I have struggled with the question of what it meant to be Jewish for much of my life. Recently a friend noted a contradiction in my relationship to Judaism: I attend synagogue services frequently even though my beliefs and adherence to the obligations of Halachah (Jewish religious law) are casual. That did not at feel contradictory to me, and led to an examination of my life, the place of Judaism in it, and to this article.
My parents originated in Poland and moved to Berlin where I was born. We spoke Yiddish at home and when I was approaching five my parents asked a man, also Polish born and Yiddish speaking, who was well versed in Judaism to teach me to read Hebrew. The man’s beard was greying, his hat battered, and his clothes were a bit ragged and smelled as if they could use a good cleaning, and so did he. He slurped appreciatively while eating the chicken soup my mother served him during the lesson; afterwards he gladly accepted the bills my father pressed into his hand. He taught me the Hebrew letters and vowels, and then how to read the prayers when I awoke and before falling asleep at night. I memorized them rapidly.
My parents were delighted that I read Hebrew prayers fluently; it was not surprising to me or anyone else that I did not understand anything I read. Despite their eagerness for me to read Hebrew, my parents followed the obligations of Halachah casually, though we ate only Kosher food and belonged to a synagogue. My father and I often walked the flew blocks to the Orthodox Rykke Strasse synagogue, for Shabbat services while my mother, who joined us in shul on holidays, usually stayed home to prepare a festive lunch. Going to shul did not stop us from paying for public transportation later in the day to visit relatives in Berlin on most Saturdays.
My father was a peddler selling textiles door to door and was on the road constantly all summer; then my mother and I visited her family in Poland. There were always lots of aunts, uncles, cousins and many others around who worked in the family’s egg business. It was a successful firm with smaller branches in two nearby villages managed by other family members, whom we often visited. Everyone was happy that I could read Hebrew, even though no one went to the synagogue very often. When I ran out of cousins to be with in Poland, I sometimes played with non-Jewish kids, and learned to speak Polish fluently. I was frightened by the ugly anti-Semitic curses the Polish kids spat at me when we had a disagreement.
I remember little anti-Semitism when I was very young in Germany because we had little contact with non-Jews. That changed dramatically as I grew older, especially when I started Kindergarten in the Rykke Strasse synagogue. German kids often waited to taunt us with anti-Semitic curses, when they did not pelt us with stones, or try to beat us up; I did not go to Kindergarten for long. After Kristallnacht my father was caught fleeing to Belgium and imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp. It was then possible to be released from Dachau if one left Germany, and we learned that visas were not required to enter the Japanese occupied part of Shanghai. A more detailed account of that history is found in my memoir Strange Haven. A Jewish Childhood in Wartime Shanghai.
In Shanghai we joined the orthodox synagogue in Hongkew, a poorer part of the city, where most other European refugees lived. I realized that during some parts of the service my father enjoyed schmoosing with men from similar backgrounds more than anything else in shul. I attended the Talmud Torah (Hebrew school) in the shul every day after secular ended and on Sunday morning. We studied the Torah (five books of Moses) and the accompanying commentaries; and never had to write anything. Understanding Hebrew came easily to me as did reasoning about questions in the Torah. On the other hand, I was a very slow student in the secular school, where lots memorizing was required, as was writing which was tortuous for me.
In the winter of 1941 the Mirrer Yeshiva also fled to Shanghai. Yeshiva students studied at our shul until they found space elsewhere. They often asked me questions about what I had learned in the Talmud Torah, liked my answers, and urged me to study in the Yeshiva full time. My parents refused, but I kept insisting on it as my grades in the secular school declined. We noticed that the Yeshiva students were well-nourished and bought expensive Kosher meat and dairy while the other refugees were fighting malnutrition. Most refugees wore faded old clothes but those associated with the Yeshiva often ordered expensive new clothing made for them by refugee tailors. These facts made it easier for me to wear down my parents’ resistance to my entering the Yeshiva.
I finally joined the Mirrer Yeshiva in the Fall of 1942 and received a small stipend from them, easing the life of my family. The Mirrers have been called the Princeton of Talmudic study. Like other Eastern European yeshivas, they offered no secular studies, and from the age of ten to fifteen I studied Talmud day six days a week, in addition to participating in daily morning, afternoon, and evening prayer services. Shabbat and holidays were spent largely in prayer. I was taught that Jews were the chosen people and, therefore, we were endowed with special abilities envied by others leading to discrimination and persecution of the Jewish people. I became a fervent observer of Halachah and often argued with my parents when I felt that they were not being sufficiently observant. It was made clear to me in the Yeshiva that, no matter how observant I was, even greater devotion was necessary. I usually felt guilty about not reaching these higher levels and felt that those feelings would lead to my becoming a more virtuous person.
My Bar Mitzvah occurred in Shanghai after the end of the war. An American Rabbi in Captain’s uniform turned up unexpectedly in shul that Saturday. I chanted the whole Parsha, Chaye Sarah- one of the longest in Genesis, the Haftorah, gave a midrash, and then a speech. The American Rabbi was impressed and moved, saying that he hardly expected to find a Minyan in Shanghai and discovering a Bar Mitzvah so steeped in Judaism made the words “am Yisrael chai lonetzach’ (the Jewish people will live forever) very real for him. It was a moving moment for everyone.
Two things rocked my previously sold faith in God. After Japan’s surrender we learned about the Holocaust. Fourteen aunts, uncles, and cousins in Poland perished, among the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. I was devastated having lived, laughed, and cried with all of them in Berlin and in Poland. I could not understand, then and now, how an omnipotent and omniscient God could permit such a horror, especially since one and a half million of those murdered were children under sixteen. I have heard all the explanations for that and see them as rationalizations for such a catastrophe.
My faith was rocked again when we learned that the Mirrer Yeshiva was supported throughout the war by funds, transferred via Switzerland. They lived well while most of the other Jewish refugees in Shanghai struggled to fight off malnutrition. I could not understand, again then or now, how the Mirrers could extol the value of charity in daily prayer and feast on foods such as milk, butter, cream, and meat, and show off new clothes on holidays that no other refugees could afford. While emergency kitchens were opened for destitute refugees the Mirrer Yeshiva never started such a Kosher kitchen or offered any other assistance, even if only to other less fortunate members of the Orthodox refugee community in Shanghai.
It was confusing to feel deeply Jewish yet doubt the existence of God and questionning Halachah. Despite my internal turmoil I continued Orthodox practices out of habit, not belief. I did not dare share these doubts with my teachers in the Yeshiva, though I once heard my mother ask one of them how God could permit the murder of so many of the most learned and observant Jews in the world. The teacher responded, “When you slap someone, you slap them in the face.” That brought little comfort to me or my mother.
I also could not talk to anyone about the hypocrisy of the Mirrer Yeshiva. Even thinking of it felt terrible because I felt complicit having received a stipend from the Yeshiva while so many refugees were destitute. Two years after the end of the war, the Mirrers left for the U.S. sponsored by different yeshivas in America and invited me to join them. My parents refused to have me leave Shanghai without them and I did not argue about that, seeing it as a chance to break away from the Yeshiva. After they left Shanghai, I refused to return to the secular school I had attended because doing so would have been an admission that I was mistaken to leave originally; instead I worked as an office boy in a Jewish firm.
The Shanghai refugee community had athletic programs including soccer leagues and a boxing club. I attended soccer games before entering the Yeshiva and played in pickup games with other kids from school. That ended when I joined the Mirrers, but resumed after they left. Then, I also started to hang out with people in the boxing club and trained with them several times a week; it felt wonderful to punch the big training bags violently.
China’s Communist armies were scoring decisive victories over the Nationalist forces and it became clear in 1948 that Shanghai would soon fall as well. We worried about being forced to live under an unfriendly government again and yearned to immigrate to America. The U.S. immigration laws then in place permitted only a small quota of those born in Poland to enter the country, and my parents learned that they would have to wait a long wait before they could immigrate to America. It was much easier for me to enter the United States because I was born in Germany which had a high immigration quota, and I was eager to do so.
We decided that I should go to America alone and hoped that being there would make it easier for my parents to join me eventually. We thought that if they could not make it to America I could join them wherever they ended up. It was not clear where would I live in America. My Aunt Malkah Jaffe and her family survived the Holocaust by fleeing from Berlin to Poland; after the war’s outbreak they fled from there to the Russian lines and were sent to Siberia. After the war ended many Holocaust survivors were permitted entry to the U.S., and the Jaffes now lived in Brooklyn. They could hardly put me up because five members of the family now lived in a three-room walk-up apartment. Neither could my cousin Sol Blaufeld; he was the only one of his family to survive and now lived in a furnished room in Washington DC. I left Shanghai by myself before my fifteenth birthday, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee supported my passage and helped me get settled in the U.S.
I was eager to return to school fearing that I had missed a lot during the five years in the Yeshiva. After their departure I became a voracious reader and borrowed stacks of books from the library, reading a lot of British and American crime fiction, some history, and novels in both German and English. Despite my anxiety, I became a pretty good student when I returned to secular school in New York. Apparently, studying the complex Talmud and my later voracious reading made up for the missed secular education.
When I left Shanghai I was still observant externally and packed several Kosher salamis so I would not have to eat non-Kosher food aboard ship. The ship’s crew was kind enough to give me extra portions of fruit and other foods I could eat to make up for the missed nourishment. I prayed every day, including putting on the tefillin (phylacteries) in the morning even though it was very awkward on the ship, and later on the train from San Francisco to New York. Observing Halachah without believing in God was peculiar, but I felt deeply Jewish and could not think of any other way to live as a Jew.
When I finally arrived in New York the Joint put me up in the Hebrew National Orphan Home in Yonkers NY. I visited the Jaffes on many weekends. During one weekend with the Jaffes I made my way to the Mirrer Yeshiva, which settled in Brooklyn. After getting off the bus, I located the Yeshiva easily when I heard the familiar drone of students chanting while studying Talmud. I spoke to a few people I recalled from Shanghai and walked up to Rabbi Yecheskel Levenstein the Mashgiach Ruchani (spiritual supervisor) who was in his customary place during study sessions at the front of the auditorium next to the ark holding the Torahs. Students were in awe of the Mashgiach, a saintly man who was rarely approached during study sessions. I conveyed greetings from my parents and he indicated that I was welcome to return and study in the Yeshiva. He then smiled saying gently, “but you’ve changed a little haven’t you?” I agreed, and left the Yeshiva shortly thereafter. I suddenly realized that I now thought of the Yeshiva as “them,” and no longer as “us.” Shortly thereafter, on another weekend visit to the Jaffes, I found myself with nothing to do. On an impulse I went to the movies, paying the inexpensive fee at the theatre. It was my first major break with Orthodoxy. After that, I became much more casual about Orthodox practices.
My parents joined me in New York a year later after Congressman Emanuel Celler added an amendment to a bill easing immigration laws for the Jewish refugees in Shanghai. We found an inexpensive apartment in Brooklyn and joined a small local synagogue. I went to shul on the High Holidays and some Saturdays. Even though we were Kosher at home, I ate non-Kosher food outside. I finished a year of high school and attended City College of New York during the evening while working at odd jobs during the day.
I was active in the Hillel Foundation at the College and was eventually elected President, and socialized mainly with Jewish students. When I met my future wife Lora, I was comfortable that she and her parents were not Kosher. We had a Jewish wedding but had a non-Kosher home. Religion was not important for us, though we usually went to High Holiday services and celebrated Passover with my parents or in laws. Once our daughters Susan and Rochelle were born, we lit Chanukah candles and gave presents to our kids, almost in defense against the constant din of the Christmas season. We always contributed to appeals for Israel and the Jewish community, but did not join a synagogue. When our daughters were young they asked to attend Hebrew school with their friends. We agreed to pay the steep tuition fees charged to non-members but asked our children to commit to attending regularly. They did not make that commitment and never went to Hebrew school.
When my mother died, I sat shiva for the week with my father and joined in the services including, of course, saying Kadish. It was a comfort to my father especially because he knew that I was no longer observant. He often visited us in the suburbs and I drove him to services at a Young Israel congregation every morning and evening so that we could say Kadish. At morning services my father wore his tallit (prayer shawl) and tefilin (phylacteries), though I did not- feeling it would be hypocritical. One day the Rabbi offered to lend me tefilin. I thanked him and declined. He then offered to teach me how to put the tefilin on and I thanked him again saying I knew how to do that. When we returned to shul that late afternoon the Rabbi gave a short sermon between the mincha (afternoon) and maariv (evening service); the surprise on the faces of attendees indicated that this was unusual. The sermon’s message was that while it was a mitzvah (good deed) to say Kadish for a departed relative, it paled in comparison to the mitzvah of laying tefilin. My father’s face turned red, but he said nothing. After leaving he told me, “We’re never coming back here.” I hugged him and we attended another shul for the remainder of his visit.
Unfortunately, my father died three months later and I again sat shiva and attended services because I wanted his friends to feel that his memory was being honored. The Cantor’s eulogy began by extolling my parent’s virtues. Then he turned to me and said: “I was unaware of how well versed you were in Judaism until I saw you during your mother’s shiva. Now, in the face of these tragedies,” pointing to my father’s coffin, “you must return to full observance of your faith.”
Two of my colleagues attended the funeral. One was a former student, who was an ordained Orthodox Rabbi, the other an observant Conservative Jew. They were both furious about the eulogy and said it was awful to induce guilt at a time when I should be comforted. I responded, “It would be a lie if I said that I expected this but once he gave me that look I knew what was coming. For me Orthodoxy has come to mean continuous attempts to make me feel guilty.” After these events, I did not enter a synagogue for a very long time.
A few years later I was on sabbatical leave at Florida State University (FSU). A Jewish student in the lab where I worked urged me to attend a Chavura (friendship group) of university affiliated people for prayer services. I refused several times. He persisted and one day told me that the Chavura’s next meeting was devoted to discussions of Judaism in general, rather than prayers. Lora and I decided to attend mainly to get this student off my back.
Michael Berenbaum, an ordained Conservative Rabbi and Holocaust scholar who was studying for his doctorate at FSU, led the group and asked people to talk about what being Jewish meant to them. I jumped at the chance and said that I felt deeply Jewish and described all the attempts to make me feel guilty, seeing them as typical of the practices of organized Judaism. To my pleasant surprise, the group accepted and empathized with my feelings, and no one tried to justify the recent happenings. We then sang some songs, and shared a light meal. Lora and I quickly became active in the Chavura, and because of my Jewish background I became a prominent member of the Chavura, and a good friend of Mike Berenbaum. To my surprise I actually enjoyed participating in the prayer services, and we brought our kids to those as well. It was the first time in years that I felt joy in Judaism and regretted that our daughters did not have a Jewish education and could not read Hebrew.
After returning from FSU we became active in Chavuras near our homes in suburban New York and later in New Jersey. When the son of a Chavura member had a Bar Mitzvah the service occurred in a small synagogue in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey. The intimacy of the small sanctuary made it feel like a Chavura, and we liked many of the people attending the shul. That became first synagogue we ever joined, even though we did not particularly care for the rabbi. I was surprised by how comfortable I felt in the congregation, and by how much I enjoyed it, and started to attend services frequently and was surprised by how many of the prayers I remembered by heart. I also enjoyed leading services occasionally, and even led the late afternoon Mincha service on Yom Kippur. For me, being in shul makes me feel connected to the generations of Jews preceding and, hopefully, succeeding me.
One day we were invited to a Passover Seder at Mike Berenbaum’s house (he went on to become a noted Holocaust scholar, Executive Director of the Holocaust Commission that developed the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and a professor at the University of Judaism). I was unexpectedly moved and awed when Mike put on the white kittel (garment in which Jews are buried and used in Orthodox and Conservative shuls while leading services on Yom Kipur). I knew that this was customary at the Seder services of observant Orthodox Jews, but no one in my family had ever used a kittel. When I asked Mike (who was Conservative) about the kittel he said that wearing it added drama to the occasion, and he felt that such drama, at other than tragic occasions, was an important part of life.
I have enjoyed a productive academic career as an educational psychologist with lots of publications and presentations at professional meetings. Most of that time was spent on campuses of the City University of New York, with a shorter period at Fordham University, and visits of a year each at the University of Pittsburgh and Florida State University. I now believe, as suggested in the Reconstructionist prayer book, that Jewish people feel special in some way, but so do many others. We as a people are more prone than others to intellectual and entrepreneurial pursuits, not because we were especially chosen, but because historically Jews were often forbidden to own land and banned from guilds denying them access to many occupations.
We now belong to two synagogues, the Conservative Knesset Israel during summers in Pittsfield MA and the independent, Reconstructionist inspired, Kol Haneshama (voice of the soul) during winters in Sarasota, and find that both enrich our lives. I have led services, chanted the Haftorah, and leined (read from the Torah scrolls) in both congregations, though my doubts about a personal divinity have not changed. For me, the word “God” has become a metaphor standing for the history and values of our people, rather than a personalized divinity, and Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the Yizkor memorial services on other holidays continue to be awesome and dramatic moments in my life.
Wonderful article Sig. Even though I don’t have your religious training, I do have your Jewish Polish, Holocaust survivor roots. We are lucky to belong to a congregation that allows us to find joy not guilt.
I’m glad you had this published for it lifts a heavy doubt off your shoulders. You are no different in feeling from so many others who follow Jewish customs and rituals more for the sake of being with other Jews than as a prescription for salvation. Being Jewish means doing Jewish and that is precisely what you are doing. In this day and age, we shouldn’t expect more than that. By remaining in the fold and performing whatever amount of Judaism you can, you influence others to join you. That’s our future. Be an influence to others.