Opening Words from Sun. August 30 by Maxine Stone: “My Jewish Background”

I grew up in Newton, MA in a mixed community but mostly catholic.  It seemed to me that it was a mostly Jewish community because most of my friends were Jewish.  I was in a family of Reformed Jews and we went to Temple Israel.  In my memory, that was a big part of my life.  I went to Sunday School, carpooled with other Jewish friends, participated in Jewish holidays and events at home and at my temple…we called it a temple, not a synagogue. 

My family never went to Temple on Friday nights but of course we did attend the High Holiday services…yes, it was crowded and I hardly knew anyone.  Kind of like Christians who go to Midnight Mass or Evening services on Christmas Eve but rarely attend church.

My grandmother lived with us part time and she baked many wonderful goodies for us.  I especially remember Hamentachen, shaped into a triangle for Haimen’s hat and filled with moun, or a yummy poppyseed filling.  Don’t ask me who Haimen was because I don’t know…but I sure liked Hamentachen.  Grandma Bea rarely spoke Yiddish, so I never learned those wonderful words or expressions that some of my friends learned.  Actually, my grandmother was a little anti-Jewish…not anti-Semitic but she seemed prouder of her Yankie upbringing than her Jewish upbringing.  It seemed like she was a little embarrassed to be Jewish.  I don’t know why this was and I never had a chance to talk with her about this, which is too bad.  And…though we didn’t have a Christmas tree, we did have Santa come and bring us presents on Christmas morning.

My point is, it was a confusing upbringing, but I knew I was Jewish.  No doubt about it, even in a Christian community, even celebrating Christmas (sort of), even having a family that snickered and rejected and didn’t do much Jewish at home.  We were Jewish.

My father never talked about his feeling and thoughts about religion, he just went along with it.  But I did hear him snicker at times during our Passover seder.  Not very nice, but it said something about him and his beliefs.  I think if I had asked him if he believed in God, he would have said no.

In 10th grade, when I was confirmed, which is what Reformed Jews did at that time, I went to temple every Friday night, went to Sunday School every Sunday and studied a bit more about Judaism.  I enjoyed it, but I had some of my grandmother and father in me.  As an older teen, I looked closely at the words I had to say in service and so much of it bothered me.  I knew by that time that I didn’t believe in God.  And the “Shema”, a prayer which is said at every holiday, every Friday night, every Sunday at Sunday School, just didn’t settle well with me.  “Shema Yisroal, Aidonai, Elohainu, Aidonai Echad.  Here O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”  A lot of God in a short phrase.

I ended up marrying a Christian man, another blooming atheist, and we brought our kids up at Eliot Chapel, the Unitarian Church in Kirkwood.  I was there for over 30 years and though it was a good place, and one where I wasn’t told what to believe, I always cringed when the service followed the pattern of a Christian service or when certain words were invoked like…minister, prayer, benediction,  worship, faith and even the word “church”.

About 13 years ago I tried Ethical Society.  What a nice fit.  Wish I had done sooner.  But during all of this time…Jewish, Unitarian, Ethical Society I was learning who I was and what I believed.  For so long, I had a hard time telling anyone that I was an atheist for fear of embarrassment and rejection.

I remember, a number of years ago I was with an Arkansas friend who I was sure was Southern Baptist.  He sneezed and I said “God bless you”.  He, straight out, and with a smile on his face, said “I don’t believe in God”.  I was shocked.  Shocked that this southern accented person who Id known for at least 20 years was an atheist and shocked that he so freely said that he didn’t believe in God.   He taught me a lesson.  Be who you are. Be   who   you   are.  After a lifetime of anti-Judiasm, embarrassment and snickering…I could actually  “be who I was”.  Soon after, I found that I could actually say I was an atheist…to anyone.  I had arrived!

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.