My journey to humanism from religion seems in many ways to be quite linear, even direct. I was baptized within two weeks of my birth and spent the next two decades as a regular adherent to Catholic traditions. From there I went to the Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Then, despite efforts of some kind people to tempt me to become a member of Unity Church, Unitarian Universalist Society, Lubavitch, Reform Judaism, and the Methodist Church, I came to terms with the reality. I didn’t lack faith. I just had no basis for a belief in gods/spirits/souls, despite the comfort I sometimes felt in religious practice.
Despite that apparent clear movement along a pathway away from orthodoxy, there were some nagging undercurrents that drew my attention from the time I was eight or nine until just before my mother’s death in 2014. I recall sitting in front of the old tube television in our living room in Milwaukee’s central city south some time before 1958. Judy Marks was a weather reporter on WTMJ TV and I recognized her name as the same as my mother’s maiden name. I asked my mother if they were related. She replied that their names were not spelled the same, my mother’s being Marx instead of Marks. She explained that Marks was the spelling for Jews and Marx for gentiles. It was clear that she was uneasy with my question and that she was in no mood to be asked more of them. The moment passed, but I must have registered with sufficient valence to keep me curious for decades.
Around this same time, I recall a couple of incidents when I heard my paternal grandfather speaking what I later understood to be Yiddish. Because his English was difficult to follow, my grandfather frequently spoke Polish with relatives and friends. However, he must have spoken Yiddish with sufficient frequency to have me recognize the difference between it and Polish and ask about it. Again, my mother dissembled and said he used this unnamed language with other immigrants who didn’t know his specific Polish-Russian dialect. Yiddish was described as a sort of late-19th century Esperanto. While I didn’t question that explanation at the time, I also never forgot the exchange.
Over time, my siblings and I were able to piece together a story of my mother being orphaned. Unfortunately, her upset over the circumstances of her parents’ deaths was sufficient to prevent us from asking too many questions. Further, we later discovered that several important details were so distorted that we never quite knew what was fact and what was fiction. My mother told us that her parents died when she was 12, after they ate tainted herring at a New Year’s Eve party they had attended. She was placed into care with her older and younger sisters. For a time she was forced to be a servant in a Jewish household, a factor that she credited for her anti-Jewish sentiments, beliefs that any today would recognize as anti-Semitic.
I now know and believe some other things my mother didn’t say six decades ago and many times in the ensuing years. Two weeks before she died in 2014, she finally acknowledged that her father was Jewish. She didn’t admit to it, but acknowledged that she may have been placed by a Jewish social service agency with a Jewish family immediately after her parents died, not as a servant, but as a foster child. She didn’t know why her father-in-law spoke Yiddish, but she also didn’t want to know. She was not orphaned at 12, but at 16, thus ending her high school attendance and leaving her feeling ashamed for the lack of a four-year diploma.
Against the backdrop of this deception, I have never been able to piece together adequately plausible explanations for my mother’s Irish aunts being fortune tellers, her possession of a really old Ouija Board used by these same aunts, or some of her odd superstitions involving sounds to chase away spirits. Given that her parents died within of day of each other and immediately after the New Year celebration, it seem macabre that she would go outside and beat pots and pans at midnight on January 1st. She also insisted on eating herring though her parents purportedly died after ingesting it. I have wondered if her traditions were perhaps also associated with Irish Travelers.
What this all boils down to is this: I was raised in neighborhoods full of Catholics and Lutherans, many of whom were assimilated Jews. Even my own surname at the time had several alternative spellings. Throughout my childhood I met relatives whose names were close to my own. We had an orthodoxy in our regular religious behaviors that was largely related to that point in history in Catholicism, but who knows?
I wasn’t raised so much to believe in Catholic teaching as to parrot it. Belief was tricky for me, anyway. The stories we were told about family history and ethnic origins were full of holes.
[This week my friend Tom and I are again collaborating on a project. This time we’re writing about our experiences with religion. Our paths converged after widely divergent beginnings, and we both ended up on the same path. We just took our own journeys to reach it. Mine was Catholic to Protestant to atheism. Tom’s was Lutheran to Catholic to atheism. You can follow Tom at One Whole Life.]