Confessions of an impenitent Jew

'Religion, nationality, and peoplehood mean nothing to me.'

By W.E. GUTMAN
September 25, 2005 10:14
4 minute read.

 
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On a recent visit to Israel I was asked if I was proud to be a Jew. I found the question absurd, not to say grotesque. "I only feel pride in my achievements, not in the accidents of heredity," I said. Predictably, my answer obviated further discourse; but it also revived half-digested ruminations about my connection to Judaism ("who" is a Jew) and my penchant for it ("what" is a Jew) if any. As a journalist, and lacking the capacity or urge to embrace let alone champion any political cause, I am content to agitate against the rigidity of all extreme convictions, whether from the Right or the Left, from Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. Character, upbringing and circumstance have protected me from entrapment by irrevocable doctrines. Patriotism, "the last refuge of scoundrels," is an incongruity, a hideous emotion from which I recoiled even as a child. Truth is I have never felt the remotest sense of allegiance to any state, prince or potentate. I love France, where I was born, the way a child loves to rummage through a toy chest, with wonderment and anticipation. I adore Paris, my hometown, with every hedonistic fiber of my being. But this infatuation is wholly Epicurean, not tribal. It evokes no special loyalty or sense of indebtedness. France's ingrained anti-Semitism, its spineless surrender to extremist Islamic influences have helped temper my verve. Nostalgia has given way to annoyance and disappointment. To this day, ancestral Romania, where my parents came from and where I lived for four years, elicits distant and disturbing memories of a vacillating, mercenary nation given to political harlotry. Israel, where I spent the best five years of my childhood, inspires no feelings of kinship or obligation. I resent its theocratic governance and deplore its leaders' inability (or unwillingness?) to make peace with the long-suffering Palestinian people. Cosmopolitan, sophisticated, maddening and electrifying, New York, where I meandered for 40 years, has done little more than contribute to an "Americanization" of habit and convenience. Like Paris it fascinates, titillates, captivates and bewitches. Like Paris it excites the senses and stimulates the intellect. But I never fully embraced it, felt a part of it. It can never be home. I've grown accustomed to all of America's comforts and prodigalities, none of its core values. My late father, who was born in Sighet and wore peyot until the age of 14 or 15, grew to view religion as a travesty he called it "faith by force and psychological extortion" and nationalism "a heady tonic for the dim-witted and the bellicose." He practiced medicine during Israel's most difficult post-Independence years and later moved to America where, like me, he found ease and plenty, and very little emotional fulfillment. On those very rare instances when I am asked to disclose my origins (or allegiances), I respond, without affectation, that I am "stateless." No swagger or romanticism is implied, only an admission that I feel alienated from the world's constituent parts. In this self-view is encapsulated a fierce rejection of any form of nationalism. Of all synthetic human emotions, chauvinism national or spiritual frightens me most. Deep inside me linger indescribable and omnipresent sentiments reaffirming a Jewish identity. But I have no religion and the feeling, nebulous, impalpable and unlikely to culminate in some exalted state, must die with me. My sons, born in America, hopelessly assimilated, overwhelmed by life's labors and constraints, will not likely revive it. I recognize this insensitivity, this detachment from some basic ethos for what it is a sickness of the soul. I take no pleasure in this infirmity. As for Israel, one does not make a second aliya at my age. I've thought about it. But I concluded, as have many American and European Jews I know, that only a healthy and preponderant secularism could redeem a nation presently orchestrated by rabbis. Religion is divisive and exclusionary, despotic, self-absorbed and intolerant. It belongs in the home, and in houses of worship. It has no business in city hall, in parliament, least of all in the shaping of an all-purpose collective psyche. Until that monstrous symbiosis in which religion and politics intersect, merge and feed upon each other as they do in Israel ceases, many among us in the Diaspora will continue to view Israel as little more than a historical eccentricity apt to elicit feelings of excruciating ambivalence and angst. The writer is a veteran journalist and a former press officer at Israel's Consulate General in New York (1992-94). He is currently on assignment in Central America, where he covers politics, the military, human rights and other socioeconomic themes. He lives in southern California.

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