Bringing Up (Secular, Jewish) Baby

Is there more to it than Hebrew and hummus?

The night after the Pittsburgh shooting, I was trying to get my then-15-month-old daughter to sleep. As I sat there in the dark room, I thought about Robert Bowers, the attacker who had killed eleven and injured six at the Tree of Life synagogue. I thought: he would kill me and my daughter because we are Jewish. It might seem narcissistic, to read about such tragedy halfway across the world and think about yourself in it, but I couldn’t help it. It seemed so very personal. 

The day my daughter was born, a bundle of red limbs slick with vernix dumped unceremoniously by the midwife at my breast, one of us – I can’t remember who – said to the other that wasn’t it strange that our baby, only a few hours old, was already a Jew. Two Israeli Jews had fallen in love and had a child, and immediately she was Jewish. In that early haze of parenthood this idea seemed abstract in the extreme. We are Jews and she is a Jew. And now what? 

First there is the fact that we live with a certain amount of fear, at least in theory; Jews live aware of the past and watchful of the present.  Pittsburgh saw an articulation of this ever-present fear. Alongside messages of solidarity with the Jewish community and expressions of widespread horror, media articles explained that the October massacre made visible the expectation of violence that many Jews already live with.  

One might expect Jews to be scared after the worst antisemitic attack in US history, but this fear had been growing even before Pittsburgh. Attacks against Jews by Islamist extremists and the far right in recent years are one factor. Swastika graffiti, desecrated gravestones, dog-whistles and a tolerance of casual antisemitism are another. Jews are watchful of what these might turn into. The mushrooming of anti-Jewish rhetoric online, as if social media were a metaphorical rock lifted to reveal rot on the ground beneath, has both contributed to the fear and created an illusion of safety. Online, the prejudice might be an illusion. But then something like Pittsburgh happens – an attack preceded by violent anti-Jewish posts on social media. Then the picture seems very clear.   

A major  EU poll of Jewish populations published in December  indicates that, across Europe, Jews are scared. Ninety per cent of respondents feel antisemitism is growing in their country.  Forty percent worry about being physically attacked. In London, after Pittsburgh, I felt that fear too.    

Parenthood puts you face-to-face with things you didn’t realise you had strong feelings about. An independent (dare I say, feminist) woman, I am supposed to want to be anywhere but knee-deep in nappies, so why don’t I? I am meant to be bored at home with my child, to want desperately to escape, but I don’t. I should want to rush back to work as soon as my screaming infant will allow it, so why does nearly a year of maternity leave feel too short? And so it goes with the complicated matter of identity. What happens when you give birth to a child and, even though you don’t exactly believe in God, you know that this child is Jewish because you are? What does it mean to bring up a child as Jewish when you are secular? And what does it mean when your child grows up in a world where Jews live with fear, and where the resurgence of this fear is visceral and immediate? 

The term “secular Judaism” certainly sounds like “a contradiction,” as the  pioneering Yiddish translator Max Rosenfeld put it in a  1975 speech. “I prefer the term secular Jewishness, not secular Judaism,” he said. “Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people. Secularism is an absence of religious orientation.” Put simply , religious Jews observe the mitzvot, while secular Jews do not. The large numbers of secular Jews in the US and Israel, where the majority of the world’s Jews live, and elsewhere, proves there is more to this contingent than paradox.  According to a Pew poll in the US this year, Jews alone among all religious groups have more members identifying as “non-religious” than as “highly religious”. Among British Jews, the statistics paint a similar picture, with more Jews at the secular end of the scale. For those polled, clearly being Jewish is about something other than faith and exoteric ritual.  

I asked my father, an Israeli hiloni (secular Jew), what it meant for him to raise his four kids Jewish. He said it was about being aware of being Jewish and valuing Jewishness and being loyal to it. He said it was about being aware of what Jews have contributed to the world. What does loyal mean, I asked. “Not being not Jewish,” he said. Why? “Jewishness is not just religion, that is just one aspect of it.” So, what is it? At this my father smiled and said, “Now that is a complex philosophical question.” 

Long have people disagreed about what Jewishness is – nationality ethnicity, religion, heritage culture, guilt, food, a certain sense of humour, or all of the above. The Israeli thinker Yaakov Malkin, who has written prolifically about secular Judaism, argues that Judaism has always been a pluralistic culture, with secular streams integral to it. The self-described “second-generation atheist” outlined five common features that comprise Jewishness. The first of these was “membership in the Jewish nation.” According to this, then, merely acknowledging that my daughter was Jewish when she was born has gone part of the way – a fifth of the way? – to raising her Jewish.  

The other common denominators, as Malkin wrote in  Secular Jewish Culture, were an awareness of “the cultural and historical heritage of the Jewish people” and of “the Land of Israel as the homeland of Jews and of Hebrew as the first national language that has left its mark on all other Jewish languages.” He also talked about Jews having an awareness of Israel, “the fourth Jewish national state”.  The kicker, perhaps, is this final one: “Every Jew’s obligation to national solidarity as a result of his or her consciousness of the fate of the Jewish people who, for the past two thousand years, have had to fend off manifestations of antisemitism wherever Jews have lived.” 

At first, I didn’t think much about any of this. My daughter was born in July. Months passed. At Jewish New Year, she sat in her highchair not drinking the chicken broth my mother made especially for her and my nephew. At Hannukah she seemed to enjoy the lights and the singing, though, not yet being on solids, she couldn’t enjoy the doughnuts. At Passover, she ate the charoset and was giddy with the excitement of the meal. In the Israeli household in which I grew up in London there were few regular markers of our Jewishness outside the festivals. There were no Friday night dinners, no weekly visits to the synagogue and no Jewish summer camps. My family was resolutely Israeli and secular. There was Hebrew and there was hummus. My parents fasted on Yom Kippur. And we knew we were Jewish. 

Part of the answer, maybe the easiest part, is food and tradition. You get older and roots matter more, and so do rituals and repetition. When you have a child, the importance of those things for them seems clear; rituals become an anchor to their world. Taking this to its logical conclusion, maybe raising my daughter as a secular Jew means learning how to make Gefilte fish, which my grandmother made, and which I loved to hate until I was an adult. The dish, with its iconic carrot on top of grey mush, was caringly recreated, making me feel safe and loved.   

But my daughter’s father has no love for Gefilte fish – in fact, he has never eaten it. Gefilte fish is one of those bland, blobby Ashkenazi dishes he and his Tunisian Jewish family laugh at from a safe distance, not taking a bite.  My culinary nostalgia is almost completely alien to his. For us at Passover: kneidalach. For his family: a lamb dbich. And our grandparents spoke different languages, had different accents, wore different clothes. Our family dynamics, our place in Israeli society was different because of the Jewish ethnicity we came from. We must combine our disparate roots into some sort of Jewishness that is a reflection of our family; for my daughter, a mixture of Djerba and the Shtetl. 

Within that Jewishness we must incorporate, if we consider Malkin’s list, an awareness of Israel and of Hebrew. Being Israeli makes that relatively easy. The idea of Jewishness here is of something innate, much like nationalisms are when they come without the pomp and ceremony of an Independence day, like an afterthought. Hebrew is spoken in our household as a part of daily life; Israel this thing in the background, sometimes like an embarrassing uncle, a tragic family secret, or someone to love. 

Responsibility to the past is another part of it. The  economist Daniel Susskind articulated this impetus to preserve the horrors of Jewish history as part of his secular Jewish identity. In a  piece published in the Jewish Chronicle  during Rosh Hashanah 2017, he described himself as “deeply agnostic, and unable to reconcile any serious sense of faith with what happened in the first half of the 20th century (though my scepticism has roots elsewhere, too). And yet, at the same time, I try to live a secular Jewish life – partly because of what happened in the past. To me, there is Auschwitz, and so we must make sure that there are always Jews.”  

As a secular Jewish mother, then, I am making a decision to instil in my daughter this awareness of the Holocaust and, as Malkin wrote, of 2,000 years of antisemitism and a consciousness of the fate of the Jewish people. In her 2018 essay on motherhood, literary and cultural critic Jacqueline Rose wrote of her mother: “Against every fibre and bone in her body, she, like my father, has passed on to me a history I sometimes find myself warding off in the night and which for her part has been too painful, consciously at least, to contemplate.” That history, in which her grandmother’s entire family was murdered in Poland, is something she must carry with her, whether her mother had wished it or not. This something is reiterated during every Jewish holiday where we celebrate vengeance and survival in the face of enemies. 

If my choice is for my daughter to be secular and Jewish (at least until she decides otherwise) her consciousness of the fate of her people will extend beyond the collective past. It will mould her present and future, as it has mine. It will place her at the centre of a hazy mass of conspiracy theories before she can even begin to understand them. In a climate where antisemitism is repeatedly in the headlines, as it has been in the UK over the past few years, this is not just theory. If we make a choice to be Jewish, we are also choosing for our daughter to be the subject and target in a very political debate. In such a climate, and certainly in the aftermath of Pittsburgh, this can be uncomfortable to say the least. “Every single Jew I know, and I know plenty, observant or not, confesses nowadays to being suddenly very aware of their Jewishness, and alive to the potential reaction it can provoke from both the right and, more worryingly (given its professed antiracism), the left,” the journalist Nicolas Lezard, who says he has often been mistaken for a Jew, wrote in the New York Review of Books in November. “I, too, have been the target of antisemitic abuse in the last two years. If someone like me, with only the haziest notion of what the Torah or the Talmud are, can be such a target, I wonder at how much hatred is out there, waiting to boil over again.” 

Reminiscent of George Orwell’s 1945 essay on “Anti-Semitism in Britain”, Lezard’s piece highlights that in raising a Jewish daughter, we are placing her in the firing line of a prejudice that is just there, under the surface. It will make her a target for someone like Bowers. This is part of the culture and heritage that will envelope her as she grows. There are other hatreds and prejudices: my daughter, at the very least, has misogyny to look forward to. Yet, while few mothers tell their daughters to brace themselves for future sexual harassment and discrimination, Jewish parents tell their children again and again that antisemitism and the past are nearer than we think. 

To my mother, how to raise a secular Jewish child is straightforward: Hebrew and the festivals. Language, perhaps, is a shortcut. An Israeli-American friend told me she is not sure what it means for her three-year-old son, “except that Hebrew is really important to us”. For me, Hebrew was never about Jewishness, it was about Israeliness, though I have come to realise, of course, how much the two are interlinked in my identity.  

So, in our little family, we will continue, lighting Hannukah candles and singing songs we only half know the words to, saying blessings we don’t believe in because the cadence they are sung in rings a deep and satisfying bell from the past. We will speak Hebrew and maybe give up bread at Passover, and I will continue fasting at Yom Kippur because it is the one day of the year where I feel most connected to this thing I am, deep beneath the surface. 

We will continue to do this because, if there is one thing I do know, it is that I wouldn’t give up being Jewish for anything. Partly it is about survival, the “we will continue existing”-ness. But partly it is because Jewishness is just something we are, whatever that is.   

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