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Jewdayo and Apostasy

June 2, 2014
by Lawrence Bush [caption id=“attachment_29247” align=“alignright” width=“250”]Does a Jewish father make Paulette Goddard a candidate for JEWDAYO? Does a Jewish father make Paulette Goddard a candidate for JEWDAYO?[/caption] I asked in our early-bird Jewdayo fundraiser the other day if readers thought Jewdayo should include or exclude people who for sincere or opportunistic reasons converted out of Judaism in the course of their lives. Here are some reader responses: Our frequent and erudite commentator, Anna Wrobel, wrote,
While it irritates me to think of how many Jews, especially in Germany (and England) converted to some milk-toast version of Protestantism (usually) to get ahead, I am more disturbed by the ethnocentric Christian hegemony that made this decision ‘necessary’ for so many secular, ‘enlightened’ Jews. As this pressure and assimilationist conformity is part of Jewish history and experience (and has been from ancient Hellenistic cultural hegemony to Woody Allen’s brilliant Zelig), we need to acknowledge, discuss, critique this phenomenon. We acknowledge those born otherwise and converted to Judaism, so it makes sense to discuss those born Jewish converted to other religions. Still the joke I can’t get out of my mind when thinking of Jews who convert: “Two men, one a hunchback, walked past a synagogue. The upright man said as they passed, ‘I used to be a Jew.’ And the bent man responded, ‘Yeah, and I used to be a hunchback.’ ” “For better or worse and all gradations in between, there is more than a ring of truth in this story.”
Harry Brod, a life subscriber to Jewish Currents who is a pioneer in the field of men’s studies, wrote:
“I say absolutely, yes, include them. Jewish Currents, has always aligned itself with Jewishness as a culture rather than Judaism as a religion. While conversion takes the Judaism out of the Jew, it doesn’t remove the Jewishness. The cultural imprint remains.”
Myriam Miedzian, a member of our editorial board and the author of Boys Will Be Boys, among other books, wrote:
“Conversion for practical reasons was so common among wealthy and professional German Jews that you would be missing out on a large segment of the Jewish population worth writing about, if you left them oiut, as well as missing out on a phenomenon that provides instructive background for the Nazi annihilation program.... The enormously wealthy Viennese Wittgenstein family converted, I think as far back as the 19th century. Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the msot influential philosophers of the 20th century, was one of them. The family of Viennese-born influential philosopher Karl Popper also converted before he was born....”
Our frequent contributor, composer Leonard Lehrman, wrote:
Anton Rubinstein converted from Judaism to Catholicism at the age of 2. He always said he was considered a Catholic by Jews and a Jew by Catholics. Yes. Include him, and the others you mentioned.
Shimke Levine, a Yiddishist and retired language professor from the University of South Carolina, wrote:
People are complex. Circumstances are also complex. The reasons one converts may be many. But the fact of conversion, willing or otherwise, is deeply rooted in our history. I can imagine that for Orthodox Jews a convert is no longer considered Jewish (altho’ it may also not be so). But for a secular Jewish magazine to issue a blanket rule that a Jew who converted at any time in his life, and for any reason, is banished from Jewdayo would be both contradictory and counterproductive. Contradictory because we define Jewishness as a complete culture and not just a religion. Counter-productive because it would blind us to an entire spectrum of people born and raised as Jews and present our reflection on the phenomenon. Turning a blind eye would not make us smarter or wiser. In essence, if we consider Jewish history and ignore the phenomenon of (sometimes mass) conversion, we are rewriting Jewish history and imagining a fictive people that never existed in reality. “Cardinal Lustiger, for one, who was converted as a child to save his life, always considered himself Jewish, despite his ending up as archbishop of Paris. We do not have to agree with him, but we must at least acknowledge the ambivalence of his life journey, and that of innumerable other Jews by birth. If the yardstick were theological, then I as an agnostic-atheist would not be Jewish either.
Our contributing writer Bennett Muraskin was a lone dissenter:
Include them only if they still expressed an attachment to their Jewish heritage, as with Heinrich Heine. Perhaps mention could also be made of converts who were outspoken in denouncing anti-Semitism and provide support to persecuted Jews. Otherwise... no.
Let me add a wrinkle to the discussion by being specific. Paulette Goddard, who played across from Charlie Chaplin and matched him in energy and spunk in Modern Times, was born Marion Goddard Levy. Her father was a Jewish cigar manufacturer from Salt Lake City, her mother an Episcopalian. Her parents separated when she was tiny, and she didn’t meet her father again until she was in her twenties and famous — whereupon he sued her for suggesting in an interview that he wasn’t her biological father. It’s an interesting story, but is it for Jewdayo? Here’s another one: We did a Jewdayo entry on the Turtles, whom we hold culpable for the hit song “So Happy Together.” The band was founded by two Jewish kids, Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. Bad enough that Kaylan changed his name from Kaplan, but Volman and his wife, according to Wikipedia, “are also active members of Harpeth Presbyterian Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, where they both invest their time as Youth Advisors.” Nu, is the Jewish kid from Los Angeles an appropriate Jewdayo choice if he’s now a youth advisor in a Presbyterian church? The entire Jewdayo enterprise hangs in the space between the walls of Jewish chauvinism on one side and the wall of Jewish self-obliteration and shame on the other. By including people with Jewish roots who practice another religion entirely — for whatever reason — are we indulging the “members-of-the-tribe” pleasure principle too much? Yet why should the embrace of another religion be definitive of who is and who isn’t a Jew for non-believing Jews? Especially since half of the Jews we select for Jewdayo are thoroughly assimilated and “Jewish” only because of their absorption of the culture, not because of their conscious pursuit of Jewish identity. Are they “more Jewish” for not having been baptized? Please share your comments with me.