Circling Back to My Grandfather’s Judaism, Seventy Years Later
Featured image: Family Seder, circa 1955. From left to right: Author’s father, author, author’s older sister, author’s younger sister, author’s mother.

Circling Back to My Grandfather’s Judaism, Seventy Years Later

Barbara Kay
Barbara Kay
13 min read

I was born in Toronto in 1942. My earliest memories were Jewishly buoyant because of the excitement in my home and close-knit community around the rebirth of Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948. It was only when I was a teenager that I became fully aware of the cataclysm that had preceded this miracle. Until the 1950s, there was a kind of taboo about discussing the Holocaust with children—or even discussing it at all. It was too recent. I knew, but didn’t know. North American Jews needed time to absorb the scope and originality of the horror they had been spared.

The public high school I attended was almost entirely Jewish. (Our district was mostly gentile, but almost all the gentiles sent their children to private schools.) Few of us were prepared when our history teacher showed us a film about the liberation of the concentration camps. I was shocked by the newsreel footage of stacked corpses, the skeletal camp inmates staring, stunned, at their approaching liberators, the mound of children’s shoes, the numbers. That was a pivotal moment in a soft and privileged life that had encouraged me to turn an open, trusting, and friendly face to the world.

These two extraordinary historical events—the Holocaust, the rebirth of Israel—and what they symbolized: depthless hatred of Jews, limitless Jewish resilience—formed my sense of Jewish identity.

Did these revelations rock my faith in God? Up until then, I had not examined my beliefs. Religious affiliation was the norm in my era, and publicly expressed atheism was considered a bit shocking. God was part of one’s mental furniture, like a comfortable old sofa whose plump, supportive pillows invited repose whenever needed, but whose style and colour you’d be hard pressed to describe.

Even after the images I could not unsee, I can’t say I suddenly rejected the idea of God. After all, there was the Bible story of Job. God works in mysterious ways. But I did conclude that if there was a God, even if He had some special destiny in mind for His special people—us—this was not a God with whom any thinking person could any longer wish to be on speaking terms. So I did not deny His existence. I simply gave him the cold shoulder.

In any case, we did not talk about God or faith in my home, and I think we were typical of upwardly striving middle class Jews in that respect. Conversations with Jewish themes were more likely to be about Jewish fundraising (my father was a master at that), intermarriage scandals, synagogue politics (don’t ask; our synagogue virtually imploded in a battle between supporters and opponents of a charismatic but rebarbative rabbi), and the social perils of losing one’s good name in the community.

I have attended countless bar and (later) bat mitzvahs and weddings. Never, to my memory, have I heard the officiating rabbi charge the newly minted Jewish adult/householders with their responsibility to build up their faith in God. Rather, in a hundred different formulations, I have heard exhortations to bring pride to family and the Jewish community, to build a Jewish home, to raise Jewishly knowledgeable children, and to honour the traditions that strengthen family life, and therefore the capital-c Community.

So God was kind of a sidebar to what has always been the important thing about being Jewish: peoplehood and belonging. Very tribal, of course, and very survival-oriented. We were relatively few in number before the Holocaust, and it is only now, 70 years on, that those numbers have almost been made up. And there are so many ways of expressing your solidarity with your people that whether or not you believe in God or have a feeling of connection with Him seems a bit beside the real point—which is getting on with the jobs of making your mark on the world materially, serving one or more of the myriad Jewish agencies and cultural institutions and—oh yes—if possible, by helping justice to roll down like a mighty stream.

No Jew I know would be troubled if a fellow admitted to agnosticism or atheism. But only if it is our God you don’t believe in, the invisible God that thou shalt have no other gods before. Eschewing faith in our God, but taking up faith in another God, say the God of the Christians—the God that sent his only son to Earth as a man, and allowed him to suffer agonies on behalf of humanity, and then had him rise from the dead—belief in that God was simply not on.

(There’s a Jewish joke that speaks to that point with earned Jewish cynicism. It’s set at the turn of the 20th century in Europe. Four Jewish men are talking frankly about their conversions to Christianity. The first admits he converted to join a Christian-only club; the second for love of a Christian girl; the third for professional advancement. The fourth claims he converted out of a sincere belief in Jesus Christ, whereupon the three others turn on him in exasperation: “Oh please—save that for your gentile friends.”)

My grandparents on both sides were Orthodox Jews. Fortunately for me, they left Europe—Rumania and Poland respectively—while the going was good, and so both my parents were born in North America. But I did not feel part of their rigorously observant Jewish worlds. My maternal grandfather, who was a cantor and a mohel (an expert in circumcision) lived in Detroit, so we saw little of him, and my paternal grandfather, who lived in Toronto, never learned English. My father spoke fluent Yiddish to his father, but he never taught it to us. Why would he? Yiddish was now vestigial to Jewish history, the language of extinction.

In autumn, on the High Holidays, we would attend the beautiful Peylische shul (Polish synagogue) in downtown Toronto, where my Zeyde prayed daily with his male shtetl-mates. The women sat in the balcony, and we girls, my two sisters and I, would sit up there for a while, bored, staring down on the swaying sea of striped prayer shawls and absorbing the incoherent yearning of the chanted Hebrew prayers.

But mostly we played on the front steps with all the other modern grandchildren of ancient men, whose histories were of no interest to us because, apart from filial dutifulness, they did not seem to be of any special interest to our parents.

It isn’t that my parents had lost their own deep emotional connection to the Orthodoxy of their childhood. They were brimming with internalized ancestral connection. They exuded absolute confidence in their own Jewish authenticity. Traditional Judaism was a source of pride and great sentimental pleasure to them.

But because the gentile world and its glittering prizes was opening up to them and anti-Semitism was ebbing (it was only hibernating, but how were they to know?), and because a life of observance involves a great deal of inconvenience and discipline, they did not bestir themselves to pass on what they felt by maintaining the same structures they grew up with. They lived off their Jewish capital, and we were raised on its nostalgic fumes.

We lit Sabbath candles and enjoyed a festive meal without fail every Friday night and on holidays, but then we broke the Sabbath laws by watching TV or going out with friends. My father’s intensive childhood education in Heder (elementary immersion in Hebrew and liturgy) meant he could read the Hebrew prayers or the Passover haggadah with the speed of summer lightning, but he did not disguise his haste to finish so the meal could begin. We kept kosher in the house, but ate out Sundays at Chinese restaurants filled with other modern Jews. I could have non-Jewish girlfriends, but I could not date non-Jewish boys.

Conversation in our home was constantly attuned to calibrations of Jewish interests—rising? falling?—in political and cultural and social issues of the day, the latter dominated by bloodhound-level sensitivity to signs of anti-Semitism (we had not yet heard of the word “microaggression,” but we were experts in recognizing the phenomenon at its atomic level).

There was plenty of pride in Israel, but there was no talk of real Zionism, i.e., going to live there. We were sent to Jewish summer camps—that is, the clientele was entirely Jewish—but apart from wearing white tee shirts and shorts on Friday night and enjoying a Shabbat meal, there was nothing Jewish about them. We also were sent to twice weekly after-school Hebrew classes at the synagogue, where the teaching was amateur, although we did at least learn to read Hebrew. But we didn’t go to synagogue except for the High Holidays, so I hadn’t much use for it.

By the time I reached my mid-teens, I was Jewishly restless. I wanted to live a purposeful life. But I had no role models within my nuclear or even extended family for what I was seeking, and could not have articulated what exactly I wanted, only that it had to be a more authentically Jewish life—whatever that was, apart from moving to Israel, in a post-Holocaust world.

I was mindful of the words of philosopher Emil Fackenheim, who created the 614th commandment (there are 613 in the Torah), a proscription against abandonment of Judaism and Jewish destiny: “The Jew of today,” he wrote, “is forbidden to hand Hitler yet another, posthumous victory.” I took that to mean Jews were not allowed to act as though God did not exist, or that if He did, He had no relationship to us, or, alternately, that if He did, He had never had a relationship with us. Perhaps some people are born with a will-to-believe gene, and others aren’t. If it’s that simple, I have that gene. I wanted to believe, and I sought the means to make that happen.

I fell into my first real relationship with a brilliant neighbourhood boy, who also happened to be Orthodox. Obviously not a coincidence. I became convinced that it was only by submitting to the strictures of rabbinic Judaism that I would fully appreciate the deeper meaning of my heritage and, through practice, arrive organically at a state of belief.

This phase involved a great deal of education—many books on traditional Judaism recommended by my boyfriend—as well as regular synagogue attendance (a more Orthodox shul, not the grand Conservative edifice where the aforementioned controversial rabbi held sway from his tall marble pulpit) and serious consideration given to attending a college for religious women in New York.

But when the relationship broke up, and I had no partner in practice, I fell off the authenticity wagon—strict Jewish observance in solitude is psychologically unsustainable—and back into my comfort zone of Judaism “lite.” I had not achieved the state of belief I was seeking.

I did not repine for long. A life of Jewish purpose foiled was soon forgotten in the four years of heady intellectual and social excitement of university life that ensued. At the University of Toronto, I studied Latin and Greek and Old English. The walls of my cloistered life in the modern social shtetl I had grown up in widened out. I found the cultural pluralism of the campus (such as it was in the early 1960s) intoxicating and soothing at the same time, the insouciant and playful affect of my new Christian friends a balm to the angst I associated with Jewish culture. I forged friendships with Catholic women of firm faith. I had no use for what they believed, but I was drawn to their calm assurance that miracles and reason can co-exist in harmony.

Immediately upon graduation, marriage to a nominally and only socially Jewish man brought me to Montreal, where for a number of years we had no Jewish institutional affiliation at all. I thought I didn’t care all that much. Then we had children. Suddenly, I cared very much.

It was no longer belief in God that motivated me. I looked back at my youthful spiritual hankerings with incredulity at my solipsism. We had an obligation to raise our children as belonging Jews. There was no way we could do that without immersion in community. I grew agitated at our lack of synagogue affiliation.

In 1972, when our first-born was four, we were guests at a bar mitzvah at Montreal’s then-decade-old Reconstructionist Synagogue. Reading the little brochure provided at every seat to explain the essence of this quite new Jewish philosophy, I knew we had found our shul: Reconstructionism (awful name, I know) is the only branch of Judaism that originated in North America and was conceived to meet the intellectual and cultural needs of North American Jews exactly like me.

Its founder, Mordecai Kaplan (1881–1983), himself raised in Orthodoxy and steeped in traditional knowledge, but unable, even before the Holocaust, to believe in a God that intervenes in human affairs, came to the conclusion that the bargain struck with Jews to dumb Judaism down to a “creed” like the other religions in exchange for political emancipation had been a “grievous mistake” that must be rectified.

To Kaplan, Judaism was not only more than a religion, it was a civilization. He argued that any people who held sacred a particular homeland, a particular language, particular rites (“folkways”) and a particular constitution, texts that gave instructions for living justly—not to mention its own literature, music, and social structures—could lay claim to that distinction.

That was a novel and intriguing idea, because a civilization may begin and grow under the rubric of faith in God, and yet continue to function once that faith has been jettisoned—because over the centuries it has become a matrix of sociologically embedded imperatives that are capable of self-perpetuation. (Considering the state of Western civilization today, I do not believe that any more. Civilizations can run on fumes, just as children can. The children’s children, not so much. But Kaplan made it sound reasonable.)

Reconstructionism was the first branch of Judaism in which agnosticism, even apatheism, was featured as the main draw. Here was a charming small synagogue whose services were recognizably Conservative in character, with the same familiar liturgy (but more egalitarian, tweaked to raise the profile of our foremothers) directed to God our Father, our King, all being chanted with fervour by a membership united in their conviction that no such Father and King existed—or if He did, only as an impersonal force. The need to pray together—to express communal gratitude, pain, hope, despair—was acknowledged as an inherent human trait in this scheme. Whether our prayers are heard or not is irrelevant.

This was a synagogue Albert Einstein would have felt at home in. He rejected all religion as “childish superstitions.” But he never embraced the patronizing joylessness of modern atheists. He believed in Spinoza’s God, “who reveals Himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.” Exactly! Reconstructionists joke that they pray “to Whom it may concern.” Einstein would have gotten a kick out of that. They also like to say “the past has a vote, but not a veto.” (Sounds neat, but eventually the past lost its vote, too. More of which anon.)

I loved that unpretentious, participatory synagogue. I took my children to Shabbat services, became deeply involved in the cultural programming, found intellectual stimulation in the discussions we had in lieu of sermons. That first generation of members was heavily skewed to disaffected academics from traditional Jewish backgrounds. Every Shabbat morning offered the comfort of the traditional service (but shortened) and the stimulation of civil but passionate debate between scholars steeped in Jewish knowledge.

Between the synagogue and engagement with Jewish cultural institutions in the community, I was Jewishly content for many years. Then the Reconstructionist movement went all in for social justice, and the synagogue environment changed radically, beginning in the 1990s and amplifying with the years. The movement became progressivism at prayer, falling deeply in thrall to what we would now call intersectionality. Jews who would roll their eyes at the very idea of a Creator with a stake in mankind’s evolution gave unconditional assent to the proposition that biological sex is an obsolete concept.

Ahavat Yisrael, love of Israel, taken for granted in our synagogue’s original cohort, became contested terrain. I began to be embarrassed by the movement, by the overt anti-Zionism amongst the faculty at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. I no longer felt at home in my synagogue.

By now I had found Jewish purposefulness in my late-life career as an opinion journalist. In my salad days, we all believed anti-Semitism was on its way out, a relic of the Time Before. It had come roaring back as radical anti-Zionism.

I wrote, and continue to write quite a bit, about the pernicious genre of anti-Semitism that is well tolerated and sometimes even encouraged on campus, as long as it presents as hatred of Israel. Some synagogue members would approach me after services to say they’d read my columns on the subject, and agreed with me. But they told me so with lowered voices, to ensure they were not overheard.

Godless Judaism served me and my family well in the days when I thought I would be acting hypocritically if my institutional affiliation didn’t align with my beliefs. But now, with anti-Semitism an active force across the globe, I could see that what one “believes” is as immaterial to contemporary Jewish life as the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin.

I don’t have to believe in a God who takes notice of me to wrap a loving embrace around Judaism’s central myths. Myths are not stories that are factually untrue; they are stories that tell a people what it is important for them to know if they are to keep passing the torch of fidelity l’dor v’dor—from one generation to the next. I look back at my people’s 3,500 years of history with a sense that we are here for a reason. I could not live with the guilt of breaking that chain, although it is probably unrealistic to assume it will not be broken by one or more of my five grandchildren.

When the rabbi at the Reconstructionist shul, a personal friend and a classic liberal, not a progressive, who had been with us for over 40 years, died quite suddenly, and a far woker replacement was hired, I knew that this was not the guy I wanted officiating at my funeral. Our family had to find a new Jewish home.

Of all our myths, attachment to Zion is existential. As it happens, thanks to mass conversion of progressive Jews to a worldview in which Jewish particularism is stigmatized, nowadays only traditional Jewish synagogues are comfortable in their Zionist skin. So a traditional synagogue is where I had to be. Everything old was new again.

We joined the modern Orthodox synagogue a block from our house. It is one of the oldest in Canada, and although much bigger, reminds me of the Peylische shul of my youth. Seating is segregated by sex. I should resent that, after so many years of enjoying the right to be called to the Torah like the men, wearing a tallit like the men. But I don’t. I’m focused on Judaism’s long game now.

On my first Rosh Hashanah as a new member, I found this objective coming into sharper focus from the women’s section in the shul balcony. Seventy years on and a matriarch, I looked down once again on a sea of lightly swaying men in their old-fashioned full striped prayer shawls. I remembered my grandfather, and through him “remembered” my ancestors, and I did not feel the disconnection nor the boredom I had felt as a child. I felt burnished, a stronger link in a great chain.

As for God, I have decided that I want to reconcile with Him before I die. So I am once again on speaking terms, whether or not He is there and, if there, listening. If He is both, He presumably forgave me long ago for my inability to believe. These are childish thoughts, I know, but the thought of being forgiven—forgiven for everything I should have done, and could have done to be a better human being, a better Jew—is a great comfort to me in my old age, and sufficient unto the day.

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Barbara Kay

Barbara Kay is a columnist for the National Post. Her previous Quillette articles include Remembering Roger Scruton, Defender of Reason in a World of Postmodern Jackals.