A People Apart? Judaism as Ethnicity or Religion and the Costs of Assimilation
This is a very important time of the year for Jews across the world. September 24th-26th was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Rosh Hashanah translates to “start of the year” or “head of the year”. This is when Jewish people across the world will read the Torah section about how God demanded that Abraham sacrifice Isaac and Abraham complied until an Angel intervened and a ram was sacrificed instead. Friday and Saturday are Yom Kippur, the Days of Atonement.
Like many Jewish people, I took off from work on Rosh Hashanah to attend services. I did not need to do this until I was 18. New York City and some of the immediate area is Jewish enough that many school districts close on the Jewish High Holidays because too many students and/or teachers would be out for services. I know some parts of the Boston Metro Area also shut down school during the Jewish High Holidays because of a high Jewish concentration. I will probably continue to attend services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur for the rest of my life.
The secret is that I am not that religious a person. If you were to ask me honestly what my theological belief is, I would call myself an apathetic agnostic. I cannot prove whether a deity exists or not but all evidence seems to point to no. I believe that the Earth is billions of years old and I believe in evolution. Logic also tells me that it is largely absurd for an all-power deity to create humans and then have us each worship multiple religions. Though I suppose the other explanations could be a cruel deity or one that wishes us to get along despite our differences and this is a task that we fail miserably. But I am atheist enough that I feel silly and absurd praising God out loud and I now I tend to remain respectfully silent or just mumble.
So why do I go and insist on taking time off work? The reason is am not a very religious Jew, I do love being Jewish. I love the Yiddishkeit (Jewishness). I love being part of nearly 6000 years of history. Nearly 6000 years of joy, and rage, debate, laughter, and much suffering. These are the stories of my ancestors. These are the stories of millions who came before me and I think that this is serious and should be treated seriously. I have problems with kitsch-Judaism which seems to want to reduce Jewishness to easy to like jokes about unruly curly hair and other quirks. Jewish thinking and logic is distinct and separate from Christianity as Hindu thinking is from Buddhist thought and logic.
A co-worker once asked me what I was doing for the High Holidays and I told said co-worker that I was going to shul. My co-worker responded that they were simply not that religious and couldn’t conceive going to temple. The co-worker was just going to go to work like it was any other day. This made me a bit angry. I felt that my co-worker was ignoring our people. The inescapable fact of Judaism was being ignored. For most of history, Jews were a people apart, both physically and metaphorically. We were seen as never being able to fully integrate into secular national life. Anti-Semitic view points might largely be seen as dead and gone in the United States but this is fairly recent history. Most private universities had strict quotas on the number of Jewish students that could be admitted until the mid to late 1960s. There are Baby Boomer Jews who can still tell me about losing jobs because they were Jewish. A friend from law school told me that he was one of the first Jewish people in his posh East Bay school district and the San Francisco-Bay Area has one of the longest and most impressive Jewish histories in the United States.
I see going to work during the Jewish High Holidays as a form of defeat. It is basically saying that acceptance of minorities comes by taking away whatever makes minorities distinct or different. You have to functionally act like a member of the majority to win acceptance. There are many examples from history about how assimilation can take the Jews and other minorities group far but the specter of discrimination is not far behind and can come up whenever convenient and whenever the majority needs a scapegoat.
But my militant stance is also problematic. Perhaps it is a sign of liberalism and secularism winning that my co-worker can say that he or she is not very religious and chooses to work when the Jewish High Holidays happen during the business week. Maybe it is a sign of enlightenment and justice to let me off for work and let others to work if they choose to. My concern with this is that subconscious prejudice can come up during review time. Saul Degraw asked for time off because of religious observance but his co-religionist Aaron did not. Or maybe one year there will be a comment about a request to take time off when Aaron does not.
This will always probably be a tension in Judaism and other religions that walk a very fine line between being religions and ethnic identities. How do you maintain ties with your history and without your past while also participating in modern secular society? Should people be concerned about maintaining ties to their past if they don’t want to and what to do with people like me who think your ethnic identity is an inescapable fact and should be embraced with pride? People who hate Jews will always see me as a Jew even if I converted to Christianity and became an Episcopalian Bishop. Am I basically letting bigots rule my identity? Tattoos are very popular now among people my age and younger. They are enjoying a seemingly endless moment. Judaism traditionally prohibits against tattoos. Many secularish Jews try to get around this by getting a Jewish-themed tattoo and saying they are reclaiming tattoos from the Nazis. I think this is rather dumb and always ask how can you reclaim something that was never yours to begin with. I have more respect for a friend from elementary school who said that she does not believe in God and thinks the prohibitions are useless. This seems like a more honest answer than the weasley reclaiming argument which feels like “I wanna get a tattoo and be like everyone else in my cohort but I know it goes against Judaism so I will event an argument which makes me feel okay.” What is the point in celebrating diversity and being different if everyone ends up the same? What is the point in being born Jewish if one does not do anything or identify as Jewish?