December 23, 2006

Secular Jewish identity

Here's an article in this week's Jewish Chronicle [subscription only] about the identity and outlook of two leading members of the Jewish Socialist Group, Julia Bard and David Rosenberg.
Continuing our occasional series on the modern Jewish family, Simon Round talks to a rebellious left-wing couple who have rejected religion, but still hold a Seder and gave their twin sons a faith-free barmitzvah.

Journalist Julia Bard (56) and teacher David Rosenberg (48) live in Tufnell Park, North London. Their children, twins Jacob and Reuben (20), are students at Cambridge University

Julia Bard and David Rosenberg are committed Jews. They feel passionately about Jewish history, they have a strong Jewish element to their social lives and their children have inherited a love of Hebrew and Yiddish culture.

But David and Julia do not belong to a synagogue, do not believe in God and are antagonistic towards Zionism. They feel strongly that these factors should not exclude them from full acceptance as part of the mainstream Jewish community, yet they claim that the community is too narrow-minded to embrace them.

Both David and Julia come from traditional Jewish backgrounds. There is symmetry in how they questioned accepted values from an early age. Indeed, when both talk about their childhood and adolescence, it is as a political journey towards socialism, secularism and anti-Zionism.

For Julia, who was brought up in Hendon, North-West London, the first rebellion was over cheder. “Everything there was an imperative and nothing was up for discussion.”

Her introduction to socialism came through the Habonim youth movement, and from there her journey took her to York University, chosen because it possessed no significant Jewish community for her to be “sucked into.”

She adds: “It was a conscious decision to break away — not from being Jewish, which I’ve always been very upfront about, but from the conformist, traditional Jewish community.”

David was raised in East London, in a working-class Jewish community, and moved to Ilford, Essex, while still a child. He went to a Jewish primary school but was soon rebelling. “I was meant to turn out Zionistic and religious. Actually, I turned out as an anti-Zionist and an atheist.”

As a teenager he became involved in the anti-racist movements of the 1970s and it was then that he began to question Zionism. “One of the key slogans for black people in the ’70s was: ‘Here to stay, here to fight.’ They were struggling for their right to be treated as equals in Britain, but this was in complete contradiction to what I was hearing from the Zionist movement, which was that we should all run away and have our own state.”

He was one of the early members of the Jewish Socialists’ Group in the 1970s and it was as members of the group that in 1983 Julia and David met. They married in 1985.

Julia’s anti-Zionist perspective is coloured not only by the suffering of the Palestinians but also by what she sees as the marginalisation of diaspora history. “Zionism always portrays Israeli and Hebrew culture as a monolith and everything else as deviant.”

But unlike many Jews, who reject religion and drift away from the community, she is adamant about retaining her identity: “I wanted to remain Jewish. I understand my Jewish identity as an ethnic identity. I want to prove that there is a way of being Jewish that doesn’t involve saying prayers to a God you don’t believe in.”

She adds: “Those people who are bleating on about the Jewish community shrinking base it on a false assumption — that Judaism remains unchanging and that you can’t be Jewish without being religious.”

As secular Jews, David and Julia have had to invent their own template for Jewish life. For example, their Seder is secular and socialist. The couple usually invite along an outsider and previous guests have included the former PLO representative to London, Afif Safiyeh. In fact, their children, twins Jacob and Reuben, are similar ages to those of the Safiyeh’s and spent afternoons playing together.

Jacob and Reuben, now 20 and both at Cambridge, attended a local comprehensive. Says Julia: “Mainstream schools used to be full of Jews. But now the faith schools have taken the Jews away, which is a shame for all the other kids.” The boys were given a choice about whether they wanted a barmitzvah and were both very enthusiastic. The ceremony was non-religious, consisting of readings in Hebrew, Yiddish and English, with poet Michael Rosen acting as MC. The barmitzvah was also notable for being one of very few to be held at the Trades Union Congress’s banqueting suite, and to feature a Marxist magician.

The children gave David and Julia their biggest dilemma — to circumcise or not to circumcise. In the event, after an agonising debate, they decided to go ahead. Julia says they would make same decision now.

Ultimately, if David and Julia have a mission, it is to encourage Jews without religious beliefs not to feel intimidated by the religious establishment. “We want to give people the confidence to say: ‘I don’t believe in God, but, yes, I am Jewish.’”
Written by Simon Round the article is headed, Atheist, socialist — and proud Jews, though nowhere in the article is pride in an accident of birth mentioned.

UPDATE: David Rosenberg has commented thus:

Fame at last eh? Most of it is accurate. We have written a letter to the JC to correct 3 innacuracies which we hope they will print next week.

Our letter says:
The article states that our children inherited from us “a love of Hebrew and Yiddish culture”. In fact, they have inherited an appreciation of diaspora Jewish culture – in which Yiddish is significant – and, in particular, they value the internationalism of this diaspora culture. They share our dismay about the destructive impact of Israeli culture being imposed on diverse diaspora communities.

In reference to Jewish festivals the article states, “their Seder is secular and socialist. The couple usually invite…”. This is not our personal Seder but the Seder of the Jewish Socialists’ Group, an annual event that has been celebrated collectively by a community of secular Jewish socialists for the last 25 years.

Lastly some words have gone missing from the paragraph about our children’s circumcision, giving it the opposite meaning to what we said. According to your article, “Julia says they would make same decision now” (sic). In fact Julia said we would NOT make the same decision now. If we were faced today with a conflict between a longstanding tradition such as circumcision and children’s right to be free from unnecessary pain and harm, and to be protected from practices to which they have not consented, we would confidently uphold their human rights and seek more humane ways of being welcomed into Jewish life.

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