The following is written by one of our New York contributors.

                                                                   Roslyn Willett


      After my mother's first stroke, she was somewhat suicidal.  When my son and I visited shortly afterward, she said, "I would consider it worth living for if Jonathan were to have a bar mitzvah."
     Stunned, I said, "But Mom, he's twelve and a half and he's never been to Hebrew school."
     She turned to him. "Would you do that for me?"
     "Sure, Granny," he said without hesitation.
     I said I did not know if it was possible.
     "Well, try," she answered.
     When we returned home, I called the nearest Reform temple.  Twenty-three years earlier its assistant rabbi had been very good-natured about performing an almost secular wedding ceremony for me and my husband.  He had been recommended by a friend who knew how little I cared for the trappings of religion.  And now, we lived in that temple's neighborhood.
     I asked if there was such a thing as a Bar Mitzvah cram course.
     The woman's voice said, "Talk to the cantor."
     I did.  He was a lovely man, who thought it could be done, but, "You have to join the temple."

    "What do you do when you join a temple?? I asked.
    "Bring money," he replied.  That was okay.
    The rabbi was then consulted, and he said we must attend weekend services upstate with Jonathan. I said, "No."  We both worked very hard, and needed the country house for nature and repose, and we would not drive many miles to services.  Besides, very often Jonathan did not come with us to the country.  He had his own social life.  And if he came, he brought a friend, and they had their own agendas.  Not pleased, but also not inflexible, the rabbi yielded.
    The next question was Jonathan's after-school schedule.  He was a dedicated athlete:  baseball, soccer and wrestling were his sports and he was exceptionally gifted at all of them. How then could he do sports and still study Hebrew?  The Temple was more than accommodating. They confined his preparation to Wednesday afternoons, studying Hebrew with the assistant rabbi and working with the cantor.  His bar mitsvah was scheduled for a short time after his thirteenth birthday, and he read, translated, and spoke flawlessly.
     My mother was there, failing, bore and miserable, and at the end, saying, "This is the last bar mitzvah I will go to."  But she was also at the big party in the afternoon, and we had done what we said we would do.
     I am still a member of the temple, despite having been to services only twice:  the week before the bar mitzvah (to find out what took place) and the day, itself.  It is twenty-three years later, but, as a friend said when I thought of leaving a few years later, "If you want it there when you want it, you have to support it when you don't want it."  Fair enough.  The rabbi did a beautiful, sensitive service when my mother died a year after the bar mitzvah, and the assistant rabbi came with us all the way to the grave to do more.  I, who had dreaded a funeral service like the ones I had attended as a child where the rabbis' goal of making everyone sob aloud had nothing to do with the nature and history of the deceased, could hardly believe that another kind of eulogy and service were possible.

     Why was I so surprised that my mother wanted a bar mitzvah?  I knew she had been brought up in an Orthodox family.  My father was, too, but they had both left religion behind long before I knew them.  I will start with the first time I ever went to a Saturday morning service.  I was in my forties when I had an invitation to a party in Dobbs Ferry to celebrate the bar mitzvah of one of my counsins' sons.  I thought I owed it to the kid to hear him in the morning.  Pleased and exhilarated when I saw my mother at the party in the afternoon, I said, "Well, I went to my first Saturday morning service this morning."
     Puzzled, she asked, "Why didn't you ever go before?"

     Indeed, I think her antipathy to religion was occasioned by an early bad experience.  Her father, who had been a yeshiva bucheh till he married in his twenties, had hired a Hebrew tutor, an Orthodox rabbi, for his young daughter.  The man visited the apartment in which they lived, and proceeded to supplement his teachings with sexual molestation.  It took a few weeks till my timid mother complained about the religious man's activities.  Her father fired him, and that ended her Hebrew education.
     My mother adored her father, not least because he admitted religious doubts.  She described a day shortly after he arrived in the United States, when he was living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and was solicited by Jews for Jesus.  "He laughed," she said, "and said 'I have trouble believing in the Father, and you want me to add a Son and a Holy Ghost?'"
     When I was very small, my mother lit candles on Friday night with a clean dish towel over her head and said a prayer.  We used separate dishes for Passover.  Then?  By the time I was five, we ate pork chops in a restaurant on Yom Kippur.
     My father, who was sent to the United States at fourteen to work for an uncle, never discussed his early life or religious activity. He had been a mess sergeant in the U.S. Army in World War I, and went to Louisville, Kentucky, after the war where he joined the Masons. He never went to any service, and I do not remember his participating in any Passover reading of the Haggadah at my grandmother's first and second night sedars.
     I loved Passover and seeing my cousins and uncles and aunts and grandma and her second husband around a big table. We all used the split-page Maxwell House Coffee haggadah, I following in English while the boys and men recited rhythmically in Hebrew. We stopped from time to time to taste a bit of this or that and drink a glass of sweet wine.  I loved listening to grandma who read the Hebrew all right, but plainly had not been schooled like the males, so she buzzed along a few beats behind them, and they politely let her finish before starting the next part.
     Passover was the only holiday I knew anything about, thanks to Maxwell House. Purim was associated with the story of Esther, yes, I knew that because I had read about special pastries at the bakery filled with prune paste or poppyseed.  And Chanukah?  Grandma gave my sister and me twenty-five cents each.
     Grandma remained Orthodox, had her separate dishes and soap for meat and dairy, and would not touch food or beverage anywhere but in her own home.  The only old-world practice she had abandoned was the wearing of a wig over her own hair.  My grandfather had pitched it into the harbor when she arrived from Europe, and that was the end of that.

     One last word about my grandfather:  When my mother and father were thinking about marrying, he insisted on examining my father's qualifications as a Hebrew scholar.  He took him into an adjacent room for several hours and emerged announcing they could be married, "Er kennt"  (he knows or understands).  This was to be sure my mother was not marrying an ignorant man.
     When my father died, quite young, my mother said that as his oldest child, I had to go to the synagogue to say yiskeh (a prayer for the dead).  I did not know what it was, but, age fifteen, I dutifully showed up and was told to go upstairs with the women.  They found something for me that had an English transliteration, and I did my best.


     It is quite obvious that I know nothing about Judaism, and that although I have been a serious reader all my life, I have had no ambition to study it. My temple gives courses; I do not take them.  I wanted to know much more when I was a child, and picked up a book that I could afford (two cents) when I was six and a half.  It was a ratty dark blue book missing its title page, called Comfort for the Jews.  I read the entire thing (it was written for adults and seems to have been intended to make an argument for the establishment of a Jewish homeland), and found it infuriating.  I did not want to be identified with a people whose vocation in history was to suffer one outrage after another.
     I wanted courage, creativity and intelligence.  I did not really find it in the easy attribution of Jewishnesss to movie stars and Broadway figures.  Nor in the pride with which some of my contemporaries announced that the 20th century's seminal figures:  Marx, Freud and Einstein (Marx by extention) were all Jewish.  They were, after all, quite secular.  The first Jew as Jew I found admirable was the philosopher, Baruch de Spinoza.  But his own community had forced him out.  His Ethics was the only cogent world-view I had found to date, and I was then in college.  He is still my favorite philosopher, and when I gave a reading last spring and a newly anointed Episcopal priest came over to praise the writing and then asked about my "spiritual affiliation," I replied that I was a congregation of one:  a Spinozan Buddhist.
   On to more books.  Shortly after college, a friend gave me a copy of Toynbee's, A Sudy of History.  I enjoyed most of it but was deeply offended by Toynbee's characterization of Judaism and Jews as "fossilized relics of Syriac society," a "petrified religion" which "holds its scattered members together" but "has lost its message to mankind." He felt that Judaism had lent itself to a political opposition rather than retaining its spiritual message.  This did not seem right to me at the time. Even I knew that Judaism had continually developed with commentaries and philosophers, and felt that he failed to note that his Christianity, with its early message of hope and love, had itself hardened into a number of authoritarian systems, some of them killers.  And another thing:  Judaism has never been a proselytizing religion so his idea of its losing its message to mankind is silly.  It never, to my knowledge, had a message to "mankind."
     More books:  I was finally satisfied that I belonged to the tribe I wanted to belong to when I read Max Dimont's, Jews, God and History, thirty years ago.  He placed Jews in history, not separate from it, knowing that brutality was not unique toward Jews but to anyone who was not immediate family or tribe, noting courage and creativity in the Jewish community and citing accomplishments I could identify with.
    A couple of years later, The Jewish Mystique, by Ernest Van Der Hagg, made some sense of why we all thought Jews were so smart:  They had been breeding for brains for a couple of thousand years.  He pointed out that Christianity had demanded celibacy for its best and brightest who became monks, priests, and scholars, whereas the Jews kept their smartest boys in school to become rabbis and scholars, and then married them off to the daughters of rich men who had inherited some other kinds of smarts.  Okay. I used Van Der Haag a few years later, to relieve a bit of cognitive dissonance in abetting Jonathan's bar mitzvah. Judaism was worth preserving as a classy gene pool!
    More recently, books have been written about the transition of Jehovah from a local, tribal god into an abstract, "portable" God whom the prophets could invoke to keep Jews together.  If, in most of the ancient near east, a local god ahd failed his people in war, they philosophically dumped him and adopted the gods of their victorious neighbors.  Not the Jews, not when they were equipped with prophets who said that the problem was not in their God but in themselves.  They were not good enough.  They were never good enough for their jealous, demanding God, but they clung to his demands and to the reinforcement of their collective guilt.  I finally, upon reading this, understood why my Orthodox grandma could say it was because of me that Hitler had come into the world.  I liked butter on my vegetables even when they accompanied a meat dish.
    My understanding of this attitude was reinforced not so long ago by an encounter at the elevator in my building, a stronghold of orthodoxy.  "Happy New Year," a neighbor said to an Orthodox woman who was waiting there with me on Rosh Hoshanah.  "I would say it to you, too," he said, "but you're not a good. . ."
   "Jew?" I inquired.
   "You said it, not me," he replied.  Annoyed, I thought, I had matched my virtues against those of anyone around here.  But of course, what he was referring to was not my "goodness" but my good Jewishness, a whole other thing.
   In my quest for knowledge I have bought a six volume, Popular History of the Jews, but have not found it as attractive as other reading material.  I also own , The Torah:  A Modern Commentary, equally unread.

    If we look at the world in the past, brutality of man to man was its most salient characteristic. A French film about the fourteenth century evoked a ladies room comment afterward, "Quel cauchemar" (what a nightmare).  Yes, I said, but the entire period was a nightmare. Ask the Ruandans and the Bosnians or the Kurds today.  Their future histories will tell that they suffered and they suffered.  Suffering is not unique to Jews.  But, yes, we have a long written history; it might be said that we are grievance collectors.
   A French writer, Serge Kosters, delivered a paper a short time ago at the Maison Francaise here in New York about how abominably Jews had been treated in literature by everyone from Shakespeare to Jules Verne.  The assembled audience agreed, of course.  But at the end, a questioner demanded to know what M. Kosters thought of a French-Israeli writer who had named his daughter Shiva "after the goddess of destruction and creation" and wasn't that a sample of disgusting ambivalence.  M. Kosters concurred, to my dismay.  Shiva is, of course, a male Hindu deity, and Hindu cosmology is nothing like that of the west, so the writer and his audience were as narrow in their way as the literature that had wounded them.


    Despite my unwillingness to be an advocate for Jewishness, I perceive in "my" kind of Jew a number of special qualities.  First, the attraction to learning, to understanding.  The bookishness that Jewish culture required to understand the way of God and to interpret and quibble over sacred writing has translated into a generalized bookishness that evokes enormous respect in me.
    (An anthropologist friend, not Jewish, says, that Jewish bookishness had to contain the seeds of the destruction of Jewishness. Any people so enamored of learning and disputation would certainly, he says, as soon as the pressure of prejudice was relieved, come to an understanding that the "old time religion" was increasingly meaningless in a modern society. But the bookish crowd has already made these discoveries and has been thinking about how to "reconstruct" Judaism or reform it so that it has some relevance.)
    Second, again for "my" Jews:  a kind of moral scrupulousness that is not so common in this society where people cut corners, lie, and treat others badly.  The moral scrupulousness is something I find in less tribal Jews.  This is profoundly alienating in a way--that the practictioners of Orthodoxy, the most religious, are, in my experience, less scrupulous, perhaps because they reserve their scruples for their own.
    A propos scupulousness, I want to cite a couple of stories about my son when he was too young to have been "putting it on."  First, in kindergarten, when his school had a kind of Christmas exchange with a small school in West Virginia.  He worriedly told his teacher that I did not believe in Christmas and might not be willing to support the exchange.  (Of course, when I heard this, I reassured him that we went along with the institutions that we were part of, just as I gave Christmas presents to the people who worked for me.  But inside the family, we would not exchange gifts or have a tree.)
    And this same scrupulousness presented itself during Jonathan's bar mitzvah training.  Jonathan did not want to masquerade as a believer in God, and said as much to the assistant  rabbi as soon as they started working together.  "I hope it will not upset you, but nobody in my family believes in God."  The assistant rabbi smiled. "Probably half the members of this congregation do not believe in God."
    Compassion.  Concern for the less fortunate, the poor, and the wretched.  I do believe it is a long-fostered and almost universal trait among Jews, one I admire and respect.  Jewish gifts to charity, organized and informal, are a constant feature of Jewish life, secular and religious.  And not just to charity and the needy but support for the arts and for culture generally, for the music, theater, museums, and galleries.
    And, a possibly vanishing characteristic since there is so much less discrimination now--wit, humor, comedy.  But maybe not.
    I have already mentioned the quality gene pool, quality in the sense of intelligence, anyway.  None of us wants to see it heavily diluted.

   Which brings us to my feeling until almost this minute that when the pressure of anti-semitism lifted, the defensive rationale for staying together could no longer be so comfortably invoked.  I have read that something like fifty percent of all marriages of Jews now are made to people who are not Jews.  That would imply complete absorption of all the small percentage of Jews who are Orthodox during the next few generations.
    I could be wrong.  When the Jewish museum had an exhibit about the Jews in China, who had been discovered by a Christian missionary many years after their existence had been forgotten, it was paradoxical that they carried on as Hebrews despite their resemblance to Chinese and despite the dilution of their scriptures with Chinese  ideograms as the Hebrew had been forgotten.  These early settlers had found a congenial (bookish, polygamous) society in China, and had taken into their families local concubines, who had, of course, reproduced.  Well, there it was, they had survived as Jews.

    When I started thinking about this, I thought, it's all right.  We should not cling to something we no longer believe.  It is hypocritical to go through the motions when they are no longer meaningful. For me, there is still some small relevance.  I married a man who was the son of two Jews, but they, early socialists, did not practice at all.  Never having been a bar mitzvah, he was predictably clumsy at Jonathan's when he had to repeat a few Hebrew words.  I think my mother would have been deeply disturbed if I had married a Gentile, but I was still too conventional then even to have considered it.
   Last year, my son Jonathan got married.  No surprise--he married a good-natured, loving, very pretty shiksa. He asked me to arrange a small wedding in New York because they were going to Europe on their honeymoon, and they live in Colorado, far from his bride's family in California. I said I was sure the rabbi at Rodeph Sholom would perform a ceremony since Jonathan was a bar mitzvah of the temple and I was still a member.  He suggested City Hall.  I said it was a little sordid, although it was where my sister and, much later, her daughter had married.
  "Would you rather I found a judge to do it?" I asked.  Yes.  He did not want Juli to be uncomfortable.
  He joins one of my cousins, a man of my generation, who married a Christian woman and loved her dearly.  The two daughters of another cousin both married Christian men, exemplary husbands and fathers.  Only two generations from immigrant Orthodoxy to imminent absorption.

   With the statistics what they are, it seems pretty clear that in one, two, three generations, non-Orthodox Jews will have been absorbed into the rest of this culture. The way stations of Unitarianism or Ethical Culture have already taken in people of my generation.  I think it is all right to be absorbed, and to find in science and philosophy the values that permit one to live and develop.  And if some of the pain of being a Jew is not part of many Jews' experience in the future, who could argue that in the past it did not do as much harm as it did good?  I am, and have been reconciled to a disappearance after two thousand and more years of preservation.  It is nature's way.

  At least, so I said, until virtually yesterday.  My son and his wife are expecting a baby. And he said, "Juli thinks the child (sex not known) should be brought up Jewish."
   "She's not thinking about conversion?" I teased.
   "No," he said.  "We'll probably join a Reform temple."


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