Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
Rabbi Alvin Fine
This poem has remained with me since childhood, when I remember hearing it recited at my family’s liberal synagogue during Jewish New Year celebrations. It is moving, mysterious, revelatory and lyrical. I recall listening to it as a young boy and not understanding its power.
As I became older and distanced myself from the organised Jewish community, this poem, recited in English and not Hebrew – we were not, after all, Orthodox Jews – has stayed in my mind. Although it doesn’t make me think fondly of Judaism itself, it’s a reminder for me even today of the power of emotive words to conjure both melancholy and warmth.
I was born Jewish in 1974 in Melbourne. I’m an only child to Jeffrey and Violet, liberal Jews who were born in the same city, Melbourne, during the Second World War. Their parents had escaped Nazi Europe and arrived in Australia in 1939. Most of the rest had realised too late the threat posed by Hitler and perished in the death camps. Being Jewish back then, in the heart of supposedly cultured Germany and Austria, was a death sentence. It’s not something I forget.
When I visited the sites of this Holocaust in the 1990s – from Dresden where my father’s family resided to Auschwitz where many of them perished – my affection for Judaism was enhanced, though not with any desire to become more religious. It was a secular Judaism fuelled by resilience, a determination to survive and thrive after the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people.
My interest in Judaism was both accidental and intellectual. I had no control over being Jewish, but Judaism continues to fascinate me, especially the various ways Jews can practise the religion and still proudly call themselves Jews.
Close friends in New York regularly attend a synagogue for Humanistic Judaism. Its website states, ‘Judaism is much more than a set of religious beliefs and practices. It is the cumulative cultural and historical experience of the Jewish people. ’5 This is correct, but it then goes on to claim Israel is a key aspect of Jewish identity. When even the most liberal Jewish movements blindly praise Israel in this light, they ignore the country it has become: an occupier and a brute.
Zionism is not the answer. And this ideology has almost comprehensively forced me away from Judaism and into a Jewish atheism that feels more comforting but also incomplete. Most of my serious relationships have been with non-Jewish women and, although the failures of these relationships had nothing to do with my or their religious beliefs, I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be with a Jewish woman who truly understands why I’ve had to reject the organised Jewish community. She’d have to feel as proud as I do of pissing outside the tent rather than within it.
In my teens I started feeling uncomfortable with the casual racism towards Palestinians and Arabs I heard in the Jewish community, from Jewish friends and from my family around the Friday Sabbath table. At that age I wasn’t fully across the reality of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land but something felt wrong even then. It was a created victimhood born of a collective fear, both real and imagined. Jews, now largely successful members of Western society, were powerful and connected but many still clung on to the belief that we were weak and trapped in a ghetto, unwilling to hear criticisms of sacred issues. ‘Don’t air our dirty linen in public, ’I was constantly told. This was shouted routinely in my direction by the time I published my first book, My Israel Question, in 2006.
It was a dangerous delusion that allowed perceived enemies – Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians or ‘the other’ – to threaten our newfound strength. It allowed Jews to claim that Israel, a superpower possessing nuclear arms, was vulnerable when in fact it was the dominant force in the Middle East. Despite this, however, insecurity was the country’s middle name, a disease that has spread like cancer throughout the Jewish diaspora in the last few decades.
By the time I was in my early twenties, Judaism had become indistinguishable from Zionism and we parted company. My lapsed religiosity wasn’t a great loss to the devout in the Melbourne community – I enjoyed bacon and sex and dabbled in drugs – but I felt the religion left me rather than me having to deliver the divorce papers. I didn’t miss most Jewish rituals and almost enjoyed being the outsider critic of the community.
I had never been a regular synagogue attendee. My parents usually had to drag me to a Jewish event or holiday and I don’t recall ever embracing prayer or Jewish spirituality. Although I attended a Jewish group called D&M (Deep and Meaningful) in my teenage years, led by a progressive rabbi, I wasn’t like the others there. Israel was already in many of my friends’ DNA, despite most of them never having been there.
In an age before the internet and easily accessible information that revealed the harshness of Jewish actions against Arabs, it was too easy to romanticise the Zionist state, especially since Melbourne had one of the highest percentages of Holocaust survivors in the world. The community lived in denial about the present and future, convinced that the best way to commemorate old losses was to deify a state that bloomed a few years after 1945. Israeli occupation was largely invisible, dismissed as Palestinian and anti-Semitic propaganda.
My disillusionment with Judaism may seem illogical or even irrational. After all, Judaism isn’t Zionism. Or shouldn’t be. But for the vast bulk of Jewish communities in the last decades, the two ideologies have become interchangeable. You can’t be a Jew if you’re not a Zionist. Being a non-Zionist Jew in any organised sense is virtually impossible in Australia, though nothing stops me, of course, from living my life as a cultural Jew on my own and with close friends.
Naturally, you can be a proud Zionist if you aren’t Jewish, but this usually involves taking a hardline conservative position, embracing evangelical Christianity or standing as an Islamophobe after September 11, 2001. Loving Israel is no longer cool, if it ever was, when we’re constantly bombarded with images of rampaging Jewish colonists shooting Palestinians; Israeli politicians talking proudly of ethnic cleansing of Arabs; and Knesset members finding ways to censor unpopular, anti-Zionist views. This is what modern, mainstream Judaism has largely become, a deformed beast that encourages debate on most issues except arguably the most important one, Israel. This is the opposite of what I believe a religion should be if it wants to prosper in the twenty-first century.
My Jewish atheism isn’t settled. I feel open to exploring a truly secular religion that embraces diversity. I’ve felt deeply moved and proud to be Jewish when I’ve met members of the Jewish community in Cuba and Iran. They’re resilient in the face of tough conditions. For them, regular prayer is salvation. For me, I felt connected to a global religion that had persevered.
When I hung out with Afghanistan’s only known Jew in 2012 in Kabul, a grumpy, Orthodox man who chastised me for not practising Passover during my visit and showed me the country’s only known synagogue near his basic, one-room apartment where a box of matzo sat on the table, I was surprised by my emotional response. I felt proud to be Jewish. Here was a solitary man, offered asylum in America and Israel, but dedicated to remaining proudly in Afghanistan, a man who had survived years under the Taliban and remained openly Jewish.
My reaction had nothing to do with Israel, Zionism or the Middle East. It was a visceral response that left me wondering if my Judaism was lying dormant and could be awakened by the sight of Jews living in a repressive regime. What did that say about my faith? Today, nearing forty, I wonder if my appreciation of the Jewish faith, one not besmirched by the state of Israel, leaves me vulnerable to reintegration into some kind of progressive, secular, cultural, anti-occupation, anti-Zionist Jewish community.
I’m still looking for that comfortable space.