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Jewish Atheists

For Atheists of Jewish origin and others interested in Jewish history and culture.

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Letting go of Israel, or The Self-Loathing Jew

Started by Diana D. Last reply by Alan Perlman Apr 15, 2013. 21 Replies

Am I Still Jewish?

Started by Cecilia. Last reply by Michael Pianko Mar 20, 2013. 14 Replies

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Comment by Michael Pianko on June 12, 2011 at 4:11pm
My ancestors immigrated to New York and then moved to Pennsylvania and Chicago and Detroit. My grandfather on my mother's side, his ancestors trace to Kovno, which is now called Kaunas and is in Lithuania. (For some reason, people think Kovnat has something to do with Kovno. My Grandmother on my mothers side's family was from Minsk and Pinsk in Belarus, another ancestor on my grandfather's side might be from a town that my great aunt pronounced like Vitsnits, but I can't find it but it sort of wounds like Vannitsa, Ukraine.

On my dad's side my grandmother said her parents owned a dairy farm in Lapis, Poland. I can't find Lapis, maybe it is now part of a bigger town or city, or maybe it is now not in Poland. It never occurred to me to think there can be any association between Kovnat and Kovno, Lithuania. Then I found the name Kovnat in a dictionary of Jewish surnames in the Russian Empire. Kovnat, Kovnator, Kovnatskij or -ski or -sky were listed as variants of the same name. The name is from the German or Yiddish pronunciation of a town in Latvia that is now Kaunata, Latvia. My ancestors had the name Kovnator and then a great uncle changed it to Kovnat in the U.S., and a few Jews still have the name Kovnator but its less common that Kovnat. There are non-Jews with the name Kownat and Kownator. A few live in France. Notice that when non-Jews use the name, it is spelled with a w but in German, w is pronounced more like English v.

Paul Wexler is or was a linguist at Tel Aviv University who wrote articles and a book about Yiddish trying to prove that Yiddish started when a community of Jews, Probably in Bavaria, spoke a Slavic dialect, likely Old Sorbian or something similar. Sorbian is still spoken by a few thousand people in at least two towns in East Germany, and Bavaria used to speak an old-Slavic dialect. Then Germans migrated east and the Jews started to switch to their Germanic dialect. But certain German words for some, but not all Jewish religious concepts and for some other words that sounded too christian, the old Sorbian (not Serbian; look up upper and lower Sorbian) words for these things were relexified with old Hebrew words. A few basic Slavic words were retained. A second relexification might have happened later among another Jewish community around Poland or Russia or NE Europe, as speakers of old Yiddish migrated north-east and the Polish Jews relexified to Yiddish. In all cases of relexification, most or all of the older grammatical structures are retained, just the vocabulary gets changed; more research needs to be done comparing Yiddish thought patterns/morphology/syntax to old Slavic dialects. I should have done this but I'm too lazy and I'm too afraid to talk to people to teach college classes.

Arthur Koestler's 1976 book “the Thirteenth tribe” gives a good argument for why most Ashkenazic people are not descended from the Ancient Israelites or Hebrews. I have no emotional vested interested in Israel or Hebrew or my so called mythic, glorious Semitic past and I have no reason to think I am descended from the tribe of Judah in Ancient Israel. Never mind that the exodus from Egypt is probably a total myth and the red sea didn't really split, that's just a myth. Anyway, the passover hagadda doesn't not mention Moses even once, and there is almost no story, just praising Adonai over and over for taking the Jews out of Egypt and giving us the torah...
Comment by Natalie A Sera on June 11, 2011 at 5:08am

David, who do they consider to be Christians? Although the real issue is non-Jews, not specifically Christians. Not me, because I was born of a Jewish mother. Halacha, the Jewish law they practice, says anyone born of a Jewish mother is Jewish regardless of the father. On the other hand, if the mother is NOT Jewish, the child is not, either, even if the father IS Jewish. If the mother converts before the child is born, then the child IS Jewish.

This interpretation is a very old tribal custom from the Torah, and written down as much as 3000 years ago, although it was probably practiced much earlier.

As for me, I don't care what they think of me -- I know who I am, and where I came from, and what parts of Judaism are acceptable to me, and what parts I reject. I am unacceptable to them for reasons of practice, not birth, and they would be only too glad to bring me into their fold, if only they COULD!!!  LOL!!

Comment by David Danon on June 11, 2011 at 2:26am
What do u think of those orthodox or chassidic jews that consider u guys to be christians
Comment by Ralph Dumain on June 10, 2011 at 11:41pm
I'm an Esperantist as well.
Comment by Natalie A Sera on June 10, 2011 at 10:11pm

But you have to admit it's EASIER to have one national language. In the countries you mentioned, most of the time, the speakers of minority languages must invest hundreds or thousands of hours into learning the majority language (Canada is officially bilingual, but in most of those other countries, there is an official national language, which is what is used in education to the exclusion of all others). Of course, I'm an Esperantist, and believe in a (relatively) easy world second language for all, so that we can all communicate on the equal plane of using an acquired rather than native language. And yes, I'm a hopeless idealist, and I was supposed to outgrow that a long time ago.

My reason for believing that I have Semitic roots is that I come from a Cohen on one side and a Levi on the other, and these have been genetically proven to be truly Semitic. (I'm gonna get you to spell that right one of these days! :-) ) But even if I didn't, Jewish history onward from before the time of Jesus is well documented, and there is no reason to think that we DON'T have Semitic ancestry. The history and culture are continuous. Looks don't indicate anything after a few generations -- yet my grandfather, an aunt and an uncle and cousins on my mother's side look VERY Middle Eastern, and so did my grandmother on my father's side. So I don't see any reason to deny what the history says.

Also, did you know that population studies have shown Ashkenazi Jews to be more similar to Arabs than to Europeans in several factors? ABO blood groupings, for example, show different percentages from European populations. There are others which I can't quote.

In sum, I acknowledge the European Christian and Turkic (possibly Muslim) and earlier pagan sides of my ancestry, but I'm really not interested in that part of it, and AM interested in the Jewish part of it, and where they came from. The history is there, it's in writing, and I don't have the language skills to read it, but I find no reason not to believe what the scholars are telling me.

(And parenthetically, my son is half-Japanese, and he's not interested in either the Jewish side, OR the Japanese side -- he's an atheistic American!!)

Again, you are free to explore whatever part of your heritage that interests you -- in the end ALL human heritage is ours to partake of!

Comment by Michael Pianko on June 10, 2011 at 4:28pm
But why do you feel that its necessary to believe your ancestors had to be semetic or descended from the ancient Hebrews or Israelites?  My mother has this same exact attitude.
Comment by Michael Pianko on June 10, 2011 at 4:22pm
Israel didn't really have to pick one main language. Canada is supposed to have two (English and Canadian French), Switzerland has 4 (Romanch, Swis German, French, Italian), Nepal has 13 officially recognized languages and 100 other small ones, India has 700-1400 depending on whether you want to classify certain languages as separate languages or as just different dialects of other languages. Ghana has 80.
Comment by Natalie A Sera on June 9, 2011 at 8:19pm

Interesting family history, Michael! Maybe you ARE related to the rabbi, who knows??

Yiddish will not go extinct as long as there are ultra-orthodox Jews such as those who live in New York, and Jerusalem and some settlements. Not that I agree with their religious views (I emphatically don't!), but they ARE preserving the language. And then there are efforts in the US -- can't remember the name of the organization at the moment, but there is a library in Amherst devoting to preserving Yiddish books.

Hebrew did, indeed, morph into Aramaic, but happened far earlier than 200 CE. Even by the time of Jesus, Hebrew was strictly liturgical and literary, much as classical Arabic is, today.

Hebrew was a good choice for Israel, simply because the majority of Israelis are of Middle-Eastern descent, having fled from the Arab countries in 1948, although some came earlier. Yiddish and Ladino, to a lesser extent, simply have no meaning to them, whereas they were just as literate in Hebrew as the Ashkenazi Jews were. Hebrew is a unifier of the WHOLE Jewish people, whereas Yiddish is strictly Ashkenazi.

I do agree that there was a strong desire after the pogroms in Russia in the 1880's to return to the land of Palestine (as it was called then -- the first to actually call themselves "Palestinians" were the native-born Jews of the late 19th/early 20th century). And to throw off the shackles of European anti-Semitism by creating the proud "new Jew", who spoke Hebrew, and farmed the land (not allowed in European countries), and defended himself.

If you consider the majority of today's Jews, we do NOT belong in Europe, even though some of us have European roots. Everyone knows about the Arab refugees of the "Naqba" but no one mentions all the refugees who fled or were ejected from the Arab countries at the time. These people and their descendants don't tend to be among the upper classes in Israel, but they're there, and they're actually the strongest force in favor of many of Israel's stances.

I think it's great that you want to explore your Ashkenazi heritage! :-) I'm a little broader in my interest -- I'm drawn to the history of the Jews of Spain, and one of my hobbies is learning Ladino songs, although I can't sing them in public, LOL!! Because I studied Spanish and Hebrew, I understand about 90-95% of the words of the songs -- if you studied German, it would give you a good basis for understanding Yiddish.

A couple of years ago, I visited Poland, hosted by the family of a former student of mine. It was good to see the countryside where my people lived, although I also had the sensation of it being peopled by ghosts (yes, I know this isn't rational, and I'm not proposing it as a serious reality!). In Krakow, there are tons of souvenirs in the form of little statuettes of Jewish klezmer bands -- all made by Christians, who are cashing in on Jewish nostalgia. Auschwitz was a disappointment, because the Poles are far more interested in THEIR martyrs than in anything that happened to the Jews or Roma (Gypsies). They really don't miss the Jews (who made up approximately 30% of the total pre-war population, and were more than 50% of some cities), nor do they even much think about them. Germany is much more enlightened and cognizant of the Holocaust.

And just for fun: My maternal grandparents were from Grodno province, now in Belarus, but formerly variably disputed between Russia and Poland, my paternal grandmother was from Kovno (Kaunas) province in Lithuania, and my paternal grandfather was from Georgia, the country, not the state. All in the pale of settlement. I had my DNA tested: mitochondrial DNA is Germanic (which I spoke of previously), and Y-chromosome (from my brother) is Turkic. Which really surprised me -- maybe I'm a descendant of the Khazars (no proof of ANY descendants historically)! But I'm sure there's semitic Jewish roots in my other DNA. Just a mutt, like everyone else! :-)

Comment by Michael Pianko on June 9, 2011 at 3:01pm

I realize that technically Yiddish doesn't matter, but then Hebrew matters even less. I'm not going to be religious about maintaining a spoken Yiddish.  I think Ben Yehuda was able create modern spoken Hebrew because of a propaganda campaign promoting Hebrew and bashing Yiddish. The Jewish who wanted a Jewish state in Israel needed Hebrew to help transform the Jews into a semetic people who belong in Israel and not Europe.

 

Jews living in Israel are required to serve in the army for a certain amount of time, so I'm glas I don't live in Israel.  I took a Yiddish class in Lithuania in 2007 (before I came out as an atheist). There is a small Jewish community in Vilnius, Lithuania (they maintain a community center that is a few rooms used for meetings and events, no fitness equiptment; a holocause museum in a house-sized building, and in two separate places, an art and exhibit exhibition galary, and placks about the vilnius ghetto). I would feel safe visiting the country again.  I think in terms of hatred of Jews, E. Europe has  improved since communism ended. I think that recently, Lithuanins have not been more anti-semetic than other countries in Europe, and they are hate us less than most of the middle east and North Africa and central Asia.     

 

(You don't seem to hear much about Ladino/judezmo or dzhudezmo or a few other Jewish dialects that might or might not be extinct now). There was a conference in 1908 in a town called Cernowiz (the spelling varies depending on which article you read or which language) where they decided that Yiddish should be the Jewish national language. Hebrew went extinct as a spoken language by the 100's AD or CE when the Jews began to speak Armaic dialect(s). I have met native Yiddish speakers, but yeah, I know it has declined a lot.  Yiddish is as in danger of going extinct as the world's other small languages that (now) have less than about a million speakers.  My grandfather on my mother's side was Meyer Rothenberg and a great-great grandfather had the same name and there was a Rabbi Meyer of Rothenberg who lived in the 1200's in Germany and there is a town in Germany called Rothenberg but I have no evidence to indicate whether the rabbi is my ancestor.

Comment by Natalie A Sera on June 9, 2011 at 1:25am
I feel pretty lucky, because while I'm "pure" Jewish, and my grandparents were Orthodox, my father was pretty anti-religion, and my mother became increasingly a-religious as she got older. My brother is agnostic, as is his son, and Lutheran-raised wife, and my own son is atheistic, which he came to on his own -- I didn't teach him one way or the other. So I have no family conflicts, and I'm free to enjoy my ethnic heritage in whatever way I want to. I like the latkes, and the Chanukah gelt, and the potato kugel and the blintzes, and I like Yiddish, Ladino, Mizrachi and Israeli music, and I LOVE Talmudic argument (which doesn't even refer to god very often). I would certainly like Yiddish if I knew more of it, but I enjoy Yiddish authors in translation. I see no conflict in being a Jewish agnostic (or atheist) -- I just get to be who I am.
 

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