Itche Goldberg and “Secular Judaism”
There is a girl I fell in love with in the fifth grade. She was the daughter of Holocaust survivors, and already passionate about acting and the theater; she was tall and very feline; she had unmistakable mystique. We had deep conversations that awakened my soul and stirred the artist in me; I began hanging with her rather than playing ball after school. But she wouldn’t fall in love with me, never felt romantic about our relationship. She became my muse.
I met my muse again during this past Rosh Hashone season, after about a 30 year absence. We spent an afternoon catching up, evaluating our progress, and recapturing what we liked about each other. We may become friends again; we’re e-mailing, and we exchange artworks. I’d like to get her to stop smoking cigarettes.
Yesterday I got an e-mail from her asking: How did you became so deeply involved in Judaism the way you did?
At first, I thought to correct her: I’m involved in Jewishness, not Judaism. Morris Schappes, the long-time editor of Jewish Currents, used to make a big deal about this, editorially: every time someone wrote “secular Judaism” he’d change it to “secular Jewishness.” “Secular Judaism,” he believed, was an oxymoron.
Morris’ editorial injunction got into my brain, but I don’t buy its logic any longer. One reason for this is Itche Goldberg, the great Yiddish literary critic and teacher, who died at 102 last week. At his funeral, I read the following two passages from Itche. The first is from an interview with him that I conducted along with Yankl Stillman, early in 2004, when Itche turned 100:
The question of where we go from here is on my mind a lot. What’s happened to socialism? What is the future of Yiddishism? When I came, at age 21, into the Workmen’s Circle shule in Toronto, I had so much eagerness, energy, and faith in socialism and in Yiddishism. Now I have insecurity. But I am used to insecurity. For over forty years I have published Yidishe Kultur without ever being able to secure its existence!
. . . I sometimes feel that we were wrong in failing to incorporate more Jewish values in our yidishkayt. I’ve always enjoyed reading the Bible, particularly the prophets, and I wonder at times if we were a bit too dismissive, or ignorant, of our Jewishness. . . . I would not now permit so much to be brushed aside.
The second passage comes from an article Itche wrote for Jewish Currents in 1980, “A Jewish Agenda for the ’80s”:
There will . . . be a full ‘transfer of power’ to the new emerging generation. I stress emerging, because I do not anticipate a Venus-like birth of a new Jewish Homo Americanus flowing out of the foam of the Sea of History. It will be a slow process of continuity and change. . . . The historic challenge for us will be: can we carry over and implant our secular and humanist national values into the Jewish cultural patterns of the ‘80s?
. . . I am not going to define secularism here. However, I want to make a very broad statement: secularism is for us the only point of entry into Jewish life. We have ideologically and philosophically rejected for ourselves religion as the point of entry. Zionism — despite our positive stand on Israel — is not our link, either. National negation we eschew and reject. We therefore have no alternative whatsoever except a historic-cultural secular tie which binds us with the people. Realistically and historically we have no alternative. However, to influence others — yes, and to give identity to ourselves — we must raise secularism to a meaningful expression and link with the people. . . . Meaningful implies depth, knowledge, commitment, involvement, renewal and — yes, of course — tradition.
Secularism as the point of entry — but entry into the whole world of Jewishness, of what Mordecai Kaplan called “Judaism as a Civilization” — that is the perspective that Itche championed, especially in his later years, his years of doubt and reconsideration. In this, he was wholly consistent with his own mentor, Chaim Zhitlowsky (Itche’s main institutional seat was the Chaim Zhitlowsky Foundation), the Yiddish theorist who lived from 1865-1943. Zhitlowsky championed the idea that nothing Jewish should be foreign to the Jewish secularist — that “not everything is rotten in the old treasures of our people . . . A critical examination of our cultural heritage,” Zhitlowsky wrote, “will disclose immense treasures . . . They are valuable because of the deep generally humanistic elements they contain and not simply because they were developed by our forefathers.”
Both Zhitlowsky and Itche Goldberg were marvelous, expressive writers, but the great bulk of their output was in Yiddish, and has not been translated, and will therefore be closed off to me unless I devote a whole lot of time to studying Yiddish instead of blogging or e-mailing with my muse. What they’ve both provided me with, however, is a sense of continuity for my conviction that secular Jewishness can, indeed, be described as secular Judaism — or, at least, that secular Jewishness should include a full-bodied secular(ized) Judaism in its treasury.
And so I wrote back to my muse:
“Judaism, or Jewishness, has always worked for me as a counterculture — something insurgent and anti-establishment. Certain aspects of the tradition's spirit —- its call for communitarianism; its sense of restraint; its anti-idolatry sensibility —- these and other aspects seemed to constitute a really strikingly different worldview from that of mainstream America.
“Here's how I described it in the most recent issue of Jewish Currents: that the Jewish tradition is worth preserving 'because the historical experience of Jewish oppression has yielded a soulful commitment to social justice that makes the Jewish people a force to contend with. Because the international quality of Jewish life has always been a healthy counterpart to rabid nationalism (Zionism notwithstanding). Because Judaism purports to civilize human beings (especially men) by dissuading us from indulging our lusts destructively and persuading us to develop our intellects. Because Jews, as Isaac Bashevis Singer once wrote, “can't sleep themselves and let nobody else sleep.” Because Jewish culture is deeply ironic and humorous. Because we are the children, as Chaim Weizmann once said, of old-clothes dealers, and the grandchildren of prophets.’
“You understand, I'm an atheist and a skeptic. A weird Jew. Never went to Israel until last year. Don't go to shul for the high holidays or any other days. Highly interpretive, highly intellectual about it all. Yet I find in the Jewish calendar and in Jewish texts a good deal of life-enhancing practice and a balanced, realistic, and very entertaining discussion, spanning the centuries, about how we can live together in community.”
I thank Itche for giving me permission to feel that way — and incentive to develop my intellect and body of Jewish knowledge so that I can be a worthy interpreter of “secular Judaism.”