Dave Silverman is Wrong; You Can Be Non-Religious and Jewish December 19, 2013

Dave Silverman is Wrong; You Can Be Non-Religious and Jewish

This is a guest post by Kate Bigam. Kate is a social media professional and freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.

When I was a child, I prayed every night. I asked God to get my crush to like me back, help me find the allowance I’d misplaced, and make my dad’s cancer disappear. My childlike view of God was a common one, that of a big guy in the sky who grants wishes to good boys and girls.

I don’t pray to God anymore because I am no longer sure that one exists.

But I don’t self-identify as an atheist, as Dave Silverman, President of American Atheists, may want me to. Instead, I identify as a Jew — a proud one, at that.

A recent Tablet article profiles Silverman’s new strategy of targeting secular Jews like me and encouraging them (us!) to stop identifying as Jewish.

Tablet’s Rachel Silberstein reports:

Silverman wants Jews who don’t believe in God to assert their atheism and stop identifying as Jews. He believes that nonbelievers should “come out” to their families and friends and in some instances their work colleagues, identifying themselves as atheists. He argues that when religionless Americans avoid the word “atheist” to describe themselves for fear of sounding exclusionary, they are being dishonest. “Atheist is the correct word that has simply been made into a bad word by bigots,” he said, arguing that only the word “atheist” accurately conveys the proper meaning to people who are believers, “and telling the truth benefits everyone.”

While I agree that “atheist” shouldn’t be a dirty word, I have to break it to Silverman: I’m never, ever going to stop calling myself Jewish. I’ve come to use the phrase “secular Jew” or “cultural Jew,” terms I believe convey my commitment to upholding and carrying forth Judaism’s rich traditions while also implying that I’m not all-in on the religious aspects.

But I’m not afraid to tell friends or family that I don’t believe in God — and I’ve yet to experience astonishment or disdain for doing so. In fact, the recent study by the Pew Research Center on U.S. Jews found that 60 percent of American Jews believe Judaism to be primarily focused on ancestry, culture, and shared values, not religiosity. In a religious community largely populated by non-believers, the announcement that a Jew doesn’t believe in God requires no coming out party; it’s as non-shocking an announcement as they come.

In writing his book, I, Atheist: America’s Loudest Heathen Fires Back, Silverman found himself struggling with previous assertions that cultural Judaism like mine is compatible with atheism, ultimately changing his position and disavowing his Judaism. And yet the Pew study reports than one in five Jews identifies as “having no religion” but still identifies as Jewish. How can this be?

Ultimately, whether one believes that modern-day Jews can be both secular and Jewish relies heavily on the answer to the question, “What is Judaism?” It’s an age-old question with no easy answer. Silverman has decided that Judaism is, at its core, a religion, and that the rest — culture, ethnicity, race — is tangential and irrelevant to individual identification. As the Pew study indicates, a vast majority of American Jews disagree.

So is Judaism a religion? Well, yes, of course. But is it just a religion? Overwhelmingly, most Jews will say no — there’s much more to it than that. So is Judaism a culture? Maybe, though Silverman is correct that most cultural aspects traditionally associated with Judaism — including lox and bagels, gefilte fish, and so on — are actually just Eastern European, and conflating them with Jewish tradition ignores Sephardic Jews and Jews-by-choice of other backgrounds. And speaking of Jews-by-choice (the preferred term to “converts”), Judaism can’t be a race, either, because one can’t convert to become, say, black or Asian.

So what does it mean to be Jewish? In the Jewish community, we speak frequently of k’lal Yisrael, “the people of Israel.” This is the key to today’s Judaism: that Jewishness is a people, a community, a family, and, just like in any family, no two people are exactly alike, with the same beliefs or even the same backgrounds. Families take all kinds — and k’lal Yisrael, the Jewish family, is no different. Whether Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, Humanist, secular, or something else entirely, Judaism is ultimately a peoplehood. We are bound together by a combination of shared religion, yes, but also of shared values and history and culture and experience. Though Silverman is welcome to opt out of identifying with that particular family, the fact remains that it exists — and that it has evolved to be much more than just a religion.


I hesitate on this next part, because I know it’s a common belief, if often unspoken, that today’s Jews refer too frequently to our history as victims and the oppressed. (In fact, I’ve seen it said in the comments on this very site!) Still, there’s no denying that the proliferation of anti-Semitism, both then and now, offers a compelling reason, in part, for many of today’s Jews to continue identifying as Jewish, as a matter of pride and continuity.

Allied troops liberated the last of the concentration camps sixty-eight years ago, on May 9, 1945. Many of my friends and colleagues are direct descendants of Holocaust survivors, grandparents who bore numbers tattooed on their forearms and refused to speak of the horrors they escaped. I never thought I had any personal attachment to the Holocaust until a distant cousin uncovered that the reason we knew so little about our family tree was because my maternal grandfather’s family — and all the other Jews in their tiny Lithuanian town — were murdered during the war. Were Silverman and I to claim our atheism at that time, it wouldn’t have mattered; we would’ve met the same fate as the religious in our community. While Silverman and his atheist brethren of Jewish background may not view themselves as anything more than “children of Jews,” simply being the children of Jews would’ve been enough to have them killed during WWII — and there’s no way to opt out of that reality. Silverman undoubtedly knows this history, which makes it even harder for me to understand how he can so easily part with the label.

Once, in Israel, I hopped a cab to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum, and learned that my driver was a first-generation Israeli who escaped the atrocities that ultimately befell his family. He was the first survivor I ever met and, given the age of that population, I may never meet another. But I’ll never forget his words to me:

“It is so important that young Jews from around the world come here to remember what happened. They say ‘Never forget,’ but I fear people will forget. Please don’t ever forget. Please don’t let the people you know forget what happened to the people I knew.”

So no, I don’t believe in God, and I don’t study Torah or see it as divine. I don’t pray, and I rarely attend synagogue. But I’m still Jewish. I’m Jewish because, like Dave Silverman, I am the child of Jews, and I am part of a community that says that is enough — that if I want to identify as Jewish, they will help me do so in a way that is meaningful for me, whether it be religiously, culturally, communally, or otherwise. I have chosen to align myself with elements of Judaism less focused on religiosity: I host and attend holiday gatherings with my friends; I introduce young adults to Israel for the first time by leading Birthright trips; I attend Jewish community events in Washington, D.C., where I live; I play “Jewish geography” with new friends (“Do you know so & so? How? From camp, from youth group, from your sister’s friend’s cousin’s bar mitzvah?”).

There’s more to my Judaism, of course, and spoken-word poet Andrew Lustig says it more eloquently than I ever could (above), but in the end, with or without God, the point is the same: I am Jewish. And I always will be.

(Image via Shutterstock)

"The way republican politics are going these days, that means the winner is worse than ..."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."
"It would have been more convincing if he used then rather than than."

It’s Moving Day for the Friendly ..."

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Epinephrine

    Sorry, so why “secular Jew” and not “atheist Jew”? At least identifying as atheist (whether you consider yourself Jewish or not) helps remove stigma from a word that accurately reflects your beliefs.

  • Fallulah

    Yup I don’t get it either…Atheist Jew seems like a nice compromise and an accurate reflection of her beliefs. Although maybe she is shy of the big A label for other reason, like judgement that goes along with it. I’d be curious to know why she doesn’t “self-identify as an atheist” as she puts it.

  • garic

    My question too. I don’t object to “secular Jew”, but I don’t know why she doesn’t consider “atheist Jew” or “Jewish atheist”.

  • Keyra

    Being an atheist Jew makes absolutely no sense. Being part of a culture that revolves around God…but not believing in God Itself. You can be an Israeli atheist, but an atheist Jew is a misnomer.

  • toth

    What is Jewish culture/ethnicity, apart from the religious traditions?

  • Many Jews feel that being Jewish is more than just a religion. There’s a distinct cultural aspect that goes beyond the Torah when it comes to family and traditions. When one takes their god out of the equation, the rest of their heritage and personal identities remain.

    It isn’t too unlike the thousands of New Yorkers who identify as Irish, yet couldn’t name the political leaders of either country. Much less stepped foot on the island.

  • Pulsar

    Sooo… I don’t get this. She doesn’t want to claim herself as atheist because she’d be alienating herself from her culture? I don’t…. how does that even make sense? Sure, I’m atheist and I come from multiple cultures and nationalities but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy one over the other or vice versa… Just because I’m predominately Polish am I not allowed to participate in my German grandmothers traditional cooking? Iuno. Maybe I have to be Jewish to understand but there seems to me that there is a large difference between identifying with culture and religion.

  • Thank you.

  • Hypnox

    This seems to me to be very much like the process some gay people go through where they have an intermediate step during which they describe themselves as “bisexual”. It eases the transition for the people around them and it’s not TOO much of a lie to oneself. I hope Ms. Bigam gets the courage to fully come out of the closet someday and I trust she finds that the atheist community will support her when she does.

  • invivoMark

    Eh. Maybe I’m missing something, but I just can’t get behind this. It seems like little more than tribalism under a facade of “family values.”

    I don’t think it’s important that Jews remember the Holocaust. I think it’s important that everyone remembers it. The Holocaust was something that happened to human beings. That’s the only tribe that matters. We are all cousins. We’re all on the same “team;” there’s no “us vs. them.” Human beings suffer, and human beings have the capacity to cause and to prevent that suffering. We should recognize that humans suffer equally no matter which group they belong to. No one group’s suffering should garner more sympathy from us than another, simply because we can count ourselves as members of one and not the other.

    And conversely, we should celebrate the traditions that make us and those around us happy. Traditions should not belong exclusively to some “in” group. One can celebrate Jewish traditions without believing that non-Jews are unworthy of celebrating the same tradition.

  • Don Terndrup

    This post resonates with me. I am an atheist from the Catholic culture, and while I have discarded the beliefs I still am very fond of the culture – only the good parts, of course! I cherish the tradition of learning and education that was present in the strand of Catholicism that I experienced, and I wholeheartedly support that part of Catholic thought that strives for social justice and a better world. In my journey towards atheism, I was hung up for a long time because I found beliefs and culture and the sense of culture-belonging to be intertwined in my mind. Beliefs and culture are all about belonging, and I am happy to accept that it is wired into my mind from my earliest days. I just had to accept the beliefs as metaphors and good stories (only the good ones, not the sick ones) and then I was free!

  • NathanExplosion

    We are all cousins.

    Well put.

  • Jeff

    I know of folks in Boston who are the same way. They are IRISH….at least on one day of the year, still talk about “the troubles”, but couldn’t find the actual country on a map. Fine with me. (I happen to be Irish also).

  • Loni Gaudet

    I call myself a Jew-theist (Jewish Atheist). It would be very hard for me to explain to those that don’t see how you can be an atheist and a Jew, how I feel that I am both, but I am. There is a distinct culture and community that is Jewish. I guess you could compare it to being Italian, or Irish maybe. I will always be part of this community. I was born into it and it’s part of who my family, most of whom are non-practicing, is. I am no Israelist, so that moniker does not work for me at all.

  • peter taylor

    There is no such thing as Jewish traditions. What you mean is Eastern European or Western European, or possibly Arabic and maybe even Ethiopian Traditions. They are all Jewish after all. So say what you really mean, if you are Eshkenazi then say so.

  • Psychotic Atheist

    Reading this makes me wonder why Jews don’t start calling themselves ‘Semites’ which is linguistic and cultural as well as racial too. It would bring the Arabs into the ‘family’.
    For some reason though, this doesn’t seem too likely.

  • Jorge Pérez de Lara

    I lean towards not buying this argument. It is akin to saying one is an atheistic christian. Christianity also has much in terms of history and traditions, but identifying as christian involves a core religious belief. And I have a hunch that the same applies to jewishness.

  • joey_in_NC

    But would you call yourself “Catholic”?

  • CottonBlimp

    Not to mention how quickly people forget that there were other people in the Death Camps. Blacks, gays, Romani, Communists, the disabled – the frequent, if unintentional, message of Holocaust remembrance has been that the Jewish deaths were the only ones that mattered.

  • TychaBrahe

    Interesting point, as I was just introduced to this song the other day.

    You’re not Irish, you can’t be Irish, you don’t know ‘Danny Boy’
    Or ‘Toora Loora Loora’ or even ‘Irish Eyes’
    You’ve got a hell of a nerve to say you came from Ireland
    So cut out all the nonsense and sing ‘MacNamara’s Band.

    There’s also a book by Sharyn McCrumb, Highland Laddie Gone, a cozy mystery that takes place at a Highland Games in Appalachia. One of the attendees is a Scot who is amazed at these people who are still upset about the Clearances and Bonny Prince Charlie as if these things happened yesterday.

  • Proteus

    What’s the point since according to archaeology Judaism is also a farce.

  • TychaBrahe

    Because not all Jews are Semites. I’m not. I’m descended from Ukrainians who were probably descended from the Khazars, who converted to Judisim under King Bulan, in the 7th century.

    And of course, not all Semites are Jews. Some are Muslims. Some are Christians. Some probably follow older faiths.

  • Eliot Parulidae

    I’m not Jewish, but I am utterly, absolutely baffled by some atheists’ inability to accept that nonreligious channels of Jewish identity exist. Have you people never seen a Woody Allen movie?

  • TychaBrahe

    No one gets upset when people who live in Minnesota say they are of Norwegian ancestry and still make lutefisk. No one gets upset when people whose ancestors came from Italy still call themselves Italian and feel a sense of community with Italian actors and include pasta in their Thanksgiving dinners. No one gets upset with people who celebrate their Greek heritage or Russian heritage or Chinese heritage or French-Canadian heritage.

    Jews didn’t have a country. Jews in Eastern Europe shared a common language, Yiddish, that was based on both the language of their ancestors and the region in which they resided. The Jews of Iberia speak Ladino, which is heavily influenced by Spanish and other regional languages, but which is written in Rashi, a script heavily influence by Hebrew. Their cuisine reflected both a common heritage and local influences. They had music and literature that was influenced by, but different, from their neighbors, and they had a common culture and heritage.


    I once got into an argument with someone over government census forms that identified people according to race. If race isn’t important, and it shouldn’t be, then why do we class people as White, Black, Hispanic? he asked. When I pointed out the importance of codifying responses according to race, because things still aren’t equal for people of different races, no matter how much it should be. He didn’t understand why people would want to identify as a group like “Black” or “African-American.”

    The entire time that he was arguing against people self-identifying as being part of a racial group he was wearing a t-shirt celebrating his German heritage.

  • TychaBrahe

    But calling yourself Ashkenazi *is* calling yourself a Jew.

  • Lulu

    She said she’s “not so sure one exists”, so I would say Agnostic Jew, lol.

  • Eliot Parulidae

    “No gefilte fish, Yiddishisms, Larry David, or Jewish summer camps for you! You live in a secular society. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”

    This plays to the worst stereotypes of atheists as people who want to destroy cultural variation, even totally benign cultural variation. Somewhere, Foucault feels vindicated by the disputes over whether atheists can be Jewish.

  • I don’t identify as an atheist Jew because I’m not sure if I’m an atheist; I possibly still believe in something, but I’m just not sold on anything. I sometimes use “agnostic Jew” instead.

  • Lulu

    If your cultural practices all stem from religion and you no longer believe (in which case she’s not so sure) then by extension you should no longer believe in your cultural religious celebrations and/or traditions.

  • TychaBrahe

    – episode of Seinfeld

  • I would say that your hunch is wrong & that you don’t know many Jews – or, for that matter, many Christians.

  • smrnda

    This reminds me of a conversation I had with some guy who wondered why we couldn’t all *just be Americans.* I asked him whether he knew what latkes, gefilte fish, borscht, or matzo meal were, and he did not. I then pointed out that food is a part of culture, and that this indicates that we did not share the same culture, and that numerous parts of his culture were alien to mine.

  • smrnda

    There’s a huge volume of Yiddish language literature and theater which, regrettably, can only be accessed in translation as few Jews know Yiddish anymore, for one example.

  • Glasofruix

    Everything else.

  • smrnda

    As a Jewish person who actually knows a few Romani, being united by being pissed and shat on all across Europe is something we note we have in common when we get together.. In fact, the shittiest thing is that the Romani are being pissed and shat on all over Europe now again. Most Jews I know are certainly well-informed about other victims, as well as the neglect of say, atrocities committed against civilians in China.

    People need to be better informed on that. I blame the fact that textbooks tend to focus on the Jews alone, gloss over most of what happened in Asia, and that people still seem to know nothing about other victims of the Holocaust. If it were more widely known that the Nazis put homosexuals in concentration camps, a lot of the David Lively anti-gay rhetoric would be shouted down much more often.

  • Psychotic Atheist

    Of course not all Jews are Semites, the article explicitly mentions converts which are obviously extant.
    My point is that if Judaism isn’t the religion, and its not the race, and its not the culture and its more like a family with arbitrary conditions for joining (such as the beliefs of ones ancestors and one’s own beliefs), why not expand the joining conditions to include Arabs and thus even Muslims into the family? They share ancestry, many of the same beliefs, the history the culture and the language.

    Unless of course, being a Jew does indicate something about a religious background and the ‘family’ notion not sufficiently coherent.

  • smrnda

    I find some people just think it’s bad when *those people* celebrate their cultural heritage. It’s okay for them, maybe for certain other people, but just not for everybody.

    All said, I see no reason why we cannot acknowledge that people do have distinct cultures that are their own, and that that’s okay.

  • Castilliano

    My stepsister practices Jewish traditions, and has no family link at all.
    She worked for a Jewish company and picked up some traditions she thought were cool, some which even have religious overtones though she’s not religious.

  • smrnda

    For some discussions, it might be worth including other groups. Someone from the US might talk about “The Chinese” but within China, there are distinct groups of people and distinct cultures. Same with India. One could talk about “British people” but then also agree that being Scottish, Welsh or Irish you can still be British but would certainly not necessarily be English.

    I tend to think that even among Jews, ashkenazi or sephardi Jews have distinct cultures and it’s hard to consider them one group. Contemporary Israelis likely differ a lot from Jews living in other countries, culturally. Making labels too broad can end up glossing over differences that are significant to the people in the category. It’s kind of how the ‘hispanic’ label in the US ends up making people who all consider themselves the products of distinct nations and cultures one block of people.

  • I wouldn’t be shy of identifying as an atheist if I were sure I was an atheist, but I’m not totally convinced yet that there’s nothing out there, so I usually identify as agnostic. I should’ve mentioned that here, where I mentioned the “secular Jew” part.

  • Thanks for your comment, Loni. It’s so difficult to explain, I think, to folks who aren’t members of this community, but there are so many of us who feel similarly, no matter what words we use to identify ourselves.

  • invivoMark

    I don’t think anyone is denying that nonreligious Jewish identities exist. After all, the OP is a clear and undeniable example of it.

    Some of us are saying that those identities maybe shouldn’t exist. Or perhaps more specifically, the culture and traditions and kinship shouldn’t be divided on the line of who is and who isn’t Jewish.

    You can practice Jewish traditions and visit Holocaust museums without calling yourself a “cultural Jew.” You can appreciate Gothic cathedrals, the music of J.S. Bach, and the traditions of Christmas and Easter without being a “cultural Christian.”

  • Adam Chalom

    What Kate describes is essentially what Humanistic Judaism represents. Moment Magazine held an essay contest “what does it mean to be Jewish without belief in God” and got hundreds of entries, including many from our communities. Mine is at http://hjrabbi.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/being-jewish-god-optional/, and would be my comment here.

  • While I thank you for your passive aggressive & also vaguely homophobic well wishes, this is neither a phase nor a test. There are my views, this is my life, & this is how I will continue to identify. I was just trying to shed a little light on what I have seen to be a very common viewpoint that might be of interest &/or confusion to some atheists. I don’t begrudge you your atheist title or views, & it would certainly be lovely if you wouldn’t begrudge me the title or views I’ve chosen for myself, either.

  • i know a lot of people like you. mostly, i respect your right to choose your own labels. jewish culture is rich, and includes a lot of intellectual and cultural practices which are fun and interesting.

    but i’m a bit disturbed by people who think that jews, secular or otherwise, have an exclusive ‘right of return’ to palestine. i used to be much more pro-israel in my youth, but recent decades have cooled that in me. so much of the crap we deal with in the middle east has to do with the insistence that a religion can define that nation’s boundaries and citizens. like it or not, if you support the idea that jews have this “right,” you are supporting an intrinsically religious belief. cause if “god” didn’t “give” israel to the jews, well. it’s just another region of the world and anyone who lives there should have equal rights and opportunities to apply to live there.

    i’m of very mixed heritage. my ancestors and family have variously worshiped (in no particular significant order) Odin, The Great Spirit, Inanna, Christ, and YHWH and more. we also have eaten certain foods more than others, worn special clothes, honored poets and intellectuals who share our ancestry… culture is a fluid thing. this is also true for Jews, who have been an essential part of so many cultures it’s almost difficult to really identify “what is Jewish culture?”

    i guess to me the most important thing one can do, as an agnostic or atheist, is be consistent, intellectually and in personal practice. ask yourself: where does your belief that “israel is for jews” comes from? in the end, the answer can only be “because God says so.” the argument that “jews need a safe place for themselves” is highly problematic and ignores the hundreds of other oppressed minorities around the world who don’t get, for whatever reason, their own homeland. which is secured by billions of dollars of US military support each year, also. at the expense of the folks who had ancestors there too for thousands of years, but subscribe to a different faith.

  • My point exactly, perhaps worded a bit more succinctly. Thanks!

  • Eliot Parulidae

    This is a complicated issue. If we take a broad view, we are indeed all cousins. But if we’re discussing the Jewish community on its own (and I believe we are), then the relationship between the Holocaust and cultural identity takes on greater significance. It is my understanding that the catastrophic event radically altered Jewish self-perception. After reviewing just how thoroughly assimilated many German and French Jews had been, Jewish people all over the world became more pessimistic about prospects for perfect assimilation. It is now accepted by most that even if perfect assimilation is desired, anti-Semitism will not allow it. This attitude is evident in everyplace from Israeli politics to the novels of Philip Roth. Whether Jewish separateness translates to “specialness” is a matter of contentious internal debate, and it’s an area where religion does play more of a role (“Chosen People” and whatnot.)

    To avoid the perception that I’m being some kind of Holocaust snob, I shall note that observers of Romani culture have noted a similar long-term reaction.

  • Revid

    In the article you said you don’t believe in God. I think that is the definition of an atheist. By definition you are an atheist, now whether you want to be identified by that label is up to you. The position of atheist and theist is not the same as the dichotomy between a christian and a muslim. An atheist simply rejects the god hypothesis. Atheism is not a worldview. There is also no position that is in between atheist and theist, it is a binary state.

  • Eliot Parulidae

    I dispute your Holocaust museum claim. I have been interested in the subject for a long time, but I know that I probably wouldn’t have been a victim unless I decided to go against the security guard’s advice and become a f***ing hero. My intellectual understanding may be similar to that of many secular Jews, but my emotional reactions are going to be different. I’d say that “tender sympathy” and “gut-wrenching grief and dread” are two very different things.

  • Some of the language here is a result of the editing process between Hemant & me. In the very second paragraph of the piece, I write, “I don’t pray to God anymore because I am no longer sure that one exists.”

    “No longer sure” is pretty different than “I feel confident saying no God or gods exist.” An atheist is, per definition of the word, “a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.” I do not believe myself to BE an atheist under the terms & conditions of everything the word implies, & I will not begin identifying as one until/unless I’m certain I do.

  • Aernz

    Unfortunately dropping the ‘a’ from atheist, even as part of a contraction, sort of changes the meaning of the word into the completely opposite one that you’re trying to convey. I don’t think it’s a good label.

  • invivoMark

    Very few atheists are convinced that nothing is “out there.” Most are simply not convinced that something is.

  • By this definition, then, yes, perhaps I ought to start calling myself a Jewish atheist. Thanks for giving me something extra to think about!

  • Being an atheist and agnostic aren’t mutually exclusive. Here’s a quick graph to illustrate the concept.

  • toth

    But what is *Jewish* about that, rather than *Yiddish*?

  • toth

    That is…no help at all.

  • Boredagain

    More accurately, you are an agnostic atheist. Agnosticism/Gnosticism has to do with evidence, so you are agnostic. Atheist has to do with belief. If you do not believe, then
    you are an atheist. I am also and agnostic atheist, as I think most atheist are, since you would have to search the entire universe to be absolutely sure on the lack of evidence or an gnostic. Cheers!

  • CottonBlimp

    There’s a reason though that the textbooks only focus on Jews. Every time someone tries to mention, for example, the gay victims of the Holocaust there’s a massive outcry from conservative religious leaders.

    Denying the death and suffering of Jews in the Holocaust is one of the most sincerely repulsive things a person can do, and in a lot of the world it’s even illegal. But so many people think it’s somehow less bad to deny the mass incarceration, torture, and killing of the other groups in the camps.

    It boggles my mind how people can just outright hate the Romani in this day and age. I remember reading some internet wank about how Madonna made a public statement in Europe in support of gays and the travelers, and people from Europe were saying things like “Oh, it’s really unfair to compare gays to gypsies. Gypsies are actually awful!”

  • The problem with short bits like my post is that you don’t get the full understanding from a fully written article such as yours. Succinctness has its place in the twitterverse or comments sections, however I feel that something more verbose deals with the nuances and technical aspects of a discussion a lot better.

  • Bob Jase

    Not everyone is a foodie.

  • Anat

    There is much in Jewish culture that does not revolve about a deity. Folktales (many of them not involving YHWH), sayings, the way we argue, some of the values we emphasize. I am a Jewish atheist, or an atheist Jew, because my Jewish upbringing has an impact on my thinking as an atheist. My daughter will probably be just an atheist. Her upbringing is different than mine.

  • CottonBlimp

    That’s a bit obtuse.

    The issue is more that there’s not a clear semantic separation between ethnic Jewishness and religious Judaism. This is intentional on the part of religious Judaism – in the olden days, because people were actively killed or expelled for disobeying the theocracy, and more recently, because of the leftover customs of that theocracy and the desire of religious leaders to overstate their constituency.

    You might feel like Jews are being singled out for “celebrating their cultural heritage” just like everyone else, but its celebrated in a way unlike everyone else, as it’s just about the only ethnicity-based religion to survive into the modern world. The line between secular and religious traditions is dangerously blurred – like, for example, when even secular, liberal, well-educated parents send their children to Hebrew school to learn about “their history” from the Torah instead of actual history from credible sources. It’s like a German celebrating their history by reading Mein Kampf uncritically.

  • invivoMark

    Have you ever been to a Holocaust museum?

    I went to one in Berlin. It was fucking horrifying. You bet I felt gut-wrenching grief and dread. Here were the stories of innocent people who were subjected to the most inhumane torture, who were treated worse than cattle. People whose only crime was being born of the wrong parents. I saw old prison cells where victims were rounded up before they were shipped off to the camps. I still get shivers thinking about it.

  • CottonBlimp

    It’s calling yourself an ethnic Jew but not a religious Jew.

  • Anat

    Folk tales, some of which go back to pre-exilic times. Proverbs (not necessarily from the book by that name, though some of those too) and other sayings. Attitudes towards justice, social justice, charity – that vary in all sorts of ways from their equivalents in other neighboring cultures.

  • invivoMark

    What does food have to do with culture?

    I mean, I get that different cultures traditionally eat different food. A five-year-old could tell you that. But culture is supposed to define some essential quality of a person. In what way does the food someone eats define anything essential or important about a person?

  • The mistake that the author of this piece is making is the implication that these labels are mutually exclusive. Of course you can use or not use any labels you wish. I’m an agnostic atheist; I choose to simply use the label “atheist”. I don’t have to use the word agnostic to describe myself. However, if I were to say “I’m not agnostic” I would then be lying. Because words have meanings. A person who doesn’t not hold a belief in god(s) is called an atheist. This author is free to consider herself a Jew for whatever reasons she chooses, but she is still an atheist. And to claim not to be one is a lie.

  • Yiddish is (well, was) the language of the Ashkenazi Jewish community.

  • Anat

    Because they have a different history. A person who converts into Judaism (or becomes adopted into Humanistic Judaism) accepts the history and comes to share it. A non-Jewish member of semitic peoples does not.

  • What I was addressing here was that Dave Silverman does not believe that it is possible, appropriate, or OK to use the phrase “atheist Jew” or “Jewish atheist.” What I’m saying is that whatever you call my not-sure-about-God parts – agnostic, atheist, secular? – I’m always still going to be a Jew along with it.

  • Anat

    Jewishness (not Judaism) is an identity. All identities that go far back are based on some kind of fiction at some point (because it is impossible to capture all of one’s ancestry and impossible to transmit culture accurately down multiple generations).

  • You literally answered your own question with the second sentence of your post.

    Culture isn’t about a person as an individual. It’s about the group aspect that person belongs to.

  • Fallulah

    Yes, Atheism doesn’t deal with absolutes, it deals with beliefs. It is the rejection of a God claim due to lack of evidence. Personally I don’t know 100% that there isn’t ANYTHING that could remotely be like a god out in the Universe either…but I formulate my beliefs about the world on what I see and experience, and I have found the Religious claims of a god wanting…therefore I do not believe them.
    Atheists do not believe in a god, that’s it. Agnostics do not know if there is a god. They are not mutually exclusive. You can be an agnostic atheist…whereby you don’t know if there is a god and you don’t believe it.
    I think it is a common misunderstanding that Atheists are claiming there is no god. Maybe some of them do, but they would need to back that up and it’s hard to prove a negative.
    As for myself I don’t believe in a god and that is the usual definition of an Atheist.

  • Fallulah

    I understand this, but I still think if you are waiting for some evidence of this God that may or may not exist you might still fit under the Atheist umbrella. I am also an Atheist when it comes to Unicorns but I cannot say “I feel confident saying no Unicorns exist anywhere in the Universe”…I could never have that knowledge, but I do say, “I don’t believe there are unicorns cuz I haven’t seen any evidence”….I think most Atheists would agree, if there were some legitimate evidence for a god presented, we would change our beliefs.

  • Fair enough re: certainty, but I’m not waiting for anything. I don’t believe God is going to talk to me through a burning bush to convince me. I just haven’t reached a space where I feel comfortable saying “I don’t believe there is a God or gods.” If the time comes, I’ll change the way I identify, but for now, frankly, I don’t care that much about the language of my lack of belief. All I wanted to convey here was that there are many self-identified Jews, like me, who don’t believe in God or are not sure they believe in God but will continue to identify as Jews. Silverman says we can’t or shouldn’t, & I just wanted to present a dissenting opinion.

  • Anat

    Ahem. Zoroastrianism. Hinduism. The Druze religion. All ethinicity-based religions.

    Once upon a time all religions were ethnically-based. With the rise of empires there was the imperial religion in addition to the ethnic religions. Then with the rise of non-ethnic monotheistic religions there arose religions that sought to be universal. Those who refused to join universal religions (or religions with universal aspirations) retained ethnic religions by default.

  • I never said “Israel is for Jews” or talked at all about “right of return,” so I’d like to politely opt out of this conversation. It’s not a topic I have fully formed opinions on or that is of particularly compelling interest to me, & I don’t believe I’m qualified to speak to it.

  • Fallulah

    Fair enough, it was a good article and food for thought. I am just glad enough that you identify as Secular, cuz in the end we are all going to believe different things, but we must be able to live in a free society that is amenable to everyone.

  • my apologies if you meant something other than what i understand the meaning of the term “Birthright” to mean in the case of Israel.

  • Taglit Birthright Israel is an organization that provides free trips to Israel for young Jews ages 18-26 to experience the country for the first time. The organization does not address politics or specifics related to the conflict in the Middle East; rather, they try to foster connections between young Jews & Israel as a country/people/place so they can decide the rest for themselves.

  • Anat

    Jewish nationalism stems (among other sources) from the same source as other old-world national movements – the nationalistic sentiment that arose in post-Napoleonic Europe.

  • Anat

    Food is one of those elements of culture that tends to get preserved a couple more generations than other things such as language. Probably because children of immigrants are raised on the foods their parents make, while speaking the language of their friends. You have to live in rather isolated circumstances for your child to use the ‘old country’ language more than the local one, but no need for isolation for the child to eat mostly food from the ‘old country’.

  • The Vicar

    Lessee, here. I don’t think I’ve heard ANYONE live in, to pursue the example, Minnesota, and call themselves Zoroastrian in preference to something else. So that example is no good.

    Same goes for the Druze.

    And as for Hinduism, the Hindus I’ve met in America generally are pretty straightforward about separating ethnicity/country of origin from religion. They might very well call themselves “Indian” while living in Minnesota, but they would be unlikely to call themselves “Hindu”.

    It’s really only the Jews who blur this line on a regular basis, and from articles like this one, it’s pretty clear that the blurring is intentional — and aids the dubious religion for no very good reason. All the more reason to put an end to it.

  • baal

    As a bi-male who isn’t going back to being ‘straight’ any time soon nor will I be giving up my wife, fuck off. I fully accept my sexuality and I’m not hiding it from my wife or other folks to whom it’s relevant. I get tired of hearing how I don’t exist.

  • Revid

    ::”No longer sure” is pretty different than “I feel confident saying no God or gods exist.”

    The degree of confidence is irrelevant in this binary position. You either believe that a god exists or you do not. From the article and the discussion you have had here it is quite clear that you are an atheist. Please don’t take this as me telling you what you believe or being antagonistic.

    I think another way of looking at this is; you are an Ape right? Yes, so am I. This doesn’t mean you have to go around introducing yourself as an ape. However, you are an ape whether you want to be or not. The moment you make the proclamation “I believe in god” is the moment that you will not be an atheist anymore.

    ::”I will not begin identifying as one until/unless I’m certain I do.”

    That is fine, you can identify yourself by whatever you want. But you are still an atheist 😛

  • The Vicar

    So, if it gets translated, it’s… suddenly not Jewish? Or if it’s still Jewish, then it should be possible to explain what makes it specifically Jewish. And then, perhaps, while you’re at it, you could explain why, say, Jewish folklore is reserved only for Jews, while (for example) Aesop’s Fables aren’t reserved only for Greeks, or why Jewish theater is reserved only for Jews while Shakespeare’s plays aren’t reserved only for the English. (There’s no traditional Jewish animation, so there’s no point in comparing it with Japanese anime, but the latter certainly does well in other countries.)

    And once you realize that the whole distinction is artificial and would be massively offensive if applied to anything else, which makes you a terrible hypocrite for defending it, we can talk about things like food.

  • If the opposite of atheist is “I believe in God,” then shouldn’t atheists be aligned with the line “I don’t believe in God”? Right now, I’m at, “I may or may not believe in God,” & I am not comfortable calling myself either an atheist or a religious person, period, as both feel, yes, too binary & extreme for my actual feelings & beliefs. If it makes YOU feel more comfortable to call me an atheist, so be it, though it would be nice to simply be respected for the language I have chosen for myself. I suppose that’s often too much to ask, isn’t it?

  • epistememe

    So if most of my own culture is based on a ~2,000 year history of it being Christian and my ethnic background (Greek) is one that also has a similar history of being Christian, and I currently frequently participate in Christian inspired holidays, traditions, etc. and much of my morality and point of view is at least partially derived from my Christian heritage……

    Should I call myself a Christian despite not believing in god or any of the religious nonsense?

    Your argument would seem to indicate that I should.

  • toth

    I’m still not clear how one could identify with “folk tales”. And I certainly don’t understand how “Attitudes towards justice, social justice, charity” belong distinctly to a culture. Even within Judaism, there is a great deal of disagreement over such things–see, for instance Reform Jews vs. Ultra-orthadox Jews. Surely one of those is not “more Jewish” than the other, are they?

  • invivoMark

    … and then I clarified the question and explained why I don’t think the second sentence of my post is a satisfying answer.

    Did you read my whole post?

  • toth

    I understand that, my point is that Yiddish is a language, not an ethnicity. Also, very few, if any, Jews (secular or religious) speak Yiddish anymore, so I have trouble seeing how that can be considered enough part of an ethnicity that it provides a common label for religious and nonreligious Jews. That is, if there were people who spoke Yiddish some of whom were religious and some of whom were not, I could see that as “Jewish culture” that could include secular folk. But that’s clearly not the case.

  • Madison Blane

    I think every person has a right to decide for themselves exactly how they want to be identified. If Dave doesn’t want to be identified as Jewish and finds he is more aptly identified as strictly Atheist, then that’s what he is. But I don’t think he has the right to make that determination for the rest of the Jewish/Atheist community – of which there are obviously MANY. Those people have the right to be called Secular Jews, Atheist Jews, or just Jewish and if you want to know more….ask!

  • Anat

    They are all Jewish in different ways. We disagree on implementation, but we quote the same sources (whether that’s Amos or Maimonides), at least some of the time.

  • CottonBlimp

    I think if someone called themselves an atheist Hindu or an atheist Druze, I’d have the same position.

    (Also, isn’t Zoroastrianism an “imperial” religion? It was the state church of a few different empires)

  • Anat

    If you moved to a place where the Chrisitian religion was never dominant but some other religion was, you might notice how the Chrisitian influence on your culture made you different from the people around you and you might want to describe yourself in those terms. While living in a place where Christianity is or was the majority religion it is the non-Chrisitian aspects you would emphasize more.

  • Proteus

    Yeah we get it she doesn’t mind being part of a primitive desert cult.

  • moose

    I think part of the problem is that most people simply don’t want to hear about hatred and genocide. “Never again” has come to mean “never again will the world look on while Germans kill Jews in the 1940s.” It’s not just the other victims of Nazism that are ignored–it’s the victims of every mass killing that has occurred since. In the U.S., conservative religious leaders don’t want to hear about violence unless the discussion is about the Holocaust/Israel or Christians being killed. The phrase “never again” makes people feel good about themselves and allows them to continue hating whichever group they decide to hate.

  • toth

    But that doesn’t answer my question; you said that (part of) what makes someone “Jewish” (as opposed to simply, “follows the religion of Judaism”) is a certain attitude or set of attitudes towards justice etc. But if there’s not a (set of) attitude(s) in common among Jewish people towards those things, then what does that mean? It seems like, even just within the religious Jewish community, there’s as much variation in attitude as within humanity as a whole.

  • And once you realize that the whole distinction is artificial and would be massively offensive if applied to anything else, which makes you a terrible hypocrite for defending it, we can talk about things like food.

    Well, when you go ahead and indicate that you have no actual interest in an answer to your question because you have prejudged the character of the response (and the person making it if you don’t like that answer), why would I spend the effort in answering it?

  • epistememe

    Well, I have lived in Asia for a period of time, does that count? Should I call myself a Christian if I live in Asia?

  • peter taylor

    The point I’m making is that “Jew” is a religion which one can opt out of, Eshkenazi is actually an ethnicity which one can not opt of of.

  • epistememe
  • Yes I did, which explains the second sentence in my reply.

    Did you read my whole post?

  • AskAnAtheistBecky

    One of the things I will treasure from my after-school Hebrew School experience is that our middle and high school curriculum was split between learning Hebrew & liturgy, and then culture/history. We made a family tree, studied the Inquisition and Iberian expulsion, read Latin American Jewish authors, did Israeli dance, learned holiday cooking…history was always billed as separate from Torah study and worship.

  • AskAnAtheistBecky

    Yeah, we get it. You don’t mind dismissing the human experience of individuals you deem yourself superior to.

  • AskAnAtheistBecky

    This is a hilarious question, given that “Yid” means “Jew.” And it’s sort of like asserting that there’s nothing specifically *Navajo* about a bunch of oral histories recorded by Dine speakers.

  • AskAnAtheistBecky

    Forgive me, but I’m going to pathologize Judaism here for a moment to see if the analogy helps to clarify. You know how someone diagnosed with a syndrome answers affirmatively on many items on a questionnaire of about 25 items? But how not every one applies to every “Syndromed” person, and how some might apply to non-syndromed people? Imagine the same for Jews. Non-religious people still clear the threshold for a diagnosis of “Jew.” Some non-Jews will answer affirmatively for a few items. Judaism might be co-morbid with some other identity. But Jewish people share a certain common constellation, and religious belief might not always be included for those that share enough of the constellation to warrant the diagnosis.

  • To the extent that a culture can be viewed as the way in which an individual voluntarily submerges part of their identity to hold things in common with others, the heritage of the works produced in a language can certainly qualify. Shakespeare’s works, for example, are part of the cultural heritage that English speakers (of all nationalities) share, not least because his works had a profound impact on the resulting language as well as being a beautiful expression of that language that are best appreciated in their original tongue; translation is a tricky business which is lossy even when done expertly, as some connotation and even denotation is necessarily lost.

    And each language adds a peculiar richness to expression, each language has idiosyncratic strengths of diction and onomatopoetics and idiom that make each have a texture not duplicable by others. Each language developed in different conditions, alongside different histories, and due to the experience and the dynamics of language innovation in response to local conditions develop connotative nuance about different topics and concepts, such that it takes one word in that language to describe the concept what it takes a whole sentence or even several sentences to reproduce in another.

    This is one of the primary features of language that drives modern international English to become the great cannibal of languages that it is, it’s peculiar flexibility being the ease with which it assimilates the diction strengths of others, stealing words that have the desired connotation and integrating them within the English language framework.

    Language is only one feature of culture, obviously, and there are several others (stories, heroes, cuisine, history, shared values, geography, and so forth being a representative but far from exhaustive list). Some folks get tripped up by assuming culture must be strictly exclusive, that it is something which marks some few as completely in and all others as completely out, which is a somewhat binary way of thinking about messy human social phenomena to begin with. I would say, rather, that a person can be immersed in culture to different amounts with their identification with a culture at least partly volitional (you have to choose, on some level, to participate). Obviously an outsider or a tourist or a dilettante or a dabbler can get something out of foreign practices simply through attempting to observe and participate, but generally they get something different out of it–and not as much–as a person who strongly identifies with a cultural tradition and has since they were young.

  • AskAnAtheistBecky

    “if there were people who spoke Yiddish some of whom were religious and
    some of whom were not, I could see that as “Jewish culture” that could
    include secular folk”

    You posit this as a hypothetical. It is absolutely a reality. Familiarize yourself with the Arbeter Ring/Workmens Circle. I have no idea how you could be honestly arguing this while assuming that the only speakers of Yiddish were religious.

    Being monolingual (or 1-language dominant) in a substrate dominated by another language tends to isolate individuals within an enclave, thereby breeding cultural distinctiveness. Of course there’s a non-religious component of Yiddish culture; and because very few non-Jews participated in this culture, Yiddish culture remained distinctly Jewish.

  • Peter Veitch

    Not exactly news that there are many secular Jewish people. I suspect it might be a tad OTT to ask them to renounce being Jewish ( is that even possible ?). I don’t see “atheist ” and “Jewish ” as mutually exclusive. An interesting debate point to raise , gets people talking, yay , however I think Kate has the upper hand on this. Agree that people should come out as atheist ( generally, I would caution against this where one’s life might be in danger , eg fanatic places with Sharia law etc).

  • Proteus

    I’m don’t consider myself anything. Just calling a spade a spade.
    Hell, I was catholic for 20+ years and that doesn’t stop me from calling it a death cult.

  • A3Kr0n

    No his mind is not for rent
    To any god or government
    Always hopeful, yet discontent
    He knows changes aren’t permanent
    But change is.

  • garic

    But she also said “So no, I don’t believe in God”, which I would have thought makes her an atheist, whether she’s sure or not. I’d guess that the vast majority atheists are also agnostic insofar as they don’t claim 100% certainty (which tends, in my experience, to be the preserve of the religious).

  • garic

    (Ah, I see Kate is engaged in a discussion on this very point below!)

  • Hypnox

    You didn’t really read all the words very carefully, did you? Fuck off right back atcha. Next time I’ll post something with pictures you can colour, just for you.

  • Soren

    This is pretty much my relationship with Hinduism. Although you could argue I’m sort of a Buddhist.

  • Madison Blane

    And I’d like to say THANK YOU for standing up for, not only yourself, but all the other secular/atheist/agnostic Jewish people who should be respected in the way they wish to be identified. I find Dave Silverman to be quite presumptuous (on several things lately, in fact) especially when he seems to be telling all other Jewish people: choose one or the other but you can’t have both (as if he owns words Atheist and Jewish and has the right to tell people who can use them). Dave is perfectly welcome to speak for himself but he shouldn’t be speaking for the millions of other people who wish to maintain a connection to their Jewish identity.

  • smrnda

    I said food is *one aspect of culture* not that food was the *only* or *most salient* aspect of a culture. This is usually because people ate what they could grow or obtain locally, and sometimes retained these preferences (or brought the crops with them) when they moved elsewhere. I live in a town with a large Indian population, where Indian food and grocery stores are very common. A little bit ago, despite being an atheist Jews, I made latkes for Hanukkah, mostly so that people I know *who are not Jewish at all* could try them. At a recent Indian film festival where a few Indian directors visited the town, Indian food was served and we all got to talk about how cinema from different cultures is both unique, and how everyone borrows from someone else.

    Yes, there are other aspects of culture – cultures have artistic, literary and musical traditions. Take a look at Eastern European art and then compare that to art from Western European countries and you can see a huge difference. Take how the blank stage tradition in the UK means the BBC can put on TV shows with such minimal production values compared to what would be considered necessary in the US (not sure if this is still the case, but some Tom Baker era Doctor Who looks like it was filmed in someone’s basement.) What games do people play? What occupations do people aspire to? How much do people value home ownership? How do families view the role of grandparents, aunts, uncles? What goes on at a wedding? A funeral? Do people value explicit communication or prefer to use implicit, context-based language? How big of a faux pas is losing your temper and yelling at someone? Do people expect you to smile? If you eat at say, a Polish or Czech restaurant, the servers will seem *very not friendly* by US standards, but it’s just that the expectations are different. Their job is to get you your food and your beer, not to give you an ego boost.

    Culture is a lot of things, food is just one thing I tend to notice since I’ve spent enough time living around people who aren’t from my culture to realize that it’s a seemingly minor but incredibly noticeable difference.

  • smrnda

    As an atheist/secular Jew, I feel like the secular/atheist Hindu experience seems quite similar to me.

  • smrnda

    No, but even once you translate something, it retains a lot of influence from the culture and language that produced it.

    Anything can be translated, but translation is an art form and it takes someone who knows both the original and target language/culture to really do an effective job, and understanding a work in translation can require a bit of understanding of the culture it came from. This is why books tend to have things like footnotes – from your mention of anime, I’ve seen anime fan subs that will occasionally explain Japanese language wordplay or some cultural reference that non-Japanese viewers might not be familiar with. And, as something like anime becomes popular, more people become familiar with Japanese culture. I’m not suggesting that Yiddish language theater or literature is inaccessible in translation, just that it would require some skill at translating and understanding much of it would require some familiarity with ashkenazi culture. That’s the same with any work. If I see an Indian film, it’s worth noting that sometimes I miss what’s going on because either I don’t know something about Indian history, cinematic conventions, or sometimes I’m unaware or regional differences that matter, or linguistic issues. The fact that one character in a scene speaks in Hindi and another character speaks in Bengal might be relevant, and I usually have to ask someone to explain what that might suggest if I even notice. I may walk away *thinking* I get a film but I missed a lot, but that’s the whole deal with any art form.

    Or let’s take Shakespeare. I’m no Shakespeare expert, but when I see a play by Shakespeare, I usually end up being consciously aware of certain conventions that existed during his time that help me understand what’s going on and how I can’t watch “Hamlet” in the same way that I might watch a play by Tennessee Williams. In fact, I’d say that I’m probably not really from the target culture of Tennessee Williams, so I have to rely on some amount of background information to *get* what’s going on even there, or with any writer from the Southern US.

    So let’s take Aesop’s Fables. They’ve been being translated for a really long time, in various times and places, and from my own experience with looking at different English language translations they can differ quite a lot from each other, reflecting the fact that translation is, to some extent, an act of recreation. In a sense, reading works from the Greek or the Latin was standard practice for educated Europeans for a long time, so Aesop’s Fables are *part* of European culture (as opposed to say, just Greek culture) in a way that a less known work from a different culture would *not be* – Arabian Nights is another work that’s attained great fame among Europeans, and how well preserved it was from its target culture is open to debate, mostly because translators tended to edit it either to remove what they considered immoral or obscene or make it more palatable for European audiences. How accurate is Fitzgerald’s “Rubaiyyat?”

    My point in mentioning Yiddish theater and literature is that it’s one aspect of Jewish culture which exists that isn’t necessarily religious. Yes, you can translate it, but even in translation, a Yiddish language play will likely be different than an Elizabethan drama, even once they’re both put in the same language.

    I wouldn’t deny that some works end up being or seeming more universal than others and some translate easier, but if you’ve talked much with translators or processed lots of media from cultures other than you’re own, you’d realize that the idea that everything is just ‘universally human’ and can be translated easily without losing anything is not always true. In the end, the things you can translate the easiest end up being something like Samuel Beckett’s WHAT WHERE? which is so abstract that it ends up being equally weird and foreign in any language.

  • toth

    Considering that no Jewish person speaks Yiddish anymore, it’s pretty clear that Yiddish is not even part of what makes someone (ethnically) Jewish.

  • toth

    But I don’t consider myself English just because I speak the language of Shakespeare (roughly speaking).

  • smrnda

    The erasure of gay victims is 100% conservative religious types refusal to acknowledge gay victims, and it pisses me off to one end since not only do we have the denial that there were gay victims, but we have the whole ‘all the Nazis were gay pink swastika’ bullshit circulating.

    And regrettably, I worry the ‘never again’ is an empty slogan given the anti-Romani sentiment in Europe, which strikes me as racism so blatant that I can’t imagine people aren’t ashamed to express such opinions openly. I mean, go back to where they came from? Why them, alone, given the whole history of human migration and the fact that there’s been a lot of population movement throughout Europe for quite some time?

  • toth

    And I imagine most Jews, secular or not, would be able to claim the same ethnicity, by the same token.

  • smrnda

    I also don’t like it that the huge numbers of civilian casualties and atrocities in China are forgotten, but I meet Americans who can’t tell Chairman Mao from Kim Il-Sung, and who think the ‘cultural revolution’ was some artsy phase.

  • smrnda

    Actually, that’s false. In some parts of NY Russian Jews still speak Yiddish, and some Russian emigres to Israel still speak it amongst themselves (to the best of my knowledge.) I have heard it spoken in Chicago as well.

    It’s certainly on the decline, but not extinct yet.

  • I… what? No, this is not what I mean. What I’m trying to convey is exactly this: that I identify with Jewish culture & peoplehood even if not with the religious aspects. But they’re all lumped together under the term “Jewish,” & so I still identify as Jewish.

    As a Polish person, you can enjoy anyone’s cooking you damn well please; but if you identify also as German, do you have to stop being identifying as Polish? Of course not. For many of us, “Jewish” is an ethnicity, a culture, a heritage, just like being Polish or German or anything else. But no one would ever ask you to stop identifying as Polish, because Polish is a nationality &, many say, “Jewish is a religion.” But for a people who didn’t have a country, Jewish is more than a religion – it’s a nationality without a nation.

    I’m just trying to say, as many have said before me & will after, that Judaism is more than just religion. It has its roots in religion, but it has come to represent an entire culture & community that is not always or necessarily based in religion – & I (& many like me!) identify strongly with those elements of it. Just like you’d probably never stop identifying with Polishness, no matter what religious views you adopted, neither can I stop identifying as Jewish, even if I don’t believe in the religious elements of Judaism-The-Religion. What I’m saying is that the religion & the culture, in this case, are called the same thing.

  • toth

    I didn’t say that the only people who spoke Yiddish were religious, I said Yiddish is obviously not what it means to be Jewish. I doubt the OP speaks Yiddish, none of the secular Jews I know speak Yiddish, but the OP claims that such people should still be considered Jewish. Yiddish was offered as a non-religious part of “Jewishness”, and I was responding to that.

  • smrnda

    True, but imagine how much in common an English person has with an English speaker familiar with English language literature from another country just by sharing so much shared culture.

    I am not ethnically English, but living in the US and reading English language literature, including British literature, means I have certain bits of British culture in my brain in a way that I don’t really have little bits of other cultures. When I read a reference to the “east end of London” I know that this has tended to be *not the most affluent and nice area* of London historically, that Manchester is a northern and historically Industrial area, and I know what Punch and Judy are, and that the classics (Greek and Latin) were revered in high class English schools for a longer time than elsewhere. Bits and pieces of course, but more than I have for a lot of the globe.

  • toth

    Alright, *pretty much* no one. And certainly not every Jewish person.

  • smrnda

    I was talking about historically. Sanskrit isn’t exactly the language of everyday conversation in India, but I wouldn’t say Sanskrit poetry isn’t an aspect of Indian culture.

  • You really missed the “friendly” part of “Friendly Atheist,” huh? A shame.

  • But to the extent you speak English and enjoy the fruits of the language, you are a participant in English culture. Hence my comment about culture not being an all-or-nothing thing; the title that one chooses, the culture that one picks as the one they most closely identify with, that is not dominated ultimately by anything except a choice (though that choice can be constrained by pragmatic concerns; it would, for example, be difficult to sincerely declare an allegiance with a culture one knows nothing about).

  • toth

    And I had no idea of those associations in England. Does that mean you’re “more ethnically English” than I am? Or just that you’ve happened to learn more about England than I have? And say you became a devoted anglophile, and learned everything you could about England–would that make you ethnically English?

    And couldn’t a Jewish person who grew up with a similar education to yours make the same claim? Or an African immigrant? I’m not seeing how being exposed to a culture affects your ethnicity.

  • smrnda

    You are a bit off. My family is made of Jews from mostly Lvov, which was in Poland and now is in Ukraine. However, I wouldn’t say I share the same culture with your average person from Poland or Ukraine or their descendants because of the influence of Christianity on those cultures.

  • TychaBrahe

    Except that Ashkenazi is about which Halacha you follow. When I kept Passover, I wasn’t allowed beans. The Sephardim were.

  • Revid

    Kate, I think the main issue here is that you haven’t spent a whole lot of time thinking about these terms. When you say – “I may or may not believe in God” you are making a nonsensical statement. You either believe the claim that a god exists, or you reject it. You cannot have a little of both or be in between. Until you come to the belief that a god exists, usually through faith or evidence, then you do not believe. I am not trying to put words in your mouth but it sounds like you do not believe that a god exists.

    What you are perceiving as being “in between” is actually a good thing because you have not been convinced that a god or gods exist. It is not good because I agree with the conclusion, it is good because you are being skeptical about a claim. I do not believe that unicorns exist in our natural world. I could say that I am in between belief and non belief so that I don’t take a side but if I am honest with myself I will just say that I don’t believe because I have not been convinced that they exist.

    ::”If it makes YOU feel more comfortable to call me an atheist, so be it, though it would be nice to simply be respected for the language I have chosen for myself.”::

    I don’t care about being comfortable with someone elses beliefs, you just seemed like a person who is interested in this topic so I thought I would have a discussion with you and point out where I think you might be mistaken. I respect you but I don’t respect the misrepresentation of what beliefs are.

  • toth

    And I’m talking about the present–the topic of this post is (present day) atheists who call themselves Jewish. Yiddish is clearly not a part of that, or not a very significant part, or else why would so many people still identify as Jewish despite having little to no exposure to Yiddish (at least, not any more than the rest of us).

  • Madison Blane

    I’d like to point out, also, that Jews are not the only people who wish to return (at least to visit), at some point in their lifetime, to the place where their ancestors were born, to learn their language, learn from their past, and/or understand their religion and traditions. This desire doesn’t imply any ‘right of return’ or right to the land, regardless of past or present territorial conflicts; it doesn’t imply support of any war efforts (past or present) on the part of that country’s leaders.

    My husband and I both want our children to feel the same appreciation and strong connections that we have to the places our ancestors immigrated from, appreciate their cultures, to know their stories, learn from the histories they lived through and (hopefully someday) visit our ‘birthright’ countries with us. We do not have to approve of those countries’ past (or present) actions, leaders, or political views (any more than we have to always approve of American actions, leaders, or political views). I don’t need to approve of those things in order to wish to see the country of my forefathers and the cities of their birth or to love hearing the religious stories that originated there, celebrate holidays, marvel at the beautiful scenery (both man-made and natural), enjoy the unique foods or appreciate the many areas of culture that I DO connect with!

  • If you like, an effective metaphor could be hashtags. A person participates, these days, in several cultures to a greater or lesser extent, and these could be like hashtags that attach to the person, indicate the cultures in which they participate (willingly or otherwise); but a person can also choose (consciously or not) to elevate one of those tags above others if they feel that that tag describes them more completely than any other, that their participation in it defines them strongly.

    A person who uses English as their primary language participates in English culture whether they like it or not, but it may be something that amounts to trivia to them when it comes to how important it is to them. They may choose a different aspect, like the origins of their ancestors, or their religious beliefs, or the cuisine, or cultural practices as the part with which they actively identify, where they become willing to identify explicitly as a member of that culture.

  • TychaBrahe

    We’ve been reading all week about people who want us to know that it’s OK to be into Christmas for the food, family, and fun. Christmas can be Christmas without Christ.

    Why can’t atheists of Jewish origins celebrate Hanukkah in the same way?

  • toth

    But the only factor anyone in this thread has pointed to as part of the *content* of the Jewish culture (that is not part of the Jewish religion) is Yiddish, which pretty clearly doesn’t have much effect on the indivduals in question apart from a few words here and there that have survived (leaving aside a few small, isolated, and probably religious communities as mentioned elsewhere).

  • smrnda

    Ok. I will explain a few things.

    I am not English at all. My ethnicity remains as it is. But, because I speak the language (English) and because reading literature written in English, by British authors is common in schools in the US, I have a few bits of information in my head (possibly outdated for all I know) about the UK that, in a sense, serves as some connection that I have with the UK that I do not have with most other countries because a greater language barrier exists. I’m probably still a cultural illiterate when it comes to things British, but less so than I would be with many other places.

    I can also speak some German, so I can say, watch German films and *get* them better than I can films where I don’t speak the language at all. I’m just saying that knowing a language gets you some amount of literacy about a place or culture, even if it isn’t much.

    My brother is a translator who lives in China. He is not Chinese, but being there, he’s familiar with certain things about Chinese culture that I am not, and that I have not become familiar with during my short visits. When he is in the States and happens to run into someone from China, he ends up having all sorts of long, involved conversations about things I know nothing about.

  • To give you a small real world example, a friend of mine who identifies as a secular Jew who was raised in a Unitarian church, when she got married, included in the ceremony the Jewish wedding custom of the breaking of the glass. This custom has a religious significance, certainly (associated with remembering the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem), but also has secular significance (the destruction of a homeland and the beginning of the final Diaspora). So, she participated in a Jewish cultural tradition through the utilization of a ceremony of Jewish origin in a way that was important to her.

  • Soren

    I have met very few other atheist/secular Hindus, but from what I understand, it is on the rise in India and with the Indian community in America and Britain.

  • toth

    Sure, and I celebrate Christmas and Easter (secularly), I understand liking certain traditions. But I wouldn’t call myself a “secular Christian” or “Christian atheist”. I think most people would probably agree that’s nonsense. So I don’t think maintaining certain traditions is, in and of itself, enough to make someone still a part of a given culture or ethnicity.

  • I think most people would probably agree that’s nonsense.

    This is one of those areas where it is not clear to me at all why what most people think should matter. Is there some specific utility to being rigorous about what criteria by which a person chooses or is identified with a culture?

  • Hibernia86

    I agree with this writer. The word “Jew” has three meanings: religious Judaism, cultural Judaism, and biological Judaism. You can be biologically Jewish without being culturally or religiously Jewish. You can be religiously Jewish without being culturally or biologically Jewish (though that one is harder since so much of Jewish culture is in the religion and Jews aren’t known for evangalizing).

  • toth

    > This is one of those areas where it is not clear to me at all why what most people think should matter.

    Because labels only have utility to the extent that they communicate something meaningful to other people.

    > Is there some specific utility to being rigorous about what criteria by which a person chooses or is identified with a culture?

    I don’t particularly care what culture someone wishes to identify with, I just don’t understand why an atheist would choose to identify with a culture that is, by nature, primarily religious. It doesn’t bother me, I’m just trying to comprehend what they mean.

  • Hibernia86

    I disagree with LizzyJessie’s chart below. To me an Atheist is someone who says “There is no evidence for God which means there probably isn’t a God”. An Agnostic is someone who says “There is no evidence for God, but I’m not sure at all whether or not there is a God. It could go either way. There is 50/50 chance.” and a Theist is someone who says “There is evidence or faith in God which means that God exists”.

    Someone can be slightly one way or another, but I think that these definitions are far more helpful than the ones LizzyJessie provides.

  • Cat MacKinnon

    FWIW, the author is in good company; there are plenty of “secular Jews” and i don’t see what the big deal is to Silverman (Rush’s Geddy Lee is a good example: he says he occasionally celebrates some Jewish traditions, especially around the holidays, but he has no belief in a god or interest in religion.) i think i get Silverman’s point in a way, but i also don’t understand why he thinks it needs to be a “thing”, and why certain people MUST identify themselves in such a specific way. that sounds a little ridiculous. it also sounds kinda like some shit a Christian pastor would say, “You need to PROCLAIM YOURSELF!”

    i have a lot of respect for Silverman and AA in general, but i also think he tends to be unnecessarily confrontational at times. he also seems to forget that he doesn’t speak for everyone he feels he represents, and shouldn’t try to dictate how they should act or identify themselves; it’s a bit hypocritical on his part.

    i can’t ever recall any atheist ever giving two shits over whether a non-religious Jew explicitly calls themselves an atheist…but that’s probably because most of us also don’t give two shits over something as utterly, ridiculously petty.

  • OK, I think we’re done here. You’re missing the overall point of my piece, which is not actually about my personal beliefs or asking for anyone’s assistance in defining them.

    You don’t have to respect “misrepresentation of what beliefs are,” whatever that means (& it means nothing); call me an atheist if you like. I don’t much care, though I’d rather you not hang out here while you continue to impress upon me how wrong/misguided/uneducated you feel I am.

    I’m a liberal, science-loving, church/state-upholding, equality-fighting, committed Jew whose beliefs in God/gods happen to be as yet undefined. If that’s what you call an atheist, fine; that’s not the word I use to describe or identify myself, & frankly, it shouldn’t matter to you or anyone else on this site or in the world. I’d rather be defined by my actions & values, anyway.

  • CottonBlimp

    I feel you on that.

    The weirdest thing is how widespread some racist memes are. I’ve seen some people, without irony, criticize America for its racism towards Africans and Hispanics, then claim that their hatred of Romani isn’t racism because they’re all a bunch of lazy criminals who live off welfare and cheat the system and can’t be allowed in civilized society. I was amazed at how word-for-word they were copying white supremacists.

  • smrnda

    In some ways, Christmas or Easter become so entrenched in a culture that they end up having so many non-religious aspects that you can pretty much do Xmas or Easter and just skip the church service, and you’ve done just about everything most people do. Another issue is, when a religion is dominant in a nation, it’s holidays and such become national affairs. Xmas and Easter were also mixed with other pre-Christian holidays, traditions and rituals as well.

  • smrnda

    That sounds exactly like the Americans who say “I’m not racist, I don’t dislike Asians but those lazy criminal Black welfare queens blah blah.” Yeah, everybody else’s racism is ignorance, and *their own racism* is the result of knowledge. It’s the same bullshit everybody pulls trying to justify a prejudice.

  • smrnda

    No, my main point is, living in the US, I get sick of the ‘why can’t we all be Americans’ deal. I don’t think Jews are singled out at all on this – you get this whenever somebody gets pissed off that at a labor rally someone flies a Mexican flag, or that we have a Black history month and not a white history month, or when I hear some jackass complain about people speaking languages other than English in public (because, apparently, freedom of speech only exists if you speak in English?) In the US, I don’t think people *think* about Jews enough to resent them having a separate culture, but I note that plenty of people resent Black people or Latinos for doing so, even when these (often) white people take visible pride in their own particular heritage.

    Sorry I wasn’t clear on that, I should have pointed out who I tend to think gets the most shit for having their own culture in the States, and it isn’t *me*.

  • smrnda

    It can also be that Christian traditions become part of a national identity to the extent where they can’t be easily separated.

    I see this in some sense because my brother lives in China and I now have some Chinese relatives. There are many Chinese holidays or rituals that trace back to some specific spiritual belief which few people believe in, but people still engage in the practices regardless. It’s hard for me to put a label on it, but I’m not obsessed with doing so.

  • Revid

    That’s fine, I was definitely way off topic so it is fair that you would want to end the conversation. I just want you to know that this wasn’t a personal attack. I hope you don’t take any offense to what I have said, I meant it to be a conversation not a heated argument.

  • No worries, & I apologize, too, if I came off as defensive. Sometimes I get nervous about having personal pieces published & get a little worked up about the feedback! I definitely feel like some of the comments here, yours included, have given me a few things to think about. I appreciate that, as well as the opportunity so share my views with some similarly minded folks – even if we may not always agree on some of the language or the specifics.

  • Anat

    Yiddish has many loanwords from Hebrew (like many other Jewish languages – according to my 11 grade history teacher there used to be several dozens of them).

    And there is quite a lot of secular Yiddish literature.

  • Anat

    You would understand better if you had been raised in a minority religion and minority ethnic group. Identities exist meaningfully in contrast with other identities. When you come in contact with the majority group and feel like you don’t quite belong you find where the difference comes from and claim that as your identity.

  • Anat

    It’s not any specifics, it’s the fact that because of shared cultural sources a conversation about social justice I can have with a fellow Jew who was also raised on the same sources would be different from a conversation I’d have with a non-Jew on the same. In that sense my Jewishness is like a fandom – we have our memes and references that don’t mean much to outsiders.

  • Anat

    Zoroastrianism is no longer the state religion of any empire. People are Zoroastrians if they were raised in it, and that generally follows ancestry, there have been few if any converts in a long time, and as a result the followers of this religion also share an ethnicity.

  • Anat

    How much were you immersed in the local culture? How often did you run into culture-clash while interacting with local people? And when that happened, how often was the underlying cultural difference traceable to something that came from being raised in a culture that had a long history of Chrisitian influence?

  • Don Lodsky

    Look, if you are am Atheist and want to continue to insist you are Christian, Jewish,m Muslim, etc. by all means do so. All I ask in return is the right to reject an identity that I do consider myself to be a part of, and not to be identified that way by other people. Seriously, I just don’t get formerly-Jewish atheists’ insistence on holding to the idenity of the religion and culture they clearly reject when formerly Christian atheists have no problem dumping a Christian identity.

  • Randay

    Not this again. If you are the Kate who wrote above, there are several errors of which I will mention only a few:

    “I’m Jewish because, like Dave Silverman, I am the child of Jews” No. A child of Xians is not a Xian and a child of Muslims is not a Muslim. All children are born atheist and need to be conditioned to accepting a belief.

    “my commitment to upholding and carrying forth Judaism’s rich traditions” What rich traditions? Archaic rituals, unclean foods, circumcision, extermination of the Amelekites, shunning of Spinoza, and so on?

    With an exception like Spinoza, there weren’t many Jews who contributed to modernity until the last two centuries. Before that it was still the dark ages.

    As an ex-xian, I have no interest in carrying forth its “rich traditions”, which in fact are extremely poor, like Judaism’s.

    Finally, I could add an annex to Godwin’s Law: Any discussion on internet of religion will lead to a mention of the Holocaust. For that matter, why “The” Holocaust when there have been innumerable? No one now mentions Belgium King Leopold’s holocaust in the Congo at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Estimates of those exterminated by Leopold go from 12 to 20 million.

  • Psychotic Atheist

    Jews have different history to one another. And Arabs share a common history with Jews. Why not broaden their shared historical story to include the Arabs’ part?

  • Jorge Pérez de Lara

    You don’t need to be jewish to visit and be moved by a Holocaust museum. You don’t need to be christian to appreciate a Gothic cathedral. Being familiar with jewish culture may be very helpful to go beyond a basic sense of human empathy in the former case, while being familiar with christian culture may help you understand the symbology of the latter beyond a general aesthetic (or “spiritual”) awareness. The point here, I think is trying to understand whether it is possible to define oneself as an atheist and still regard oneself as belonging to a cultural identity that is crucially defined by a religious belief. I know only a handful of Jews and, while their religiosity varies, they are all believers, so I cannot take my own experience of them as a guide. But I did grow up and live in a christian country and the handful of atheists I know would never call themselves “christian atheists”, even if they attend christian marriages of friends or family christmas dinners. They would define themselves (and I include myself here) as merely atheists. It is in this sense that I have problems understanding how exactly can an atheist of jewish descent could still consider him/herself an atheist jew.

  • Jorge Pérez de Lara

    I experienced pretty much what you describe when I visited a detention center and a killing field in Cambodia, some twenty years ago. If one has a sense of empathy, one cannot help these feelings. But I fail to see how this makes a point either for or against the possibility of being an atheist AND still consider oneself as belonging to a group whose identity is mostly defined by a religious belief.

  • Ton_Chrysoprase

    Some people seem to feel the need to belong to a tribe. Nice for them if it works for them. However, I cannot help noticing the corollary that if some people create their in-group that leaves everybody else out, which often works for a time and for a given amount of working. Still, there don’t seem to be a lot of tribes that don’t breed extremist and on the whole I’d rather have less tribes than more. But then again, I never had an easy time identifying myself by somebody else’s label, so that may just be me.

  • Ton_Chrysoprase

    Define agnosticism – if it describes a view that is held based on the preponderance of evidence (or lack thereof), which is in principle open to change as evidence becomes available, I don’t find it a meaningful concept. That’s just being a well-adjusted human being.

  • Anat

    It comes from having a long history of being a minority. Ex-Christians in the West don’t have that experience.

  • Tat Wadjet

    And on this point, I never saw silverman’s words in that way. I had heard silverman talk on this before, and he didn’t seem to be saying “all jews that identify as secular jews can’t believe in god, or shouldn’t believe in god” nor did I see him as trying to push secular jews into ‘coming out’. He was using the secular jewish position as an example of people who may not believe in god, but still associate themselves as that religious tradition. I.E. people who no longer believe in god, but when asked what their religion is, they respond with “christian” or “I was raised buddhist” or whatever. He is encouraging those that really ARE atheists to stand up and be counted; Much of this also goes into things like census data. You are taking what he said way too personally. He was using secular jewish as an example, not finger pointing.

  • I’m not taking it personally at all. But for census purposes? Yep, still calling myself Jewish. Just trying to explain why.

  • And for what it’s worth, I can’t help but feel like you didn’t actually read the article: http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-life-and-religion/154532/david-silverman-atheist?all=1 He’s not just “using secular Jewish as an example.” He is speaking specifically to the idea of cultural/ethnic/peoplehood Jewishness & encouraging self-identified Jews with no defined beliefs in God to begin defining themselves as ONLY atheists & NOT Jews – going so far as to call us “dishonest” for continuing to use the word “Jewish.” He’s also speaking from his own personal experiences & identifications. We’re not just an example; in this context, we’re the whole point.

  • peter taylor

    Cool, I used to live in Kiev and once traveled to Lvov. As you say you might not share the same culture as other Ukrainians, I think it’s probably really close….but for absolute certainty your culture is a damn site closer to a Ukrainian (non-jew) than a Semitic or Ethiopian Jew, would you agree?

  • Little_Magpie

    A little bit veering off topic, but I remember hearing a story on the news, I dunno, a year and a half or two years ago maybe, about Roma (that’s the word I hear being used and assume is correct, but I’m willing to be educated if otherwise) in Northern Ireland being burned out of their homes, essentially as a terror tactic to get them (as “undesirables”) out of the neighbourhood/area… and my response was, wow, the only thing about this that was mildly surprising was that I hadn’t been aware that there was any sizable Roma population in the 6 counties…

    Note #1: Because of what I studied in university, I was aware that Ireland has its own indigenous nomadic population, so my surprise was more that there are now also Roma in that, if you will, cultural/lifestyle equivalent of ecological niche.

    Note #2: The tactic is entirely unsurprising as it’s one that’s been used a lot in the local intercommunity conflict, in case any of you aren’t aware.

  • Harry Underwood

    *Scott* Lively goes beyond just anti-gay rhetoric – his “The Pink Swatstika” book also commits outright Holocaust revisionism.

  • Little_Magpie

    in the end, the answer can only be “because God says so.” the argument
    that “jews need a safe place for themselves” is highly problematic and
    ignores the hundreds of other oppressed minorities around the world who
    don’t get, for whatever reason, their own homeland.

    That’s a good point. But I *do* get the logic about, if we have our own homeland, we can escape persecution from our host countries / one country can’t extinguish us.

    I just don’t see that the homeland in question needs to be what they feel is their historic birthplace, to be that particular piece of hotly contested real estate.
    Given how many (Ashkenazi) Jews used to live in places in more-northern parts of Europe, especially Ukraine and Belarus, I long thought that a nice fat chunk of underpopulated Saskatchewan would have been less controversial and feel, climate and agriculturally, more like home than the eastern Mediterranean. (And I don’t mean that the chunk would be part of the Canadian state; just that that might be a good piece of real estate.)
    I’m kind of ashamed of how long I held this notion that this would be a good idea before I realized that the local indigenous population (Cree, Assiniboine, and several others) might have something to say about Westminster/Ottawa/the UN ceding the rights that they (Westminster, Ottawa etc) never legitimately had to someone else.

    But still, needing one’s own homeland for protection shouldn’t have had to mean that particular bit which is now the state of Israel.

  • natsera

    Right on! Although I call myself a Jewish atheist, because the Jewish part denotes my ethnic and cultural identity, and the atheist part my belief. But I identify strongly with modern Jewish morals and ethics, and it does bother me when people quote the warlike nature of Biblical Jews of thousands of years ago (who were no different from their neighbors with whom they fought, only they were the ones whose writings were made holy) and apply it to me and my people in this modern time.

  • natsera

    Actually, we ARE born Jewish. Just like we Americans are born American. It’s like a citizenship or membership in an ethnic or national group, and not like membership in a religion. You can be an atheist or anything else, and still be Jewish because you were born that way.

    And I’m getting tired of hearing about ANCIENT behaviors, like murdering the Amalekites, which happened thousands of years ago, is reflective of the behavior of ALL the tribes in that area, and probably includes more than a little bragging and exaggeration. It’s no more relevant to the state of modern Judaism than the Inquisition (which is much more historically provable) is to modern Catholicsm.

    And maybe Christianity’s traditions are “extremely poor” but Jewish traditions are not. We are allowed to enjoy the traditions of our Jewishness.

  • natsera

    It DID have to mean Israel. There are millennia of historical proof that this was the birthplace of the Jewish people. The Arabs who moved in later were squatting on land that didn’t actually belong to them. I give them the benefit of the doubt that land claims at the time were not codified, and it looked like empty land to them, but still, it was originally Jewish land.

    Second, when India and Pakistan were divided, the Muslims in India went as refugees to Pakistan and the Hindus in Pakistan went as refugees to India. Both groups were assisted to settle down in their new home and got housing assistance and job assistance, and no longer are refugees in any sense of the word. Only the Palestinians are multigenerational refugees, because Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon refused to give them any assistance, nor citizenship nor the right to work. So the 4th generation is now receiving the education in hate that should rightfully be directed at their Arab brothers who refused to accept them, and not at Israel.

    For the record, there were 600,000 Arab refugees from Israel, and 850,000 Jewish refugees from Arab lands. But you don’t hear about them, because they have been integrated into Israel as is ethical and correct to do.

  • UWIR

    Well, if you look at the people referred to as “travelers” on the show The Riches, they are certainly a criminal subculture. So, a lot of people probably justify their expressions of negativity towards travelers that those are the people they are talking about, not everyone with Romani ancestry. To what extent their animus is truly restricted to that particular subculture, however, is another matter.

  • UWIR

    There’s a joke that someone’s in Ireland, and is asked “Are you a Protestant or a Catholic?” and responds, “I’m an atheist”, and is then asked “Okay, are you a Protestant atheist or a Catholic atheist?”

    In Ireland, Protestant and Catholic identities go beyond just religion, and there is a sense in which one can be a Protestant atheist or Catholic atheist.

  • UWIR

    It would be nice if Bigam were to clearly identify what she’s arguing against. The only direct quotes of Silverman that are presented are “Atheist is the correct word that has simply been made into a bad word by bigots,” and “and telling the truth benefits everyone.” Everything is else is simply Bigam or Silberstein claiming that Silverman said something, rather than actually quoting him. I also found the anchor text of the first two links to be not representative of the actual content.

  • smrnda

    Yeah, I recall hearing about that years ago, back when it was just a website and my first reaction was ‘this has got to be a sick joke, it cannot be someone’s actual opinion.’

  • Little_Magpie

    and it looked like empty land to them, but still, it was originally Jewish land.

    sure, but by the same logic all of us Europe-origin people are squatting in North America. Just sayin.’

    And apart from that…
    Yes, there is historical evidence that that is the birthplace of the Jewish people; historically that is what was the country in the past.

    Yes, there is a need for the Jewish people to have their own state because of persecution.

    But I don’t see anywhere in your argument why “we need a country for our own safety” logically has to equate the piece of land that was our country hundreds of years ago.

    I agree that the rest of the Arab countries have acted shamefully in not accepting the Palestinian refugees, and only make a show of supporting the Palestinian “cause” when they can score political points. But wouldn’t it have been better not to have made them a refugee population in the first place? To let them live alongside their Jewish-Israeli brethren as full, not second-class citizens?

    And as for your India – Pakistan example: because that worked out sooooo well for everyone. /sarcasm.

  • smrnda

    Very true on that – I’m definitely Eastern European. I certainly feel like I don’t share the culture of Israeli Jews, partly since, for good or ill, something that defines life for most Israeli Jews is the fact that most of them are required to serve in the military.

    The Ethiopian Jews are an interesting case as they existed as a relatively isolated population for a long time.

  • Little_Magpie

    I personally am all in favour of people expressing and celebrating their cultures, and being Hyphenated-Americans. (or Hyphenated-Canadians).

  • smrnda

    Whoa, I totally heard that EXACT joke from a guy from Belfast a few months ago!

    All said, I would have no idea how to respond, but I can also understand the idea that when you have two factions in such conflict for so long, the idea of an outside neutral seems impossible.

  • smrnda

    Myself as well. Diversity does not have to mean tribalism.

  • Little_Magpie

    Huh. I’ve been a Rush fan for like two decades and I had no idea he was a secular Jew. Not a one.

  • smrnda

    Can someone else give me some info, but I heard that post-WWII other locations other than Israel were considered as possible places to relocate Jews from Europe. I wish I knew more information, does someone else?

  • Little_Magpie

    Not actually a joke – or just a joke, and I think it mainly applies to Northern Ireland.. but actually happened to someone I know. (One of my profs in uni, if anyone’s curious.)

    ETA: The point being, that particular question is really about identifying which side of the sectarian-cultural-class-political conflict you support, not what church you may or may not attend on a Sunday.

  • Little_Magpie

    Although one thing that’s interesting to me is how people “choose” and highlight one part of their ancestry. So many of us in North America have very mixed families in terms of countries-of-origin of their ancestors; a little of this, a little of that; but we’ll often identify as only one of those.

    Not entirely a fair example, because of the conflation of Jewish religion with cultural identity, is I have in my life had a couple of acquaintances who both had (Ashkenazi) Jewish heritage on one side of the family, and Scottish origins on the other. One became very interested in her Jewish heritage (especially religious); the other became a Celtic studies major.

    We may not choose what parents we’re born to, we may not control how others label us, but we DO choose which of many potential labels we adopt for ourselves.

    I personally don’t choose to identify as hypenated, because I feel more strongly about the country of my birth than about my national and religious origins. I just call myself Canadian, but will happily describe my family origins if someone asks,

  • CottonBlimp

    This, to me, sounds a great deal like when dog-whistle racists talk about “urban culture”. Oh, no, they don’t hate blacks – they hate hoodlums in hoodies and gang culture. They don’t say “nigger” to be racist – just to describe the people that act like “niggers”.

    Prejudice doesn’t need a reason, it just wants an excuse. People hate gypsies way before they ever see one – and if you’re looking for an excuse to call any group of people criminal, it’s impossible NOT to find evidence of it.

    “Criminal subculture”? I’m Italian – those guys are amateurs. What people doesn’t have a criminal subculture – Irish drunkenness, English hooliganism, Spanish pickpockets, Mexican drug gangs… racist Southerners accuse blacks of being part of a culture of violence, drugs, and criminality, and most of those white Southerners hail from Scotland.

  • doc3559

    It’s a dilemma that i thought was easy enough to deal with. I am proud to have been born a jew. I do not believe that god exists, or that prayer is any more important than meditation (and probably is less so).

    Organized religions have perpetrated a lot of evil. Maybe that was unavoidable–and even necessary– in ancient times, but I believe our modern civilization must relegate religion to history and museums–along with mythology, superstition, magical thinking, and other primitive behaviors.

  • brianz72

    It’s actually pretty simple – Jews have some unique genes. A Jew’s DNA sequencing, presented to a geneticist, will establish that this individual is Jewish. And when genes are associated with a particular group, that group is an “ethnicity”, which is a sub-species.

    So I don’t know what the controversy is all about. I am an atheist, and yes, I am also a Jew. I don’t celebrate or acknowledge all the holidays, but genetically, yes, I am a member of the genetic subspecies called “Jew”.

  • natsera

    Yup, we non-Native people ARE squatting on NDN land. No doubt about that, and that’s exactly why it’s hypocritical to criticize Israel. But the biggest difference is that there is archaelogical proof of the continuous existence of Jews in Israel, but none to prove a continuous existence of Old-Worlders in the Americas.

    The reason Israel has to exist THERE is because there is nowhere else that Jews would have a logical and reasonable claim to. Certainly not Uganda, or Saskatchewan or anyplace else.

    Ideally, it would be nice to have Arabs living together with Jews, but with their history, it’s a dicey proposition, because the government would surely be Muslim, and the sure losers would be the Jews. After such a long history of persecution and murder in both Europe and the Muslim countries, the Jews just can’t afford that.

    And the Muslim-Hindu interchange has worked out rather well — where you see Hindus attacking Muslims is primarily in India, where Hindus are the majority, and where Muslims attack Hindus is in Pakistan, where Muslims are the majority. Those are people who COULD have moved. But in general, that violence is rare; otherwise it wouldn’t be newsworthy. It HAS worked out well for most people.

  • A whole lot of the mess could have been avoided if the British had managed to avoid promising the territory of Palestine to both sides.

    Also note that the original territory of Palestine was the lands that now are Israel and Jordan. The Jews agreed to accept 55% of the lands west of the Jordan river, while all the lands east of the river would become the Arab nation of Jordan. The remaining 45% would become a new Palestinian Arab nation. The Arab population (which was, of course, already living over the entire area, as were a large number of Jewish refugees and immigrants from Europe) was opposed. The UN still accepted this partition plan, Israel was invaded by a bunch of people, eked out a win, and annexed most of the rest of that 45% of the land east of the Jordan river (not including the Gaza Strip or West Bank, which were annexed after another war in 1967). Had Jordan accepted the Palestinian refugees, it would have been a similar situation to the India/Pakistan division.

  • Drakk

    The name refers to the author, not the commentariat.

  • Harry Underwood

    Someone in this thread compared Jewishness to a fandom of sorts. I can actually relate to that, since I’ve read about people, usually furries, who “date within the [furry] fandom” out of habit. I would say that that is one fandom which comes close to the “tribe” idea, or at least shares that trait of people dating others with interest-based identities.

  • Harry Underwood

    So Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Maghrebi, Yemenite, Ethiopian, Iranian and Indian Jews are NOT separate ethnic groups in, say, Israel or the United States?

  • Harry Underwood

    The problem for the concept of culture/heritage is that the gatekeepers of power over said “culture/heritage/tribe” are the arbiters of what is “un-” – “un-African”, “un-Jewish”, “incompatible with Asian values”, “un-Navajo”, “alien”, “foreign”, “colonial”.

    LGBT people in the Global South can attest to this all too well.

    So why is extolling any “culture/heritage” or its “values” seen as something other than nauseating?

    And for the record, despite the fact that I’m of African, Cherokee and partial Irish descent, I’m not particularly bound to celebrate either ancestry or associated “cultures/heritages”. There’s so little to celebrate because my knowledge of our family tree only goes back 100 years or so, and our African ancestry, thanks to slavery, is likely a mishmash of ethnic groups in itself. What’s to extol in that?

  • B.

    What makes these so-called “jewish” traditions superior to any generic set of values that any two people would likely hold in common? Is it family values? Generosity? Adherence to silly myths? What is specifically jewish about those things? Who says that jews do those things better than gentiles? I think all peoples would agree that kindness, and generosity are universal values. We should all adopt good humanistic values, especially those which are universally inclusive. It is no good to have communities within the community, believing their values are somehow better.

    Personally I don’t believe anything in the bible. There was no historical moses, or exodus, or abraham or anything. There is no archaeological evidence of a people coming into canaan from egypt, and certainly no history of a flood, or garden of eden… Maybe Silverman assumes that any rational thinking atheist would have thought about all of this.

  • natsera

    I never said that Jewish traditions were superior to anyone else’s, only that they ARE distinct, and we, as a people, get to enjoy our traditions just as much as everyone else does. I’ve seen lots of atheists who love Christmas carols, and Christmas trees — no one is accusing them of acting like their cultural traditions are superior, or telling them that they’re adhering to silly myths (although they are: Christmas trees are Pagan symbols of worship). I wonder why you are so hostile to Jews being members of our tribe, when pretty much everyone else gets to be a member of THEIR tribe.

  • B.

    Nope, not hostile towards jews. I dislike all religion for pretty much the same reason. To atheists who still enjoy any christian aspects of the “holidays”, I say grow a backbone. I think all the abrahamic religions are pretty awful. I personally don’t even like to say christmas, and often just use “x-mas”.

    There should not be any of this, “your tribe”, “my tribe” bullshit. There are just people.

  • natsera

    So I’ll make an honest attempt to understand where you’re coming from: do you think Norwegians or Chinese or Inuit are equally awful? They have their myths too, and they did their share of brutalizing and murdering people. And if you don’t, why do you single out Jewish people, who haven’t done any of that stuff for more than 2,000 years? Why do you lump Jews, who are born into the Jewish ethnic group under the class of “Abrahamic religions” when you apparently know little to nothing of Jewish culture and ethnicity as opposed to religion? The Chinese have their native religion (Daoism), and they are no less culpable than Western groups, and Christians and Muslims have certainly been far, far more blood-thirsty than the Jews for millennia, so why are you venting your spleen on a thread about whether it’s OK to be a Jewish atheist?

  • Madison Blane

    Silverman has gotten quite ‘religious’ about his Atheism lately (giving it rules and telling people what they should and shouldn’t do as Atheists) and it is starting to REALLY annoy me!

  • Cat MacKinnon

    he did an interview several years back where he discussed how his parents were liberated from concentration camps at the end of WWII. i think the phrase he actually used was that he considered himself “a cultural Jew”, but not a believer. in the ‘Making of ‘Snakes and Arrows’ ‘ DVD, he also talked a bit about Neil’s lyrics for “Faithless”, and how he relates to them as someone who doesn’t believe in a god. actually Alex discusses it too, and all three seem to be fellow non-believers 🙂 .

  • Cat MacKinnon

    i don’t know what his deal is recently. it seems like he has a bit of a superiority complex sometimes, and lately he loses his cool way too easily. he seems to be getting a lot more confrontational too, which irritates me. maybe he’s just been hanging around the argumentative dickbags at Fox News too much and it’s starting to rub off on him. i saw something last week where Bill “Catholic League Of Assholes” Donohue kept interrupting him, and i thought Silverman’s head was going to explode like in ‘Scanners’. or he was going to just deck Donohue right then and there.

    …actually, i’d pay to see that second one. 😉

  • b.

    No, I am not a racist. I think religious people are awful. Chinese is not a religion, Jewish is not a racial category (it’s a religion).

    Not everyone practicing judaism today is descended from the ancient canaanites, and not everyone descended from the canaanites is currently practicing judaism.

    I never once mentioned any of those atrocious things from the bible, the genocides and rapes, etc. You are the first one to bring it up. But since you mention it, you can’t just gloss over it like it’s not there. I don’t care if it is just a myth or story. It is because of this myth that violence in the region perpetuates.

    My original point is that if one acknowledges the stories to be myths, and not a real history of a real people, and especially if one is atheist, then I agree with Silverman. That person should identify as an atheist. Many atheist no longer identify with christianity, or islam anymore.

  • natsera

    One of the things that most Christian-derived people don’t understand about Jews is that we’re BORN into a people. And we don’t lose our Jewishness, unless we actively convert to another religion. Most atheists I know or read insist that atheism is NOT a religion, so when a Jew ceases to believe in god, there is no conversion to another religion, ergo, that person remains Jewish. It’s sort of like citizenship: you’re American, Norwegian, Chinese, Indian or whatever unless you actively renounce that citizenship. So Dave Silverman has renounced his Jewishness, but you know what? The anti-Semites will recognize and pronounce him Jewish in an instant, both for his appearance and his name.

    And you are wrong about Jews originating from Canaanites; our origin was further east in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. There IS some oral history mixed in with the myths, and later portions of the Tanakh have been historically verified. What is myth is the creation story and the story of Abraham and his sons is probably legend that may have been based on a kernel of truth, but grew in the telling. On the other hand, King Solomon’s stables have been found, and there is abundant evidence of Hebrew inscriptions in archaeological finds from that time and later.

    There is genetic proof that we Ashkenazi Jews have Middle-Eastern blood in us. And that we are closely related to each other and NOT to our neighbors. Sefardi Jews, on the other hand, may be descended from Spanish Jews who were expelled in 1492, and living in Muslim lands, they mixed with the Jews who already lived there. They are bona-fide long-term residents of the Middle East.

    I personally, am more interested in knowing my culture and heritage, and find no shame in that. Just like Hemant (forgive me for bringing you into this conversation) remains vegetarian because of his Jain upbringing, yet is an atheist, I can enjoy Jewish traditions and still be an atheist. I don’t understand why you can’t get that concept, except that for Christians, it doesn’t work that way. You have to ACCEPT Jesus in your heart to be Christian, and Christians are not an ethnic group, but Jews are, even though for a long time we didn’t have a country to tie it to. But the same with Kurds, Roma, and various other ethnic groups. Do THEY lose their ethnic identity if they become atheists? I kind of don’t think so. So why the double standard applied to Jews?

    And, Hemant, you can tell me to shut up any time you please! 🙂

  • Little_Magpie

    Huh, strange I missed that one. Coolness.

error: Content is protected !!