Sep 2007 Journal

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Point of View: Jewish in some respects

In what ways am I Jewish and in what ways am I not? In some respects, I have a choice; in other respects I do not. Having been born into a family that belonged to the Jewish community was an event beyond my choice. Having grandparents and parents who were largely estranged from Jewish practices led to my remaining non-circumcised until adulthood – again, no responsibility on my part.

I am an atheist. I take responsibility for this. I sought answers to questions to do with faith and I found answers which were provisional and open-ended, but unconvincing. I read Darwin and some secondary literature at several stages of my life, starting with J. B. S. Haldane during the war. I ‘tried my hand’ in one area – writing up a paper on possibility and actuality, to do with what I – much later – discovered had been thought of by Kant and others since, under the concept of ‘modality’. For me, the conviction that humans are the authors of their own beliefs and that there are questions to which there will never be answers – along with the provisional nature of some of our convictions - has withstood the test of time.

However, Jewishness is not only about religion. It is, more broadly, about culture. Here, I am part-responsible. I could have disregarded features in my environment unfavourable to seeking and accepting elements of the Jewish tradition. I became, and remained, largely estranged from Judaism, with one exception - as the clouds gathered over the political sky in Europe, I became, for a time, attracted to Zionism. But this did not last. Jewish national identity did not, to my mind, aged 17 to 19, provide a universal solution, an answer to the question: must there always be war?

I think it was my mother who, in some oblique way communicating the terror of war, planted an idea in my mind: pacifism. I encountered Quakers and their advocacy of ‘leaflets instead of bombs’ (over Germany) and rejected this. I also rejected Jewish nationalism for myself as particularistic, not answering the issue of peace – for all mankind. I accepted, and still accept, that the effort to create a homeland for Jews in Palestine was just and saved some from Auschwitz – and this is so as regards the DPs not wanted anywhere as well. It was my choice that I didn’t end up in Israel, perhaps founding a continuing line of my family tradition within a Jewish community. So, in my mind, I am Jewish in some respects and not in others. I have been, and will remain, on the margin of the several cultures I have lived in. The idea of having a part in the creation of a new human being filled me with misgivings and hesitation.
Henry Schermer

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