Believers who lose their faith face many wrenching dilemmas. But consider the poor atheist who was raised without religion or any real sense of what it meant to be a Jew. Okay, so maybe you’re not grabbing for a hanky right now. Yet think about this cautionary tale the next time your child has to read a book report in class that relates to the religion you left behind.
The first thing you have to understand is that I have a major case of ADHD. Because of this, my mind often wanders and I miss important information. So, when I was asked to write a book report on a famous person for my 5th grade history class, I thought nothing of choosing Adolf Hitler. I had of course heard about the holocaust, but I didn’t know that much about it and I wanted to learn more. When the teacher told us about the assignment, my mind went walkabout and I missed the part where she mentioned that we were supposed to read the report out loud in class…as the person you were profiling.
When I found out, I tried to get out of reading the report aloud. I may have been ignorant about my heritage, but I wasn’t stupid. She refused, even when I told her the subject of I had chosen. I deliberately neglected to tell her why I thought it was a bad idea for me to pretend to be Adolf Hitler.
Birmingham in the mid-70s was a true culture shock for me. My grade school had been unwillingly integrated, and I was stunned as I watched racially-inspired fights breaking out in front of me. I was a good little liberal, who idolized Martin Luther King and said things like, “I’m a pacifist. I don’t believe in violence.” And then I was beaten up.
My Yankee accent singled me out as an outsider; my diminutive size marked me as a target. I was bullied on a daily basis. I knew better than to point out the one thing about my heritage that truly set me apart, despite the fact that I had never set foot inside a synagogue. That’s why I didn’t tell the teacher about my heritage. But, as I’ll explain later, I think she figured it out, anyway.
“I’m Adolf Hitler and I killed 6 million Jews,” I began. Oy. It went downhill from there.
Naturally, my report focused on what interested me the most—the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. World War II was an afterthought, but I also dealt with the Nazis other inhuman crimes, including the million Gypsies they slaughtered. I doubt the book I checked out from the school library even mentioned the gays and lesbians they murdered. It was a different era.
As I spoke in first person of Hitler’s hatred of the Jews as if I weren’t one, I began to feel an inkling of what it meant to be a Jew. Until that point, my only personal exposure to anti-Semitism occurred when I was a small child.
One day, I was playing with a friend when he turned to me and abruptly asked, “Are you a Jew?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“My Dad says you killed Christ.”
I was only five.
I felt confused. All I could say was, “That’s not true.” The rest is lost to time.
The fact is, I didn’t really know what that it meant to be a Jew; all I knew was I supposed to repeat what my mother said when asked about our religion, “We’re non-practicing Jews.”
But what exactly was a Jew?
Fast forward to Birmingham. Later that year in Science class, each student was assigned to profile a different famous scientist. I was happy to be given Albert Einstein. In the report, I again focused Nazi persecution of the Jews, though Einstein’s theories and accomplishments were dealt with in due course. My report got an A+. Given my ADHD, that was something to be proud of, though science was my favorite subject. You could always tell how interested I was in a subject by the grade.
The next year in Science, that project was repeated. Every student was assigned a different scientist to profile. I was given…Albert Einstein. I went to the teacher and explained that I had profiled Einstein the year before. Could I please be assigned a different scientist? “No,” she said flatly. I couldn’t understand why she refused to reassign me. What could I possibly learn by profiling the same scientist two years in a row?
I had kept the report because I was proud of the grade. So, I copied it over and presented my “new” book report on Albert Einstein. Though it had originally been a 5th grade report, my profile also garnered an A+ in the 6th.
I learned nothing new about Albert Einstein or Special Relativity. But I learned something about what it means to be a Jew.
And what does my story say to secularist parents? Though you may have left your background behind, your children need to know where they came from. Society won’t let them forget it if you don’t explain it to them. And you may save them some embarrassment in the process.
Did I mention the time I played Joseph in a Girl Scout Christmas play?