When Francine and David Wheeler lost their son Ben in the Sandy Hook tragedy nearly two years ago, one book they turned to for guidance was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Speaking with Oprah Winfrey last year, David Wheeler said he connected with Frankl’s message because “so much of what he writes resonates with me . . . . Because man’s salvation—and he means that not only in the religious sense, but actual survival—is found in and through love.” The Wheelers were able to take that spirit of love, and turn it into force that nurtured them through immense grief. It is a story as powerful as it is familiar to followers of Frankl’s teachings.
Fifty-five years after the original US publication of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s timeless wisdom has helped generations of readers cope with hardship and overcome adversity, and his life-affirming vision continues to resonate today. In 1991, the book was listed by the Library of Congress as one of the top ten most influential books in the US, while more recently, Amazon listed it as one of its 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. Writing in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith notes that Frankl, an Austrian Jew who survived a prolonged ordeal in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, devised wisdom there, “in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, [that] is just as relevant now as it was then.”
One thing I had noticed about the academic study of religion is that scholars invariably study their own. I do not just mean that Mormons write books about Mormons or Catholics about Catholics. It goes deeper than that: mainline Protestants typically observe people much like themselves, as do Orthodox Jews. My membership in none of the above, it turned out, had given me something of an academic advantage. I may have lacked the insights that come from lifelong involvement with one particular faith. But in return I was widely viewed as someone writing about religion with no particular axe to grind. When a referee was needed, there I was. Those I studied generally treated me as an outsider but also as one making a special effort to understand them. Far from feeling excluded from their world, I felt, if anything, a bit wary about the warm embrace they offered.
Yet the fact that I had spent so much time among deeply religious Christians made me increasingly aware of two ways in which my differences with them were insurmountable: I was Jewish by background and nonreligious by conviction. For me, the two had always been intertwined. My parents were not themselves religious, nor for that matter strongly committed to any ideology. (I recall my father telling me that when he grew up, everyone he knew was either a socialist, a communist, or a Zionist, but that he had managed to avoid all such identification.) Nonetheless my parents felt Jewish enough to arrange a bar mitzvah for me, and so without much conviction on their part or mine, I did my religious duty at the age of thirteen. That has pretty much been it. I do at times read the Old Testament—the prophets in particular appeal to me—but I cannot say that the angry God pictured therein is one I find especially attractive. It is not just that I have a hard time envisioning God creating the world and then meddling with it when we human beings displease him. The religious side of Judaism is as much about practice as it is about belief, and even in this realm I feel no urge to honor the tradition by following rules that at best seem arbitrary and at worst absurd. Although I know my share of rabbis, and even though I admire their learning and commitments to social justice, I cannot bring myself to regularly attend the synagogues of any of American Judaism’s major branches. The only times I enter a shul are when I am invited to speak in one. I study religion but do not practice it, not even the one in which I was ostensibly raised.
Note: An earlier version of this piece ran in the Huffington Post.
Yom Kippur starts tonight, with the moving and mournful Kol Nidre service, and I am grateful to belong to a radically inclusive community of interfaith families, families that will mark this High Holy Day together. As it happens, Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky welcomed a baby girl to their interfaith family, just a week ago today. As interfaith parents, they now face decisions about the religious affiliation and education of their interfaith child. Baby Charlotte arrived just after the autumnal equinox, when the nip in the air reminds us of the passage of time, and many interfaith families are making the annual decision about whether to affiliate with a church, a synagogue, or neither. Or both.
In 1935, Howard Thurman, one of the most influential African American religious thinkers of the twentieth century, took a pivotal “Pilgrimage of Friendship” to India that would forever change him—and that would ultimately shape the course of the civil rights movement in the United States. When Thurman became the first African American to meet with Mahatma Gandhi, he found himself called upon to create a new version of American Christianity, one that eschewed self-imposed racial and religious boundaries, and equipped itself to confront the enormous social injustices that plagued the United States during this period. Gandhi’s philosophy and practice of satyagraha, or “soul force,” would have a momentous impact on Thurman, showing him the effectiveness of nonviolent resistance. After the journey to India, Thurman’s distinctly American translation of satyagraha into a Black Christian context became one of the key inspirations for the civil rights movement, fulfilling Gandhi’s prescient words that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.”
Today, on the 145th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, we look back to that meeting in 1935, when the idea of nonviolent civil disobedience passed from India’s spiritual leader to the man who would deeply influence an entire generation of black ministers and civil rights leaders—among them Martin Luther King Jr.
The conversation then turned, in the words of Desai, to “the main thing that had drawn the distinguished members to Gandhiji,” his philosophy of ahimsa (nonviolence) and satyagraha (civil disobedience campaigns). “Is non-violence from your point of view a form of direct action?” Thurman asked. “It is not one form,” Gandhi replied, “it is the only form.” Nonviolence, Gandhi said, does not exist without an active expression of it, and indeed, “one cannot be passively nonviolent.” Gandhi went on to lament that the term had been widely misunderstood. Ahimsa was a Sanskrit word with deep resonance in all of South Asia’s ancient karmic religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, and (especially) Jainism, in which ahimsa stood for a commitment to refrain from harming living things. He felt there was no good English language equivalent for ahimsa, so he created the term nonviolence (the earliest usage in the Oxford English Dictionary, citing Gandhi, is from 1920), but told Thurman that he regretted the fact that his coinage started with the “negative particle ‘non.’ ” On the contrary, Gandhi insisted nonviolence was “a force which is more positive than electricity” and subtler and more pervasive than the ether.
Viktor Frankl, the psychotherapist and author of the hugely influential book Man’s Search for Meaning, died seventeen years ago this week.
Frankl had already begun to establish himself as a prominent neurologist and psychiatrist in Vienna—heir to the legacies of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler—when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938. For a time, Frankl was able to maintain his practice as the anti-Semitic climate continued to grow in Austria. But in September 1942, he and his wife and parents were arrested and deported to Theresienstadt, the “model ghetto” and concentration camp where Frankl’s father would later perish. That would begin a tragic odyssey for Frankl, who was transferred with his wife and mother to Auschwitz in 1944. Only Frankl would survive.
If representation is homogenous, then it is inaccurate. Yet, Muslims are daily portrayed and perceived as a monolith—in spite of there being 1.6 billion Muslims spread out over 56 countries, dozens of ethnic groups, and a multitude of legal and cultural practices.
I’m a soccer addict. I love playing, watching, and following the “beautiful game” any chance I get. I inherited my love for the sport from my Egyptian father, who sat me down in our Texas home and told me what “football,” really was. He taught me about Pelé and Brazil, and of the great rivalry in his own country between the clubs Al-Ahly and Zamalek. He also taught me about the World Cup and Ramadan. And we can all agree that at least one of them is of great religious importance.
The World Cup and Ramadan aren’t always mentioned in the same sentence, but this year was different. The Islamic holy month started during the tournament’s knockout stage. In some ways, this was a fitting moment for the Muslim soccer players who had made it that far. They knew the Muslim world would be watching them as they pushed their bodies to their physical limits in the greatest moment of their careers. This was certainly the case for Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira of Germany, who helped seal German soccer supremacy for the next four years.
The last time Ramadan and the World Cup crossed paths was in 1986 and 1982 respectively. I’ll never forget the summer of 1982. I was in Egypt, visiting my father’s family on a much-delayed bereavement trip. My father had died of cardiac arrest in October of 1981. We buried him in a Muslim cemetery in Houston, Texas and had to wait eight months before we could visit our relatives in Cairo. Those eight months were tough on me, a nine-year-old boy who just lost his father, soccer coach, and mentor.
When I discovered that I wanted to be a Muslim I don’t think I really knew what was involved. This was not for lack of knowledge about the religion but perhaps a lack of knowledge about myself, and a lack of knowledge generally. I knew that I would be required to kneel in submission to God five times a day, abstain from alcohol, along with a host of other minor ascetic measures. But when one actually finds himself in the throes of post-Shahada conversion, it becomes a different matter altogether.
I converted to Islam the previous spring, and spent the subsequent months in a frenzy of learning how to be a Muslim. So ensconced was I in the honeymooning phase with my new religion that one of the greatest obligations I have as a Muslim had crept up on me.
I was completely unprepared for Ramadan that first year. I had not prepared myself, physically or mentally, for the rigors of a month long fast. I was, in fact, still largely oblivious to what that entailed.
Maciej Ziembinski and the author (photo by Tomasz Cebulski)
My dear friend Maciej Ziembinski, a pioneering journalist and editor (and a central figure in my book The Crooked Mirror), recently passed away in Radomsko, in central Poland. Maciej was fiercely devoted to this little town, where my mother’s family lived for generations. When poet Adam Zagajewski wrote of those Poles imbued with “the ecstasy of the provinces,” he must have had Maciej in mind.
Before World War II, Jews made up approximately 40% of Radomsko’s population. Very few survived the war and most who did survive left the country. Under Communist rule, there was but one sanctioned narrative of the recent past—the patriotic war against the German Fascists. Discussion of the town’s vanished Jews, of local rescuers or those who betrayed—was taboo. Maciej’s father, who’d rescued a Jewish woman to whom he’d been secretly engaged, raised his son to have an open mind. Even as a young man, Maciej was determined that the history of Radomsko’s Jewish population must be told, too. He understood it was an essential part of the town’s story.
He carried on, he told me, “his own private war with town hall.” When Poland transitioned to democratic rule, he established Radomko’s first alternative weekly. Until then, newspapers were the mouthpiece of the state. He named his paper, most appropriately, Komu i Czemu (“For whom and what for?”). As its editor, he wrote and published over sixty articles about Radomsko’s Jewish history. He oversaw the translation of the Radomsko Yizkor, the Jewish memorial book, from Yiddish to Polish and published it in his paper. He was a principled man. A scrapper, a gadfly.
After touring colleges with my second and final child this spring break, I am suddenly aware that I am approaching the end of an era. Parenting has felt like an endless and all-consuming way of being for me, a role I took on with great joy in my thirties, after years as a journalist. In motherhood, I became a PTA President, a leader in our interfaith families community, the schools columnist for the town paper, and ultimately the author of a book on religion and parenting. I was the mom that other parents called for tips on negotiating the school system, or organizing an interfaith bar mitzvah, or finding the best music teachers.
Somehow, I am only just now realizing that this excellent 20-year adventure in mothering may turn out to be, if I am lucky, only a small fraction of a long life. My grandmother lived until 98, my father is working on Bach’s Goldberg Variations at 90, my mother plays the ukulele at 83. So my own period of day-to-day mothering may only fill a quarter, or a fifth, of my lifetime.
“Is music universal?” It’s one question among many raised by S. Brent Plate in his new book A History of Religion in 5 ½ Objects, and a question I struggled with for some time myself.
When I first started practicing capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art informed by live music, I had trouble picking out the tinkling rhythm provided by the lead instrument. Not understanding the rhythm meant not knowing the specific set of rituals involved.
At the time, I was traveling through Japan, and my Japanese was a becoming a burden, rather than an asset. While visiting a capoeira group in Tokyo, I did not want to embarrass my mestre (teacher), or my mestre’s mestre, still leading classes in Brazil at the age of 76.
My stone collection lives in a Hard Rock Café glass on my kitchen counter. Many of them are polished gemstones, purchased at some point in a mystical gift shop or as accessories to a tabletop fountain or other faux-zen object. Some of them were gifts, like the leopard skin jasper or the sodalite, that were proposed to hold some kind of power—self-confidence, inner peace, the dissipation of fear—which would “flow around” me, granting me the ability to shed the flaws in my personality. This might be only time the phrase “mumbo jumbo” has ever been applicable for me.
We celebrated Easter last year with our community of Christian and Jewish interfaith families. Our minister started off by pointing out that Easter is not in the Bible, and that our holiday traditions make reference to ancient goddesses, and the fertility rites of spring. She then gathered the children together and talked to them about the Buddhist metaphor of a cup of tea representing the comforting memories of life after the tea bag (or body) is gone. She’s not your typical minister.
Next, our rabbi gave an adult sermon about the themes of intimacy, transcendence and unity in the story of the resurrection of Jesus. Somehow, the idea of life beyond death, of renewal and regeneration, seemed completely universal to me as he spoke. As a Jew, I do not feel I need to believe in a messiah or a personal savior in order to celebrate these Easter messages. Our rabbi spent his career at Georgetown, knows his gospels, and has been called a “closet Catholic” by Catholic friends. And yet, he’s an erudite, dedicated and deeply spiritual Jew. He’s not your typical rabbi.
I first heard of the idea of “Polish-Jewish” reconciliation from my Zen rabbi, who often evoked the most radical commandment in Judaism in his Friday night talks: “You shall love the stranger as yourself, for you were once a stranger in Egypt, and you know the heart of the stranger.”
This week, Jews are obligated to commemorate the liberation from slavery in Egypt with the Passover seder. The observance demands that we ask questions, sing songs, even argue—all in the service of keeping alive a story that we’ve told and retold through the millennia. We are asked to “enter” the story, to imagine that we ourselves were slaves, that we wandered in the desert for forty years.
The image of the Passover seder plays a central role in both my memoirs—The Souvenir and The Crooked Mirror.The Souvenir is based on my discovery, after my father passed away, of hundreds of letters my father wrote to my mother during the Pacific War, as well as my discovery in those letters of a war souvenir—a bloodied Japanese flag—which bore the name of a Japanese soldier named Yoshio Shimizu.
A companion is someone we share bread with. That’s what the word companion literally means: from com meaning “together,” and panis meaning “bread.” When company comes over, we break out the bread. Bread is a pervasive symbol of being together, of gathering, of community, a symbol that we engage, chew, taste, swallow, and digest in the presence of others. Historians of social life are clear that commensality, eating together, has been vital to ongoing political power, and peaceful coexistences, while a Moroccan proverb tells us, “By bread and salt we are united.”
When I was eighteen, I stood in the quad at my university listening to another student emphatically protesting my atheism. I rolled my eyes dismissively as he, almost comically, pointed at a tree and explained how such a thing would not be possible without Allah. I listened, and watched, half interested for the next fifteen minutes as he repeated this exercise with everything in sight.
Much to my own surprise, less than five years later, I found myself in a masjid, reciting the Shahadah in front of an Imam.
Recently, a Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in northern Michigan selected Rabbi Chava Bahle to serve as their new leader. While other rabbis have worked in UU congregations before, this is apparently the first time a rabbi will lead a UU community. I knew that Rabbi Chava has been on the forefront of clergy working with interfaith families. And as the Jewish author of a book from a UU publisher, I was particularly interested in hearing about Rabbi Chava’s journey so far, and her thoughts on leading a UU community.
Susan Katz Miller:I know your selection did not come out of the blue. Tell us about your history with this particular UU congregation.
Rabbi Chava Bahle: For both the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse (UUCGT) and for me, this was a relationship-based process. They were not seeking a rabbi “in general.” I have lived in northern Michigan for just over 20 years. Rev. Emmy Lou Belcher, the UUCGT’s first minister, is my dear friend. I got to know her community and its deep commitment to social justice and interfaith welcoming. I would often “guest preach” when Rev. Belcher and her successors were away or on vacation. The local Jewish congregation I founded and the UUCGT often worked side by side on issues of social justice. Over the 20 years of guest preaching and partnering in social justice work, the UUCGT and I formed an ongoing bond with each other.
Jewish Book Month, which originated in 1925 right here in Boston, ends tomorrow with the beginning of Hanukkah. We thought we'd commemorate the annual tradition with some never-too-late reading recommendations by a few of our authors. For more suggestions of Judaic titles to read during Hanukkah, or for any occasion, Beacon Presshas you covered.
Author photo: Stephanie Williams
Susan Katz Miller, author of Being Both, offers several titles that celebrate the diversity of interfaith life:
Mixed-Up Love by Jon M. Sweeney and Michal Woll is important as the first memoir written by a rabbi married to a Catholic. Jon and Rabbi Michal will appear on a panel with me in March at the Jewish Community Center in Silicon Valley. They tell their story in alternating voices, providing both perspectives, which reminded me of the classic pioneering joint memoir by interfaith couple Ned and Mary Rosenbaum, Celebrating Our Differences.
This weekend, over three hundred synagogues, mosques, and Muslim and Jewish organizations, and thousands of Muslims and Jews in over thirty countries on all six continents will begin to come together to celebrate unity between the two religions. It is part of the "Weekend of Twinning" programming series, a growing effort by Jews and Muslims to confront Islamophobia and anti-Semitism in their communities and beyond, and to replace hatred and fear with increased understanding and a sense of shared purpose. Programming will continue through the end of the year.
out for the distressing double-header, I saw the Polish film Aftermath the
same weekend as 12 Years a Slave. Both films were an opportunity to view how
a filmmaker handled a country’s national shame through the art of storytelling. Aftermath, is a fictional film inspired by Jan Gross’s book Neighbors, about the Jedwabne pogrom, a 1941 massacre of a
Polish village’s Jewish population by their Catholic neighbors. It’s just been released in the US. 12 Years, based on the diary of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and pressed into bondage in the American South, brings to
Technicolor luridness the hideous cruelties of the slave trade.
are deeply disturbing and both films necessitate a revising of a national
self-image. For Poles, that involves admitting that they were not always the
victims in World War II; on some occasions, they were perpetrators. Americans must countenance
that our country’s literal foundations were built on the blasphemy of human