Billy Yalowitz: A Secularist in Synagogue

by Billy Yalowitz

The following is a Yom Kippur talk the author delivered for the Avodah section of the service, at Kol Tzedek Shul, West Philadelphia, September 26, 2012/5773

Gut yontif.

Illustration/Lawrence Bush

I’m worried as I stand here in front of you, my first time talking as a member of this synagogue, or any synagogue. I’m worried about what might leak out of me. As the child and grandchild of Communists and Yiddish socialists, I grew up learning disdain of religion in general, and as part of that, disdain of Judaism. So I’m worried that this disdain will leak out of me. And yet, before my family’s Marxist generations, I found out recently that my great grandfather on one side was an iterant rabbi in the Midwest, on another side I have a great-great grandfather who was a Hasidic rabbi in Belarus, and that I come from a line of Torah scribes that went back 12th generations in that trade.

I don’t think I’m the only one here with a mix of secular and religious ancestors. I’d like to know your Jewish backgrounds, and the mixes and the changes and the generational oscillations among the religious, the secular, the assimilated, the inter-married. Who here has a socialist ancestor? A trade unionist ancestor? Communist? Secular? Atheist? Anarchist? [Postscript – of the 200 or so people there, about 50% raised hands for one or more of the above.] If we are not to repudiate these ancestors – for they have crucial and powerful cultural and political Jewish traditions that we will do well to honor and build upon – then how do we sit here in shul with their voices still stirring in us? How do we focus attention, find some sense of peace or connection or perhaps prayer amidst the multi-generational secular-religious civil war that may rage in the mind for some of us? And I’m guessing I’m not the only one who was taught that in relation to other Jews, I was a worse Jew, or a better Jew, or an inauthentic Jew, perhaps all three. How do we acknowledge these different Jewish voices and backgrounds, and build a community that includes them?

I am honored to sing and accompany prayers musically during many of our services. And yet I’m worried my un-ease with prayer and davening will leak out. Certainly I experience different feelings when I have a prayer book in my hand. As a theater artist and playwright – I can take interest in the language, the history, the context of the prayers – and the order of the service as a choreography of one’s attention, and a group journey together, in the way that a theater piece or an epic poem can. But praying to a supernatural god? One of the reasons I can stand here with you, my new synagogue community, is because of Mordecai Kaplan – the intellectual founder of Reconstruction – and his disavowal of a supernatural God. Kaplan embraced Jewish religious practice as one of many Jewish folkways, as one of many rich cultural practices that may or may not, for different of us, connect us with those aspects of reality that imbue us with a sense of unity with our best selves, with all humans, with all of life. Many of us find that sense of oneness in our relationship with nature, in the arts, in political organizing, in intimacy with other people  – but not necessarily when we are davening (praying) in shul. And some of us do find that in davening. In time, I want to hear more from all of us along that perhaps shifting spectrum.

And if we are to take up Kaplan’s invitation and promise for Reconstructionism – if davening is to be but one practice among many by which we  may build a sense connection to each other and beyond ourselves – if davening is not to be the default and dominant activity at our community gatherings – how might we freshly choose to spend our time together in this room?

And what can I do, now that I’m a member of Kol Tzedek, to be able to continue to develop my practice of co-existing with my own Jewish history, and with the histories and the Jewish cultural practices of those of you whose Jewish backgrounds are seemingly so different than my own? For example, those of you who grew up going to synagogue, who learned to speak Hebrew and went to Jewish day schools, while I was singing my secular community’s liturgy of labor songs and growing up in left-wing housing cooperatives, not knowing from challah and wine and Shabbes until I was in my 20’s.

And so — if I’m slowly becoming less worried about what might leak from me as I come to be a member of this community – let us start from the present moment. Here we are, it’s Yum Kipper (that’s the way I heard it growing up — I hadn’t learned to say Yom Kippor til a few years ago, and now I like to say it the way I first heard it in my working class Yiddishist community in Brooklyn. As a young secular child, not knowing that this is the holiest of the Jewish year, a fasting day, yum kipper brought to my mind the pickled fish delicacies in the back of my family’s refrigerator, the jar from that I’d steal out the onions from the sour cream sauce.)  And it’s 2012/5773, and this is the only public community Jewish gathering place in the neighborhood. Back fifty or more years ago, there were lots of other places Jews gathered in West Philadelphia. Groups of Workmen’s Circle Jews,  Communist Jews, Labor Zionists, Yiddish speakers, anarchists and socialists, would gather in living rooms and kitchens and public halls in neighborhoods a few blocks from here, and in other neighborhoods like Strawberry Mansion, Kensington, South Philadelphia, Parkside. But I live down the street, and this is my neighborhood, and, like the quote from the Forvertz at the turn of the last century – “Goldberg comes to shul to talk to God, and I come to shul to talk to Goldberg.” To talk with all of you Goldbergs, to sing and drum and move with you in Jewish history, and in our present, in the delights of our culture, and to address together our large challenges as a people, especially those around race and class and Israel and Palestine, and to learn some Hebrew and some Torah, to study the old stories of the God character and our ancient ancestors. And come to find out – that many of you Goldbergs out there are re-thinking the God idea too.

So I have a great desire here in my new community for you to know and share my Jewish background and its cultural practices, and for our shul to be a place where we can each discover and re-discover the range of Jewish backgrounds present among us, and elsewhere among our people – especially those backgrounds that seem to have faded or not be present – secular, Sephardi, Mizrahi, Yiddishist – without repudiating any of them as inauthentic or “less Jewish.” Where do we start, how do we continue this conversation in our developing West Philly Jewish vernacular?


Billy Yalowitz, a professor at Temple University’s Tyler School of Arts, is a playwright, director, musician and choreographer.

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Comments (6)

  1. Does Billy know that there are organizations in Philly where secular Jews can observe the holidays, educate their children, engage in social action etc.

    He gives the impression that he, as a secularist, has no other choices, but they do exist in his home town. l

  2. Bennet you are so right to ask this question! As a Humanistic Jew, and member of the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism of Fairfield County, CT, and a former President of the Society for Humanistic Judaism, I’m diappointed that we are still not known widely enough for Billy to have heard of us. So sad!!

  3. On the contrary, I am quite sure he does know of us, which makes it all the more annoying that he chose to ignore the secular humanistic Jewish alternative, which is well represented in Philadelphia with CSJO and SHJ and Workmen’s Circle affiliates.

  4. Hi Bennett and Roz,
    I have attended secular Kehillah events here in Philadelphia, which are lovely.
    And I also want the secular and humanistic groups here, and elsewhere, to be more widely known, so that more unaffiliated and secular Jews might find their ways to them.
    However, this talk was aimed at something different — at reaching out
    to folks in synagogues, both those who identify as religious, and those who come from secular backgrounds who have become interested in learning about Judaism while maintaining their love of their left-wing Jewish values. There is a new generation of raised-secular and unaffiliated Jews, who are neither theistic nor strongly alienated from Judaism; many are deeply curious about Judaic cultural practices, and the schism between secular and religious Jews of previous generations does not apply for them. And the progressive religious folks are the majority of the active Jews in many places — many of them, again in my experience, are eager to be exposed to and to incorporate what we know as left-wing secular Jews, and our cultural and political practices.
    While it’s important to me to support and participate in the secular/humanistic groups in my city (which requires a long drive), I’m glad to be able to walk to the Jewish center right here in my neighborhood, which at this point is a synagogue; this is the base from which I can play a role in (re)building a local urban Jewish community. My talk was aimed at establishing a place for myself, and others like me, right there in the shul. And the response was enthusiastic. Reconstructioninst synagogues are particularly ripe for this kind of inclusiveness. I think as secular Jews we need multiple approaches to building into the future; this includes breaking down what is now, in my view, the unnecessary barrier between those with secular backgrounds and those who identify as progressive religious Jews.

  5. In my view, synagogues are no place for secular Jews, where prayer and God-worship are ubiquitious. I have attended many a synagogue service. There is a vast amount of praying which I find meaningless, punctuated by Torah/haftarah portions that I often find horrifying. Occassionaly the rabbi’s sermon or remarks from a congregant (Iike Billy’s) will be stimulating, but that does not compensate for 2-3 hours of tedium.

    How to bridge the secular/religious is an interesting question, but the answer is not to subject secular Jews to religious services. If so many Reconstructionist Jews are not theistic, how about exposing them to a secular humanist Jewish service for a change?.

    If there was no secular Jewish alternative, it would be a different story, but there is. Especially in Philadelphia.

  6. My shul in San Francisco, Or Shalom Jewish Community, has been holding so-called God Salons, mostly for those of us who question, don’t believe it all, don’t believe at all, are not sure what they believe, want to believe, and other difficult to define categories, which some self-described as wishy-washy.

    Besides having great meetings that are friendly, intellectual, and even spiritual, we’ve changed of our community’s core values to be more inclusive and read atheist/agnostic statements from the bimah on Rosh Hashanah.

    Instead of going into exile, I recommend trying to change whatever org your in ar finding another org that welcomes you. This is true in the social and political world as it is in the religious.

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