August 17, 2019

Atheist Meets Pesach

The only time in my family history when both sets of grandparents gathered together for Pesach seder, it was a disaster.

Aside from having children married to each other, the Rosenfelds and the Cohens had nothing in common. My paternal grandfather, Herbert Rosenfeld, was a proud atheist. He smoked cigars, deployed practical jokes (even on veritable strangers), sizzled bacon for his breakfast and became a public spokesman for the American Humanist Association, railing against nuclear weapons and organized religion.

My maternal grandfather, Rabbi Bernard Cohen, invested his life in the United States building Jewish educational institutions, my grandmother Ethel at his side. Papa Cohen was a founding director of the Bureau of Jewish Education in Los Angeles and innovated bat mitzvahs for girls in Conservative Jewish circles. My Aunt Eleanor was the first, in 1945.

This did not make the Cohens progressive enough for the Rosenfelds, who accepted the Cohens’ seder invitation for the sake of the children. It was a trial for Papa Rosenfeld to abide talk of the God he left behind, starting from the karpas and on through the afikomen. He held it together until the infamous chicken soup and chopped liver incident.

You see, my older sister, Sharon, never liked soup. But she loved chopped liver. Nana Cohen, a balabusta with Old Country recipes and emotions, was inordinately proud of her chicken soup and chopped liver. When my sister refused the ladle of soup cruising toward her bowl, Nana exclaimed, “But it’s delicious! I made the matzo balls! Look at all the bowls I used!”

There are just some things you do not say at a traditional rabbi’s seder table, and Papa Rosenfeld had just said one of them.

My mother implored, “Mama, please let Sharon have her chopped liver. Leave her alone.” But when Nana Cohen held her ground, Papa Rosenfeld could take no more, blaspheming, “Jesus Christ!”

Papa Cohen stared at Papa Rosenfeld. There are just some things you do not say at a traditional rabbi’s seder table, and Papa Rosenfeld had just said one of them. The in-laws became the outlaws.

Was Papa Rosenfeld playing the role of the wicked son, the rasha, at the seder? Or was he, as I concluded years later, really the child who does not know how to ask, the lo yodea lishol? When he was just 6, his father died, and a rabbi told Papa that his father’s death had been God’s will. This was inadvertently cruel and led to my grandfather’s lifelong atheism. But Papa and his siblings had no formal Jewish education. Papa’s only understanding of God was that of the Grim Reaper.

In my life, I have noticed that many atheists, lacking a healthy concept of God, develop a cynical streak. I always adored Papa, but he startled me with his fatalistic views. One day during lunch, Papa predicted that a nuclear bomb would one day kill us all. I was 8 years old and swallowed hard.

Papa Rosenfeld covered his bleak view of life with practical jokes and irreverence. Ironically, I realized it was Papa Cohen, despite his sterner outer demeanor, who was the more upbeat of the two. It was Papa Cohen, not Papa Rosenfeld, who had faith in the future and felt meaning in the now.

While growing up, I was a little obsessed by my two sets of beloved grandparents and their opposite worldviews and lifestyles. I honored my Cohen grandparents’ commitment to faith, their understanding of the importance of boundaries and traditions. But I was dazzled by my Rosenfeld grandparents’ worldliness, their artistic and bohemian friends, my grandmother’s cache as a female homeopathic physician in the 1960s.

When I was first exposed to ba’al teshuvah-style Torah teaching, I retired my obsession. I saw that I didn’t have to choose between a life of Jewish faith and tradition versus a life of intellectual sophistication, or even bohemian friends. The ba’al teshuvah phenomenon brought into the Torah-observant community thousands of Jews with advanced secular education, an appreciation for the arts and culture, and a thirst for knowledge that has enriched and diversified Orthodox Jewish life.

Each year at the seder, I celebrate being part of our remarkable covenantal, eternal tribe.

Judy Gruen is the author of “The Skeptic and the Rabbi: Falling in Love With Faith” (She Writes Press, 2017).