Thursday, September 6, 2007

Is judaism also an ethnicity?

In response to someone commenting on my blog about being an atheist living in jerusalem, I wrote a comment that totally went off on a tangent:

Well it may be strange, but you have the advantage that in Israel there are a whole bunch of "secular jews"; jewish people who identify as jewish, and who may keep some traditions (like holidays, sabbath meal) but otherwise are not jewish in any way. When I was in israel on birthrite back in college, I stayed an extra week or two and stayed by a friend who was at bar elan for the year...we went to shabbas dinner at a family like that, where they had a meal together but took the religion out; so they had challah and wine at the table, but they didn't eat it first or say blessings over it or anything.

To some extent, that's the kind of jew I am now; I still like going to non-religious shabbat potluck dinners at my friends' places, where we have challah and wine. Next week I might be going to a rosh hashana dinner at my grad school (mostly to catch up with old friends, and becuase one of my friends doesn't want to go by herself and keeps begging me to come with her) but I'm not going to services.

I think just becuase we are atheists doesn't mean we have throw the baby out with the bathwater...the bathwater being the religious aspects, and the baby being the unique cultural/ethnic background we come from. Just a silly example, but I still love yerushalmi kugel, and will make it occasionally..just like my boyfriend (who is from a sicilian heritage) makes this crazy sicilian meat sauce thing that is awesome, even though he's rejected catholisism. The problem is that for jewish people, the culture is all intermingled with the religion, while (maybe because other religious groups are larger and more spread out), in other religions people have their cultural/ethnic background, and then their religious background.

so I wonder. Is judaism also an ethnicity? Is there a way to seperate this jewish identity/ethnicity from the religous aspects? Can we (and by we I mean atheists) celebrate Rosh Hashana next week the way people in American who are of Mexican origin might celebrate Cinco de Mayo? Or (perhaps more appropriately) the way Chinese people celebrate Chinese New Years?

As I mentioned in this comment, one of my fellow grad students keeps asking me if I will go with her to the grad student rosh hashana dinner next wednesday, since she doesn't want to go alone. I keep putting her off..I know i definitely don't want to go to services, but do I still want to sit in a room where there will be kiddush/hamotzi/benching/maybe zmirot? The answer to that is definitely no. But on the other hand, do i give up my ethnic background and stop celebrating jewish holidays entirely becuase I don't believe in the religion? I'm not sure what the answer to that is.

I like celebrating new years in september, becuase for me (and anyone else on an academic schedule) september really is the begining of the new year. I like dipping challah/apples in honey to have a sweet new year. I think that's an awesome tradition, and there's no real religious significance to that and many other traditions (like eating a new fruit) that I can see. Yes I know that you're supposed to eat a new fruit because of the shechiyanu on the second day or whatever...but come on! That sounds to me like a religous explenation that was put on a tradition after the fact. Like the church claiming christmas has anything to do with christ, when really it was just the appropriation of the already widespread winter solstice celebration.

I guess the real question is, why should former religous jews who are now atheists reject everything about judaism? And the other side of that is, how do you seperate the religious aspects from the cultural/ethnic aspects of judaism?

I'm still not sure if I'm going to go to that dinner or not, especially since lately i've been feeling very alienated from the jewish community around here...i've went to two or three jewish grad student events last semester, and didn't really feel like I had anything in common with the other people there. But maybe if I don't, i'll go find some challah and honey and a pomegranite, and share them with my boyfriend.


  1. why should former religous jews who are now atheists reject everything about judaism? And... how do you seperate the religious aspects from the cultural/ethnic aspects of judaism?

    I really liked this part of your post. I don't see why former religious Jews would need to reject everything about Judaism. I've got one foot out the religious door but I'm not planning on dumping the culture wholesale. The story about the family in Bar Elan having wine and challah on Friday night was great. I hope more skeptics take on traditions like that.

  2. It should be of interest to you that atheist or agnostic Jews who nonetheless go to shul and follow many Jewish customs may represent the majority of the Jews in the world. At our Conservative shul, the former rabbi used to conduct theology polls of the congregation as part of the sermon on Kol Nidre. (Participants would fold over one corner or the other of a ballot corresponding to the answer.) The results indicated that a substantial percentage of the worshipers were not believers. I don't know their motives for showing up, as I'm not a mind-reader, but I can simply point you to a very old joke I put in my blog

    And point out that my motto is:

    "I'm an apikoris, not a goy!"

  3. Whoops, the URL got cut off. You can find the post if you go to

    and then click on the February 2005 archive and scroll down.

  4. It is similiar for me. I am not an atheist but struggle with the concept of God on a daily basis. Just like Noah Feldman, I am also a graduate of a day school who married a Korean woman. I try my best to keep kosher and the two of us have shabbat dinner every week. Lately, I started going to the local shul in my neighborhood. A conservative shul that leans very much towards the traditional. One step to the left of orthodox. The majority of members are elderly and I am the only one under 40. But I have a ball. I get to read the haftorah practically every week. And when the old ladies come up to me to wish me a yashacoach, you should see the how their eyes light up. Anyway, wishing all a sweet new year....


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