I’m not an especially religious man, but there have been times in my life when religion has been a comfort. Social pressures, friends, and a spiritual quest are reasons to attend services, as is family. My father was a Presbyterian minister, and half of my family is Presbyterian. My family is of Jewish descent, but few practiced that religion. Immigration patterns were one reason for this. By 1900, there was so much anti-Semitism in New York that Jews were forced to immigrate through Galveston. The Galveston Movement, as the phenomenon is called, tried to assimilate Jews by sending them to Texas. My ancestors made their way north from Texas to St. Louis, dropping their Judaism somewhere along the way. But while religious practices were neglected, some principles remained. Assimilationist Jews have a strong emphasis on education and ethics, for instance.
My great-great grandmother, living in Poland, found herself in danger from constant war. In the 19th century, Prussia (Germany) was on the move, annexing that poor country. Her family were bakers, and she spent considering time hiding in the huge ovens to escape the clutches of marauding soldiers. She was desperate to flee, and because there were quotas on Jewish immigration by 1880, she forged some Christian documents. Maybe it wasn’t admirable to deny her heritage, but she got away from the fighting.
In the past, my Jewish forebears found the Presbyterian church to be a safe place. Historically, Presbyterians placed emphasis on literacy, education, and ethics. It was a Protestant church that wasn’t too dogmatic. That has changed. In 1980, the northern Presbyterian church and the southern Presbyterian church merged. They had separated during the Civil War; the southern church had the reputation, deserved or not, of being conservative.
The first casualty of this merger was gays. In 1980, Presbyterians stopped ordaining gays and lesbians. Since that time, the Presbyterian church has waged continual war on gays. Currently, a retired Presbyterian minister is on trial by the church for marrying gay couples when it was legal in California. The whole idea of a church trial sounds medieval.
Liberal Presbyterians have found a group they can fight: Israeli Jews. In 2004, the General Assembly came close to recommending divestment from Israel, joining the B-D-S movement (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions). Last week, the church I have sometimes attended held a meeting on divestment. I understand that Palestinians have been horribly treated. A recent U.N. report concludes that Israelis have committed war crimes--- but so have Palestinians. There is enough blame for both sides in the Middle East conflict. This meeting was a gateway for anti-Semites to express their anti-Jewish views.
Being of Jewish descent and going to a church is a tight rope, a balancing act. Last year, I attended a large Methodist church in town where the pastor gave a strange anecdote about helping Jews. The Christian church has a guilty history of anti-Semitism, and it is still there.
Maybe I was a fool to think I could have anything to do with church. As a gay man who is half-Jewish, I feel most comfortable at Reform Jewish services or the Unitarian church. Sometimes I feel a little like Cher singing “Half-breed.” At times of economic distress, demagogues use race and religion to divide. You only have to consider the “show me your papers” law in Arizona, and the Islamophobia we are experiencing. But being on the outside, and being different can be a gift. Edward Said said it best: “Even if one is not an actual immigrant or expatriate, it is still possible to think as one, to imagine, and investigate in spite of barriers, and always to move away from the centralizing authorities towards the margins, where you see things that are usually lost on minds that have never travelled beyond the conventional and comfortable.”