A Brief and Amusing Encounter

Yesterday on my lunch hour, I was sitting outside the library, eating lunch and enjoying a rare day of warm weather, when I was approached by two young men in Orthodox Jewish garb.

“Hello, are you Jewish?” one of them greeted me.

“No,” I said, as cheerfully as possible. “I’m an atheist.”

Give them credit for one thing: they didn’t flinch. “You can be Jewish and an atheist,” he insisted, still smiling. “Judaism has nothing to do with what you believe.”

Now, I acknowledge there’s a certain sense in which this claim could be true. But it clearly wasn’t the same sense being used by these two young men standing before me in Orthodox black garb, yarmulkes and peyot. If it was only the ethnic definition of Judaism they were interested in, it wouldn’t be necessary to get people to do anything, and these two clearly had something more in mind. I could see the bait-and-switch coming a mile off, and I tried to forestall it. “I think Judaism has more to do with which ideas you accept,” I demurred.

But the proselytizers clearly had a script they were determined to stick to. “What about your parents?” they asked. “Were they Jewish?” They asked a few questions about my family, until it emerged that my maternal grandmother was Jewish. (This is technically true, but only in the loosest sense: as I’ve written before, she was an entirely secular person. The extent of her Judaism was that she gave her grandchildren presents on Hanukkah.)

Naturally, the two proselytizers were very excited to discover this. “You’re 100% Jewish!” they announced.

If this was supposed to produce a moment of epiphany in me (like in the Jack Chick comics where the protagonist announces, “But why didn’t anyone ever tell me about Jesus?”), it didn’t work. Actually, I found it presumptuous and arrogant: What gives you the right to just dismiss all the rest of my family’s ancestry and culture? How dare you think you can define who and what I am without my participation?

I didn’t have time to say that, though, because they were pressing on to the next part of their script. “We’re trying to get all Jews to put on tefillin,” he said. “Would you like to wear them?”

I gave them a very flat look. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Can I give you this pamphlet then?” he asked, pushing some literature into my hands. I glanced down at it, and as I expected, it was a newsletter published by the Chabad Lubavitch sect, extolling the limitless virtues of their deceased rabbi.

I probably didn’t succeed at holding back a smirk. “Isn’t this the guy you believe is the messiah?”

The two Lubavitchers suddenly looked very uncomfortable. For them, this was probably like a Scientologist being asked about Xenu. “Well, not exactly,” the spokesman admitted. “There are some people who believe that, yes, but I’m not really… I don’t know if…”

“I believe it!” the other one piped up, interrupting him. I guessed this was a matter of some awkwardness between them.

“And the fact that he’s dead doesn’t convince you otherwise?”

“No,” the first one said, shaking his head. “It doesn’t.” Clearly, he had dropped any pretense that he wasn’t also a messianic believer. They’re probably told not to talk about this in public, but as I already knew, I assumed he saw no further point in trying to deceive me.

Since I wasn’t going to convert to Orthodox Judaism on the spot, they sensed the conversation had run its course, and after shaking my hand, they walked away. In retrospect, I should have talked to them for longer. I was curious, for example, why they had been so eager for me to wear their ritual clothing, even knowing I didn’t believe any of it. Was this some kind of Pascal’s Wager, where they assumed faith would eventually follow practice? Or – more likely – did they believe that their deceased rabbi will only return once all the Jewish people in the world are obeying their commandments? If the latter, it would have been a treat to see how they’d have explained that to me.

But what I really should have done a better job nailing them on was the bait-and-switch underlying their whole strategy. They insisted that being Jewish was an ethnic identity and not a matter of belief, but at the same time, they were trying to convince people who were “Jewish” (by their tendentious definition) to adopt a whole array of practices derived solely from religious belief. It’s the same kind of false equivalence used by all proselytizers everywhere, such as those who ask you if you want to be a good person and then define “good person” as one who worships their god in the prescribed manner. The next time I run into some of these people (and I’m sure I will – they’re all over Manhattan), they’re not going to get off so lightly.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    My uber religious friend used to say “God is the Heavenly Father, not the Heavenly Grandfather” meaning it doesn’t really matter what your relatives believe, you aren’t Catholic, Christian, Jewish, etc just because your parents are. It’s your own beliefs that matter. These guys obviously don’t subscribe to that philosophy.

    I often think of things I should have said to Mormons and Jehovah’s witnesses. But I find the truth only confuses them. Never dealt with Orthodox Jews but perhaps mentioning the fact that my great grandfather was a Nazi would get them to run away.

  • http://lehoism.net/ Lehooo

    @SuperHappyJen: Ha ha, that would be an easy way to shut the conversation down quickly! On of my friends’ grandfather was a nazi (of some rank I believe, not at the top obviously but not an ordinary soldier either) whereas my grandfather was a jew. I wonder what my friend’s naxi grandfather would have thought about him hanging around with me.

  • Anna

    Funny how that doesn’t also make you a Nazi. Though maybe they wouldn’t get that.

  • http://www.superhappyjen.blogspot.com SuperHappyJen

    It gives you hope for the world doesn’t it? Our ancestors had all kinds of crazy philosophies, and now we’re all hanging out together at an atheist blog.

  • http://wilybadger.wordpress.com Chris Swanson

    I’ve never got the concept that Jews make up their own ethnicity. Religious belief is not transmitted through the X or Y chromosome. There are Semitic peoples, but those also include Arabs and, I think, Ethiopians. The fact that Wikipedia has an article on Jewish atheists makes me laugh/cry.

  • Nathaniel

    Ironically enough, we can thank the Nazi’s for the idea of Jewish ethnicity. There were plenty of people in Europe at the time of the 1930s who didn’t consider themselves Jewish in the slightest, but had a single Jewish grandparent or something similar. That was enough for the Nazi’s to brand them as Jewish, and kill them as likely as not.

    So the basic idea was if people are going to prosecute us for our genetic connections to past people who are Jewish, might as well go the whole hog and self identify as Jewish, even if we practice too much of what an Orthodox would consider a necessary part of the faith. Thus you have Secular Jews.

  • Stephen P

    I was curious, for example, why they had been so eager for me to wear their ritual clothing, even knowing I didn’t believe any of it. Was this some kind of Pascal’s Wager, where they assumed faith would eventually follow practice?

    I suspect that many of these proselytisers are driven by the mentality of a sort of live-action roleplay. If they manage a conversion, however superficial, they’ve scored a point. And however much they may claim they are driven by the truth, they are actually driven by scoring.

    Let’s not forget that live-action roleplay is serious business.

  • HP

    I’ve never got the concept that Jews make up their own ethnicity.

    language + culture + history = ethnicity

    (Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino) + (Torah, kashrut, klezmer, …) + (Roman occupation, diaspora, pogroms, Holocaust) = Jewish ethnicity

  • http://www.broadsnark.com BroadSnark

    This is so bizarre. The judaism I was raised in was so anti-proselytizing.

  • jack

    Ebon,

    Seems to me you did pretty well with these guys for your first street encounter with them. I’m usually like the proverbial deer in the headlights in these situations. Once I did fairly well with a Jehovah’s Witness, though. She was reading me the passage from 2 Timothy 3 that describes the end times, to try to convince me that Armageddon was imminent:

    But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God

    To which I replied, “But has there ever been a time when people were not like that?” It stumped her.

  • Valhar2000

    language + culture + history = ethnicity

    Doesn’t it have more to do with people voluntarily choosing to marry within their own religion, thus keeping their genes separate* from those of other people?

    * More or less.

  • bbk

    I’ve never got the concept that Jews make up their own ethnicity.

    Me neither. They don’t consider African Jews to be authentic but they declare a random New Yorker “100% Jewish” because he had a grandmother.

  • noel44

    Ebon,
    You were talking about the main branch of the NYPL, yes? If so, I am surprised that this is the first time you have been approached there. When I took my lunches there years ago, I was approached by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Moonies, Muslims, and one or two nondenominational groups I couldn’t identify. I must have looked like a good mark. For the most part, I just let them spin their spiel and said I wasn’t interested but had wished that I had been more assertive. I am sure that you will be better prepared when it happens again. And it will happen again.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    This is so bizarre. The judaism I was raised in was so anti-proselytizing.

    Broadsnark, the Lubavitchers are active proselytizers, but only to Jews of other sects. I see them every year in Manhattan during Sukkot. As you pass by them, they ask you “Are you Jewish?”

    One day during lunch one of them asked me that and I looked right at him and said “No, I’m an atheist, and you should be too.”

  • anna

    I think the idea of Jewish ethnicity is that if your ancestors came from the ancient kingdoms of Judea or Israel that makes you Jewish, rather like being African-American means your ancestors came from Africa. As for the African Jews, wikipedia says “In 1908, the chief rabbis of 45 countries made a joint statement officially declaring that Ethiopian Jews were indeed Jewish” and “Nearly all of the Ethiopian Beta Israel community, comprising more than 120,000 people, reside in Israel under its Law of Return, which gives Jews and those with Jewish parents or grandparents, and all of their spouses, the right to settle in Israel and obtain citizenship. The Israeli government has mounted rescue operations, most notably during Operation Moses (1984) and Operation Solomon (1991), for their migration when civil war and famine threatened populations within Ethiopia. Some immigration has continued up through present day. ” However, the falasha mura, Ethiopians whose ancestors were Jewish but then converted to Christianity, rather than staying Jewish, have got to officially convert to Judaism to be considered Jewish.

  • http://larianlequella.com LarianLeQuella

    Wow, we have a partial Goodwin within the first post! Well done! :)

    Having traveled back and forth to Israel a few times, I just find myself infinitely amused by the childish superstitions that people hold on to. Judaism seems more about some sort of OCD than religion after watching some of these folks.

  • Grimalkin

    To be fair, there are Jewish ethnicities. For example, I was asked at my first pre-natal exam if either I or my husband is Jewish. They were asking because there are certain genetic pre-dispositions among ashkenazi Jews that we would have to look out for. In that case, the question was all about ancestry and not at all about religion.

    I’m not saying that those people weren’t idiots, of course. If they were only asking about ethnicity, asking you to wear special garb is completely irrelevant (not to mention distasteful – I remember the last time people of Jewish ethnicity were asked to wear special clothes… Oooh, Godwin’s again!).

  • bbk

    @anna Serious question, but does that mean that Moroccan Jews needed a separate decree to be considered real Jews? Ethiopia is just one African country. Wikipedia says that some Moroccan Jews don’t consider others to be authentic and vice versa.

    And are they saying that black Africans are the same ethnicity as white Northern Europeans so long as they’re practicing the same religion? Isn’t that the same bait and switch definition that Ebon encountered in Manhattan? I think it’s completely ridiculous for religious leaders to to hold a vote and make a decision about who belongs to “their” ethnicity. Apparently, they don’t feel the need to include Palestinian Semites who have lived in those ancient kingdoms continually through the last century. And they don’t feel the need to include African Christians with some Jewish ancestors unless those people convert back to the Jewish religion. And if they don’t want to convert, I guess Israel isn’t interested in “rescuing” them. Let those other people with Jewish ancestors die… not real Jews in an “ethnic” sense.

    This doesn’t really come off as an scientific anthropological endeavor. It comes off as a big farce from a religion that considers an “ethnic” affiliation to be a central tenet of their beliefs. After all the exceptions they make to include some but exclude others, the only thing they seem to have left to bind the ethnicity together is an ancient book of scribbles. And the authenticity of anything in that book is even more questionable than anything else.

  • Wednesday

    @ Nathanel:

    Actually, someone with a single Jewish grandparent wasn’t a Jew in Nazi Germany, they were a Mischling. If they had two Jewish grandparents, then it got more complicated, and whether or not they were a Jew or a Mischling depended on when their parents married (if ever) and when they were born, and also whether or not they married a Jew. The Mischling test (and the related appeals process) is kind of awful, because the question of whether you would live or die under Nazi rule was reduced to fussy bureaucratic details.

    @Chris Swanson -
    I know the idea of Jewish ethnicity seems laughable to you, but as others have pointed out, there’s definitely a Jewish culture, which includes foods, language, history, religious-origin practices, and even non-religious practices (like American Jews eating Chinese food on Christmas) that result from having ties to a non-Christian religion in a culture that was very much shaped by Christianity. Also, there are genuine genetic concerns — like prevalence of Tay-Sachs carriers among people of Ashkenazi ancestry. It’s no more strange that people identify as atheist and Jewish than people identify as atheist and Irish.

    The idea of who is (culturally) Jewish can be a really touchy one, because there are a lot of people who identify as culturally Jewish because their fathers were Jewish and they were raised in an interfaith household, but because they don’t have the requisite maternal line Jewish ancestry, they are told they have no right to part of their cultural heritage by the Orthodox and many Conservative Jews. The Orthodox can get really nasty about interfaith marriage.

  • bbk

    @Grimalkin

    I think if you take any non-representative population sample, you’re bound to find a higher probability of some genetic condition. Does it overcome the null hypothesis?

    A few months ago a Jewish girl asked me to go out with her because I have attached earlobes. She swore up and down that I must have had Jewish ancestors. That in spite of the fact that I have a copy of my family tree going back to the 1300′s and it’s all Catholic. I told her and she claimed that I must have been mistaken because my earlobes could only mean one thing. Anyway, I wasn’t interested.

    If a group of people lived in a region of the world for a while, they are bound to have some common genetic traits. Including a Jewish girl of Eastern European descent and me. Identifying such group could help in medical diagnosis, etc. In that case, Ashkenazi could be easier for a doctor to ask about than “where your ancestors from such and such a region over the past so many years?” And I bet there are just those very sort of people who fit that description but will never benefit from a good diagnosis. In fact, some doctors believe that your medical record should include a map of every place you’ve ever lived because that has the potential to say more about your health than some arbitrary in-group affiliation.

    As far as Jews go, there are many Jewish groups and I can’t imagine that they all share the same exact genetic traits. It doesn’t seem to point to a single Jewish ethnicity, it seems to point to many different ethnic groups that are getting lumped together under one label. Genetically speaking, anyway. It comes down to this… I don’t think that Jews are a single ethnicity any more than Catholics or Buddhists. I think they are, perhaps, a single culture, in places just a sub-culture, but they are too diverse to be an ethnicity.

  • http://uncyclopedia.wikia.com/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    I was curious, for example, why they had been so eager for me to wear their ritual clothing, even knowing I didn’t believe any of it.

    They were hoping you’d become properly Jewish by [pause for effect] osMoses.

  • http://daylightatheism.org J. James

    How odd. I live in a conservative part of Northern California, and I have always experienced the sort of sneaky, bait-and-switch proselytizing that is completely opposite to what people here describe.
    for instance, I was once volunteering at a museum when I struck up a conversation about environmental issues with this lovely little young couple and was delighted to hear that they agreed that one doesn’t have to give up their political conservatism to place protecting the environment as a top priority. At the end of our little talk they exchanged an identical, unforgettable look-”we got one”-their faces seemed to say, and invited me to a webmeeting for a sympathetic group, and happened to have a pamphlet for it on them, which they gave to me. I got home and needless to say it was filled with the wierdest, most contrived BS I had ever seen. It was like Glenn Beck’s paranoid night terror threw up all over Pharyngula’s deepest darkest liberals.

  • http://GodlessPoetry.blogspot.com Zietlos

    *Smacks Modus*

    Awful. Just awful.

    When people come to the house, I stick to the “kiss a poisonous snake” request, no one has yet to fulfill it, if they did, I’d listen (though my snake isn’t poisonous, they don’t know that).

    Out in the open, I tend to just chat with folks. We’ve got a fairly nice proseletyzing group around the university, they always are willing to sit and chat about logical inconsistencies in their books. (Though only rarely do the same people approach me twice.)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    But what I really should have done a better job nailing them on was the bait-and-switch underlying their whole strategy.

    Trolling isn’t always a bad thing. If done subtly, it permits pertinent facts, and beliefs, to be brought out. Forgive the crummy comparison, but it’s why the interrogator offers a cigarette to the prisoner.

    eta: Well, not anymore. But they used to.

  • keddaw

    This is so bizarre. The judaism I was raised in was so anti-proselytizing.

    One Jewish sect are really big on their proselytizing – Christians.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    This reminds me of something my father once said. He told me that, of the three monotheism, he liked Judaism because it didn’t focus on converting people.

    I never completely understood the idea that a person has to be a member of a certain faith because their ancestors were. I do understand why some people may consider themselves Secular Jews (or secular members of other religions) if they grew up in a certain culture heavily influenced by the religion or if they want show solidarity, although I think that should also be voluntary and not a matter of heredity. (Plus, as you wrote, the people you were talking to didn’t really seem to be promoting a secular version of the faith.)

    They insisted that being Jewish was an ethnic identity and not a matter of belief, but at the same time, they were trying to convince people who were “Jewish” (by their tendentious definition) to adopt a whole array of practices derived solely from religious belief. It’s the same kind of false equivalence used by all proselytizers everywhere, such as those who ask you if you want to be a good person and then define “good person” as one who worships their god in the prescribed manner.

    I hadn’t thought of that comparison between defining a religion a certain way and defining “good person” a certain way. You make a good point.

    @SuperHappyJen (comment #4):

    It gives you hope for the world doesn’t it? Our ancestors had all kinds of crazy philosophies, and now we’re all hanging out together at an atheist blog.

    Yes, definitely. There is hope. All is not lost.


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