Judaism doesn’t (always) piss me off

I’ve often wondered why Judaism doesn’t tick me off like Christianity and Islam do. Is it because Jews don’t try to convert anyone? Perhaps. Is it because of the Holocaust? Maybe. Is it because of my own Jewish roots and my Jewish-atheist grandfather? I doubt it. After all, I also have Christian roots and had a devout Catholic grandmother.

I think it might be because Judaism is not about belief. You wouldn’t hear this, for example, in a church or a mosque:

Barmitzvah Movie

Even in Israel, where Jews are often accused of being fundamentalists, and where orthodoxy arguably does have a stronghold (the differences between orthodoxy and fundamentalism in all religions requiring a completely separate discussion…) belief in God is optional. You can, with a straight face, call someone a secular Jew or even an atheist Jew, and they won’t even be insulted. Who among you has ever heard of a secular Christian or an atheist Muslim?

The ambivalence about Judaism in Israel became clear to me one night as I sat drinking in an alleyway bar in Tel Aviv with my Israeli friend Omer. Omer has been studying abroad in Germany for the past few years, and admitted that he felt disconnected there, and had started attending a Friday night dinner with other Jewish students. “My father would disown me if he knew I was lighting Shabbat candles,” said Omer guiltily. “We come from a long line of staunch Tel Aviv atheists.”

In order to counteract this deep rooted aversion to religion, the Jewish Renewal movement (different from the 1960s American movement of the same name) takes a more flexible approach, focusing on ritual, tradition and spirituality rather than outright faith. While the term “secular synagogue” may seem like an oxymoron,to proponents of Jewish Renewal, it’s the basis of their ideology.

When reading Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament, the author’s story about growing up in an abusive home and a suffocating Orthodox community, I just didn’t find the bile rising to my throat the way I do when I read Infidel or any of the plethora of Christian de-conversion memoirs I’ve read over the past couple of years.

I can’t believe I haven’t made Foreskin’s Lament one of our reading selections! I guess it’s because I’m trying to cover a range of topics and not inundate you solely with my own preoccupations. But this book is definitely in the must read category. Jewish writers, for some reason, can make these things funny, while Christians and Muslims seem to think that humor is a sin.

“If you read this while you’re eating, the food will come out your nose. Foreskin’s Lament is a filthy and slightly troubling dialogue with God, the big, old, physically abusive ultra orthodox God who brought His Chosen People out of Egypt to torture them with non-kosher Slim Jims. I loved this book and will never again look at the isolated religious nutjobs on the fringe of American society with anything less than love and understanding.”

On the other hand, Jewish fundamentalists are stupid control freaks, just like fundies of other religions:

Abe Karpen, 25, a married father of three, was cast as [Natalie] Portman’s husband in “New York I Love You,” a film composed of 12 short stories about love in the five boroughs.

“I am backing out of the movie,” said Karpen, a kitchen cabinet salesman. “It’s not acceptable in my community. It’s a lot of pressure I am getting. They [the rabbis] didn’t like the idea of a Hasidic guy playing in Hollywood.

“I have my kids in religious schools and the rabbi called me over yesterday and said in order for me to keep my kids in the school I have to do what they tell me and back out,” Karpen said.

Well, those are a few of my subjective and highly personal thoughts on the matter. Discuss.


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. I wonder what the “de-conversion” percentages are? I mean, is it easier for Jews to slip into reason and atheism as opposed to Christians or Muslims because of the way our religion has developed?

    I mean, faith in god seems to be important only to the ultra-orthodox, who make up a small percentage of our numbers. For the rest of us, god seems to be “an optional extra,” as it was put in Yes, Prime Minister.

  2. –Mind you, in the interest of honesty and full disclosure, I did spend about twenty-five years as a “born-again Christian” of the jews for Jesus type. I very gradually slipped back to a much more Jewish form of faith, until my capacity for faith finally fizzled out some years ago.

  3. This may have been something that has already been discussed as I find it hard to keep up with the flow of information on the net (slashdot seems to take 30 minutes of my time every day) but do you believe there is a Jewish race? I don’t mean religion, but a genetic basis for identifying somebody by that title. Part of my genetic make-up is from American Indian ancestry and numerous other sources but I am not sure I could safely say with a straight face that I am an Indian because I have a great grandmother that was a Canadian Indian. On top of that I am not sure what, if any advantage it confers or even offers. I really liked the opinions in the video and it is nice when people can speak their mind openly. The philosophical opinions that pervade theology seem to have merit in human interaction and I wonder why it has to be so bitterly divided into groups of concepts that are identified as all wrong or all right. Obviously the people who make these arbitrary categories are incorrect in judging information on the basis of it’s association with other information. It seems that most of the problem arises from a need of individuals to be a part of a group. It is quite possible that I have ancestors which ascribe to be or were labeled to be Jewish, so am I Jewish or Indian or just me?

  4. Well, considering that “race” is a biologically meaningless term, I imagine that it is more a question of ethnicity and religion.

    Mind you, Ashkenazim like me do have the potential for our very own genetic disease (Tay-Sachs), but that’s most likely due to too much inbreeding.

    Halacha is that if your mother is Jewish, so are you.

  5. I think being Jewish is like being Italian or Russian, or whatever. When I was reading Lost by Daniel Mendelsohn, I noticed that in the Ukraine, he mentioned that the people were divided in to three groups: Ukranians, Poles, and Jews.

    In America, regardless of your heritage, you are American. So I hadn’t realized before that Jews were not considered to be Ukranian or Lithuanian or Polish or whatever. They were a separate nationality even though they lived in these countries, and were often assimilated.

    In retrospect, I probably could have figured this out because my own Russian-Jewish family is Jewish in my mind, not Russian. Wheras my Lithuanian family is Lithuanian, not Catholic.

    Not sure if that makes any sense to anyone besides me.

  6. It’s all very well to say that believing Jews don’t try and convert you…. if you are not Jewish. If you are, then there is a strong missionary component to the religion. This takes the form of a calculating, cult-like program to convert as many Jews as possible to becoming orthodox. The conversion of a Jew to becoming observant is a “mitzvah” a good thing that gives the person responsible for the conversion brownie points with god. The only difference between Jewish and other religious zealots is that the Jewish ones do not care about anyone but other Jews.

  7. I tend to think of Spong and his group as ‘secular’ Christians, although I’m not sure if they’d agree.

  8. I looked up ethnicity in Wikipedia and of course Wiki is always right :) , just like me.
    I think I understand what you are saying writerdd and I guess I feel the same way,. In some ways I am pleased/unpleased with my family tree and I suppose that people could be classified by their most recent common ancestor on paternal and maternal lines and then I could decide if that number is too large or small so that I could dislike you :) There is a movie called “Gattacca” which predicts a future where people are discriminated against because of the fact that they are not GMO’s. I imagine that if you just need to hate “somebody” it doesn’t make any difference what label you use. That is also very interesting Rav and these same kinds of recessive pairings are showing up in religious groups in the US.
    I am sure I have a couple paired negatives myself. I think one of them is responsible for my random thought generator.
    And Wikipedia again :)
    Very interesting and I have learned something today, which may make me a member of the rational being tribe also.
    This is what I mean about getting lost in the information on the internet. I learned so many new things today. Strangely the last link says Halacha but goes to Halakha and it translates to the “the way to go”? I am barely able to speak Klingonese :) and if I didn’t have inline spell check I would really be in trouble.

  9. “I think it might be because Judaism is not about belief. ”

    Well, Islam isn’t about belief either. It is about following religious laws. Christianity is fairly unique in that its proposed path to salvation lies in simple belief.

  10. Good point, Czech. And Davo–? This is true if you are referring to the Lubavitchers. The Satmarers are utter bastards who would be just as happy to see everyone else make a kiddush haShem, and the Breslovers are too busy being groovy to run around like the Chabadniks.

    That leaves the rest of us, for whom god, as Sir Humphrey once noted, “is considered an optional extra.”

  11. “That leaves the rest of us, for whom god, as Sir Humphrey once noted, ‘is considered an optional extra.'”

    I love YPM…so I’ll forgive you for quoting the same thing twice. ;>

    That episode, where PM Hacker has to decide on who to appoint a bishop, is one of the best commentaries I’ve seen on the consequences of established religion in a western democracy.

    And like all of YPM, it’s also bloody hilarious.

  12. I think my last post was even confusing to me when I reread it. I was reading a post at the same time on another site about antisemitism and I got confused in my answers, I was wondering how people decided who they could dislike and how they created and determined those groups like geo-political boundaries, ideologies, facial characteristics, etc and I had decided that there must be some basic motive for people to act in groups against others for some purpose and so my random thought generator added things that were going on subconsciously. So, how it related to religion is the fact that if you propose the existence of an omnipotent god, why in the world would you need any individual to speak for an entity which obviously could (by definition) speak directly to everyone. And then why would someone then pose as the representative of that entity they fabricated ?, And the only conclusion I could see was that they did it merely to use and control others. I may still be confused but that is nothing new for me. I think that may be close to the truth, that like cults that spring up over comets or aliens or some other thing, the key is to postulate the super being and then establish that the super being has elected them as exclusive representative . A self proving con? I guess if I let it get to me (as far as anti anything) my Indian part could hate all the other European parts that took my land and my Irish part could hate my English part which could hate my French part and my Swiss part would be neutral in all of this. Lucrezia Borgia (random thought).

  13. I live in a predominately Hasidic neighborhood in Brooklyn (probably the one Abe Karpen lives in). The Hasidic community can be described in no other terms than a cult. It’s worse than scientology, in that a scientologist is allowed to talk to a non-scientologist (provided they aren’t an SP). To Hasidics EVERYBODY is an SP. It doesn’t surprise me that this guy backed out of a movie, but it does surprise me he ever thought he’d get away with it.

  14. “I think my last post was even confusing to me when I reread it.”

    I’m not a big fan of grammar nitpicking, but seriously dude, sentences and paragraphs are your friends.

  15. “TheCzech
    I accept the constructive criticism and I am tring to learn how to communicate more effectively.
    Thank You”

    Hey, I’ve got rambling tendencies of my own to watch out for, so I empathize totally.

  16. TWICE??? Frell me. Must’ve had my payess stuck in m,y ears and so I didn’t hear myself the first time I posted that.

  17. Given that my family are Jewish, I suppose I should have some sympathy for the religion. But I don’t, because the rules are stupid (taxation and sex are intermingled in the same laws), the food sucks, and importantly, and my absolute pet hate, Jews don’t have to abide by the same laws of the UK that non-Jews do. Mental, right?

    I’ve been meaning to write a post about that for a while, this has motivated me to get onto it.

  18. “Jews don’t have to abide by the same laws of the UK that non-Jews do.”

    Really? Didn’t know that. Completely stupid, and (borderline?) immoral, IMO. I do hate that people can opt out of certain laws (like having their children vaccinated) for religious reasons. What laws can Jews ignore in the UK?

  19. Jewish folk don’t piss me off because their children seem to become my favorite atheist scientists and, now, atheist humorists. :D

  20. You might hear something like that in a church… a Unitarian Universalist church, where a belief in God is also optional.

    Jews don’t piss me off, but neither do most of the Christians or Muslims I personally know. Usually even if I know someone holds a belief I find particularly irrational I can usually find some other common ground and manage to get along just fine. If he or she likes to debate and can have a respectful and pleasant disagreement, that can be fun too.

  21. “…the food sucks….”

    RIGHT! Hang on a minute, there, Teek– Lox! Herring with onions in sour cream! Sable! Whitefish! Bagels! Luxion Kugel! CHICKEN SOUP fer fexake! Halavah! Borscht! Latkes!

    I mean! In a country where Marmite is considered a viable food-option, you actually have the nerve to say that Jewish food sucks?


    (Note that I haven’t mentioned meat cooked to shoe-leather consistency, nor the fact that a good jewish diet provides enough salt and fat and oil to induce an M.I. in a teenager….)

  22. Mind you, I make a killer Erdely Beef Stew with Puliszka. And simply marvelous goulyas. And an amazing bolognese. Erm. And good lamb in garlic, cilantro, and tomatoes.

    Damn. I’m hungry now.

  23. Teek: “the food sucks”

    I don’t know that I agree overall, but gefilte fish is pretty nasty.

    Rav: “Latkes!”

    Yums! These alone make it worthwhile to have Jewish friends in December.

  24. Unitarians are pretty nice.

    I mean, it’s like Jews are ok as a religion or get a pass….but maybe that is because your are comfortable and familiar with the Jewish culture. My neighbors are atheists yet raise their children as Jews because for them it is their culture.

    But, as there are shades of Judaism, I like to think that this tolerance or seeing the good of SOME of it can be stretched to other religions.

    To know and be familiar with is a good step toward tolerance.

    I spend a lot of time getting religious people to “take an atheist to dinner”. (I’m not kidding).

    works the other way also.

    disagree, but tolerate – it’s a better world that way

  25. I loved the video and I loooove Jewish food. Rugelach and hamantaschen are like little bites of pure happiness.

    Foreskin’s Lament sounds great. It’s definitely getting added to my reading list.

  26. Latkes are great (homemade, not that packet starch crap I was raised on), but a lot of it is just plain wrong. Gefilte fish is a great example of wrongness. As is eggs baked for 16 hours. Come on!

    But then again, pickles. Drool.

    Jewish cuisine has its ups and downs I suppose, but most of the stuff I had to eat growing up was hideous.

    Re: the laws, mostly marriage and animal welfare stuff, but I will reveal all in my forthcoming article!

  27. I think gefilte fish is the Jewish answer to Marmite/Vegemite.

    It is either loved or reviled.

    …I LURVE it, myself….

  28. I have heard that fish are brain food and that must mean that Dolphin’s are smarter than us .
    This is a recipe I found.
    The amount of mercury in some fish can lead to the mad hatter syndrome, I have heard as an anecdote.
    So since fish are brain food and I also heard that Jesus was actually very wise, I decided that I would start removing the Jesus fish from people’s cars and grind them up into paste as a snack. I am not sure if I am any smarter, but I am fairly sure that I am suffering from Chromium poisoning.
    This could possibly explain the rather random and disjointed nature of my comments.
    From the recipes I have seen, gefilte fish sounds like it might be better than lutefisk.

  29. If by “gefilte fish” you mean those oblongs found in glass jars, then you don’t know gefilte fish. This doesn’t mean you have to chop up your own, but there are frozen brands that are a lot better (look for larger loaves wrapped in parchment for boiling). That said, remember that originally gefilte fish was festival food for fairly poor folks… that is, carp and whitefish were the less desirable fish, which needed some work to make them more palatable.

    I wouldn’t say Judaism quite qualifies as a “race”, but it certainly includes several ethnicities. (That is: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, and the Ethiopian Jews.)

  30. I once made gefilte fish from scratch with my mom. Mmmmmmmmmmmm– Good stuff.

    Oh, Dave– Don’t forget the Ladino Sephardim as opposed to the Mizrahi Sephardim! I had a very good friend whose father was Ladino, but whose mother was Yiddish. His chicken soup was good, but rather unusual, to say the least.

  31. Rav: (googles)… Ok, noted. I hadn’t been clear on that distinction. I’m not sure I’d refer to any Jew as “being” Yiddish, though. ;-)

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