The Religious Challenge of Living between Cultures

By Pertz, Michael | European Judaism, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

The Religious Challenge of Living between Cultures


Pertz, Michael, European Judaism


Over the centuries it has become harder and harder to isolate aspects of Judaism that might be termed cultural, religious or even national. But before I start to generalize and talk about Judaism and the world, I think it best to start with myself. I was born in South Africa and grew up in a small farming town some seventy miles from Johannesburg. The South Africa of my youth, as you may know, chose to follow a racial route of attempting to separate people, not just on cultural, but on ethnic, racial and religious grounds. And yet we all know, it was a smokescreen for discrimination and hatred.

As to my own early religious and cultural influences, I need to start by going back a generation. My father came from Lithuania, infused with Jewish religious ethics, Marxism and Zionism. All three of these ideas were brought by one man, my father, in one head, to the African veldt. They all influenced my conception of Judaism and its relationship to the world. Other cultural and religious influences were Calvinism at school and later, when I moved to Johannesburg, the remnants of the British colonial way of life.

My father lost his mother in the Sho'ah. Consequently, I was brought up in a household where the continued upholding of Jewish tradition and culture was seen as an essential act of defiance against the Nazis' attempt to destroy our people. If the religious aspects of Judaism were important, they were only so because they provided the glue in the lifecycle of a Jew. Zionism was an imperative.

But for someone growing up in South Africa, Israel remained a remote place. I was living in a racist society where I felt that I as an individual had to take a stand. And it is here that I guess the cultural and the religious began to tear apart. More and more I needed the universalism of socialism in an attempt to identify with the oppressed in South Africa. It was to lead me to make an attempt, as many others had before me, at becoming the first new man, freed of the religious and cultural fetters of the past.

Despite this, in my late teens, cultural Judaism continued to play some role in my life, as I teamed up with a variety of other young Jewish intellectuals who all shared a common disgust for Apartheid. But the people I met were by no means all Jewish. Some were black, others white; there were Anglicans, Catholics, Methodists, Muslims and more. The majority had no label and chose, as did I, to define themselves as atheists and leftists.

Religion on the leftist intellectual level became an enemy, my religion being no exception. In reality, however, the traditional aspects of Judaism were too ingrained for me truly to shed their mantle. Throughout my days as a 'card carrying atheist' I would always keep my grandfather's tefillin (phylacteries) with me, recite the Shema (1) as a mantra and recall from deepest memory the words of the High Holy Day liturgy 'Adonai, Adonai, El rahum ve-hanun' [The Lord, The Lord God, merciful and gracious] (2), at times of personal crisis.

At the end of the 1970s, my anti-Apartheid work led to exile and work in London. I became involved in the South African exile community, and the more exposed I was to Marxist thinking, the more trouble I had with it. I began to notice that the only 'new man' on my block was me, the Jew. Others, despite protestations to the contrary, remained loyal to various ethnic and religious groupings. I could also never fully accept the left's unquestioning criticism of Zionism.

As the Apartheid regime began to crumble, I increasingly took time out to discover those aspects of myself I thought I had left behind--my culturally diverse background and my religion. London had experienced a multicultural explosion. I was lucky to find myself in the midst of it. It was a time when the Berlin wall came tumbling down and the Marxist messianic project lay in ruins. Fukyama spoke of the end of history. We were all led to believe that the West and its cultural values had triumphed.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

The Religious Challenge of Living between Cultures
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?