Jewish Atheists and Koufax Jews

Some people avoid labels, but not me. I’m a Jew, a humanist, a secular humanist, an atheist, an agnostic, a skeptic, a freethinker, a rationalist, an infidel, and much more. Which label(s) I lead with depends on the context and with whom I’m communicating, but they all help define me in some way.

According to all branches of Judaism, I’m Jewish because my mother was a Jew. I accept this criterion. I’ve met quite a few atheists with Jewish mothers who have tried to convince me that I’m not Jewish because they (the atheists, not their mothers) reject the traditional definition and assert that a real Jew must believe in God. These atheists are free to declare themselves not Jewish, but they have no right to tell me that I’m not.

I grew up in an era that saw considerable discrimination against Jews. In the 1950s it was not uncommon for Jews to change their names and try to pass for gentiles, hoping for acceptance into mainstream culture. I found this deplorable. My Jewish juices flowed most deeply and proudly when anti-Semitism was present. Having relatives who died in the Holocaust, I was not about to give Adolf Hitler a posthumous victory by killing off my own Judaism.

But my Judaism is more than anti-anti-Semitism. I’m a cultural Jew in many ways. I like latkes, knishes, and even gefilte fish—which makes me a gastronomic Jew. There are other aspects of Jewish culture and values that have shaped me as well. A disproportionately high percentage of Jews have been engaged in civil rights activism, for example, and it’s also a certain point of pride that while numbering less than 1 percent of the world population they have earned 21 percent of Nobel Prizes. And probably most Jews belong to a branch I call “humoristic Judaism.”

Here’s my favorite Jewish atheist joke: When a Jewish atheist heard that the best school in town happened to be Catholic, he enrolled his son. Things were going very well until one day the boy came home and said he had just learned all about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. The father, barely able to control his rage, seized his son by the shoulders and said, “David, this is very important, so listen carefully: there is only ONE God—and we don’t believe in Him!”

I prefer the label “Jewish atheist” to “Jewish humanist,” though I think the two labels mean pretty much the same thing. You can be an atheist without being a humanist, and you can be a Jew without being a humanist, but those of us who label ourselves Jewish atheists accept the ethical and humanistic parts of Judaism without the God parts. As a mathematician who understands what a proof is, I used to call myself an agnostic because I could neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. When I heard an atheist defined as someone “without a belief in any gods,” I said, “Okay, then I’m an atheist.”

There’s an important connection between Judaism and atheism. The high priority given to the education of children in Jewish culture (and the praise given to those who ask questions) is undoubtedly a reason why so many Jews become atheists.

Just as I once wanted Jews to come out of their closets, so I now want atheists to come out of theirs. Today in America there is relatively little discrimination against Jews, but quite a bit against atheists. For this reason, I now think of myself (again depending on context) more as an atheist who happens to be a Jew, rather than as a Jew who happens to be an atheist. When I ran for governor of South Carolina in 1990 to challenge the state constitution’s prohibition against atheists holding public office, I hoped to speak at a number of religious institutions during my campaign, but the Unitarian Church was the only one to invite me. The director of the Jewish Community Center in Charleston waffled about the reason for turning me down, but the gist of his response was that my going public about being a Jewish atheist was bad for the Jews.

A bonus to being Jewish is that I can criticize Jews, Jewish practices, or Jewish beliefs without being labeled anti-Semitic, just as criticism of U.S. political leaders or policy is better tolerated from American citizens. Many Orthodox Jews oppose exchanging land for peace in Israel because God made a covenant with Abraham’s son Isaac to give Israel to the Jews. Many Muslims oppose land for peace because God made a covenant with Abraham’s other son Ishmael to give that same land to the Muslims. And many Christians oppose land for peace because God said his son wouldn’t return until Jews have all that land, after which most Jews will be left behind when Christians are raptured into Heaven. Who can be optimistic about peace when so many “holy” people are killing for a god occupied in the real estate business who’s overpromised the so-called holy land? My solution is a paraphrase of the 1969 John Lennon peace song: “All we are saying, is give secular a chance.”

I think fundamentalists in all religions create artificial and harmful “us versus them” divisions. When I told an ultra-Orthodox aunt that I was getting married, she had just one question: “Is she Jewish?” When this aunt got the dreaded answer that Sharon Fratepietro was not Jewish, she refused to meet or talk to Sharon. We married in our fifties and could laugh and feel sorry for our relative, but such attitudes have torn apart many families. I told a more moderate aunt that Sharon and I were both atheists, and she asked, “So, couldn’t you marry a Jewish atheist?” She was only half-joking.

While I was growing up in the 1950s, all Jews I knew played the celebrity game: “Jew, not a Jew?” Most of my favorite comedians, including Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, George Burns, Jerry Lewis, Red Buttons, and Phil Silvers, passed the Jew test. We Jews knew they were Jews, but most of the gentile public might not have known because I never heard these comedians mention it publicly. In contrast, some of my favorite comedians today, such as Woody Allen, Mel Brooks, Jon Stewart, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman (no relation, unfortunately), not only pass the Jew test but make Judaism part of their shtick. So now I play a variant of my ’50s game: “atheist Jew, not an atheist Jew?” Interestingly, whereas the ’50s comedians were probably all closeted atheist Jews, the modern ones are open about being atheist Jews. Our Jewish culture has changed for the better.

I think anti-Semitism has inspired much Jewish humor (better to laugh than to cry). After the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published the now infamous Muhammad cartoons in 2005, an Iranian paper responded with a Holocaust cartoons contest. I was especially proud to be a Jew when a group of Israelis countered with their own anti-Semitic cartoons contest. One organizer said, “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew-hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian will beat us on our home turf!”

Regretfully, I can’t draw cartoons, but here’s one of my favorite anti-Semitic jokes: Two Jews see a sign in front of a church that says “$100 to convert.” One of the Jews says, “Why not? It’s an easy way to make a quick buck.” The other Jew waits outside to see if it works. After forty-five minutes the first Jew comes out and the second Jew asks, “Well, did you get the $100?” The first responds, “Is that all you Jews ever think about, money?”

Growing up, whenever a Jew  did something publicly, my family and many other Jewish families took it personally. As a baseball fan in 1951, I was listening to the radio as Bobby Thompson hit his dramatic, pennant-winning home run. When we started shouting, my Hungarian grandmother, who knew nothing about baseball, asked the natural question: “Is this good or bad for the Jews?” My grandmother was surprised when we answered, “Neither.” Her question isn’t asked much anymore, and I think that’s because of what I consider the best day for American Jews in my lifetime, perhaps in the history of America. On October 6, 1965, a baseball game was unequivocally good for the Jews.

The Jew who led American Jews to a promised land of inclusion was not the fictional Abraham or Moses, but the real Sandy Koufax. He was the best baseball pitcher in 1965, maybe ever, and was the natural choice to pitch the opening game of the World Series for the Los Angeles Dodgers against the Minnesota Twins. What transpired was the most important non-event event imaginable for me and many other Jews at the time.

Sandy Koufax declined to play because it was Yom Kippur, considered the holiest day of the year for Jews. (Don Drysdale, the Dodgers pitcher who replaced Koufax in the first game of the series, pitched poorly, and when the manager came to pull him out Drysdale asked, “Don’t you wish I was Jewish too?”)

Sandy Koufax, to me, was the Jewish Jackie Robinson. I don’t mean in any way to equate the considerable racism against African Americans in this country with the relatively minor anti-Semitism, but in some ways Koufax did for Jewish Americans what Robinson did for African Americans. Nothing at the time seemed more American than baseball, and nothing in baseball is more important than the World Series. He showed that Jews could succeed in a non-Jewish world. No longer would we always look through the “good or bad for the Jews” lens. We became Americans who felt more comfortable being openly Jewish and not so easily stereotyped. At a time when many Jews kept quiet about their Judaism, Koufax probably emboldened other Jews to be outwardly Jewish.

So what kind of Jew was Sandy Koufax? According to Jane Leavy’s description in her 2002 book, Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy, Koufax was a secular, non-practicing Jew. He stayed in his hotel room on October 6, 1965, belying the reports of thousands of Jews who said they saw Koufax at various synagogues in Minneapolis that day. (Myths, especially about heroes and religious leaders, are easily started.)

Jews observe Yom Kippur in various ways, and some not at all. My non-observant tradition is to think back to the game Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch, and what it means to be open about who you are. Barney Frank, who recently retired from the U.S. Congress after thirty-two years in office, was the first openly gay member of Congress (though certainly not the first Jew). Only after he retired did he acknowledge being a Jewish atheist. He then received the 2014 Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association. In his acceptance speech, Frank said he doesn’t go out in public on Yom Kippur because he wants to show respect for Judaism.

I’ve now come up with another label to go along with Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Humanistic Jew, which is a Sandy Koufax Jew (or Koufax Jew for short): a Jewish atheist who chooses not to work on Yom Kippur. Though I’m not one, I respect those who are. So as far as I’m concerned, whatever you do on Yom Kippur is good for the Jews.