Being Jewish has become hard again.
After decades when Jews in America permitted themselves to believe they had finally found a welcoming home in a majority Christian, creedally universalist country, things have begun to shift in familiar and terrifying ways. Jews have been murdered in synagogues and kosher delis in the United States. They are regularly harassed and beaten on the streets of American cities. Swastikas scrawled on walls, acts of attempted arson and vandalism at synagogues, shouted slurs — the stories add up, amplifying one another and mixing with similar and worse stories from abroad.
Over a hundred gravestones in a Jewish cemetery in France were spray-painted with swastikas earlier this month. It was the latest in a seemingly endless series of incidents across the continent. And of course leaders (and would-be leaders) of nations, along with prime-time TV pundits, now actively encourage such demonization, turning Jewish philanthropists into scapegoats, blaming them for a wide range of injustices. As enemies of the Jewish people have always done.
It's a painful spectacle for anyone committed to liberal ideals of pluralism and tolerance. But it's especially, existentially, agonizing for Jews themselves — even for bad, part-time Jews like me.
I was born Jewish — my father is the son of orthodox Jewish immigrants from Central Europe (Poland and Austria), and my mother a convert — but for much of the past two decades, that hasn't much mattered. I grew up identifying as a Jew, but we never worshipped at a synagogue (even on high holy days). I received no Jewish education. There was no Hebrew school. No bar mitzvah.
By the time I started to sense religious stirrings in my late 20s, I knew far more about Christian, and especially Catholic, theology and moral teaching than I did about Judaism. Plus, by then I'd gone and done what American Jews are often warned against doing (and yet increasingly do anyway): I married a non-Jew. That my wife's family hoped and expected our children to be raised Catholic made the path forward obvious. I would repudiate my upbringing by converting to Catholicism.
As regular readers know, the conversion didn't take. After 17 years, in August 2018, I publicly renounced Catholicism. The decision was mainly motivated by disgust at the church's systematic sexual perversion and corruption. But there was also something else going on.
Exploration of existential possibilities is relatively easy in good times. When I turned away from my birthright, I knew it was a rejection — a turning of my back on my family, an act of disregard for the demographic fate of the Jewish community, which would lose me and my progeny forevermore. But I would still express love for my family in other ways, and my rejection of Judaism seemed like the infliction of a very small harm. True, there aren't that many Jews in the world. But really, how important was little old me, my kids, and those who would follow us? And anyway, the Jews were doing just fine — in the U.S., in other liberal democracies around the world, in Israel. My contribution seemed pretty close to infinitesimal, utterly irrelevant in the grand scheme of Jewish history.
But things look and feel very different in dark times. Not that I'm now deluded enough to think the fate of Judaism in the world depends in any measurable way on whether or not I call myself a Jew or rise in defense of Jews when they face threat or come under outright attack. Of course it doesn't. I'm as infinitesimal and irrelevant as ever. Yet the fact remains that my youthful shirking of my inheritance no longer feels like a liberation. It feels more like an act of cowardice, perhaps even an expression of decadence, a sign that I took certain things for granted that no Jew should ever treat as a given.
I also fear that at some level I was trying to hide, conceal, or camouflage myself by seeking to blend in so thoroughly and completely to the default Christianity of the surrounding culture. At the time of my conversion, in the center-right circles where I then worked, that culture was maximally welcoming of my spiritual decision while also treating the Judaism I left behind with a great deal of sincere respect. The borderline between traditions and faiths felt porous. Permeable.
But not anymore. Walls are going up. Hard edges and irreconcilable differences are returning all over the liberal democratic world, raising a serious question about whether and to what extent that world will remain liberal and democratic. It would be nice if the cosmopolitan universalism that prevailed in the decade or so following the conclusion of the Cold War — during the era when so many of us permitted ourselves to believe that history had come to a peaceful end — could continue to feel compelling in the face of this threat. But it doesn't. It feels like foolishness. The world has changed, and we are changing with it. And we don't know how far the change is going to go.
Turns out I'm Jewish after all. However malformed and badly enacted that Jewishness is and has been. The times are no longer compatible with, they no longer afford me the luxury of, denying it. Anything else would be irresponsible.
That certainly doesn't mean I'll stop being infuriatingly, unreliably contrarian in my judgment of political issues and disputes. I'll continue to judge Israel's settlement policies and some of its punitive actions against the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza to be acts of moral and strategic idiocy. But I'll also continue to defend Israel's unconditional right to exist and defend itself against military threat. I'll continue to view President Trump's gestures of support for Jews with considerable skepticism — as incompatible with free speech and as doing little to compensate for the much greater harm precipitated by his intolerant and inflammatory rhetoric, which has done so much to activate previously dormant racism and anti-Semitism in the country. But I'll also continue to think of Judaism as a nationality or ethnicity as well as a religion. (Otherwise I could never have been considered a Jew in the first place.)
But then what does my reaffirmation of my own Judaism amount to?
All it means is that if things get worse — and who would dare try to reassure a Jew that it won't? — I will know exactly how and where I'll be taking my stand: in proud, defiant self-defense with my fellow Jews.