2004 Naye tsaytn. Naye lider. Singing new songs for new times. by
Gerry Kane

“Sholem Aleykhem” dear friends. In greeting each other with the words, “Sholem Aleykhem” we say several important things: We say we’re happy see each other… We remember that “Sholem Aleykhem” is a universal greeting for Jews when they meet each other… and we honour the memory of most popular writer in the history of Yiddish literature, Sholem Rabinovitch, who took the name Sholem Aleichem and wrote about “Jewishness as if it were a gift, a marvel, an unending theme of wonder and delight”1

That we meet in May and Sholem Aleichem’s birthday was May the l5th, and we do look on “Jewishness as if it were a gift, a marvel, an unending theme of wonder and delight,” is as it should be.

When we, at this conference, say “Sholem Aleykhem” to each other we greet the occasion of our coming together. We do it as individuals and as members of groups that add the words secular and humanist to our identity to help define our point of view as Jews vis a vis other parts of the community that base their world view on different parts of the Jewish tradition. As Jewish secular humanists we are one of the links in a long chain of Jewish history that has held together, most of the time in tension, always in angst ridden conversation but never broken.

Our job this weekend is to find new ways to renew ourselves and keep the conversation going; to always be able to say “Sholem Aleykhem” to any sector of the Jewish community and receive the acceptance of our presence through the return greeting of – Aleykhem Sholem.

That this acceptance hasn’t always been easy is seen in the shadow of the McCarthyism of the fifties that created fear in the secular Jewish community…that fractured relationships amongst and between the founding Yiddish speaking secular groups and also created the need to form new secular Jewish humanist groupings such as CSJO and its affiliates.

Today, as well as saying “Sholem Aleykhem” to each other we celebrate the fiftieth anniversaries of two of the most important contributors to the CSJO, the Sholem Aleykhem Club of Philadelphia and the Sholem Community of California. Both grew out of the McCarthy carnage. Both have made important contributions to secular Jewish life and culture in general, the Jewish community in particular and to the creation and growth of CSJO.

As organizations active in the Jewish community the Sholem Community and the Sholem Aleykhem Club voice their concern-- not only for social justice for Jews-- but social justice for all peoples. They have established themselves as institutions that not only bring forward the cultural treasures of Jewish life in Yiddish and in English for themselves but also open the door for all people to become familiar with Jewish culture and our secular Jewish tradition in particular.

When Sholem Aleichem started writing, the words, “ naye tsaytn, naye lider,-new times -- new songs.” would have been very familiar to him. The secular Jewish organizations and Jewish political movements that grew out of the Jewish Enlightenment – the Haskala-- were recognition that new times did need new songs, new ways of living, new ways of believing and new ways of expressing one’s Jewishness. Jewish socialism, labour Zionism, and the mass working class Jewish organizations and the secular Jewish schools that attached themselves to these movements focused their activities on the development of Yiddish culture and the idea of Yidishkayt.

Yidishkayt is/was a cultural philosophy —centered on the Yiddish language and Jewish ethical values. The philosophers of Yidishkayt felt that a community comfortable with Yiddish as a language of the home and culture would hold back the tide of assimilation and keep the Jewish identity strong in a world in which ghetto walls had tumbled. Many of us come out of the Yiddishist organizations that centered their secular humanist community activities around the Yiddish language and culture.

Just as the founding of the original secular Jewish organizations, at the dawn of the twentieth century, was a reaction to the condition of the times, CJSO’s founding is a reaction to our times and an understanding that the old forms of community organization and expression were just that-- old forms delivered in old forums.

Naye tsaytn…naye lider…New times demand new songs. CSJO is creating its own new songs for new times building on the traditions and cultural inheritance that the Yiddish speaking, founding organizations have left us.

We are carrying on the tradition of Yidishkayt in our own way. When I’ve laid that proposition out to some people –- secular people – they’ve challenged me. They say, “You can’t talk about doing anything about strengthening secular Yidishkayt unless you center your activities on the Yiddish language.” I, with respect, disagree.

Why do I raise this issue of defining Yidishkayt as now being more than just Yiddish centered?

Most of you don’t know Gerry Cohen, that is G.A. Cohen, Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory and Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford University. He is a political philosopher of world renown and a graduate of the Morris Winchevsky Jewish school in Montreal. In his book “If you’re an egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?” Prof. Cohen has a chapter in which he describes growing up in a secular, atheist Jewish home and school which induced a belief in a strongly egalitarian doctrine. I draw from the chapter in which he shows how the narrowness of the atmosphere, in home and school, effected and effects his feelings as a Jew.

Gerry Cohen writes “We learned a lot of true things at the Morris Winchevsky School, but a lot of false things, too…the biggest falsehood was that religion was not central to being Jewish….But that, I now know, is not true. Individual Jews, like me, can be irreligious, yet we are Jews only by virtue of connection with a people defined not by place or race but by religion…I am Jewish not because I practice the religion, but because I descend from the people who practiced the religion (and still do)…Whatever happens to Israel and to Judaism as a religion the secular Yidishkayt in my identity will not last, except as an object of academic attention albeit of affectionate academic attention.”2

Is Cohen’s empirical weighing of facts and coming out pessimistic about the future of secular Yidishkayt something we should worry about? Does he know something we don’t know? “No” is my answer to both questions.

Like Cohen we know that the Yiddish speaking base of the secular Jewish community is shrinking. Like Cohen, we know that those of us who sing Yiddish songs at these conferences are taking, for the most part, a nostalgic look back into a time when we had Yiddish speaking parents, lived in Yiddish speaking neighbourhoods and went to Yiddish speaking schools and camps. What we forget is the secular Yidishkayt of our parents or grandparents wasn’t won easily. It grew out of a time of upheaval – political and economic change. Eastern Europe was an economic basket case. The shtetle had gone bankrupt. Jews were leaving the shtetle and moving into the industry of cities like Vilna and Warsaw. They were becoming economic and political refugees. There was tremendous displacement. The social base of Jewish life was in transformation. Young people felt restricted by the religion of the shtetl. Through the influence of the Haskalah they were learning about the culture of the peoples around them. Through organizations like the Socialist Bund and the Zionist movement they were realizing that they had political choice. Through the anti-semitism and reaction of the Tsarist authorities to the new found militancy of the Czars Jewish subjects, hundreds of thousands of those subjects knew they would have to move on and build new communities other than in Poland, the Ukraine or Lithuania. They were both pushed out and left voluntarily. And, when they came to the United States and Canada, they found they weren’t released from struggle. They had to continue the fight for social, political rights that had begun in the Old Country. One of the weapons of solidarity they used and developed to maintain their sense of self and community identity…was the secular Yiddish culture – the Yidish Yidishkayt that supported the writers, the choirs, the theatre and the Yidish schools that formed the secular outlook of people like me, Prof. Cohen and so many of you in this audience. It is that Shtetl, immigrant, secular Yidishkayt, as expressed through the Workers Order, Arbeter Ring and Paole Zion, for which Cohen is saying Kaddish.

Is he right to say Kaddish for that particular cultural and community sensibility? Is he right when he says that Yidishkayt gave irreligious Jews a connection to the Jewish past? Is he right to think that an organization like the CSJO is an “areligious cultural periphery [that] cannot become the core, or even a core, of something new”?3 Again, I say, no! Jewish life is not and has never been singular. Jewish life is like a garden in which many different flowers bloom. There are flowers for believer and flowers for non-believers. Flowers for the Yiddishists and Hebreists and Flowers for those who’ll never know either language. And, to the dismay of some of the gardeners, all the flowers are of the hardy variety. Like it or not we pollinate each other.

So, Prof. Gerry Cohen, while I may agree with you about the importance of the source, the “believing religious root,” there are others, even in this audience, who don’t agree with you, or me. What I don’t agree with is your sad discounting, your certainty that we modern, secular humanist Jews can’t be the core of something new. We are the core of something new. We’re not disappearing Jews. And, Yiddishkayt, just as its meaning was adjusted to reflect the cultural and political realities of an immigrant generation, is being adjusted today by those who call themselves secular humanist Jews. There are those in this room who would gladly join with you in a Yiddish reading circle or language class – because maintaining the Yiddish language is part of their contribution to a vibrant secular Jewish culture. You can even find such people in London where you live. The point is, we build the communities we feel necessary for ourselves to perpetuate ourselves. Prof. Cohen, it’s time you did some community building.

On the front page of our CSJO web site we state what we have to offer. We know there are many in the Jewish community who want something other than Jewish life centered around religion. So, we say to them: “looking for a way to be culturally Jewish with your family and with a Jewish community group: Looking for a way to connect to your Jewishness through history, civilization, literature and ethical values?” If the answer is, yes, we ask them to join with us. In the process of asking these questions we’re saying that the CSJO and all its constituent organizations are offering a different take on how to be Jewish. We are creating “new songs for new times.” And many people like the music.

We Jewish secular humanists are creating new links to extend the chain of secular Jewish history. In coming together as a community we make welcome those who want to sing Yiddish songs or study Yiddish or Hebrew. We also make welcome those who want to live Jewish lives not encumbered by religionists who say that only God can set standards for human behaviour. We help people of reason mine the depths of our cultural and humanist history. We encourage them to strengthen their identity with the Jewish people. We encourage them to use that which is most meaningful to them from the folkways, traditions and history of the Jewish people. We show that the development of ethics and morality, in individuals and in society, doesn’t depend on belief in God. We have it in our hands to build the new Jerusalem without supernatural intervention. In the process we add new voices and new strength to the ongoing growth of secular Jewish life.

We have no creed. As secular humanists we hold up the self-liberating light of reason and knowledge as central to our making our way in this world. Sometimes the light flickers, and , we argue about form and content. But, in this going back and forth, we don’t characterize as enemies (or shouldn’t) others who follow a Jewish secular humanist path that, in some areas of tone or emphasis, is different. The “dignity of human beings [is found] in their freedom, and in their respect for other people’s autonomous and responsible beliefs.”4

The fact that professor Cohen finds the broader Jewish community uncomfortable and the base of his secular Yiddish speaking Yidishkayt being eroded, and being made less consequential in today’s times, is sad but no reason for him to accept it passively.

We are today celebrating two organizations which are examples of how to use our cultural treasures, including Yiddish, to add to the life of the entire Jewish community.

We are also celebrating the 145th anniversary of the life and works of Sholem Aleykhem. Not only because he wrote wonderfully in Yiddish, but because this greatest poet of Jewish humanism touched with wry humour on problems that are still with us to solve: the problems of greed in the market place, equality before and under the law, human dignity, the problems of political corruption, alienation, freedom, war, peace and identity for the new times. These are the themes that Sholem Aleykhem dealt with over a century ago.

In his novel “In Shturm…In the Storm”6 written just after the Russian revolution of 1905, Sholem Aleykhem lays out the lives of a group of young people who live in the same square (hoif). The young people represent in their persons the political and economic shifts in the Jewish community of Czarist Russia. They are capitalists, communists, Zionists, liberals. Some want to change society, others want to profit materially from society, and still others want to emigrate to Palestine.

There are two women of the group who have made the move to sing new songs for new times. Both push for modernity. One, the upwardly mobile, bourgeois Tamara, wants to break out of the subservient role designated to women of the time and go to university and become a doctor. The other, Masha, a socialist firebrand, will become the most effective member of her revolutionary circle and pay a terrible price. But, modernity, in its push to assimilation, has a cost. Sholem Aleichem shows this cost as being the discounting by the two women of their cultural heritage, their Yiddish language and the value of belonging to a Jewish community. Sholem Aleykhem sees this weakening of the link to their people, as a danger to the whole community. He has another of the friends, Sasha, a left-wing Zionist who loves the Yiddish language, confront Tamara, about her desire to learn foreign languages and not know her own. After he finishes his argument Tamara answers with a quote from the Song of Songs: “They have made me a keeper of the Vineyards, but my own vineyard I have not kept.”

In the novel this quotation is used as an attempt to make the young people who are breaking down ghetto walls and fighting to make their place in the broader world, understand that fluency in the language of the Jews, whether it be Hebrew or Yiddish, is vital if one wants to leave the ghetto yet keep their roots in the treasures of Jewish life, history and culture. He points out that if one wants to break out of the ghetto, he or she should go into the world with their own soul intact. Sholem Aleichem uses the issue of language symbolically. He is not just talking about language, but the links to the history and culture from which one comes.

It’s interesting to note that the language of Sholem Aleichem’s home was Russian, not Yiddish. The letters to his children were in Russian – not Yiddish. In his own life style and in his own time he had recognized the inexorable move to change in Jewish society. He recognized the need for new songs for new times. His will baldly states his understanding of the change in times. In it Sholem Aleichem wrote: “on the annual occurrence of the day of my passing, may good friends select one of my stories, of the very merry one, and recite it “in whatever language is more intelligible to them, and let my name be recalled with laughter.”

He was asking two things of those who came after him. He was asking us to stay rooted in Jewish tradition, folkways, and community. He was also asking us to establish a new tradition – that of consciously remembering him, not only for his stories, but for the fact that his stories, because they dealt with the human condition, could be read any time, in any language and still be pertinent to the times in which we live. He was also reminding us that the personality of a people is shaped by tradition.

One of Sholem Aleychem’s contemporaries, Y.L. Perets, the father of Yiddish literature, made the same point even more strongly when he suggested, that living in a spiritual ghetto was of no value. But, in living in the world, he said, “We must “give and take…yet continue to be oneself – that is the important thing. The ethical light in which [a Jew] sees the world must be Jewish….

[He also said] You cannot survive unless your spirit is your own…You may be influenced…you make take suggestions, may be moved. But living with an alien will is impossible.”5

That’s why I say to you… at a time when Secular Humanism in general is being attacked by government, and free scientific inquiry is being circumscribed by the academic and clerical evangelical right of all denominations, how wonderful it is to be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Sholem Community of Los Angeles, the 50th anniversary of the Sholem Aleichem Club of Philadelphia, and the 145th anniversary of Sholem Aleichem the writer who has transcended the Jewish community and is now a revered part of world literature. And how wonderful it is to be celebrating the dedication of each one of us to continue building our secular, humanist Jewish community. How wonderful it is to be able to reach out and welcome those who want to join us in contributing new songs for new times. How wonderful it is to know that we have a younger generation contributing its voice in helping us move forward. Yes, with our own soul. And yes, with our Jewish secular humanism, to bring our sense of Yidishkayt not only to the Jewish community but to the larger community in general.

Nayte tsaytn, naye lider. New songs for new times. We’re composing them. We’re singing them. Sholem Aleykhem!

  1. Zukerman and Herbst, eds, quoting Alfred Kazin, from fly leaf, Vol. 2, Sholem Aleichem, The three great classic writers of modern Yiddish literature, Panglos Press, 1994
  2. G.A. Cohen, If you’re an egalitarian, How come your so rich, pages 39/40, Harvard University Press, 2000
  3. G.A. Cohen, If your and egalitarian, how come you’re so rich?, p.39, Harvard University Press, 2000
  4. Paul Kurtz, article form Free Inquiry Magazine, Volume 24, Number 3
  5. Sholem Aleichem, In the Storm, (English translation by Aliza Shevrin), G.P Putnam and Sons, New York, 1984