Religion and The Shoah – 4
Fern Schumer Chapman
Our conversation is giving me lots to think about, too. Any belief system must be instilled in children at a young age…otherwise, it simply doesn’t take. The idea of a loving or omnipotent God is completely foreign to me, simply beyond my understanding.
Therefore, I can’t even debate his (or her) existence. I see that religion and God play an important role in other people’s lives and I do not judge them. But for me, it’s simply not part of my worldview.
After I wrote Motherland and began to fully comprehend the accumulated losses of my life – family members, personal history and family stories, religion – many people asked me if I would join a synagogue and begin to practice Judaism now. That was too much of a stretch for me. I didn’t know where to begin and I don’t think I could feel authentic as a practicing Jew.
But, as I said earlier, I define myself through other aspects of Judaism. It is unfortunate that the Holocaust is one of those aspects. Yet, given that I am the daughter of a survivor/refugee and I have told her story in two books, it would be impossible not to define myself through that experience. Unfortunately, I have suffered the emotional fallout as well since that trauma has been transmitted to me. Consequently I have had to investigate and understand the history and psychology of this legacy. I try hard to keep this part of my identity in check since I don’t want to define myself through anger and losses. But, I am aware of these forces in my life.
I also embrace Judaism’s teachings. For example, I have tried to give my children some of what I value in Jewish culture. For example, nothing was more important in my family than education – from school to music. That is true in many Jewish homes. When my husband learned to read at the age of five, his grandmother dipped her fingers in honey and touched his lips so that he would remember the sweetness of learning.
In addition, my parents taught me that I have a responsibility to leave the world a better place. My father instilled the idea that I must make some contribution, that what matters is how I live my life on earth (since Jews are primarily focused on life here and now rather than on the afterlife.) That philosophy complements the Judaic concept that we must contribute to social justice. “Tikkun olam” is a Hebrew phrase that literally means “world repair” and serves as a call to social action for Jews, to make whole what is broken. For centuries, Jewish religious leaders have emphasized this philosophy. For example, Hillel, 30 B.C.–A.D. 10, is known for the “golden rule“ handed down from generation to generation: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.“ He also said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am ‘I’? And if not now, when?”
So you see I have cobbled together a philosophy and an identity from loose religious principles and a fragmented past. My husband, who was raised in a more cohesive Jewish home, often assures me that my “Judaic“ worldview is just fine.
“Judaism,“ he says, “is a big tent.“