I am not a very religious person although I pray to god almost every night. Especially, these days.
Part of the reason for this lack of religious dedication lies in the fact that while both my parents were Jewish neither (I thought) particularly embraced their faith. They grew up in an age where Science was the new religion. Where new discoveries about the universe were happening rapidly and changing the world view. Their age, unlike today, was an age of rationalism where facts were more favored than myth.
For my mother, I believe, this was compounded by the congregation she belonged to as a child. She attended, with many of the elite families of New York’s upper east side, Temple Emanuel. A beacon of liberal reform Judaism whose services sought to demonstrate that Jews could have their own place of worship on 5th Avenue. It was such a reformed version of the Jewish faith that bar/bat mitzvah were not carried out. Instead, confirmations took place.
Perhaps it was the watered-down faith. Perhaps it was the age of rationalism. Whatever the reason my mother could not abide by religion. She was a staunch agnostic at the end. Even requesting that no rabbi or Hebrew prayer be a part of her burial or memorial service.
Pop’s story was different. Unlike my mother he had extensive religious training. He was set to become a bar mitzvah but his opportunity to become a man in the eyes of god and the community were shattered on the night of November 8, 1938 when the Nazis burned down his temple. In his older years, he would speak wistfully of it. He wrote his children “Not one single synagogue was left intact in all of Vienna. That really screwed me up because I was nearly thirteen. You need to have a Torah to become a Bar Mitzvah and you need to have a table on which to lay the scroll while you read. And how was I to get a fountain pen now?”
I believed for years that the trauma of seeing your world destroyed. To be the subject of hate and prejudice on a daily if not hourly basis. To be the subject of degradation and hate and to have flee for your life, leaving your relatives to perish in the showers of Auschwitz, Dachau and Mauthausen made him embrace rationalism. Perhaps his world view was further honed by the time he spent in the army seeing the irrationality of war. Whatever the ultimate reason, he became a scientist embracing facts over fiction, logic over chaos.
As a result of their religious apathy, my parents made the active decision to raise us in secular communities. The towns in which we lived were predominantly Christian with a heavy pre-ponderance of Catholic. Ironically, this may have had the opposite effect that my parents had hoped for. While by and large I was accepted for who and what I was, Jewish, there were many who taunted and ridiculed me because of the faith of my ancestors. The fights started in elementary school with the taunts of dirty Jew and if I were to be honest, have never stopped.
I think the fights reinforced my sense of Jewish identity to the point where my brother and I begged our parents to give us a religious education and to celebrate our own bar mitzvahs. Our religious training was not that deep. Sunday school where I got to know the other Jewish kids in town and learn some bible stories and Hebrew lessons once a week to prepare us for our time on the bimah. To my father’s pride and mother’s happiness David and I both became Bar Mitzvah and then promptly stopped our religious training.
Over time, especially as I began to embrace adulthood, I would find myself searching for deeper meaning in the world. To scratch this itch, I would read books like Herman Wouks “This Is My God” and “The Language God Talks.” Or Rabbi Kushners “When Bad Things Happen To Good People” and “The Lord Is My Shepherd: Healing Wisdom of the Twenty-third Psalm.” Or Joseph Telushkin’s “The Book of Jewish Values: A Day by Day Guide to Jewish Living.” And literally dozens of other books on the subject of how to live a more Jewish and spiritual life.
In 1987, in a search for this spirituality, and a better understanding of my father’s life experience, I convinced Dad to go to Israel with me. It had a profound impact on my life. I dare anyone to go to Yad Vashem and not be changed forever. Or see your father weeping in front of a picture in a museum of a prisoner on a work detail because he recognizes him as one of his Uncles who was murdered by the Nazis. It was on this trip I learned that his original plan to escape Vienna ( one that would have succeeded if his parents would have let him) was to immigrate to Israel and become a Zionist by the name of Zacharias Ben Mordecai. Seeing the country of my father’s boyhood fantasy through his eyes bonded us together and from that point onward whenever we wanted to strike a deeper more emotional tone I would refer to him by his Zionist name and me by the name I adopted for that trip Daniel Ben Zacharias.
None of this, not the search for deeper Jewish spirituality or my trip to Israel drove me to join a shul or any other religious institution. I am not sure if it was laziness or the tithe required by most of the Synagogues I contacted.
But it did help me develop a “spirituality” and an acceptance of God and his place in the universe. It became my strong belief that religion and embracing of God is a good thing unless invoking his name is a way for you to denigrate those faiths which don’t see the almighty in the way that you do. God is God and as long as you believe in him/her then how you pray to him is your own business.
Which is why I find Donald Trump’s version of populism so disturbing. He seeks to divide and not bring together. It is the antithesis of what religion is supposed to teach which is ironically being embraced wholesale by a large number of Christian Evangelicals.
It is also the reason that I give a monthly donation to The International Fellowship of Christian and Jews. Not only does it seek to promote understanding and cooperation between religions but acts on it as well helping people of all faiths survive war, famine and persecution.
Occasionally, as today, they will send me emails that I find comforting. I thought their message of today, during Passover while the Christian world celebrates Easter, and while the world suffers through the Covid 19 epidemic particularly meaningful.
Today’s message was Deuteronomy 31:8
“The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid. Do not be discouraged.”
You’ll never walk alone.