The Religious Challenge of Living between Cultures

By Pertz, Michael | European Judaism, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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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.

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