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Can You Pass Down Cultural Judaism Without the Faith?

The Seesaw is a new kind of advice column in which a broad range of columnists will address the real life issues faced by interfaith couples and families. Read the discussion and vote below for what you think is the best response to this particular quandary. You can email your own questions, which will remain anonymous, to: [email protected]

I’m a woman engaged to be married to a wonderful man. He’s a non-theistic, pagan-interested Unitarian Universalist, and I’m a non-theistic Jew. Lately, I’ve been preoccupied with the question of how to raise our future children with a Jewish identity. I’m not interested in raising them in the Jewish faith (or any faith, for that matter), but I really want them to connect with the cultural aspect and hold onto that identity, just as I have. So, how does a secular Jew pass along secular Judaism to her children —The Identity’s The Thing

Cultural Jews Still Need to Engage with Religious Life

STEVEN M. COHEN: I am personally very sympathetic to your quest. I myself self-define as a “secular” Jew, and a “cultural” Jew, albeit someone who also feels strong affinities with all four major denominations of religious Judaism, all of which I admire — and take issue with, of course. This is because cultural-secular Jews need to access and participate in the practice, culture, and communities that are often labeled “religious” in order to really continue being and feeling Jewish.

The point is, as sociologist Herbert Gans recently observed, “late generation ethnics” in America have almost entirely assimilated and disappeared as functioning groups. (See, “The coming darkness of late-generation European American ethnicity,” in Ethnic and Racial Studies.). So, if you want to “pass along secular Judaism” to your children so that they “hold onto that identity” (your words), you’re going to need to have them imbibe and penetrate our religious ways and practices, albeit with a secular or cultural mindset.

In short, you can be secular, cultural, and non-believing and still engage in prayer and Shabbat, observe holidays, do mitzvahs, give tzedakah, connect with Israel and embrace Jewish culture, be it Jon Stewart or Torah study. Your children can survive as Jews as apikorsim (non-believers), but they can’t survive as am-aratzim (ignorant of their heritage and traditions).

Your choice of a non-Jewish father for your children means that you will need to invest far more time, energy, and reflection to assure their engagement in Jewish life. You can do so with integrity, provided you don’t exclude Jewish religious practice just to be “faithful” to your secular commitments. Lots of Israeli Jews are secular, cultural Jews as well. But they speak Hebrew, have Jewish friends, live in Jewish neighborhoods, care about Israel, celebrate lots of Jewish holidays, and have learned Jewish texts and thought as school children. You can do likewise in America — but it will take commitment and intentionality. I wish you well!

Steven M. Cohen is Research Professor of Jewish Social Policy at HUC-JIR, and Director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.

Watch TV, Really!

LAURIE KAMENS: As many a Semitic comedian have pointed out, Judaism is the only religion where its very descriptor is qualified. We are not Jews, we are Jew-“ish,” the implied meaning being that Jewish identity lies on a spectrum of beliefs and observances.

Nowhere is this observation as apt as in today’s post-diaspora world, where, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study, 22% of American Jews identifying themselves as Jewish say they have no religion. So how does Jewish identity endure despite this eschewing of faith?

As one of the world’s oldest religions, Judaism is rooted in history. A secular driving force, history has come to define the Jewish people in a way that transcends matters of faith. From centuries of identity-based persecution to our shared ancestral origins in Eastern Europe, Spain, and beyond, common historical ties shape the Jewish population just as much as donning religious articles and praying three times a day. For many American Jews today, that history is rooted in, yes, popular culture. We are living in the age of the funny Jew. This is not as shallow of an identity as many think.

According to PEW study, 62% of people say being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture. Even amongst those who identify as Jewish by religion, more than half of them (55%) agreed with the previous statement. This definition of Jewish identity is perhaps best captured by our Jewish cultural icons, who, at least in the United States, tend to be comedians. Who is more Jewish than Jon Stewart with his liberal views and mocking Yiddish-y cadence? Or the late Joan Rivers, a true yenta? And we can’t leave out Larry David, the bastion of grumpy old Jewish men everywhere, who identifies with cultural Judaism devoid of religious constraints. His constant questioning of both religious practices and the larger world around him is Jewish to the core.

Identifying with Judaism in pop culture connects you to the tribe and the cultural mindset that defines modern Jewry today. But it shouldn’t stop there. Be aware of how you can mine this comedy for true Jewish values like justice, caring about one another and questioning the world around us and then sharing those values with your children. By doing so you can connect them to an identity that honors your ancestry without compromising your beliefs.

Laurie Kamens is a freelance writer living in New York. She has written for several Jewish publications and was raised with a Conservative upbringing. Find her on Twitter @lauriekamens.

You Need to Start By Asking ‘What’s the Point?’

LAUREL SNYDER: The big question, when we eliminate God from religion, is “What’s the point?” I wish more people would ask it.

I think a lot of people feel like you do, and often they end up with a mere appearance of religion, a thin veneer of bagels and dreidels, with an occasional viewing of Fiddler tossed in. As a result, they’re afraid to put pressure on the situation, afraid to ask what the meaning of their cultural Judaism is. They fear the answer. And also, they’re lazy.

But here’s the thing — you can disbelieve in God all over your Jewish life. You can study Talmud, not believing. You can visit Israel, not believing. You can plant trees and feed the hungry and work at a Jewish women’s shelter, as an atheist. And it will feel important, and real. Because work is real, tzedek is real, learning is real.

Parenting is about modeling action. But bagels and Fiddler are passive. If all you give your kids is a model of consumption, I doubt they’ll feel deeply connected. If, on the other hand, you model a Jewish way to be — to contribute, to learn and think, to debate big ideas — they’ll be touched and transformed by it. The more they have to work at it, the more it will matter. We care about things because we invest in them, not just because they’re fun.

I’d also advise that you include your kids in this very conversation. Make sure they understand that your lack of worship is intentional. You are passing along a tradition, a philosophy, a set of family beliefs. Own it.

Laurel Snyder is the author of books like “Bigger than a Bread Box” and “Baxter, the Pig Who Wanted To Be Kosher.” Find her online at or on Twitter @laurelsnyder.

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