By Steve Mendelsohn
The other day, someone called me a secular Jew. “What?” I thought. “I’m not a secular Jew.”
I grew up in an observant Conservative Jewish home. We kept kosher. We went to synagogue almost every Shabbat, sometimes both Friday night and Saturday morning. I went to Hebrew School three times a week. I went to Hebrew High School for years after my Bar Mitzvah. I went to Camp Ramah for three years as a camper and worked there for six years. When I went to college, I kept even stricter kashrut and was shomer Shabbat. More than one person predicted I would be a rabbi.
How can I be a secular Jew? To me, “secular Jew” has always been a pejorative term.
In the last 40 years or so, much has changed. I am still a member of a Conservative synagogue, but I spend more time playing on the synagogue softball team than I do praying at the synagogue. My home is what delis like to call “Jewish style.” No pork, no seafood (at least not for me), and only a modest degree of mixing milk and meat. I am not a rabbi, but I am both a vice chair of the regional board and an associate national commissioner of the Anti-Defamation League.
And just what is a secular Jew anyway?
Some people, for whom the term “secular Jew” is probably also pejorative, conflate being a secular Jew with being a cultural Jew. Judaism, as Mordechai Kaplan tells us, is a civilization. Civilizations have cultures. The culture of Judaism involves keeping kosher and going to synagogue and observing 611 other mitzvot. The culture of Judaism is not eating bagels and belonging to a Jewish country club. Every observant Jew is a cultural Jew. It’s a useless term.
According to someone on the Internet named “mama pajama,” a secular Jew is a person born to Jewish parents who does not observe the religious customs of Judaism, but has not separated him/herself from the Jewish people by becoming apostate to Judaism in adherence to another religion.
My parents were both Jewish. I still keep a degree of kashrut, but barely. I still don’t eat pork or seafood, even outside the house. For the most part, I don’t mix milk and meat. I won’t eat a cheeseburger or drink a glass of milk with my (treif) corned beef special, but chicken enchiladas and chicken tikka masala are apparently OK. My Shabbat observance is nil, other than infrequently attending services for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs of friends and relatives.
I have not joined another religion, but I could be accused of having become apostate to Judaism. I don’t believe that God spoke to Abraham in Ur, and I don’t believe that Moses received the Torah from God at Mount Sinai. Heck, I don’t even believe that there is a God.
It’s been decades since I kept kosher because I believe that God wants me to keep kosher. I have long told people that Jews keep kosher because God said to keep kosher and that I keep kosher because Jews keep kosher. My current kashrut, dwindling though it may be, is in fact more “cultural” than it is “religious.”
So, here I am today, the atheist son of Jewish parents who keeps a modicum of cultural kashrut. I’m a member of a Conservative synagogue, but go there only a handful of times a year. I’m an active ADL board member and an ardent Zionist, but I haven’t been to Israel in 35 years. If that makes me a secular Jew, then so be it.
Steve Mendelsohn is a patent attorney at the Philadelphia law firm of Mendelsohn Dunleavy, P.C. He is a vice chair on the local board of the Anti-Defamation League.