Judaism in Our Family

Leo and Evelyn had a traditional Jewish wedding. Subsequently, they displayed their framed, Hebrew ketubah prominently on the wall in their dining room.

Klara Samuels expresses the belief that the traditional Jewish wedding was to please the in-laws (who were still in Russia at the time), and that they later had a good laugh about it. But Leo of course knew that his father was entirely areligious and had not even bar mitzvahed his own sons. So Leo would have been well aware that Adek would not care anything about a Jewish wedding.

Evelyn, on the other hand, did have something of a religious tendency. I remember when I was in my late teens, I must have been sharing with her some hippie spirituality brought back from UC Berkeley, and she said something along the lines of, ‘I was raised a Lutheran, converted to Catholicism and then to Judaism. I’m done!’ I would guess that she, at least as much if not more than Leo, was the one who wanted to have a Jewish wedding.

The family also celebrated Christmas and Easter. Leo’s principle was, “All of the feasts, none of the fasts.”

The family was not part of any Jewish community. We never lit a candle or said a prayer on Friday evening. None of the kids I usually hung around with were Jewish. I don’t believe I was ever in a synagogue until I visited one with my Boy Scout troop. The next time after that was probably when my sister Sarah got married.

In short, I think my father fell somewhere in the spectrum of the typical “agnostic Jew.” I don’t recall him ever indicating that he personally ascribed to any metaphysical, spiritual or religious beliefs. Still, I feel quite sure that both my father and my mother were personally motivated to preserve some Jewish tradition and history – especially now that so many carriers of that history and tradition had been killed. (I remember Leo quoting the famous summary of every Jewish holiday: “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat!”)

Their personal motivation is perhaps indicated by the fact that they continued to display their ketubah, but definitely by the fact that the family continued to celebrate Passover and Hanukkah, and by the books on Jewish history and religion on our shelves.

We also had a book, “Your Neighbor Celebrates,” designed to help non-Jews understand Jewish religion. We used this to learn how to celebrate Passover and Hanukkah. Adek – a confirmed and dedicated atheist – eventually took over; he knew – particularly as regards the Passover Seder – that Leo was not doing it right! Even so, he couldn’t resist occasionally pointing out the unlikelihood of certain aspects of the stories. Still, he could become quite stern if the children didn’t maintain the proper respectful decorum.

Leo’s brother Henry, in his testimony for the Visual History Archive maintained by the USC Shoah Foundation, said that his father (Adek) and his grandfather (Max) were both “irreligious.” However, he also mentioned that Adek had attended cheder (חדר) – the traditional elementary school teaching the basics of Judaism and the Hebrew language – and so was familiar with Jewish religious practices. In addition, all their friends and acquaintances were Jewish (though many, of course, also “irreligious”).

I also remember Adek telling me that, anywhere in the world, if I wanted to determine if someone was Jewish, I could just say “Shma isroel.” * And if they were Jewish, they would answer “ha shem echad” – like a secret password. So even he must have thought that connection with other Jews might be useful for his grandchild – perhaps during some future catastrophe or persecution?

Leo also was not without some element of proud identification with the Jewish population of Poland in particular. I remember asking him once why he thought the Poles were so antisemitic. He thought for a bit and answered, “I think that they thought that we thought that we were superior to them.” (Pause.) “And we did.” (Pause.) “And we were.”

On the other hand, I remember buying a large coffee-table type book with pictures from the Jewish section of Warsaw prior to World War II, thinking that Leo would be interested in it. For instance, I recall a picture of a bearded men in the traditional long black coat pushing a vegetable cart down the street.

Leo showed only slight interest. His comment: “These are exactly the people we had nothing to do with.”

* Adek spoke Ashkenazi as opposed to Sephardic Hebrew. So many vowels that would be a in Sephardic Hebrew came out as o. Thus, isroel rather than israel.

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