be defeated in many ways. For starters, you stop the spread of the ideology itself; at present, there are native Westerners converting to Islam, and they’re the most fanatical sometimes. There is infiltration of Islam in the schools and universities of the West. You stop that. You stop the symbol burning and the effigy burning, and you look them in the eye and flex your muscles and you say, “This is a warning. We won’t accept this anymore.” There comes a moment when you crush your enemy.

Reason: Militarily?

Hirsi Ali: In all forms, and if you don’t do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed. . . . .

There is no moderate Islam. There are Muslims who are passive, who don’t all follow the rules of Islam, but there’s really only one Islam, defined as submission to the will of God. There’s nothing moderate about it.

On the other hand, a recent interview (2014), while still critical of using Islam to oppress women:

“honor killings, denying girls an education, denying women the right to leave their homes without permission from a male relative, performing marriages on girls as young as age 9, the continued practice of female genital mutilation for “purity,” the stoning of homosexuals…”

also offers more nuance:

Muslims who do not want to live under sharia law are attempting to separate religion from politics. But they won’t be able to do that unless they address these doctrinal issues. They won’t be able to win the argument against the Muslim Brotherhood, for instance, because like every other Islamist or jihadist organization, the Brotherhood is delivering a message consistent with what’s really in the Koran and the hadith. If you want to stand up to these people, you have to address the doctrine. You have to look at the Koran and say that there are parts of it you don’t consider moral anymore.

The first step to correcting problems in your religious tradition is to admit that you have a problem in your religious tradition! Religious moderates are not helping when they deny that their religious tradition can be used in the terrible ways it is actually used. As Ali put it in that same interview, “Some moderate Muslims hate me…because I make them feel uncomfortable. The things I talk about put them in a state of dissonance that they can’t live with.” In my own experience, I can still connect with Jewish tradition and values even if I disagree with and criticize some of them. But it is manifestly false to claim that my liberalized version is “real” Judaism while anti-feminist versions are “distortions” – they can all be divergent evolutionary descendants of a common cultural ancestor.

At the same time, critics of religion are inaccurate when they condemn ALL Christians or Muslims or Hindus or Jews for the sins and excesses of SOME. The battle over teaching evolution in schools is also between liberal interpretations of religion that accept science and their fundamentalist counterparts. Must secularists agree with the fundamentalists that only fundamentalist versions of religion are “real” Christianity, Islam, etc.? Wouldn’t we do better to make common cause against a shared anti-modernist, anti-feminist foe rather than declare that anti-modernism or anti-feminism is inevitably part of any true version of a religion, even those denominations now ordaining women clergy?

Any theory of religion must include both the Inquisition and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., arranged marriages and women rabbis, jihad and toleration. Both Conservative and ultra-Orthodox Jews claim to follow “Jewish law,” and I fear no oppression from the liberal articulation and enforcement of halakha in Conservative Judaism and its rabbis of both genders, straight and gay. It remains to be seen if a liberal shari’a  [Islamic law] can yet emerge. But if it does, we should welcome Islam to the experience shared today among Christians and Jews: the Joy of Sects.

More thoughts on this subject can be found in my contribution to
Jews and the Muslim World: Solving the Puzzle (IISHJ, 2010).

Posted in General HJ | 1 Comment

A Week of Actions #choosetoACT

I am very gratified that my idea of “action” as a Humanist response to a National Day of Prayer has been picked up by others who will #choosetoACT this April 24-30, 2014, the Week of Action supported by Foundation Beyond Belief. As I was recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune:

“If prayer is expressing a hope that things go better, the way that humanists do that is they get out there and they act,” Chalom said. “Just sending words up into the ether expresses our opinion but doesn’t have a real impact in the world. If we want to have real impact in the world, we should do something.”

My community, Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation, has also jumped into this initiative – see this article in the Chicago Tribune‘s “Trib Local.” Like everyone who is part of the Week of Action, we plan to share our positive actions by Tweeting or Facebook posting with the hashtag #choosetoACT so that we can show how much we are doing together.

Here are some examples of what we are encouraging people to do:

  • Blood Drive: The Chicago Coalition of Reason, an umbrella group for Chicago-area secular, freethought and non-theistic organizations of which Kol Hadash is a founding member, is sponsoring a Chicagoland blood drive from April 24-30 – visit or call 877-543-3768 – tell them you are donating with the Chicago Coalition of Reason, group code 776A. You can donate at any donor center or mobile blood drive, convenient to work or home!
  • Volunteer at Bernie’s Book Bank Saturday, April 26 4-6 pm., Lake Forest. From their website:

Bernie’s Book Bank facilitates the collection, processing and redistribution of new and gently used children’s books to significantly increase BOOK OWNERSHIP among at-risk infants, toddlers and school-age children throughout Chicagoland.

In addition to sorting books there, volunteers can bring books with them to donate. Email for more information or to participate.

  • Volunteer with TOV – Chai LifelineSunday, April 27, 11:30 am – 12:30 pm, Deerfield High School. Following our regular Sunday School, we will be making fleece blankets for seriously ill children.
  • Recycle O Rama: April 26 10am -2 pm: Vernon Township office, 3050 N. Main St. in Buffalo Grove. SWALCO is accepting for recycling: Electronics, florescent bulbs, batteries, ink cartridges, propane tanks, latex paint, gym shoes, prom dresses, beads and buttons, CDs, DVDs, gently used books, hearing aids and eye glasses and more. Contact Commissioner Schroeder at


  • EmpowerRun 5K, May 3 in Libertyville: Sign up and join fellow Kol Hadash runners while supporting A Safe Place, the only shelter for women and children serving Lake County.
  • Start Backyard Compost: Purchase a rain barrel and compost bin on Saturday, May 10, from 9 am–3 pm at Independence Grove’s Parking Lot K near the Native Plant Sale at North Bay Pavilion (Libertyville). Sponsored by SWALCO and the Stormwater Management Commission.
  • Feed the Hungry: Donate food or organize a food drive for your local food pantry
  • Click to Give to the charity of your choice in various areas of need.
  • Support our troops. Send package or letter to soldiers serving abroad.
  • Help a family member: Help a sibling with his or her homework; take out the garbage without being asked; call a grandparent just to say “hi” –you get the picture.
  • Register to vote: links for Lake County or suburban Cook County.
  • Join Kol Hadash Helping Hands Committee and help a member in need. Contact

The more we do together, the more good work gets done!


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Schama’s Story of the Jews, Part 1

Letting go can be hard to do.

In A Provocative People, Sherwin Wine explains why it is so hard to do “secular” Jewish history if it contradicts the Bible’s version:

Wherever Jews and Christians are to be found, this story is popular and familiar. It is so popular and so familiar that it has been incorporated into the patriotism and the holidays of the Jewish and Christian worlds. While the story may be familiar, charming, and even inspirational, it suffers from a major problem. It is simply not true. There is no evidence – beyond the text of the Bible – that most of these events took place – or that most of these people really existed.

When Simon Schama’s new PBS documentary “The Story of the Jews” discusses Moses and the Exodus, this is exactly the problem – Schama loves the experience and narrative of Passover, the idea of a formless Jewish God only knowable through revealed words, the “anti-assimilation” message Passover presents (to his reading). But as even Conservative Rabbi David Wolpe accepts, the Exodus did not actually happen. Schama speaks of these events in the past tense, as if they did, rather than in the literary present of a story of timeless significance. ‘In the story, Moses receives the 10 Commandments’ is very different from ‘During the Exodus, Moses received the 10 Commandments.’ The first minute of the show claims the series will cover “5000 years of the Jewish experience”. The Jewish year is 5774, but that counts from CREATION, not real Jewish history. As Schama’s own voice later explains, Jewish history is more accurately 3000 years from an uncertain beginning. But letting go of the rhetoric of “5000 years” or “the Exodus is the moment that the Israelites became Jews” is hard to do. Because what else beyond the Haggadah would have to change?

Schama is clearly presenting HIS story of the Jews, but there is a real difference between story and history – something he accepts for Genesis but rejects for Exodus and beyond. It’s almost as if he HAS to have some kind of Moses, some kind of Sinai even if it’s only the 10 Commandments revealed rather than the complete Torah. Perhaps his book is more nuanced than the documentary, but that’s another review.

The challenge of genuine history is that it challenges assumptions – what we knew to be true and solid “melts into air” in Karl Marx’s phrase. And there is plenty in Schama’s account that meets this goal admirably. He begins by showing many varieties of Jewish faces, saying that we are all Jews even if we sometimes have little in common – “not even the way we pray, assuming we do.” He profiles Sigmund Freud turning back to the figure of Moses at the end of his life, a life of proudly identifying as a “godless Jew.” Schama clearly states the Bible began to be written around 700 BCE, including the literary (but not literal) creation of Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham, and Joseph. Schama accepts David and Goliath as symbolic of a clash of nations rather than literal historical figures following the Bible – “an echo of some sort of reality.” He shows a woman reading Torah in a religious service, while acknowledging this is a modern innovation. And he explicitly describes the Torah being edited and finalized during the Babylonian and exile and imposed on Jerusalem, sometimes with innovations like Ezra’s ethnic purification.

The dilemma is following through on these facts and how they change what you thought was history. If these stories began to be written around 700 BCE, why believe that Abraham is fiction but Moses, Exodus and Sinai (supposedly 1200 BCE) are fact? II Kings 23:21-23 is strong evidence that King Josiah’s Passover around 620 BCE was brand new even though it was claimed to be old:

The king commanded all the people, “Offer the Passover sacrifice to the LORD your God as prescribed in this scroll of the covenant.” Now the Passover sacrifice has not been offered in that manner in the days of the chieftains who ruled Israel, or during the days of the kings of Israel and the kings of Judah. Only in the 18th year of King Josiah was such a Passover sacrifice offered in that manner to the LORD in Jerusalem.

Is it more likely that the holiday, the tradition, the Exodus story was as central as Schama claims and just ignored for all those centuries, or rather that it was invented then, just as Schama admits Ezra innovated when returning from Babylon with the completed Torah?

Sometimes real history is just more complicated and messy than simple frameworks. Schama is so committed to monotheism and non-idolatry as what is “distinctively Jewish” that it blinds him to the real historical possibility of previous Jewish polytheism and idol worship. He reviews many Biblical names for God without considering the option that at one time (and in Canaanite religion, the cultural spring from which Judaism really sprang) they WERE different gods later merged into one. He critiques the Jewish Temple in Elephantine (Egypt) for violating the Jerusalem’s Temple’s monopoly and for having an image of both YHVH and the “Queen of Heaven,” even though in this same era the Jerusalem Temple ALSO worshipped the Queen of Heaven and there were MANY shrines in Judea until King Josiah’s reformation – the Second Book of Kings and the prophet Jeremiah are very clear on the subject. Judaism of most of the First Temple Period (1000-587 BCE) was VERY different from the Judaism of the Second Temple period (530 BCE – 70 CE), even though Second Temple ideology got to write the history of the First. In seeking to emphasize Jewish unity, he sometimes falls into the trap of Jewish uniformity. All Jews have NEVER agreed on what “all Jews believe” – why should our beginnings be any different from today?

Schama emphasizes many times the distinctiveness of Judaism, how it survived conquest and remained apart from Hellenism in the ancient world, and that despite examples of Hellenistic Jews there was something fundamentally irreconcilable between the two. Yet his quintessential example of anti-assimilation, Passover, shows borrowing from other cultures – reclining as at a Roman feast, eating an epikomen (“afikomen”) at the end of the meal, even Hebrew month names are borrowed from the Babylonian calendar. He claims that Judaism was based on non-idolatry and a “god of words” in opposition to the “limestone temple” of Hellenism, yet he also describes vividly the Jewish trauma of the Jerusalem Temple’s destruction, “the beating heart of Judaism.” Those “Hebrew” letters on the Dead Sea Scrolls he is so excited are just like what he learned for his Bar Mitzvah – an example of the powerful experience I call “historical transcendence” – they’re originally Aramaic letters borrowed from the Persians. And how did all those Jews get to look so different from each other? It wasn’t the varied climates in which they lived or the foods they ate…

One last concern is a strong suggestion of what the eminent Jewish historian Salo Baron critiqued as the “lachrymose” (tearful) view of Jewish history. Schama reads a passage of the Passover Haggadah which claims that in every generation they tried to destroy us, which he understands as the price the Jews pay for maintaining their difference; a guest jokes, “The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.” The reality of Jewish life is more complicated: centuries of coexistence as a tolerated but subordinate minority punctuated by episodes of violence and more severe persecution – which is “the norm”? Both, of course.  The next episode, on Jewish life under Christianity and Islam, promises more of the same: “how Jews struggled in a non-Jewish world, but the Jewish faith endures.” We’ll have to see how it turns out once I get caught up in TIVO time.

Still, there is much to be inspired by from “The Story of the Jews.” Near the end of the program, Schama recalls that Freud, the godless Jew, visited Titus’ arch in Rome and sent a postcard of it to a friend with the note, “The Jew survives it!” The truly inspiring story of the Jews is not the mythical exodus, but the very real survival of very real men and women through their own courage, tenacity and endurance.

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Sherwin T. Wine: An Apprecation

This essay first appeared in Jewish Currents May-June 2009, pp. 51-55. It also appears as the Afterword to A Provocative People: A Secular History of the Jews (IISHJ, 2012). For a book-length appreciation of Sherwin Wine’s life and work from a variety of contributors, see A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism (print and e-book).

Jewish tradition allegedly values questioning, but it also decreed in the Kitsur Shulkhan Arukh, an authoritative code of traditional Jewish law, that “it is forbidden to give [a student] to an apikoros (heretic), which is much worse [than giving him to a non-Jew], for there is concern the child may follow in his footsteps.” If we learn that science and archaeology challenge traditional Jewish narratives, from Creation to the Flood to the Exodus and beyond, can we teach that to children? If you find more inspiration in modern Jewish literature than the Torah or the Talmud, can you study that instead? If you see no convincing evidence of a God that answers prayers, writes Torahs, rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked, feeds the hungry, and fulfills the many other flattering attributes of traditional Jewish liturgy, can you say so out loud? If our actual behavior demonstrates a reliance on human power and human knowledge that contradicts the popular pieties we say we believe, can you point out the contradiction and inspire us to live and speak in one voice? Can an apikoros insist on staying Jewish, and even be a rabbi?

When Rabbi Sherwin T. Wine found his “calling” in the mid-1960s to be the first Humanistic rabbi leading the first Humanistic congregation, he heard it from all sides. Religious Jews, from Reform to Orthodox, said, “How can you call yourself a rabbi? Being a rabbi is all about God.” Never mind that many of their members were just as philosophically secular in private but joined congregations to feel Jewish community. Secular Jews, from Labor Zionists to socialist Yiddishists, said, “Why call yourself a rabbi? Being a rabbi is all about God.” Never mind that what Wine called “Humanistic Judaism,” a cultural Jewish identity celebrated through a human-centered philosophy of life, was largely how they celebrated their Jewishness.

Since most American Jews use religious terminology—Jewish identity is “Judaism,” a Jewish leader is a rabbi—this synthesis of secular Jewishness, humanistic philosophy and religious formats had the potential to reach Jews who didn’t yet realize who they really were. Sometimes having a foot on both sides, rather than sitting on a fence, gives you the best of both worlds.

When Sherwin Wine was killed in a car accident in Morocco in July 2007, he was not quite at the peak of his skills, but he was definitely at the height of his organizational achievement. From that one Humanistic congregation in suburban Detroit, he could now claim over thirty like-minded congregations in the Society for Humanistic Judaism. From his lonely status as the first Humanistic rabbi, he was now one of over fifty leaders, educators, spokespeople and rabbis trained by the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism (IISHJ), of which he was the Dean and Provost, including several Israelis ordained as “secular rabbis” to serve and represent secular Israeli Jews in their battles for personal status. And Wine’s coalition work with the Congress of Secular Jewish Organizations and the Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring (through the International Federation of Secular Humanistic Jews, IFSHJ) spread his message even wider. Though Wine himself preferred “Humanistic Judaism,” in coalition with organizations and institutions the approach is often called “Secular Humanistic Judaism.”

At a minimum, Wine was a memorable figure—and I am not only writing (full disclosure) as someone raised in his congregation from babynaming through bar mitzvah and confirmation, as a student of the IISHJ Rabbinic Program ordained by him, as a groom married by him, and as a professional colleague of his as rabbinic intern, assistant rabbi, and Assistant Dean at the IISHJ until his death. Anyone who heard Wine speak, and certainly those who heard him many times, came away impressed by his knowledge, his clear thinking, his strong beliefs, and his humor (he loved the irony that his middle name, Theodore, meant “God’s gift”). Understanding, insightful, a brilliant synthesizer of information, he was always teaching. He was also a masterful and sensitive pastoral counselor, 100 percent present for you in times of need no matter how busy he might be. Like all of us, he was not perfect, but let us apply the spirit if not the literal  meaning of ale kales saynen shayn, ale mayssim zaynen frum—all brides are beautiful, all dead men are pious. In other words, I come to praise Sherwin, not to kvetch [complain] about him.

No philosophy of Jewish identity springs like the original Adam from the dust of the ground—they evolve from earlier forms, and in many variations. The Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) led to Reform Judaism, and Orthodox Judaism (in response), and Conservative Judaism, and Jewish socialism, and cosmopolitan “just Jews,” and Yiddishists and Zionists and, a generation later, Humanistic Judaism. Many early secular Jews were clearly apikorsim; having left Orthodoxy behind, writers like Y. L. Peretz and his audience knew traditional sources and rituals so well they could spoof them—thus, for example, the “Grand Yom Kippur Ball” at the Brooklyn Labor Lyceum in 1890 mentioned in Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers (p. 106). The challenge has been to ensure that the next generation gets the joke: if you’re raised with a Yom Kippur Ball, that’s your version of the tradition. If you do nothing at all, however, it may not be as effective as drawing on the strengths of tradition with integrity and creativity so you can still be true to your convictions.

The other challenge is not taking your secularism far enough; for some secular Judaisms, their secularism was more incidental or “lowest common denominator” than central to their self-understanding. Jewish socialists were cultural Jews, and socialism was the philosophical “filter” through which they lived their Jewish identity. But they didn’t always follow through on the challenging implications of contemporary knowledge. For example, from Mayn Folk, a 1962 Workmen’s Circle children’s history book (my rough transliteration and translation from the Yiddish):

Ven yidn hobn gelebt in midber iz zayr firer geven moshe. Er is geven der firer fun ale yidishe shvotim. Ale yidn hobn im gefalgt. Moshe hot gelerent di yidn vi azoi tsu lebn sheyn un gut. Er hot gegebn dem yidishn folk tun kluge un gute gezetsn. Er hot gegebn di yidn di toyre.
When the Jews lived in the wilderness, their leader was Moses. He was the leader of all the Jewish tribes. All Jews obeyed him. Moses taught the Jews how to live properly and well. He gave the Jewish people wise and good laws. He gave Jews the Torah.

God is edited out of this book, which instead focuses on the “organizer” Moses. However, despite all the evidence of archaeology and biblical criticism that the Torah was compiled centuries after Moses (if he existed), the traditional teaching of the Siddur (prayerbook) that “this is the Torah that Moses placed before the Children of Israel” persists.

In Humanistic Judaism, philosophical secularism is the core, and a naturalistic philosophy of life that emphasizes human power, human responsibility, human knowledge and human needs independent of supernatural authority is the filter through which Jewish culture can be celebrated with integrity. Where secular philosophy had taken Felix Adler out of Judaism and the rabbinate and into Ethical Culture, Sherwin Wine fought to create a vehicle to celebrate both. He kept the forms of a religious Judaism (rabbi, congregation) while infusing them with secular knowledge. His Torah was in the congregational library—with all the other human-authored books.

Wine himself was a product of many environments. He was raised in the densely and diversely Jewish neighborhoods of Detroit, in a traditional Yiddish-speaking household with immigrant parents who joined a Conservative synagogue. His interests in world history and his tremendous appetite for reading led to the University of Michigan and a philosophy degree, but his love of the Jewish people led to the Reform rabbinical seminary, which was then much more open to theological questioning. His experiences as an army chaplain in Korea convinced him that Jewish identity was more than religion—the soldiers were much more eager for kosher salami than for another religious service. After a stint as an assistant rabbi at Temple Beth El in Detroit, he struck out on his own, first at a new Temple Beth El in Windsor, Ontario, and then at the Birmingham Temple; as he put it to me once, “I was not temperamentally suited to being an assistant.”

The first challenge he faced in this new Judaism was what to do with traditional Jewish religion, and his innovative solution was to not throw out the synagogue with the mikvah (ritual bath). Previous secular Jewish approaches had largely left to the individual, or left behind, those “irredeemably religious” occasions—Shabbat, bar mitzvah, Yom Kippur. A Passover seder about a worker’s rebellion had been done, but could you really change the traditional “Oseh Shalom” (He will make peace) to “Na’ase Shalom” (we will make peace)? Could Shabbat be a celebration of Jewish community feeling and philosophical inspiration, Yom Kippur a time for personal reflection, and the bar or bat mitzvah a coming-of-age ceremony celebrating both personal values and a connection to the full range of Jewish civilization, even beyond the Torah? Many secular Jewish communities today have moved in this direction, but Sherwin Wine was doing this a generation ago.

How much could “religious” Jewish forms be adapted to be consistent with a secular or humanistic worldview? Wine was impatient with the small, incremental liturgical changes made by Reform or Reconstructionist Judaism—“To the skeptical, analytic, and sophisticated mind,” he wrote in his slim volume Humanistic Judaism (Prometheus, 1978, p. 9), “worship is difficult; and to the devotee who has redefined God as a natural impersonal force, prayer is silly. Why bother to improve prayers for people who . . .don’t want to pray? Perhaps more drastic alternatives are needed.”

This led to the second challenge: how to balance one’s humanity with one’s Jewishness. Wine was deeply committed to a humanistic world view, and found real inspiration in humanist philosophers, both Jews and non-Jews; Erich Fromm and Sigmund Freud, and also Epicurus, Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Jean-Paul Sartre and George Santayana were major figures in his thinking. As Humanistic Judaism evolved and had more contact with secular Jewish organizations, Wine began to explain his approach not just as a combination of personal philosophy and family culture, but also as a personal philosophy that grew out of one’s family culture. In other words, the humanism that emerges from a secular understanding of the Jewish experience could be confirmed by outside philosophical study, but was not purely the product of abstract rational thinking. And, at the same time, “we cannot be fully developed human beings if we cannot dip into the pool of universal creativity for inspiration.” (Wine, “Response” in Life of Courage, p. 300)

As many Jewish organizations as he initiated, Wine also worked with many non-Jewish groups—The Voice of Reason to fight religious fundamentalism, the Humanist Institute to train humanist officiants (in collaboration with the Ethical Culture movement and others), the Center for New Thinking to explore the wide range of ideas that stimulated his interest, and many others. To his everlasting credit, Wine was always open to officiating and even co-officiating at intermarriage and gay commitment ceremonies, long before the organized Jewish community was willing to face those realities. His personal thirty-year partnership with Richard McMains, while never granted legal recognition, lasted longer than many marriages. The thousands of intermarriages at which he officiated opened a door to future Jewish connection that otherwise would have been slammed shut. And for those Jews who were just looking for a rabbi for their wedding, he opened their eyes to a cultural Judaism they never would have discovered otherwise.

Wine was a speaker in search of an audience, delivering hour-long inspirational and educational lectures from one salmon-colored note card (and in his last decade with no notes at all) and presenting many programs a week. He contributed at least one article for every issue of the journal Humanistic Judaism for forty years, though his book writing was limited by his busy schedule as rabbi of a four-hundred-family congregation, ceremonial officiant for weddings and funerals for anyone, an in-demand public intellectual, and leader of an international movement. Incidentally, he also insisted on writing everything in fountain pen (even e-mail responses, which staff would then type and send).

From his earliest works, it was clear that he was both provocative and insightful. In his first substantial collection of essays (Humanistic Judaism, 1978), here is the inspirational:

An honest Judaism does not describe what Jews used to believe; it clarifies and articulates what Jews do believe. Since Jewish identity is . . . an ethnic identity, Judaism changes from century to century. In Solomon’s day it was polytheistic; in Hillel’s day it was monotheistic; in our time it has, by any behavior standard, become humanistic. As long as a Jewish people persists, whatever beliefs the overwhelming majority of the people subscribes to is justifiably called Judaism. Our task is, therefore, to discard pretense, to observe our actions, and to discover what we truly believe. Without honest self-insight, we are condemned to the futile task of improving illusions.

And the outrageous:

There can be no idea, word, value or ritual that is a sanctum, an untouchable item of reverence. Even Jewish survival must be periodically reviewed, with the option of rejection as perfectly respectable. . . . The attempt to equate Jewishness with a set of eminently respectable social values is an act of moral boorishness. It suggests, by implication, that these values (if they are defined as virtues) are absent from the behavior of non-Jews. Such an act of gracelessness is typical of the self-righteous. . . .

Neither the Bible nor the Talmud is structured in the logical way that would meet the minimum standards of a competent abstract thinker. Although literacy and Torah study were widespread among Jews, neither suggested intellectuality. For the character of the intellectual is not determined by the ability to read or the amount of study. It is always determined by how one reads and studies. The curriculum of the Polish kheyder or yeshiva was no more intellectual than the study program of the Algiers Koran school.

While this may inflame the Jewish solidarity instinct, there is too much truth behind it to dismiss it out of hand.

While Wine could be outrageous, his destruction always had an eye to rebuilding on a more solid foundation. His systematic articulation of Humanistic Judaism, Judaism Beyond God (1985, revised 1995), includes personal philosophy and ethics; responses to other Jewish alternatives (from Orthodoxy to Reform and Reconstructionism, from Ethical Culture to Yiddish Nationalism and Zionism); his approach to Jewish identity, Jewish history and Jewish literature; and explorations of celebrations of Jewish holidays and life cycle events, including intermarriage and conversion. As he put it himself, “Skepticism with regard to the divine origins of Jewish history may be the attitude of Humanistic Jews, but it is less important than our affirmation that Jewish culture is the creation of the Jewish people. . . . Believing is better than non-believing.” (pp. 228, 231)

To fully understand Humanistic Judaism, one must experience it.  Celebration: A Ceremonial and Philosophic Guide for Humanists and Humanistic Jews (1988) contains many of Wine’s Shabbat and holiday celebrations from his first twenty-five years at The Birmingham Temple. Each “service” includes inspirational readings (in English) and Hebrew, Yiddish and/or English songs. There are several pieces on philosophical themes like “Ethics,” “Love,” or “Reason,” which often refer to Jewish history or culture, as well as some on Jewish-focused themes, holiday celebrations for both children and adults, and life-cycle ceremonies. Although celebrations in Humanistic Judaism have moved beyond this model, this is still the foundation of Humanistic Jewish liturgy, such as it is.

The most mature formulation of Wine’s philosophy, and a fitting conclusion to this review of his life and work, is in A Life of Courage: Sherwin Wine and Humanistic Judaism. Originally conceived as a festschrift in honor of his 2003 retirement as rabbi of the Birmingham Temple, this volume includes two biographical essays on his life and work, personal and philosophical essays on Wine’s work and on Humanistic Judaism, and a thirty-three-page response essay by Wine himself in which he sums up his life, his work and his beliefs. In discussing his original liturgy, he wrote,

Of all my creations for these new liturgies, my favorite is the song “Ayfo Oree.” . . . I wanted to write short lyrics that would summarize the essence of Humanistic Judaism and its message of personal empowerment and ethical responsibility. “Where is my light? My light is in me. Where is my hope? My hope is in me. Where is my strength? My strength is in me. And in you.” It will never make Deuteronomy. But it may help adults and children celebrate our message.

Sherwin Wine was a rabbi, and an apikoros, and a Renaissance man, and an inspiring speaker, and a philosopher; both his life and Humanistic Judaism are living embodiments of the secular Jewish proverb attributed to Chaim Zhitlowsky, “vos mer mentsh, als mer yid un vos mer yid, als mer mentsh—the more human, all the more Jewish, and the more Jewish, all the more human.” (Michaels, Tony. A Fire in Their Hearts (Harvard, 2005), p. 132).

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Food is as Jewish as Fasting

A version of this article appeared in the journal Humanistic Judaism, Summer/Autumn 2013. It is reprinted here with permission.

What is the stereotypical theme of every Jewish holiday? “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” Why should the eating be any less important than the first two?

Taralli from Puglia, Italy – look familiar?

Food is a core element of Jewish identity, culture, and civilization. People who have lost almost every other connection with Judaism remember family recipes, communal meals, special tastes and smells of their childhood. They may even call themselves “bagels and lox Jews.” Never mind that neither food is uniquely Jewish!  Bagels today are eaten by anyone, and in a wide variety of flavors. (Blueberry? Asiago cheese?)  Bread made in loops, or with a hole for easy storage and sale on a stick or string, dates back at least to Roman times; and dough that is boiled before baking, sometimes in a loop, is common in Eastern Europe, and not only among Jews. Lox did not become a Jewish food until  the early twentieth century among immigrants in New York.

So, what makes a Jewish food Jewish? It can’t be a function of who eats it; borscht and brisket, like bagels, are not eaten only by Jews and can be prepared and served in many ways other than those typically handed down by Jewish mothers. (Barbecued brisket, anyone?)  Maybe a food’s Jewishness depends on who makes it – though I have experienced plenty of “Jewish” delis whose food preparation staff discuss orders in perfect Spanish (until they get to the word biale).  Is a Jewish food one invented by Jews, or simply a food like bagels or borscht, commonly eaten in a country where Jews have lived, that comes to be identified with them as they migrate?

What counts as Jewish food may be subjective and arbitrary, as Lenny Bruce’s famous observation suggests:

Kool-Aid is goyish.  All Drake’s cakes are goyish.  Pumpernickel is Jewish, and, as you know, white bread is very goyish.  Instant potatoes – goyish.  Black cherry soda’s very Jewish.  Macaroons are very Jewish – very Jewish cake.  Fruit salad is Jewish.  Lime jello is goyish.  Lime soda is very goyish.

Perhaps what really makes Jewish food Jewish is not who eats it or who makes it or who invented it; rather, Jewish food may be Jewish by virtue of who values it for its memories, associations, and connections. How else did chop suey and egg foo yong become Jewish, if not for the twentieth-century Jewish “tradition” of eating out at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas?

For Humanistic Jews, food is a positive way to celebrate Jewish identity. To consume Jewish food is to enjoy life beyond language and intellect.  (The term epicure, from the Greek humanist philosopher Epicurus, from whose name the Jewish term apikoros, or heretic, is derived, today refers to someone who savors the this-worldly pleasures of food and wine.)  A true appreciation of Jewish food takes a combination of senses and skills beyond those needed for the close study of Jewish texts.  It’s an opportunity to “do Jewish,” not merely to talk about what it means to be Jewish.  If we believe that Judaism is deeper and wider than talmudic study and debate, then Jewish food has to be part of the picture. 

Jewish food stays with a person who partakes of it, not only as love handles but primarily in the form of sensory experiences and memories.  Jewish food is accessible to people of all ages and persuasions (so long as food allergies and dietary restrictions are taken into account) and enables us to sample and celebrate diverse Jewish cultures in digestible “bites.”  For many nonreligious Jews, family meals at Rosh Hashana or to “break the fast” (even if they weren’t fasting) at the conclusion of Yom Kippur are more meaningful than synagogue services.

Most important, Jewish food is a repository for Jewish culture and a way to connect with Jewish history and the wider Jewish community.  Consider just a small sampling of cultural food connections:

  • Special holiday foods: Challah for Shabbat; apples and honey for Rosh Hashana;
    REALLY connecting with our ancestors?

    REALLY connecting with our ancestors?

    latkes (potato pancakes) on Hanukka; hamentaschen (pocket pastries) or sufganiyot (jelly donuts) on Purim; matza, karpas (greens), beytsa (egg) and maror (bitter herbs) on Passover; dairy dishes on Shavuot– each of these foods has its own history, evolution, and ritual connections.  Some Sephardic Jews put matza on their shoulders during the seder as a symbolic way to relive the exodus from Egypt. The Purim hamentash likely began as a mohntasch (poppy-seed pocket) whose name was changed to connect it with Haman (thus arose the assumption that this three-cornered pastry was modeled after his hat).  And this listing doesn’t even touch on family rituals related to the serving and eating of brisket, kugel, and the like.

  • Days of not eating: In addition to Yom Kippur, the traditional Jewish calendar includes several fast days connected with Jewish history and culture.  The Fast of Gedalia, which falls between the High Holidays, commemorates a failed Jewish revolt.  The Fast of Esther immediately before Purim, originally called Nicanor’s Day, celebrates a Jewish victory over a Greek general named Nicanor.  The fast of mourning on Tisha B’Av  is a reminder of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple on that date.
  • Multicultural varieties of Jewish cuisine: Jewish food is not limited to Ashkenazi dishes from Eastern Europe. My father’s family from Syria has an entirely different sense of haimishe (homey) cooking. Such Israeli foods as hummus and falafel are adopted from Middle Eastern cuisine. Today Jewish foodies are experimenting with Jewish food traditions borrowed from Turkish, Moroccan, Indian, and other cultures.
  • Expressions of Jewish values: Biblical legislation (e.g., Leviticus 19) requires that

    15th century illuminated Haggadah text of “Ha Lakhma.”

    farmers leave the corners of the fields and the gleanings of the wheat harvest for the poor, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger.  At Passover, in the opening Ha Lakhma (“This is the bread of affliction…”), we read, “All who are hungry, come and eat,” and rabbinic rules in the Mishnah prescribe that even a poor person should be provided with four cups of wine for the seder (Pesachim 10:1).  Although the belief that food equals love is not unique to Jews, it is certainly an important part of Jewish cultural life. And is it any wonder that the earliest Jewish story about rules and disobedience of them had to do with forbidden fruit?

Jewish food is a particularly important ingredient of both folk and women’s culture. Before modern times, Jewish women were often limited to hearth and home (when they weren’t earning a living to pay for their husbands’ Torah study).   Jewish food was a daily lived experience of Jewishness that was women’s primary responsibility and an important part of their domain.

Imagine, then, how limited a celebration of Jewish culture would be without exploring the many facets of Jewish food!

All of the foregoing does not touch on the kosher laws, which the rabbis of the talmudic period admitted were “mountains hanging by a hair.” To take one example, the commandment “Thou shalt not boil a kid goat in its mother’s milk” (Exodus 23:19) became the basis for not consuming any meat from any animal along with any dairy product from any other animal, having to wait hours between consuming one of these two types of food before consuming the other, and requiring separate sets of dishes for each. But just what foods count as milk?  What meats are kosher, and how must they be prepared and cooked? What foods, such as vegetables, are pareve – in neither category, and thus edible with either?  What particular rules apply to Passover?  How these rules evolved, and why, are certainly questions of historical interest, and awareness of them is a part of Jewish cultural literacy.  Familiarity with the rules of kashrut (koshering) and with their origins and meanings can help us understand contemporary Jewish lifestyle choices: for example, why some Jews and Jewish establishments strictly observe those laws, while others follow them less rigorously or settle for “kosher style” or keep kosher at home but not when dining out.  But these rules are largely irrelevant to the current food choices of secular, cultural, and Humanistic Jews.

An index of how far the laws of kashrut have fallen from their one-time preeminence in Jewish life is that today only about one in five American Jews

Cheeseburger on matza – delish!

follows those rules (National Jewish Population Study, 2001). At certain Israeli McDonald’s restaurants, one can purchase a cheeseburger on matza during Passover. Most “Jewish delis” sell Reuben sandwiches (corned beef and Swiss cheese) with side orders of coleslaw, a combination that is blatantly trayfe (not kosher).  Some contemporary Jews are exploring the concept of “eco-kosher,” the idea that even traditionally kosher food should be avoided if raised, prepared, or served in an ecologically or ethically unsustainable way.

Is it okay to serve pea soup with ham at a Yom Kippur “break the fast”? My congregation has even debated whether to have a reception after Yom Kippur services, since our Rosh Hashana onegs are very successful in fostering a sense of community. Or we might organize a social event without food following the service and call it a “no-neg.” In the end, we chose neither but encourage people to chew on the food for thought provided by the ceremonial experience.

Jewish food, as part of Jewish life, is serious business. One can imagine an alternative ending to the famous story of Rabbi Hillel teaching a convert the essence of Judaism while standing on one foot. After explaining that one should not do to another what is hateful to oneself, and all the rest is commentary, he could have ended with, “Now, come and eat!”


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