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‘Us’ and ‘Them’

At a preschool Hanukkah celebration—held in a nice liberal church—an atheistic Jew wonders where he fits in, and what to tell his daughter

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Riverside Church. (Collage: Tablet Magazine; parent and child: Andy Leppard/Flickr; Riverside Church: Anand Vivek Taneja/Flickr)

1. I stood at the back of the crowded room. Before me, like sunflowers ripened and swaying in the breeze, or like lighters at a rock concert when the slow song comes on, was a sea of raised hands, each holding a smart phone or camera aimed at the rabbi and the children assembled at her feet. She was telling the story of Hanukkah to a captive audience sitting cross legged on the floor in clumps, each representing a pre-K class at the Riverside Church Weekday School. Among them sat my daughter. She is 4 years old, but not for long. I stood in the back because I am very tall and can see over everyone, and I did not want to block anyone’s view. Also, because it affords me distance, which I need in order to observe, analyze, and to feel apart from the proceedings, across which now and then I allowed a flicker of emotion and feeling to leap. In alternating beats these emotions were kind, warm, and hostile, annoyed.

2. My daughter has taken to drawing a curious form, a kind of sign: It’s a U shape at the ends of which are arrows. As iconography it could be read as a smile, or instructions for a U-Turn.

“What does it mean?” I ask.

“It means you should get off the computer.”

3. Much of my conflicted feeling about Jewishness can be summed up in a single pronoun, and it is not “I” or “thou.” It is “us.” Also, the implied corollary, opposite in both meaning and mood: “them.”

I root for Jewishness like I root for the Knicks. In fact my fealty to the Knicks, inevitably mixed with disgust and contempt, seems expressly Jewish. The whole Patrick Ewing saga, in which Knicks fans heaped contempt and frustration on Ewing for years until they no longer had him, at which point they more or less fell in love with him or at least his memory and yearned for the Ewing years, which immediately seemed like golden years when judged by their aftermath, seemed an explicitly Jewish conundrum, which in turn makes me all the more happy to root for the Knicks.

To have been a Knicks fan in the Ewing era was akin to being a Jew who says, “Next year in Jerusalem.” As Rich Cohen pointed out in his book Israel Is Real, Jerusalem was there to be visited for thousands of years and yet it was always out of reach, as though a mirage that existed in another dimension.

4. A friend—Catholic if you are keeping score, and observant—writes:

I said “Happy holidays” to a woman in the laundry room yesterday and with pert self satisfaction and Irish piety (the absolutely most infuriating kind) she shot back, “Merry Christmas to you,” and walked out. I wanted to chase her down the hallway shouting “I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew goddamn it, not everyone has to believe what you fucking believe.” But I didn’t. Wouldn’t be fair to the Jews really.

5. My wife—not Jewish—recently discovered Curb Your Enthusiasm and tore through all the episodes over a period of a couple of months. Midway through this Curb-a-thon, I remarked that she seemed to have a thing for contentious Jews.

“Only on TV,” she said.

6. I come from an aristocracy of Jewish atheism. This may sound like a contradiction, but tell that to the members of the kibbutz where my mother grew up—a socialist and explicitly atheist commune dedicated to building a country that would serve as a homeland for Jews.

My mother was at the kibbutz because her mother had taken her there from Berlin when my mother was 1 year old. My grandmother grew up in Berlin and was 18 years old when she read an article by Martin Buber that made a great impression on her. She grew up not knowing that she was Jewish, but she found that out around that time, either by that article, or through other incidence—she never made it clear to my mother, who therefore never could make it clear to me.

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Well, it’s nice to know that I am not the only one that struggles with identity, though I am not an atheist. I am most decidedly a Jew, I just don’t know what kind and to what extent I am willing to practice. All I know is that my children are going to go to Hebrew School because I did, and they will have bat mitzvahs because I did. Our neighbors across the hall are observant and my eldest is envious of their Friday night shul ritual, so I will begin taking them to Friday night services, which is not something I did until I was made to do so in preparation for my Bat Mitzvah. Leave it to children to bring us back into the fold, whatever that fold may be.

A beautiful piece–thank you, thank you, thank you from an agnostic on a good day Jew living on the Upper East Side.

Its stories like this which make it more and more clear that the future of the Jewish people rests in Torah observance.

Another tale from Tablet about intermarriage and the resulting anguish and confusion. These stories are truly tiresome but indicative of the pit we’ve dug ourselves. So many Jews want to fit in but always know or eventually figure out that we are, in fact, different.

Please publish a story sometime about normal, happy Torah observant families. I don’t care if they’re Sephardi or Ashkenaz. New York, Chicago, LA, Baltimore, or wherever.

Sara Ivry says:

Alex–the fact that someone grapples with identity and history and future doesn’t mean they are not happy or not normal. In fact, there is nothing, in my reading of this piece, that suggests the writer is not normal or happy. Being married to someone with a similar background does not ensure anything.

No need to worry my intellectual friend, your children are not Jewish according to normative Halacha, and almost all studies show taht children brought up in mixed marriages almost always choose atheism or Christianity.

Bennett Muraskin says:

There is an alternative to religious ceremony and ritual for secular Jews. Secular Humanistic Jews celebrate holidays like Chanukah in a humanistic spirit full of Jewish songs, sayings, symbols etc.

For you atheist/agnostic/non-observant Jews out there, it is worth checking out. NYC, for example, has the City Congregation, the Queens Center for Cultural Judaism and the Workmen’s Circle.

Sara Ivry – Sorry, but it won’t fly. 1st: you can’t get around my first point. Torah observance is what has given the Jewish people the strength to survive and will continue to give us that foundation. He isn’t observant. He married a non-Jewish woman (lovely, I’m sure) and has non-Jewish kids. He made his choice. Game over.

2nd: he clearly is torn. Marriage partners and shared values matter. Choices have consequences. Just read the title and subhead over and over. “Us and Them: At a preschool Hanukkah celebration—held in a nice liberal church—an atheistic Jew wonders where he fits in, and what to tell his daughter.”

Lets dissect this. He admits Jews and non-Jews are different. He is at a church. He says its nice which means its inviting. Assimilation, anyone? He wonders where he fits in which means he has questions about what he’s doing there. He doesn’t know what to tell his daughter which means he has issues about celebrating a Jewish holiday in a Church let alone that his daughter isn’t Jewish since his wife isn’t. He is an atheist but finds some value in being Jewish. Whats that about? If its all garbage, then why bother with the charade? Its his Neshama struggling, that’s whats going on.

Tonight millions of observant Jewish families around the world will celebrate Shabbos and the 4th night of Chanukah, lighting candles early. The men will go to Shul. The women will prepare for Shabbos and create an atmosphere which only women, the backbone of the Jewish people, can in a celebration worthy of HaShem. The men will sing Aishes Chayil and we will fill the air with discussions of Torah. In the morning the Torah will be read as it has been done since Mt. Sinai. We’ll devote the day to HaShem, family, learning and rest. Sounds nice, right?

That’s the future of the Jewish people, not stories from gentlemen like Mr. Beller. Sara Ivry, I understand where you’re coming from and I’m sure Mr. Beller is a nice, normal person. But committed Jew he is not.

henry gottlieb says:

ALL jews pick ang choose what they wish to observe …..
consider meat and milk 3 or 4 hours
the rear half of the cow or the sciattica nerve
moses married a gentile
don’t be so fast in your rule gathering
MEANWHILE we both christians and jews are celebrating NYROT
the soltice ……..

Alex M says:

I yearn for the day when the biggest question on Jews minds are whether to wait 3 hours or 6 hours between meat and dairy!

PaulaM says:

This essay is infused with regret and longing but Mr. Beller needs to act on those feelings – Judaism is an active, doing religion and I suggest that he set aside issues of non-belief, they are really not germane to teaching his daughter how to live Jewishly. She is young and there is still time,unless his wife is opposed; however, the author needs to climb on the first rung of the ladder of observance and play an active role in his own learning and observance in order to lead his daughter. Pick something, anything, and do it. If it matters to him, it will matter to his daughter. In an intermarriage especially, religious identity is the responsibility of the person to whom it matters enough to act on it. He can’t stand in the back of the room and only watch.

Oh! So lovely. We, the interfaith children, embody both the Us and Them. Somehow, we find we can do this, and even draw creative energy from our double-belonging. The dissonance sounds musical, like jazz, to me.

Poor Thomas Beller–as a secular atheist of Jewish descent, he’s spent a lifetime as a Jew feeling smugly superior to the majority culture, and as a secular atheist feeling smugly superior to his own Jewish heritage. But now he has a daughter, and he suddenly realizes–having raised her in a secular atheist household in a secular atheist social environment, he has denied her the most important gift of all: something she can feel smugly superior to…

Thomas is dealing with more than just intermarriage. I suspect that there are a number of Aryans in his family tree and that his grandmother and mother were considered Mischlings (mixed race Jews) in the eyes of the Third Reich. In January 1933, an estimated 500,000 Mischlings lived in Germany, whose only link to Judaism may have been as little as having one Jewish grandparent. His grandmother’s move to Palestine (in 1936, I’m guessing) probably saved her life and that of her daughter. She was certainly not moving to live a Jewish life. I wonder how much influence his father and grandfathers had on his life. Were they even Jewish?

Bill Pearlman says:

Alex is right. he married a non Jewish woman and has a daughter that goes to a church school. The Jewish part of his family history is done, finished. Now he has what, regret, angst, guilt. Who cares. The other posters are right. These stories are boring already.

I’m an atheist Jew whose children are the product of (what would be called) and intermarriage with a lapsed Catholic. If I have any belief at all, it would be Roman Stoicism. Or Taoism. Or paganism, as the author.

I have a Menorah on my doorpost, as the Holy Scriptures enjoin, but that’s because my mother gave it to me and I don’t have the heart to either put it away in a drawer somewhere or to throw it away. Nobody where I live knows what it is, even if they notice it. When they do and when they ask me about it, I tell them it’s because I’m Jewish and the Menorah is a public announcement of my Judaism, even if I’m atheist.

I will never hide my origins but I won’t hide my atheism either.

My moment of truth came when my youngest daughter was around five years old. One evening as I was preparing her supper she just looked at me and asked, “Does God exist?” What to tell her? That some people believe (like her maternal grandmother), but I don’t and that’s OK? That nobody knows, but a lot of people believe (like her maternal grandmother)? Why confuse the little girl even more? I just said, “No.” And that was the end of the discussion. I was surprised and gratified how easy it was to affirm my atheism.

My oldest daughter got herself baptized a Catholic in secret when she was a teenager (I think). The two younger ones are atheists, thus confirming the commenter above who says that children of intermarriages turn out atheist.

As for spiritual belief, I’m with the author who believes in “the gods.” This induces humility, since the gods play with humans for their own reasons, letting them win if it serves them, but most of the time making them lose. Is this a Jewish attitude towards the Deity? Like the song says, “You win a while, and then it’s done—/Your little winning streak.(L. Cohen)”

I came away from reading this story with the feeling that Thomas Beller indeed does have regrets. He regrets that he does not know what it means to be Jewish other than as some sort of classification. For some reason he seems to yearn and cling to this classification. I feel for him. If he wants his daughter to want to identify with a part of her being Jewish, he should start to learn something about Judiasm himself. He would feel better and he would be in a position to share this gift with her.

Coincidently, I met a very nice person last week who happily told me he was 1/16th Jewish. He did not have a clue what that meant.

‘Happy Hanukkah’
Graphic Commentary on Hidden Spark

FromReformtoMasorti says:

actully Mr Bailers daughter is almost certainly not Jewish even according to Reform. the official Reform position is that children of an intermarriage (regardless of which parent is jewish) are Jewish IF they are raised as Jews, with a jewish education at a synagogue religious school. While his daughter is still young enough that that is a possibility, it does not sound like this family is headed in that direction.

B”H It might be said that the traiditions associated with Chanukah are meant to preserve the willingness of the Jewish People to survive throughout the history that saught our destruction. One need not obsess with civil rights where survival is concerned; doing Tradition is the answer to those who profess a diety we believe is not the Lord Our G-d the Lord is One.
researech the books available at and glean the depth of Jewish Identity in the Modern Era

george says:

I had an overwhelming sense of sadness reading this article – the writings of a man whose grandchildren have a 1 in 10 chance of considering themselves Jewish, who was given the gift of Judaism and who threw it away, who sends his child to a Christian school yet somehow hopes she will retain vestiges of her Judaism. Which raises the question why he cares – if Judaism meant something to him he would have married Jewish, his child would be attending a Jewish School. Bagels and lox are not worth fighting for and isn’t it racist to want to continue a tribal connection when there is no agreement with the core beliefs of the Jewish religion? Thomas, perhaps you have thrown away the changes for your progeny to be Jewish, but it’s not too late for you; find a shul, join, and find yourself.

shlomo says:

If the author is confused not only about religion he is confused about history and especially about Jewish history.

IF his mother took him to a kibbutz, did she have a choice of were they would end up during the Nazi period?


Susan Kane says:

Wow, folks. You know, there is something between not-knowing much of anything about Jewishness and being a Torah-observant Jew. Most self-identified American Jews live in this middle space and it’s not such a bad place to be.

The reality is that it is almost impossible to pass down to one’s children anything that is not clear to you. If you have vague, conflicted feelings about something, it’s not something you’re going to be able to convey to a child.

A lot of us have conflicted feelings about being Jewish — it comes with the territory. But those of us who want our children to actually continue being Jewish have given up on vague. What we didn’t know, we learned. (We can read.) What we didn’t believe, we made some decisions about, decisions we can live with and explain.

We do not rely on Chanukah and Passover to save us, not in America and certainly, my friend, not in the American South.

Being a Jewish atheist is an honorable and proud identity, but will the children of a Jewish atheist be Jewish atheists? Will they bother to take a stand against something their families consider irrelevant? Will they take a stand for something their families are confused about? Probably not.

In Israel, those kids would still be Jewish b/c they’ve got a whole country full of Jewish atheists before them. Not the case here, so you do the math.

I’m not going to tell you that you’re a lost cause nor that you should start lighting shabbos candles. I’m just going to tell you that sustaining a minority identity — of any type — requires some work on your part.

In short, stop being so lazy. You want your kid to care about her roots? Figure out what they mean to you. Do some intellectual work here.

And no, writing about your angst doesn’t cut it — not with the five year old set. They’re a tough crowd and they ask tough questions. I’d get started sooner rather than later.

“The men will sing Aishes Chayil”

No they will sing Ishat Hayil. Please speak Hebrew, the Jewish people language, and not the deformed Yiddish accented version – like all Ashkenazi haredi Judaism, a perversion of normal, traditional Judaism – not less than Reform or Conservative Judaism.

Anyway – Judaism is not a religion. Jews are a Nation with its land, its laws – the Torah -, and its language. Jews in the USA are in exile and should come back to their country or disappear. Which is exactly what is going on.


Your response is very unfortunate. Instead of finding common ground, and I am sure you and I agree on a lot, you decided to pick on pronunciation.

Not only that, but you decided to denegrate all Ashkenazim. I observe Shabbos. You observe Shabbat. Its the same thing and we do it for the same reasons.

Reform and Conservative have created terrible problems for the Jewish people. To equate them with Torah Judaism as done by Jews whose ancestors have been in Europe for the last 2000 years, give or take, is flat out wrong. You should know better.

We have to be brothers and if we aren’t united, then only problems will follow. Personally, I don’t care if Jews have a Sephardi, Ashkenazi, or any other minchag. All I care is that they be observant, and if they aren’t, I care that they see flashes of beauty from the Torah which we both believe is truth. I also want non observant Jews to see that many observant Jews are good people and not the problematic and violent hypocrites on display in the news today.

Ben, we celebrate the same holidays and have the same ancestors at Sinai and going back to our forefathers Avraham, Yaakov, and Yitzhak.

Focus on that before you insult Jews who live to connect with HaShem just as you. You are correct about the dangers of assimilation although it is less of an issue for the Orthodox. Still, the waves of American culture are relentless. There are also problems of assimilation in Israel away from the Torah. At least they won’t physically disappear but many Israeli friends of mine are atheist. What a tragedy! Jews living in Eretz Yisrael and atheist! We can both find this saddening, right?

When I make Aliyah in a couple years after yeshiva in Yerushalayim, and we ever meet, I’ll invite you over for Shabbos. Call this holy day whatever you like, but we’re on the same team.



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‘Us’ and ‘Them’

At a preschool Hanukkah celebration—held in a nice liberal church—an atheistic Jew wonders where he fits in, and what to tell his daughter