I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust And I Feel That Shadow Growing

According to Donald Trump, “Jews” are a “nationality”. That’s not the first time a country’s leader has started down that road. Throughout most of Europe’s history, Jews were kept apart. In Venice, Italy, they put them on their own little islands and called that area — where the Jews lived — “ghetto”. That’s where the word comes from.

Historically, when people see Jews as a “nationality”, it doesn’t end well for us.

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated then grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that “clever people” called it “Kikesville” instead. My public high school was so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off — cos they knew NOTHING was happening in school those days since 90% of the students would be gone.

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have horrified my community into a stone cold refusal to discuss it.

We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. The end of WWII — the end of the Holocaust — didn’t end anti-Semitism the same way the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t actually end slavery.

As my community tends to do, we turned what happened to us into a teachable moment. There were some essential lessons still to be learned. There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. Turns out, the Nazis were admirers of how racists in America codified and amplified their racism. The Nazi’s method of industrialized murder found significant inspiration in America’s brand of Christo-fascism: slavery

You can’t cram peoples’ heads with tons of bullshit and not expect the bullshit to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram nonsensical, logic-free, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads, it screws them up. It’s worse when the logic-free, hateful mythology also runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger).

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it. But that’s what’s coming to America: death & destruction because bullshit.

In fact, “death & destruction because bullshit” is Trump’s entire re-election strategy.

I Grew Up In The Shadow Of The Holocaust

It’s National Holocaust Remembrance Day. According to Donald Trump, “Jews” are a “nationality”. That’s not the first time a country’s leader has started down that road… Historically, it never ends well for Jews.

I was born in 1959, 14 years after the Nazi concentration camps were liberated.  In my brain, those camps never went away.

I grew up in the 1960’s & 1970’s in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore. Pikesville was so predominantly Jewish that “clever people” called it “Kikesville” instead. My public high school was so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off — cos they knew NOTHING was happening in school those days.

You might think growing up in a place so culturally Jewish would shield one from the Holocaust’s awfulness. You might think such an awful memory — so close in our rear view mirror — would have made my community so horrified that they couldn’t bear to discuss it.

We went completely in the other direction. I wouldn’t say we “embraced” the Holocaust so much as we “owned it”. As my community tends to do, we made it a teachable moment. From a young age, I was told about this tragedy and shown images that burned into my mind forever. I don’t regret that for a second. I needed to remember these lessons – forever.

I have always been grateful to Hebrew school for making me the atheist I am today — and for giving me a stone, cold accurate view of the world — and my place in it because of my tribe.

There’s a famous photo of a group of Jews being rounded up in the Warsaw Ghetto by the occupying Nazis –

From the first time I saw the photo, I became that boy in the lower right. I bet a lot of Jews my age did.  We saw and felt that boy’s terror, his helplessness.  His confusion: how can they be doing this to you just because you were born Jewish?  You’ve done nothing wrong to anyone on the planet – yet the planet wants you dead. 

“Never Again” became as integral a part of my “religious education” as chanting the ‘Shema’.  The past hurt.  That was not going to be our future. 

In our guts, my community has always known this was lurking somewhere in the American Character. You can’t cram peoples’ heads with that much bullshit and expect the bullshit not to screw them up. Bullshit always screws people up – cos it’s bullshit. When you cram a nonsense, hateful mythology into peoples’ heads that actually runs counter to your religion’s core message (and its core messenger) — don’t be surprised when the nonsense becomes the message.

It sucks being despised because of a total fiction. It sucks worse being killed over it.

The Bible Is What Happens When Books Meant To Answer “One” Question Are Used To Answer Another…

I’ve always said Hebrew School made me the atheist I am today. That’s not entirely true. I have been an atheist since inception. Hebrew School simply closed the deal.

But I don’t regret any of my religious education (which lasted from age 6 to 14). I genuinely learned a lot from it. In particular, I had one truly excellent teacher — Henry Hyman. Mr. Hyman taught this: the bible is a religious text. It isn’t a reliable work of history. But, as a religious text, it is incredibly valuable.

In other words, Mr. Hyman taught “perspective”.

I remember one especially meaningful conversation I had with Mr. Hyman. It was probably when I was 12 or 13. Like I said, I was born an atheist. Skepticism runs in my blood alongside the red and white blood cells. I bumped hard on the Abraham almost sacrifices Isaac story — and I said so.

I’m sure I didn’t articulate well what bothered me then but the same terrible lesson still disturbs me: Jews are meant to revere Abraham (the foundational “First Jew”) because of his absolute fealty to Yahweh. If Yahweh says “kill your son” (“sacrifice” being a kinder-gentler way of saying “murder in cold blood”), we’re supposed to look to Abraham for guidance. Well, we’re meant to think, since Ol’ Abe was down with killing his son, who are we to go a different way?

To Mr. Hyman’s credit, he tried very hard to sell the metaphorical qualities of the story as a whole over the more disturbing, realistic story beats themselves. I wasn’t having it. In the end, Mr. Hyman encouraged me to continue asking questions. Either I was going to find an answer inside the faith that satisfied me or I wasn’t. That he appreciated that fact — that he encouraged a 12 year old to think that way — I am eternally grateful.

Want to have a religious debate? The bible — OT or NT — are excellent resources. Want to know anything about history? Avoid the bible like the plague. Yeah, sure, there’s “background information” — lots of good insight into both Jewish culture and how Jewish culture thinks about itself. But if you want the historical record backing up your “faith”? Prepare to be disappointed.

As Mr. Hymn said: “The bible is not a work of history”. No, it absolutely is not. Fact — it is debatable that Hebrews were ever slaves in Egypt. The Egyptians kept records. Lots of them (they’re called “Hieroglyphics”.) Nowhere in those records do we find Hebrew slaves building pyramids or a Hebrew prince rescued from certain death, raised by an Egyptian princess and slowly remade into a kind of Hebrew Avenging Angel.

Someone made that story up. Or they took a small thing and wrote it larger. Kinda like how Paul did with Jesus. If Saul of Tarsus never has his “come to Jesus” moment on the Road to Damascus, then Christianity never happens.

Jesus — whoever he actually was — did not “invent” Christianity. If you sat him down today and explained to him what “Christianity” was, he’d look at you like you were nuts for suggesting HE was its “founder”. Jesus was born a Jew, lived his whole life as a Jew and died a Jew.

As for creating the Christian church, what we can ascribe to Jesus (at least it’s one of his more consistently reported on teachings) is a very simple (and very Jewish) message — “Do Unto Others”. Also “You don’t need a church in order to have a relationship with god”. Jesus’s message is spiritual perfection — it teaches people how to live a good, happy, successful life and it even teaches them how to do it: be nice to people.

But, of course, not everyone wants to see these religious texts for what they are. We have a whole segment of our population — uber Christians, evangelicals & fundamentalists — who believe that the words of the bible magically appeared on parchment. They say “divine inspiration” motivated the writing.

J. K. Rowling feels exactly the same way. She might not call the inspiration “divine” but her readers do.

Using the bible — old or new testaments — as anything other than a dated “how to live in the past” manual is guaranteed to screw up your life. Ask yourself: if the men who wrote those texts had been aware of germ theory, if they’d had access to microscopes and telescopes and the internet and all the information we now have today about our bodies, the natural world, the cosmos, would they have written the texts they wrote in exactly the same way?

Doubtful. Do televangelists avoid electricity because it would have been unknown to Jesus? Of course not! Modern religionistas use technology when it suits them to accomplish their goals. If any religious work’s author had had access to our modern knowledge base, it would have fundamentally changed what they wrote.

That makes it even more appalling when the faithful try to use their religious texts to answer science questions. They’re compounding the ignorance of the past by continuing to make it part of the present. Wrong information doesn’t suddenly become right.

Bullshit doesn’t suddenly become true.

Magic doesn’t suddenly become real.

The bible doesn’t suddenly become anything other than a story based loosely on reality.

True Fact: I’m An Atheist Who Loves Churches

I’m always fond of saying (or selling t-shirts that say) “I am grateful to Hebrew School for making me the atheist I am today” (the t-shirts also have “…grateful to Sunday School…” & “…grateful to Sunday School…” versions because I’m all about being inclusive).

I have always been grateful to Hebrew School

I suspect I was born an atheist but whatever lingering doubts I might have had as to atheism’s core truths were quickly tidied up by my religious education.  I attended Hebrew School in one form or another for 8 years.  I was bar mitzvah-ed.  In fact, I was so good at doing the “bar mitzvah song & dance” that the synagogue my family belonged to invited me — at age 14 — to recite torah portions several times.  I was fully immersed in my religion’s ooga-booga — the “conservative” (as opposed to reform or orthodox) version that held onto traditions like the orthodox but didn’t quite turn the synagogue service into a  wannabe church service like the reform temples did.

Mind you, I don’t view my religious education with any animosity.  At all.  I mean what I say: I am grateful for that education.  I consider myself a cultural Jew.  I am damned proud of my tribe’s culture.  I have no use for its religion however.  To a large degree, I have Hebrew School to thank for that.

My fascination with Christianity began with being hated by it.  It seemed a natural question for a curious kid to ask: “Ummm, I get that you hate me, but why?  What did I ever do?”  When you get down into the “why”, if you’re honest about the history you’re reading (as opposed to the religious text — one of my Hebrew School teachers, Mr. Hymen, was very clear on that; the Pentateuch is a religious book, not a history book), the whole reason that Christians hate Jews — the “Jews killed Jesus” story — is absolute rubbish.

Quick diversion… It’s a fact: none of texts of the Old or New Testaments magically wrote themselves. People — men most likely — wrote them. Call their inspiration divine, call it gas. Call it whatever. A person thought it up and wrote it down — inspired in whatever way you like.  Jesus did not write a word of the New Testament.  Paul (the former Saul of Tarsus) however did.  The bulk of the NT is Paul — writing to the new, far-flung churches he was creating and instructing on the just-invented rules and mythology of Christianity.  That HE was inventing.

Back in the 1985, American biblical scholar Robert Funk put together a group called The Jesus Seminar. The Seminar’s 150 members focused on the New Testament’s historicity — and what, if any, of a historical Jesus could be drawn from the texts. The Seminar settled on about a dozen-and-a-half of Jesus’ sayings that all the gospels agree on — that Jesus said (versus things the gospel writers — or Paul — put into Jesus’ mouth).

The Jesus that emerged from the Seminar’s work was big into doing unto others. He wasn’t into forming churches.  Why would he be? He was a lifelong Jew who, actually, hated the institution of the Temple because, to Jesus, no one needed a go-between.  The believe could/should go directly to the god character.

Churches exist for the sake of their own existence — like any institution.  Whatever its founding principles, once you get past the abstract, it all comes down to survival.  Churches need money and believers to remain in the church business.  They are motivated first and foremost by the need to continue “being”.

The Catholic church was brilliant — once it created its message — at selling its message.  One of the ways they sold their message was in the way they ultimately imagined their own sanctuaries.  If money permitted, they imagined them BIG.  Big was the point.

These are from inside Notre Dame de Paris — before the fire.  See how enormous the cathedral is vs how small each individual human is?  That’s the point.  To put a single human in his or her place relative to the power and awesome size of the institution and its church.  It’s a not-so-subtle kind of psyche war the church launches against its own believers.

But, I love it.  I adore the use of architecture to create a visceral feeling.  Churches are all about that, of course.  To put you in the right frame of mind to approach the divine.

There’s a church in Venice – San Pantalon. Like lots of the churches in Venice, it’s beautiful. But this one has something quite special — a painting that fills the entire sanctuary ceiling. The painting depicts an opening to heaven — into which all the people and creatures in the painting are being sucked.  It’s as if a portal to heaven had opened directly above the church — and the painting was revealing that fact.

It’s a brilliant affect.

So, yeah — I’m an atheist who likes visiting churches.  I wouldn’t sit too, too still when the magical incantations began, but I do appreciate the artistry of the people who imagined the church then manifested their vision out here in reality.  For what it’s worth, I’m a big museum-goer, too.