Peoplehood, Politics

Days of Awe PSA: Secular Jews are no less Jewish

In this time of tiki-torch waving, right wing extravaganza, when seemingly everyone to the right of Hilary Clinton is blaming our economic woes and angry people of color on “globalists” (read: Jews), here is a thing that we Jews could quit doing as we get better at solidarity: pissing on the non-observant.
According to Haaretz today, Jews in the US are “agonizing” over whether to go to shul or pray with their feet during the March for Racial Justice in DC. (I’m in New York and hope to see you there on Sunday.)
Sure, some of us are agonizing, but many of us are not — because some of us never go to services. Secular Jews are no less Jewish than the observant, and I’m glad I’ve got Jewish siblings who feel great about marching on Saturday. I don’t feel so great, however, about how our community talks about them. Just as in this time of accounting and return we are considering our relationship to racial justice and anti-Black racism in particular, we can also reconsider how we discuss the non-observant.
For example, last month Billy Joel wore a Star of David to make an obvious point about the current political climate. In their coverage, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency felt compelled to make this point: “Joel’s parents are Jewish but he was not brought up with the faith. He has been described as a secular Jew and an atheist.”
Sure, Yom Kippur is not like Christmas or Easter, and we can expect our friends and allies to learn that. And, yes, observance is among the mitzvot – but so is loving other Jews, and so is leaving gleanings for the poor. In fact, being Jewish is not like being Christian, and we do not have a belief litmus test for belonging in our community. And as I understand it, it’s not only because of the whole Hitler-would-have-gassed-me thing, either – it’s also because our focus is on the world now.
As a newish board member of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, I sometimes joke about being “newish Jewish,” but in all seriousness, I’ve always been Jewish. I was born Jewish, and I’ve been working, paid and unpaid, for economic and racial justice – as a Jew, and as an expression and exploration of my Jewish values, to repair the world, to pursue justice, and to welcome the stranger  – throughout my adult life. Because that’s the kind of Jew my mom is, and her parents before her.
So, not so new, now that I’m squinting as forty zooms toward me. But the first time I ever saw the kind of Jew I am was when The New York Times slammed Bernie Sanders for not being Jewish enough:

Their mother, Dorothy, was the daughter of a union activist who chafed at his own yeshiva schooling. The family did not observe much more than Passover seders with neighbors.

And, as a leftist, I see anti-Semitism in the canard about how he can’t get support from people of color (#BernieMadeMeWhite). Now that I’m a more observant Jew (I came to observance for personal reasons), I see it all the time in the political conversation in our community.
This disregard for the non-observant is particularly present in this summer’s conversation about the Racial Justice March being held on the anniversary of the largest massacre of Black Americans ever, which this year coincides with Yom Kippur. The thing that did come up in every conversation I saw online and had in person was, whether or not you’d be in shul.
I probably will be. But that does not in any way makes me more deserving of an opinion on antisemitism, or the perceived antisemitism of the march being held on that date. Not going to services made me no “less” Jewish, and certainly no less of a target for tiki-torch waving activists and their dreamy ethno state, or their dreamy theocratic ethno state, or dreamy Ayn Rand-style paradise, and the other complicated, conflicting political agendas the right is trying to unite.
ericward4js.pngSlide by Eric Ward, courtesy of MoveOn’s Ready to Resist call on Sunday, 8/20/17.
I saw a lot of vitriol about the Rabbi Hannah Spiro, whom march organizers said, “this march might be a powerful opportunity for Jews to pray with their feet in between services on Yom Kippur afternoon.” And, so? If it’s not for you, fine. And if it is for someone else, someone who doesn’t find meaning in shul or private, personal, silent reflection? Are they somehow less Jewish? And why is it you object to them representing our community while the rest of us fast and daven?
Not unrelated: As MaNishtana points out in his Facebook post on the subject (which should be required reading), “Even myself, as an observant, Orthodox Jew, there is nothing inherently keeping me from participating in the march during the break between Musaf/Mincah and Neilah except perhaps lack of blood sugar.”
So, I propose that in addition to Yitzkor prayers that includes the dead killed at the hands of white supremacists past and present, we do some thinking about how we are talking about all Jews – the ones who observe, the ones who believe, the ones who do one, the ones who do neither. Teshuva is hard: casting the non-observant into the wilderness, now populated by tiki-torch wielding ethnonationalist thugs, is not helping. It is, in the most basic formulation, bad for the Jews.

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