27 October 2011

Beginning with the Holocaust?

Krakow - main square 

When I landed in Krakow, I started to think about my relationship to Judaism. Let's just say I think it was a good thing I decided to begin The Heathen with religions I knew absolutely nothing about:  Hinduism and Buddhism. The next three - Judaism, Christianity and Islam - are going to be a challenge because of what I think I know, what I don't know, and what any readers of The Heathen know and feel about these religions.

Why am I going through the training for these faiths in this order? To begin with, because of basic chronology. Judaism came first, then Christianity, then Islam. But the relationship between the "religions of Abraham" is deeper than that, of course: Christianity was built on the foundation of Judaism, and Islam was built on the foundation of both Judaism and Christianity. Makes sense to start at the beginning, right?

Okay, so it's important to bring out any baggage I've got before I begin. I've always thought that Judaism and Islam would be the toughest for me, the ones that would require a bit of airing out of old ideas so I can start with as open a mind and heart as possible: Islam because of 9/11, Judaism because of family.

My father, who is now a devout atheist and, in fact, against religion of any sort, was raised in a Jewish home. Sort of. He was a bar mitzvah at thirteen but more because of his grandparents than his parents. His wise-cracking, playful father and more sharp-edged mother cared about cards, family brunches and traveling. My grandfather died playing pinochle with friends. I don't remember my grandfather or grandmother in any religious event or ceremony. The most religious person in my father's life was his grandmother, Bertha. "She used to bribe me to go to synagogue with her," my Dad said. "If I went with her, she'd take me to the movies after, the ones with the show and cartoons before. So sometimes I'd go. She was a lot of fun."

I think if my father had married someone more observant, he might have gone along with it but he didn't. My mother has no use for groups of any kind or anything she considers weak and the need for belief of any kind,  she feels, involves both. Her father felt the same, a bah-humbug man, for sure. He was born in the United States in 1896, shortly after his family came here from Poland and grew up in Irish-Catholic South Boston, the son of a Jewish doctor. That couldn't have been easy. Her mother, Opal, was my only grandparent with any vestige of religious feelings left over from her Methodist up-bringing in far northern Maine, but it was a pretty pale remnant: she cared a lot about having the palm leaves in the shape of a cross in her home on Palm Sunday.

Together, my parents feel quite clear that things like 9/11 and the Holocaust -- and virtually every war going back to the beginning of time -- have been caused by religion. Far from being a positive force in the world, they really believe it is the root cause of dissension and hate. It's not hard to see why they think that.

As for me? I have felt completely frozen by this concept. Just because someone claims to act in the name of a faith, is the act caused by that faith? If I rob a store and claim that I'm doing it in the name of Mickey Mouse, is Disney to blame? But, given how little I know about any religious tradition at all, I've been pretty much stuck having to listen to pundits -- never a good place to be.

This explains part of the provocation for The Heathen but I need to get back to laying out my personal baggage as I begin to learn about Judaism. When it's family baggage, there's always more, right?

My father's sister married a guy who was in the Army with my father in the Korean war. My aunt and uncle became fairly observant of certain Jewish traditions, especially Passover. We were invited every year and, in spite of my mothers deep-seated discomfort with my father's family and with any religious traditions at all,  we went. We went and my mother made quiet quips about the proceedings to whichever one of us was next to her and spent the car ride home picking at the moments she felt were full of it. It didn't help that my uncle loved being the center of attention in a kind of creepy way and that we had other reasons to be deeply uncomfortable with him. So the only practice of Judaism I really ever witnessed was all tangled up in uncomfortable family dynamics.

Anyway, for better or worse, the little personal contact I had with any religion as a child were these Passover seders and the Christmas plays at my Episcopalian school. Which brings me to the final piece of baggage to trot out: shame.

I cannot mince words: I went to school in a deeply antisemitic, bigoted community. I know this because girls in my class would tell me what they thought of Jews in general and the Jewish girls in our class in specific. In middle school my friends all went to dance class, ballroom dance class with mandatory white gloves, at a club that did not admit Jews or blacks. Catholics were just getting the privilege of admission.  I was told that Jews ate funny food, didn't get to have fun at Christmas, and were cheap. "Drop a penny and see if she picks it up!"

Yes, girls in my school did this to classmates of theirs.

In my neighborhood, we played games nonstop including tackle football and our made-up game of Spy. Dory Strittmatter always loved playing the villains. His villain of choice: the Nazis. One day, when I was about eleven, my brothers and I were playing football with the rest of the guys on the cul de sac. My brother, Robbie, somehow mentioned that we were Jewish. On the way home I took him aside and hissed at him: "Never tell people we are Jewish because we aren't!"

When I got older and it became clear that I was, according to my school classmates, part Jewish, they thought they were paying me a compliment by telling me that "you don't look Jewish."

One of the few remaining
synagogues in Krakow
But, even if both my parents were Jewish, if they taught me nothing about it, why would someone consider me Jewish? Isn't faith something you practice? Something you believe? It makes sense that you tend to believe and practice the faith of your parents but it's not an inherited trait like eye color, right?

I used to joke that I wasn't Jewish enough for Jews but I would have been for Hitler.

So now you have all the baggage I come with as I begin Judaism.

Still, to start my Judaism studies with a visit to the epicenter of the hatred of the Jewish people (and Catholics, and gypsies, and homosexuals etc etc etc) feels a bit off. That hatred emanated from ideas that, really, had nothing to do with the teachings of Judaism. But, if the purpose of this project is to understand, in some kind of visceral way, whether hatred between people of faith has, in reality, anything to do with those faiths and what kind of response these religious atrocities demand of us, then perhaps Auschwitz is really the dark heart of the matter. And I don't think it's possible to learn about the practice of Judaism, as a child of the 20th century, without standing squarely in some earned knowledge of the Holocaust.

I'm not at all sure I'm equipped to handle this.

Memorial to the victims of the Krakow Ghetto
Plac Bohaterow Getta  


  1. Just so you know...I am really enjoying your writing.... Thank you! No need to reply - just keep writing!

  2. No way NOT to respond to a nice comment like that! I really appreciate it!

  3. Also enjoying your writing and your thoughts. I am from South Boston, and my wife's father was in Auschwitz - so I have added interest. Godspeed in your search.


I'm interested in any and all comments although it may take me a while to post them.