I’m warning you – you may be upset at what you are about to read, and even angry at my viewpoint.
First, I am Jewish and follow basic traditions and holidays but don’t consider myself to be religious.
When I was about 8 or 9 years old, during the early days of World War II, I held my father’s hand on a walk to a neighborhood grocery store near our Brooklyn apartment. My father apparently argued with another man about a rationed product, probably butter, and the man said to my father, “I supposed you think you’re entitled to it because you’re one of the Chosen People.”
He swung at my father with a small glass milk bottle. I cried because I was scared, and we hurriedly left the store.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but in retrospect, of course, I do. The phrase “the Chosen People” comes from biblical references that God chose the Jewish people to make ethical standards known to the world. Some people, often unwittingly but sometimes with malice aforethought, choose to interpret the phrase as meaning that Jews think of themselves as superior.
Among a small segment, this led to resentment and even anti-Semitism, especially during the 1930s and ’40s leading up to the war. The phrase is one I don’t hear so much any more. As Tevye says in “Fiddler on the Roof” after all the persecution, “God, couldn’t you have chosen someone else?”
When I was born and grew up on the East Coast until the age of 21, except for an occasional incident like the one recounted above, I almost didn’t know I was a minority. Surrounded by friends, family, neighbors, classmates, teachers, many of whom were Jewish also, I hardly felt isolated.
Attending a magnet high school for music and art, and then neighboring City College of New York, which at that time charged no tuition, you can imagine that I was part of a diverse group of students who was attracted to these institutions.
When we married, my husband was in the Army, stationed at a small base in a racially segregated manufacturing town in Illinois, just across the river from St. Louis.
I got my first job out of college doing writing, editing and the then-obligatory secretarial work for supermarket trade magazines at a large publishing house. I was shocked to find that in the cosmopolitan city of St. Louis, a number of my co-workers had never spoken with a Jew.
The secretary to the publisher, an older lady, noted with surprise that I did not have horns, as she had heard Jews did. For the first time as an adult, I became aware that I was thought of differently from others.
The German-born couple from whom we rented an apartment, even though they volunteered to drive me to work every day, made such nasty remarks about Jews to our faces that we moved out as soon as we could.
There have been other experiences as I have grown older that increased my sensitivity. In Fresno, where many may not know any Jewish people, people take for granted that we celebrate Christmas and can’t understand why we wouldn’t want to join in that holiday.
I have heard local radio talk-show hosts make that very statement this season. I appreciate when other religions and ethnicities celebrate their own holidays as they wish, but why would you want me to comply with your traditions when they are not mine?
All this is leading up to telling you – and this is the part you probably won’t like – that there are two religious circumstances that I particularly object to. One is people who insist on referring to America as a Christian nation. If that is so, where do I, and Buddhists, atheists, Muslims, Sikhs, and many others fit in? According to a recent census, 28 percent of Americans do not identify themselves as Christians.
The other, and this seems to be a lost cause locally, is the denominational prayers that apparently are necessary to open government meetings, including the Fresno City Council and the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. When a clergy person invokes the name of a specific deity at a government-sponsored meeting, I feel alienated and left out.
Can’t these prayers be inclusive of all citizens? Some clergy understand this and choose to keep their prayers non-denominational.
So I have had my say. As an octogenarian, this subject has been on my mind for a long time. It is the truth of what I feel.
Francine M. Farber is a retired school district administrator and a full-time community volunteer.