The only

Feb. 18th, 2016 11:40 pm
liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
I've spent my life being the only Jewish person in most social contexts. When I was tiny, younger than school age I think, I tried to explain the High Holy Days to my Dad's best friend from university; I remember vividly the intense embarrassment at having made a social misstep, but also the sheer surprise at discovering that someone other than family, met outside a Jewish context, could also be Jewish.

I was the only Jewish kid in my nursery school. My brother and I had to go up on stage a week or so after I started full-time school to demonstrate to the other pupils that we were normal children just like them and nobody should pick on us for being Jewish. That could have backfired, but in fact it didn't, it was only really in junior school that I got bullied for being the only Jewish kid, and that was caused by a couple of teachers who had a problem with it and egged the other children on to be horrible to me. In secondary school I wasn't the only, probably about 1% of the school body were Jewish, so that meant about one girl in each yeargroup, and I had to do lots of explaining, and had to sit out of RE class the term we "did" Judaism because the teacher was insecure about teaching in front of a student who knew more than she did. I obviously wasn't the only Jewish person at Oxford (!), but I it was a very common experience for me as a student that I would be the first Jewish person somebody had met. And when I lived in Scotland and Sweden, I was pretty much the only Jewish person in my work circles and other social groups, and often the only Jewish person in interfaith groups.

Now I'm semi-officially the Only Jewish Person at the university where I'm a lecturer. I mean, I'm not, not remotely, but nobody else is admitting to it and I'm the person the university calls on for official functions when they want some Diversity. They're in the process of doing bureaucracy to make this actually officially part of my role, with a title and terms of reference and everything. I somewhat flippantly describe it as being appointed as the institution's official token Jew, and that's only partly a joke.

So that's pretty much always been part of my experience. And now I'm the only Jewish person in my relationship, in the group of people whose lives are perhaps less intertwined than the most common meaning of the word family in a culture that has definite expectations of what a nuclear family looks like, but not a whole lot less. I mean, I was the only Jewish person in my relationship when it was just me and my husband, but being one out of two doesn't feel quite so much like being the odd one out as being the only Jewish one in a group that contains two culturally Christian atheists and four religious Catholics. Generally I'm pretty happy in this situation, but it's something that impacts on various parts of my life so I feel like talking about it a bit.

Firstly I should make it absolutely clear that nobody has ever been anything but entirely nice and supportive. I wouldn't have got into a relationship in the first place with anyone who believed in trying to convert me, whether to atheism or to their religion, or generally went around undermining my religious beliefs and practices. (Equally I wouldn't really be willing to date someone who was from a different religion from me, but unsure of their own religious place and views; I would be too nervous of influencing them in a way that I'd consider inappropriate.)

The thing I'm finding hardest is knowing that most of the Jewish world, even the liberal bits where I mostly hang out, really disapproves of mixed relationships. I'm nervous that the combination of mixed and poly is going to be too much even for open-minded people. I haven't had any trouble so far, but equally I haven't really told anyone much, and the fact of having to make a calculation whether I come out is something I'm finding a bit stressful. I'm having to be careful on FB too, cos that contains a lot of people I mostly know through community stuff.

Apart from that, in some ways it's harder dating religious Christians than atheists, in some ways easier. There are definitely things that my OSOs intuitively understand about how I tick that I've had to explain carefully to my husband, who is not only atheist in terms of his beliefs but had no religious upbringing. And I think at a high level my partners have approaches to religion that gel quite well with mine, without papering over the fact that we do in fact come from substantially different traditions. On the other hand, there's more likely to be a conflict between clashing beliefs and practices, than between religious observance and the absence of such.

It also helps that I take a fairly typical Jewish attitude to theology, namely that I consider it basically a personal matter, and also I think absolutely everybody who ever tries to conceptualize God is necessarily wrong, so the fact of different people using different metaphors to try to understand what is beyond human comprehension is not very important. So ok, it's true I find the idea of Trinitarianism entirely baffling, but that doesn't have much impact on anybody's day to day life. I also have quite profound disagreements with my Christian partners about the nature of marriage, but this is entirely academic given that everybody in the quad is already married and it's not legal anyway for us to enter into any more marriages even if we wanted to.

I think probably the most serious thing we disagree about is, well, see that bit up there where I talked about culturally Christian atheists? Some of the Christians disagree with that as a concept, I think essentially they hold that you have to believe in Jesus to be Christian, but I don't want to put words into anyone's mouth, and I'm not sure that's exactly what the discord is. But generally I have always made a point of insisting that people who are atheist, and who are also part of the dominant Christian-flavoured culture should say so; the experience of not believing in God is very different if everybody assumes you're default and unmarked, and you don't also come from a religious-ethnic minority, and you can expect to get time off for the festivals you grew up with without having to even think about it, and that most media references to religion will be ones you are familiar with. I don't think anybody disagrees with me about that, but it feels like we have a huge gulf of understanding about my assumption that the sorts of atheists I'm talking about actually do share that Christian culture even if they don't share the beliefs.

We are still figuring out how best to express respect for eachothers' beliefs. I mean, the respect is clearly and evidently there, but it's easy to get tangled up in things. The thing I find difficult is being welcoming and including all my partners in my religious life, without in any way seeming like I'm trying to push my religion on them. And probably I should worry less because I don't actually think any of my partners feel like I'm being pushy if I offer them doughnuts for chanukah or invite them to Jewish things. But it's especially important with the younger children, because of course they're interested in everything that I'm interested in, and excited to learn about stuff, but they may not have a clear distinction between which behaviours are just cool things that adults do, and which things I do specifically because I'm Jewish. I should probably trust them, because I knew full well when I was four when I was just joining in with Christian things to be nice to my friends, and that it wasn't for me. But I didn't have non-Jews showing up and joining my family, so.

No matter what I think intellectually, I still emotionally react to church as a basically hostile environment. That is emphatically not my partners' fault, it's a combination of personal and more global history. So yes, I do very much want to go along to church with my people, it's part of their lives and anyway I find it interesting and enjoyable in spite of that emotional flinch. I know some Jewish people think it's wrong to attend Christian services, or even to go into church buildings, at all; I've never held that attitude, though for a while I didn't want to go to services where Mass was taking place. That changed long before I got together with current Christian partners, because a close friend of mine had a Communion service as part of her wedding, and I decided then I don't have that strong a principle against it. But it still utterly weirds me out, I think mainly because it feels like I'm watching something really intimate and somehow, however much I'm invited, it feels wrong for an outsider to be present at all.

In terms of home ceremonies, things are mostly going well. Grace at meals is quite complicated, not in a bad way, just there are lots of factors to take into account. Early on in the relationship, Christian partner and me agreed that it would be a good idea to encourage eachother to say grace when we eat; [personal profile] jack approves of the concept of grace even if he doesn't like the theism. But other atheist friends quite often don't, so getting better at saying grace out loud rather than just in my head means I have to be careful about when I do it. There's also a bit of an issue because I basically want to say grace after a meal, and just the simple blessing for bread before, but anyway. The Christians seem basically ok with blessing God for creating bread (or rather, conditions which allow humans to farm, make flour, and bake); I am ok with saying amen to most of their forms of grace, even the ones that talk about Jesus, because I'm regarding Jesus language as a different metaphor for God, rather than a prayer to a false god.

I have a load of issues around other people seeing me lay tefillin. Partly cos of stuff from my childhood, partly because (slight exaggeration), there are only about three people in the world who think tefillin is a ritual I should be participating in *waves to [personal profile] hatam_soferet and [personal profile] withagreatlove*. Actually it matters less with non-Jewish friends, because they're not going to be aware of all the denominational politics around the practice. And actually, when I can get over being embarrassed by this weird ritual that I do, it's kind of nice to be in the presence of people who know how to hold prayerful space, and generally understand the idea of regular ritual practice. I mean, one time recently we'd originally decided I was going to stay home while some of the family went to church, and changed plans at the last minute, with the consequence that I ended up attending a Christian service before I'd completed my own morning prayers, which I felt a bit guilty about, but it wasn't anybody's fault, it was just circumstances.

As far as anything is ever awkward at all, I think it's largely because I have a kind of default expectation that when it comes to religion, I have to make myself as small as possible. If I want to be able to carry out my non-mainstream practices, I have to ask really nicely, and only ask at all when I can't possibly avoid inconveniencing others. I expect that Christian-ish people will be pleasant to me only if I do lots of work to make my religion seem unthreatening. I know that's really not entirely fair, most people have a pretty positive attitude towards different religions even if they're starting from a place of ignorance. But I'm sometimes emotionally doing that tripping over the last stair thing, of expecting resistance and things that have to be carefully managed, when in fact there is only respect and support.

Part of the reason why interfaith relationships are difficult is of course that there's loads of history. Within the quad we can do all kinds of "my ancestors persecuted your ancestors" things, it's not just that I'm the only Jewish person, our backgrounds include German, English and Irish and I'm not sure if those of us who aren't Catholic are ancestrally Protestant but probably. Added to that there's the thing where specifically Catholic Christianity was completely rubbish at dealing with Jews until about 50 years ago, when the Church suddenly got clue and became in fact much better than most other Christian denominations, but the history didn't magically go away. Some members of my (birth) family have had personal bad experiences with Catholicism as institution, and as a result have some residual prejudice, and I'm concerned I might have picked some of that up. There's the bits of Jewish liturgy which evolved in a context where Christians were oppressors and is therefore a bit pointed or even actually nasty about Christians, and there's also, well, at one point I asked my partners to please not apologise to me for the Inquisition, because really!

In lots of ways it's really wonderful, though. We're finding lots of creative ways to combine celebrations that fall at the same time while still respecting their character and context. My favourite was when [livejournal.com profile] ghoti set a cheesecake on fire when my cheesecake eating Pentecost fell on the same day as their spiritual fire Pentecost. And as I've often found before, being around people who are not Jewish and are sincerely interested in Judaism is good for my own connection to religion.

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Date: 2016-02-19 12:25 am (UTC)
alextiefling: (Default)
From: [personal profile] alextiefling
Thank you for posting this! I haven't anything specific to add, but I am fascinated by your posts about this topic. The complex relationship between Jewish and Christian observances continues to preoccupy me, but I'm not in a position to make any practical progress myself at present.

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Date: 2016-02-19 12:34 am (UTC)
rysmiel: (Default)
From: [personal profile] rysmiel
I would argue strongly in favour of the utility of the concept of "culturally Christian atheist", because my personal state of "raised Catholic in the Republic of Ireland and now agnostic about most values of deity, modified by a strong sense of pietas, and specifically atheist with regard to the value of deity I grew up with" is very different from, say, various raised-Muslim atheists I am friends with in terms of psychological and emotional weight; it would be mendacious to pretend that the shape of Christianity that was around in my schooling and upbringing did not have a deep influence on me for all that I do not follow that. And, for example, the shape of what feels to me to be appropriate values of polite and respectful to people with strong religious feelings about the Norse deities is quite different from what feels to me to be appropriate values of polite and respectful to people with strong religious feelings in the tradition I grew up with, because I have a very different degree of confidence in navigating the theological technicalities and emotional weights of the latter and am much more ready to jump into a discussion of theodicy there. (Though come to think of it that's probably a poor example, because my main points of difference with the tradition I grew up in are around the problem of evil, and with Norse axioms as I understand them the existence of evil does not pose any problems; if anything it's the existence of good that needs additional explanation in that context.)
Edited Date: 2016-02-19 12:36 am (UTC)

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Date: 2016-02-19 01:34 am (UTC)
cremains: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cremains
This is a very challenging post to read as a traditional Jew. Among other things, for me it brought up a lot of feelings and memories regarding Christianity and I hope you don't mind if I put some of those thoughts down; please feel free to just tell me to quit it though.

I think that when you allude to your discomfort with Christianity or going to church or what have you, you give yourself too little credit and handle your intuition with what seems like suspicion and second-guessing. Have you read the New Testament recently? It's full of a LOT more specific anti-Jewish sentiment than I ever remembered. It is bizarre to see what I know to be a highly diverse, ethically robust rabbinic tradition routinely cariacturised and mocked while its more famous maxims are simply ripped off and put in the mouth of Jesus as if they were BRAND NEW and ULTRA FRESH like no one ever heard of anti-poverty activism until Jesus came along to teach "be nice to beggars" to the silly little Jews. Maybe it's because I'm a scribe and a pharisee but I don't think it's at all unreasonable to be disturbed by some fundamental aspects of Christianity, like its scriptures.

I know people this very day whose lives have been impacted by the Inquisition (ie from converso families). I agree that it's weird and pointless to accept an apology on behalf of All Jews from a stand-in for All Catholics, but it's not like that legacy is long dead.

Neither is Christian antisemitism a thing of the past and only a silly concern these days. I'm glad you've met such tolerant and generous people but I for example have had many Christian nightmares. For example, I remember arriving at a Catholic aunt's house to see that she had stepped out to leave me with a priest who showed me many vivid pictures of Hell, telling me that is where I was going unless I changed my ways. Another family member stopped attending her Catholic church when the guest priest, on Christmas, said (meaning of course only metaphor) "We must learn to recognise and kill the Jew in each of us." And a very religious Protestant Christian boss once noticed me reading Hebrew, asked if I was a Jew, told me "I'm sure that won't interfere with our ability to work together," and proceeded to marginalise and stream me towards redundancy (happily, she got fired first, but at what felt like the last minute).

I think my experiences are not outliers but they might be the product of being traditional but operating in the non-Jewish world professionally and so forth. Do you ever feel like perhaps you would be burdening your Christian partners by fully facing a long history of one-sided violence? (I notice your phrasing implies mutuality and cycle in "all kinds of 'my ancestors persecuted your ancestors' things")

The line in your post about how non-Jews who like Judaism are very good for you really sticks out for me, especially in connection to your various allusions to being not literally the only Jew -- these other Jews seem so remote. The opinion of Christians is elevated. Maybe there is something to be said for exploring the opinions of your fellow Jews as valuable in their own right. I feel like I get what you're saying because for example male feminists always disproportionately impress me and I have to consciously work to balance that out.

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Date: 2016-02-19 01:44 am (UTC)
davidgillon: A pair of crutches, hanging from coat hooks, reflected in a mirror (Default)
From: [personal profile] davidgillon
It was a very common experience for me as a student that I would be the first Jewish person somebody had met.

I think you're possibly the first practising Jewish person I've met face to face. Seems sort of surprising I'd gotten to this age without running into anyone.

The thing I'm finding hardest is knowing that most of the Jewish world, even the liberal bits where I mostly hang out, really disapproves of mixed relationships.

Christianity is no better. My parents are a mixed Catholic/Protestant marriage (not that my mother is especially observant), but Dad always claimed that when he went to talk to the priest about marriage he set his dog on him, and I'm not entirely sure he was joking. That was a good few years ago, obviously, but you still see similar issues cropping up, especially from the more fundamentalist groups.

ok, it's true I find the idea of Trinitarianism entirely baffling

So do I!

"culturally Christian atheists"

I think that's a perfectly justifiable construction. Sort of spiritual/moral/ethical/historical osmosis.

I have a kind of default expectation that when it comes to religion, I have to make myself as small as possible.

I think that's entirely understandable, and simultaneously find it very upsetting (because it's a justified expectation - I'm upset at the history that justifies it, not you holding it).

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Date: 2016-02-19 01:55 am (UTC)
redbird: closeup of me drinking tea (Default)
From: [personal profile] redbird
I think it was Woody Allen who had a character say something like "no, I don't believe in God, but the God I don't believe in is a loving God, not like the one you're talking about." That's a different emotional reaction, but feels connected; there's a shape of cultural Christianity that finds the idea that there is no God easier than the idea that "the world is a horrible place because God is real, and hates us."

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Date: 2016-02-19 03:17 am (UTC)
batdina: (tefillin)
From: [personal profile] batdina
now you know four women who lay tefillin?

I love reading about this. I do a fair bit of interfaith work, but it's not as consciously personal as your family.

שׁבת שׁלוֹם

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Date: 2016-02-19 04:55 am (UTC)
lilysea: Serious (Default)
From: [personal profile] lilysea
had to sit out of RE class the term we "did" Judaism because the teacher was insecure about teaching in front of a student who knew more than she did.

Oh, ugh. :(

That's terrible teaching! :(

As opposed to asking you privately if you'd please correct her in class if you got anything wrong if you felt comfortable doing that,

or asking if you felt comfortable talking to the class about it,

or even better, getting an appropriate adult in from the local Jewish community to do a presentation.

I'm sorry that you had that experience. :(

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Date: 2016-02-19 08:40 am (UTC)
dafna: (Default)
From: [personal profile] dafna
I had a similar "only Jew in the school" experience growing up and especially in elementary school had to keep living through the "and now Dafna's mom is going to tell us about Hanukkah and why we can't sing Christmas carols in a public school" ritual. I became best friends when I was 12 with a Muslim girl and while it wasn't why we stayed friends (we're still best friend, 30+ years on), being the two "onlys" had a lot to do with why we first connected.

College and then of course living in Israel were very different experiences, but my favorite Jewish community is the one I have now, back in my hometown, which has way more Jews in it now, thanks to the tech boom. (We also have way better Indian food.) This community has a fair amount of intermarriage in it and I've mellowed out a lot on the topic, but the non-Jewish spouses in question are also often active members of our community, so it's a bit different than what you're describing. I'm surprised you know so few women who lay tefillin. I don't, because I'm defiantly Reform in my ideology (my community is deliberately nondenominational), but I know at least a dozen women who do. Is whatever the Masorti movement in the UK is called less egal-focused than the Conservative one in the U.S., do you know?

My father was raised Catholic and at least in the U.S., there's been studies that say Jewish-Catholic is a really common pattern, so I'm not surprised that some bits would be easier than dealing with atheists. But the part that would be hardest for me of what you've described (and would be a deal-breaker, for me at least) is the going to church. I'm very close to my dad's family, but I only go inside churches for weddings, funerals & the occasional baptism. And I've stopped going to a particular family member's birthday party in December because it always turns into a big Xmas party. (My dad doesn't go either.) I feel a very strong aversion to "swapping" religious services/traditions -- like, when my non-Jewish cousin was living with me, of course she came to seder, but I've never invited my other cousins or non-Jewish relatives just for the heck of it. (I do invite them over for Sukkot, but that feels like a weird cultural thing I can share, rather than something specifically religious.) I don't have the frum aversion to going inside churches and happily visited Westminster & St. Paul's as a tourist. But when I went to evensong at York Minster, which was pitched to me as "oh, it's beautiful singing," I realized very quickly that "duh, it's a religious service" and was profoundly uncomfortable the entire time.

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Date: 2016-02-19 10:12 am (UTC)
wildeabandon: photo of me with wavy hair and gold lipstick (Default)
From: [personal profile] wildeabandon
I'm slightly surprised that they find the idea of a culturally Christian atheist to be not really a thing, given the ubiquity of the "but are you a Catholic atheist or Protestant atheist?" query.

Something that has just occurred to me about the difference between cultural and religious Christianity is the swapping of Christmas and Easter. I was somewhat frustrated at having to take a whole week off over Christmas, when a couple of days would do, and then not being able to afford to take Holy Week off. Obviously it's not to the same degree, but it does have echoes of the experience of other religions.

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Date: 2016-02-19 10:26 am (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
I think the "culturally Christian" label is very useful, I was brought up Catholic and I still celebrate Christmas and Easter (mostly with chocolate) and even observe Lent (ish) and obviously I wouldn't do any of that if my life wasn't strongly influenced by Christianity, and of course the God I don't believe in is the Christian God, I know hardly anything about anyone else's beliefs and practices and so on.

I think there are people who are trying to just be atheist, and scrub the heritage of Christianity out of their atheist-culture. With enough generations of that I think you do eventually loose the Christian-influence. But that doesn't stop you being able to pass as "default" in a culture like ours in the UK. I've seen people talk about living in places in the US where "not observing Christian rituals" really does mark a person out as "different" and "other" and I think that's an experience that makes people very unhappy with the "culturally Christian" label.

Once I stopped attending a Catholic school I was often (afaik) the "only Catholic" in many classes (probably not in the whole school). Fortunately this never caused me any issues, also fortunately my parents mixed (Dad's CoE) marriage never caused our family any issues. Even a few decades previously I expect we would have had a lot of trouble :(

I admire you dealing so gracefully with the different traditions in your family.

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Date: 2016-02-19 11:16 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ewt
Flaming cheesecake! Must try.

I do still make cheesecake around the time of Pentecost. I try not to shout about it too much because it could be interpreted as appropriative, but for me it is a way of respecting and honouring the time I spent exploring Judaism seriously. (Besides: cheesecake is tasty and I don't need a big excuse.)

I agree with you re: culturally Christian atheists. I've never been atheist, but having been raised Christian and then explored/observed Judaism I found things like Christmas Day really jarring, perhaps less so when visiting (culturally or otherwise) Christian family members but the ones I spent on my own were just odd in a way that I don't find, say, Diwali or Ramadan odd as a Christian: it's something that goes on around me but it doesn't have the same impact on my life and it isn't ever an assumption the way Christmas and (to a lesser extent) Easter were.

That said, in Canada, Shrove Tuesday isn't called "pancake day" and is very much something only religious people do, and my first spring in London I was very very confused when someone else working at the shul I worked at asked if I was doing anything for pancake day and I didn't know what she meant and eventually she explained where it came from. She was very definitely Reform rather than Orthodox but it was still strange! And I think that sort of thing might be why some get so nervous of any interfaith work: when there is one religious tradition that is culturally dominant, it necessarily has some influence on the religious practice of people who are in a minority, and while (I think) that's not always a disastrous thing, I'd be nervous about it being an *unthinking* thing: partly because (unlike some, and they do exist) I really don't want to impose my religion on anyone, and partly because pressure for someone to observe a religious practice without 'owning' it -- without thinking about where it comes from, what it means in that context and their own context, what their beliefs are in relation to it -- strikes me as the sort of thing which leads to dull, dry and even oppressive experiences of religion which can be pretty awful. That in turn doesn't mean I think everyone has to be an expert scholar about every practice they take on; but I'm certainly wary of situations where people are just going through the motions with no real sense of why.

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Date: 2016-02-19 11:25 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] ewt
(My colleague was not eating pancakes on Pancake Day having not thought about it, mind, but had made a decision at some point to observe this as a secular ritual despite the Christian origins of it. I don't think I have a problem with that, even if I feel like it's a bit weird.)

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Date: 2016-02-19 11:40 am (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
I think the culturally-Christian label is really useful, particularly when talking about privilege and the way people's assumptions about the shape of the year and the way the world works either fit or don't fit.

But I can see why people might find it offensive (not that I'm saying this is the case for any of your loves) - to draw a heavy handed analogy, if we found an identical planet to Earth with an England where the distribution of sexualities was entirely switched round, and it was very common to be gay and very rare to be straight, it might be meaningful to talk about people from our England as 'culturally-straight lesbians'. And that could be a really helpful term for understanding all sorts of differences - but if your sexuality has been a big struggle for you, and coming out as not straight in a straight world has been a hard thing to do, being labelled as 'culturally straight' as a thing you can't change, because it was the social norm you grew up with, might just be annoying?

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Date: 2016-02-19 07:54 pm (UTC)
forestofglory: E. H. Shepard drawing of Christopher Robin reading a book to Pooh (Default)
From: [personal profile] forestofglory
This is so different from my own experience growing up where there were generally other more observant jews around. (It was not hard to be more observant than my family was -- we basically just observed passover and Hanukkah.) I kind of felt I didn't have right a Jewish identity. I used to tell people I was "technically Jewish." (Now I tell people I'm secular humanist Jew so I still have hard to explain Jewish identity.)

Would it make your atheist friends more comfortable if you said grace using some of the more secular blessings people have come up with? You know "spirit of the universe" instead of "Our lord, our G-d"? Would you feel comfortable with that?

Anyways thanks for sharing this.

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Date: 2016-02-19 08:57 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
There's other stuff, too. Something that looms large in my life is that Christian culture and Jewish culture have different beliefs and attitudes about what turns out to be psychology. Both Christianity and Judaism have religious teachings about emotions and they are very different. Those teachings have deeply and unconsciously permeated those cultures; the vast majority of people of both faiths have no conscious idea what their religions have to say about emotions, but they got it from their cultures growing up. Most people have internalized them so deeply, it's the fish/water thing.

So it doesn't even matter whether you are a believer or know anything about the teachings of your faith. If you were raised in a Christian culture, you probably have unwittingly internalized certain ideas about emotions that come out of Christianity. (Christian-culture atheists may well want to learn more about this; it's a dimension of Christianity they may not realize they have yet to confront within themselves.)

And here's another huge cultural difference: Christianity and Judaism have very different attitudes towards outsiders. One big reason that you are so anxious lest you impose your Judaism inappropriately on your family is that Judaism, and Jewish culture, themselves, tell you it is wrong.

Judaism has baked right in that the Jewish people are one nation among many, and consequently has various instructions and rules and so forth for dealing with people of other faiths, starting with the idea that you aren't supposed to mess with their faiths. This has passed into the Jewish culture, thus producing concepts like chillul hashem – something for which I don't believe Christians have any analogy.

Christianity has this idea its the one right religion for everyone, if they just knew about it; hence, evangelism. There's nothing in Christianity that validates that other people have other faiths and that's perfectly fine; there's nothing in Christian culture that instructs Christians on how to be hospitable in a respectful-of-other-faiths way or tells them it's their Christian duty to do so. For over a thousand years, Christianity flourished in Europe with only really internal challenges; the culture which has emerged from this conceptualizes non-Christians as far away[*] or strangers in our midst. There's nothing in Christian culture which equips Christians to share a society with people of other faiths. Which is not to say that Christians can't learn to do these things – merely they have to reach beyond Christianity and Christian culture for guidance and models of how to do this.

(And here in the US, because it requires going outside Christianity, it is why some more conservative Christians reject "multiculturalism".)

I think this is really obviously and immediately impacting your situation.

however much I'm invited, it feels wrong for an outsider to be present at all

In such religious ceremonies, they usually don't make a space for an outsider to be present, in acting like everyone is an insider. The outsider is left to figure out, without help, "What do I do with myself? What should I participate in, and what would be appropriative to participate in? Is this behavior a sign of respect or a sign of commitment or a sign of devotion or what?" And that just makes them feel even more outside.

More generally, Christians, and people who are culturally Christian, may totally mean well and be welcoming and non-hostile to others, and still, out of sheer obliviousness, behave as if everyone involved in a thing is (1) actually Christian and (2) will have no problems or reservations with participating as a or being thought to be a Christian.

I adore it when Christians get this, and do make space for outsiders. My (Catholic) step-mother did a great job with this prepping me on the fly when I went with her to Midnight Mass. Mad props to the Episcopal priests who ran what I'm going to call a Medieval Teaching Mass at an early music festival I attended, who were really clear that not everyone was Episcopal or even Christian, and handled it beautifully. Similarly, the early musician whose workshop I attended at K'Zoo, it was that not even vaguely an ecclesiastic context, but who thought to give warning to the non-believers in the (participatory) audience that the nifty new pedagogical method for early chant he was teaching us had turned out to feel a lot more devotional than most people expected from an early music class.

[* Which actually causes conceptual artifacts in popular (miss)understandings of the Middle Ages. Every mildly educated Westerner thinks that the primary contact the Christian West had with Islam was through the Crusades. Because, clearly, Islam was Far Away, at the ass-end of the Mediterranean. And not next door, in Spain, where you could walk over and ask to borrow a cup of sugar.]

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Date: 2016-02-20 02:28 am (UTC)
ceb: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ceb
And that just makes them feel even more outside.

YES. My goodness, yes. Thank you for articulating this.

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Date: 2016-02-19 10:05 pm (UTC)
slashmarks: (Leo)
From: [personal profile] slashmarks
Discussions of cultural Christianity often get frustrating to me because, while I absolutely agree that it's technically true of me (I am an atheist who was raised in a Christian home and still celebrates some Christian festivals) it tends to result in... misunderstandings if people apply it to me without any more detail than that.

When people say that in the US, they're usually referring specifically to Protestant Christianity, and more specifically the types of Protestantism that are influenced by a very specific, Calvinist influenced set of ideas about pleasure, work, emotions, etc -- the type of thing siderea was talking about. Sometimes they mean Catholicism or Mormonism, though ime both of those groups tend to refer to themselves specifically as ex-Catholic or ex-Mormon.

My family, on the other hand, is very very lapsed Eastern Orthodox. That comes with some very surface level, but still surprising differences, like, when I'm hiding at home miserably because you can't celebrate secular holidays without family, and I'm estranged, but celebrating religiously by yourself is awkward with no belief, it's Easter, not Christmas, and Easter on a different date. Even when my mother was going to Unitarian Universalist Church, she had statues of Mary up, not crosses. (I also had fun explaining the "we'll go to midnight mass this year!" (no we won't) thing to my girlfriend visiting her family for Christmas for the first time, which I understand is common to lapsed Catholics too...)

But I think the major influence, and the part that I often get tripped up on, is that emotional, psychological, basic beliefs about the world level stuff. Like, Orthodox Christians from the area of the world my family is from lived in an area that historically had about four different religious traditions, tied to ethnicity but living side by side. (Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Muslims, and Jews.) Which comes with a slightly more extensive comprehension that people who aren't Christian, or aren't the same Christian as you, exist.

And it's complicated, and tied up with other cultural stuff that's hard to tie into or exclude from the religious stuff. Like, my girlfriend is ex-Mormon and was raised with certain mainstream American cultural beliefs about marriage and romance. I was not raised with those beliefs, and there have been misunderstandings in our relationship because of that. I've found myself reading books going to pains to explain that people in the Middle Ages/wherever did not think of marriage like we do, only to get really confused and realize ten pages later that the "we" is "we the authors and our culture," and not inclusive of me.

(In particular, family in my culture is much more about obligation and assistance and less about whatever emotions you happen to feel at the time. Eg, marriage is synonymous with living with someone as an adult partner to me, so when my girlfriend was saying that marriage was meaningless to her and she'd do it but she couldn't say she WANTED it I was both offended and *confused,* because we'd been planning for years to move in together! It took about four months for us to work out the problem was that I mean that while she meant a whole package of emotional implications and ideas about gender and stuff that I still don't really get.)

So basically what I'm saying, I think, is that one issue with "culturally Christian" is that it's not just about the god you don't believe in, or festivities, it means one specific type of Christian culture, and there's definitely more than one.

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Date: 2016-02-20 11:51 pm (UTC)
siderea: (Default)
From: [personal profile] siderea
I owe you an apology! I have overgeneralized "Christian", and you're quite right, Orthodox Christianity developed in a much more religiously pluralistic geopolitical context. Sorry about that.

When people say that in the US, they're usually referring specifically to Protestant Christianity, and more specifically the types of Protestantism that are influenced by a very specific, Calvinist influenced set of ideas about pleasure, work, emotions, etc -- the type of thing siderea was talking about.

While Calvinism is a vast and immanent cultural force in the US, the ideas about emotions to which I allude go back at least to the Desert Fathers, and became more mainstream in Christianity in the West somewhere around the 14th century, I think (not sure when the transition was). ETA: So I'm really curious if those ideas also exist in Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Edited Date: 2016-02-20 11:52 pm (UTC)

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Date: 2016-02-21 03:23 am (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
Thanks for this post, it was fascinating and touched on a lot of things that are important to me.

Living in the NY-NJ metro area, I've rarely been 'the only Jew' in any particular place, but I've often been 'the only Jew wearing a yarmulke', as I was in high school, and presently am at work. Inasmuch as the yarmulke obviously transmits a field of invisible rays saying "Ask me nosy questions about Judaism", I think it puts me in a somewhat similar situation to a lot of the situations you describe. There is a lot of loneliness in that position, of wishing you were more often in places where people just understood where you were coming from.

I share a lot of [personal profile] cremains's concerns about some of the ways in which you framed your relationship to your partners' Christianity. Vatican II represented a pretty amazing change in the Church, but I think "the Church suddenly got a clue" is at best a really flip way of describing it and at worst a pretty dangerous way of minimizing the continued problems the Catholic Church has posed to Jews. I don't think Jewish mistrust of the Catholic Church is 'residual prejudice' and I think you're unfair to your family when you accuse them of that. Until two years ago, the leader of the Church was a former Hitler Youth with a very bad track record of Jewish outreach during his Papacy.

I'm still mulling over your theory of Trinitarianism and references to Jesus in prayer being just another metaphor for God. I'm inclined to agree as well with [personal profile] cremains that that's just too far a leap for me to join you on as being part of any kind of normative Judaism I recognize, though I don't know you well enough to share their concerns about whether that is you giving up too much of yourself for the sake of your relationship.

I did one time attend an Episcopalian mass, by accident. I'd been invited to a friend's choral concert and hadn't realized beforehand that they were actually singing Faure's Requiem in a church. It was very uncomfortable and (that discomfort wasn't helped by the fact that I'd been drinking before the concert). I'm not sure what value you get from the experience, as an outsider who isn't there to pray or fully partake of the ritual.

As far as culturally Christian atheists go... I've read through a good deal of the sort of sociological analysis in the comments here, and some of it I think is interesting, and some of it I think is wrong, but fundamentally I feel like a lot of it is missing the real point, which is that most of the time when Jews try to force culturally Christian atheists to acknowledge their Christian heritage, it is not out of any sociological interest in their heritage, it's because they have been acting like assholes to us without realizing it because of their privileged position in the culture, and we are trying to get them to acknowledge that they have been acting like assholes. So the piece of vocabulary that I think needs to substitute in the kind of discourse I'm usually having for culturally Christian atheist, if atheists think it is unfair that we associate them with a religion they have rejected, is 'asshole'. This is not particularly relevant to any conversations about the vocabulary within your relationship, it's just my generally feeling on the issue. "When you assumed that I would be doing something special for Christmas, you were being an asshole." "When you assumed that because I was an Orthodox Jew, I believed in 'literal' interpretation of the Bible, you were being an asshole." "When you used the word Judeo-Christian, you were being an asshole." These are pretty exclusively the kinds of conversations I'm having when I'm trying to force an atheist to acknowledge their Christian heritage.
Edited Date: 2016-02-21 03:23 am (UTC)

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Date: 2016-02-26 08:25 pm (UTC)
seekingferret: Word balloon says "So I said to the guy: you never read the book yet you go online and talk about it as if--" (Default)
From: [personal profile] seekingferret
When I was in college I got into a very severe (not talking to each other for months) fight with someone who thankfully is still one of my closest friends. He is a Muslim and I'm obviously Jewish and I don't recall anymore all the details of what we were fighting over or what was said, but a large part of it was I think about the idea that Jews and Muslims are worshiping the same God, but they are doing it differently. I violently rejected that. I told him I don't think the God you worship is the same as mine, and as a Jew I think my practices are correct and yours aren't. I realize now (and I think I did then, but parsing complex points of theology is hard when you're upset) that Jewish approaches to Allah are more complicated than that, that there are things in Rambam and others that suggest Jewish tolerance for Muslim worship may extend to some sort of reasoning like "Okay, Jews and Muslims are both monotheists, so we agree there is only one God, and while their worship of their one God is not based on our Torah laws, their worship does not seem to violate any of the negative prohibitions on particular kinds of idol worship, so we'll at least recognize them as not idol worshippers and thus compatible with engaging in commerce with them and living among them." But I have great difficulty going further than the allowances in Rambam. I don't think monotheism is a magical universal translator of worship, that because we both believe there is only one God, that we therefore must be worshiping the same God. I think it is possible to create a monotheistic system that is functionally worshiping a different God.

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Date: 2016-02-21 04:39 am (UTC)
silveradept: A kodama with a trombone. The trombone is playing music, even though it is held in a rest position (Default)
From: [personal profile] silveradept
I have nothing to add to the discussion but that I read it and found it to be fascinating, post and comments alike.

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Date: 2016-02-22 02:11 am (UTC)
electricant: (Default)
From: [personal profile] electricant
If you ever make it to Sydney then you would be more than welcome to come and lay tefillin at the morning minyan on Monday and Thursday at my shul. They're Masorti services and anyone of any gender who wants to lay tefillin is encouraged to do so.

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Date: 2016-02-22 08:30 am (UTC)
sunflowerinrain: Singing at the National Railway Museum (Default)
From: [personal profile] sunflowerinrain
The only... ?? Gosh.

One of my friends recently said she didn't know any Jewish people. I was shocked. I've never counted how many Jewish friends I have (quite a few are Jewish-by-lineage-not-religious, so it may not be obvious), but I was stunned to think someone might not know any at all, and was convinced that she just didn't *know* who was Jewish and who wasn't.

Maybe she was correct, after all. I'm struggling to come to terms with that.

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Date: 2016-02-22 05:17 pm (UTC)
damerell: (religion)
From: [personal profile] damerell
I don't mind being called a "culturally Christian atheist". My mother is a Scots Presbyterian atheist, after all. (This is definitely ha-ha-only-serious, I think; she mutters about "Papist mummery").

But (and maybe a culturally Christian atheist would say this) I think Christmas is basically a secular gluttony festival - the bits of Christianity that get upset about the secularisation of Christmas are right (I mean, they're right that it's a thing that has happened). Christmas has about has much Jesus in it for me as London Waterloo has Napoleon in, sort of thing.

To stretch the analogy further, I don't think a Tory taking the May Day off makes them "culturally socialist", I think they just tend to go with Bank Holidays because everyone else does; same goes for me and Easter.

There's also a business about Easter and Christmas being originally pre-Christian celebrations but I've no idea to what degree that's actually true.

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Date: 2016-02-25 01:37 pm (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
Err, I don't think English May Day _is_ international workers day, Labour Day was first proposed in the 1880s, and there are records of May Day being banned by Cromwell back in the 1650s, I think.

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Date: 2016-02-22 11:55 pm (UTC)
wendylove: Wendy: I know such lots of stories (Default)
From: [personal profile] wendylove
I lay tefillin too - go you! (My dad's not Jewish, and neither are many relatives on his side; I don't guess I've ever done it or needed to do it in front of them, though. I suppose theoretically I did lay tefillin in front of my husband's non-Jewish uncle at my daughter's baby naming, but that was the in-synagogue part, so different. I think I'd be fairly comfortable laying tefillin in front of non-Jewish children, but I'd slip into teacher mode.)

The larger part of this post... kind of makes me feel like you need a Jewish community alongside your wonderful but not Jewish family so you're not always the token Jew or the sole representative of Judaism. I have been the Only Jewish Kid In Class, and in some respects I am/have been the representative of Judaism for not just my dad's family (which is fine actually) but for both my parents, which had me running Hanukkah *and* Christmas for awhile. (I generally love holidays, all kinds, but feeling myself responsible for multiple sets was fucking exhausting. I am actually much more fond of half a dozen other Jewish holidays and of getting invited to other people's Christmas parties.)

(no subject)

Date: 2016-02-25 03:10 pm (UTC)
shreena: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shreena
But generally I have always made a point of insisting that people who are atheist, and who are also part of the dominant Christian-flavoured culture should say so; the experience of not believing in God is very different if everybody assumes you're default and unmarked, and you don't also come from a religious-ethnic minority

Doesn't this depend a bit on what you're talking about? I mean, if we're having a debate about the existence of God, is it really relevant whether I'm a culturally Christian atheist or a culturally Hindu atheist? It's perhaps relevant if I'm trying to claim that I'm an oppressed minority because I'm an atheist if I'm from the dominant culture. It's also perhaps relevant if I'm trying to claim that Christianity has no influence over me at all.

I also feel a bit uncomfortable with the idea that someone else gets to define what your experience is. I don't think being from a Hindu background makes much difference to my experience of being an atheist. It has absolutely shaped my experiences generally - still being vegetarian being the most obvious. To be honest, I wouldn't say that I really have an "atheist experience", I don't think about it day to day at all.

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Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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