When I was a child, my neighbors didn’t let their children play with me. They called me a “dirty Jew.” The other children in the neighborhood spit at me and threw trash at me. When one woman invited me in to play with her daughter, her husband got furious and told me to go, because he wasn’t having a “Christ-killer” in his house. Some older boys with a cruel streak drew a swastika in chalk and shouted anti-Semitic things at me.
I couldn’t understand this behavior. I felt ashamed, as though I’d done something wrong. I wondered why I was a Jew if it made people dislike me so much. My parents didn’t offer any explanations.
But rather than being ashamed of this Jewishness, I’ve learned to embrace it.
I’m not at all religious. In fact, I’m something of a ranting atheist. I don’t go to synagogue. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. So even though both my parents are Jewish and all my ancestors, as far back as I know, were Jewish, for some people, my atheism would disqualify me from being considered truly Jewish.
But for me, being Jewish is nonetheless important. I have two main reasons for feeling staunchly Jewish and for calling myself a(n atheist) Jew.
The first reason is culture. Some people argue that Judaism is only a religion; they liken Judaism to Christianity or Islam and say that if you don’t believe in the religious precepts, then you aren’t part of that group. Others, however, say that Judaism is a race and/or a culture, and that there’s more to it than religious belief. I agree with those who consider it a culture.
It’s hard to say exactly what I mean by Jewish culture. I feel there’s a broad shared cultural experience that encompasses, but goes way beyond, say, matzah ball soup, the Holocaust, Mel Brooks, celebrating Purim, peppering our sentences with Yiddish, Bella Abzug, and I.B. Singer. It’s about understanding the religion, but also about knowing Jewish history, literature, language, childrearing, education, media, and much more. It’s also about typical experiences we might have, ranging from facing discrimination to having trouble finding a good hairdresser for our curly locks.
In most of the world, Jews are a tiny minority, and we can connect to one another through this common culture or these shared experiences.
And this relates to my second reason. Because we’re such a small minority of the world’s population and also, of course, since we’ve been so oppressed and hated throughout history, we’re perpetually outsiders.
Being outsiders allows us another perspective on life; in the best of cases, we don’t just blindly accept what the majority has decided, in part because we’re not always allowed what the majority has. We have to carefully think through the options and make conscientious choices.
Outsiderness also creates different personality characteristics, I like to think. Ideally, we should be aware of and sensitive to injustice and persecution, because it’s been such a part of Jewish history. We may also be creative; not fitting in helps us make art or see new approaches or find different solutions. There’s always something for us to learn and something for us to contribute.
I like being an outsider and always being different in some way from those around me (perhaps that’s helped shape my life, as I’m an expatriate living in a place with very few Jews). I get a chance to teach others about lives and groups they know little about.
It’s important to me to claim being Jewish as part of my identity. When my wife and I changed our last names, we kept the Jewish-sounding “stein.” We gave our daughter a traditional Jewish name. Whenever people question where I am from or where my family originated, I try to educate them on what Ashkenazi means and on how different waves of Jews moved to the United States. When students show uncertainty about Jewish characters or authors in texts we read in my literature classes, I tell them about my background and give them historical and religious knowledge. I feel I can sometimes relate well to students from a variety of backgrounds because I have some experience and understanding of racism and anti-Semitism.
So why be Jewish? Well, in a way, why not? Why not learn from our long history and use it to connect to others and to contribute to society?
I may not be religious, but I’m definitely Jewish, and proud of it. I don’t want my daughter to suffer through anti-Semitism the way I did, but I do want her to understand, respect, learn from, and even revel in her background and her heritage.