Susanna, Sarah, and Adam Konner ‘going up’ in the Old City of Jerusalem, 1990

From the introduction to Unsettled: An Anthropology of the Jews :

“While this is an anthropologist’s view of Jewish culture and history, it is also inevitably a personal view, and so it seems wise to say who I am. I was born in Brooklyn and raised in a ‘modern Orthodox’ family. I went to public schools where the students were about a third Jewish, and I was in the local Orthodox synagogue—Ahavath Israel, Avenue K and East 29th Street—every day of my life between age eight and seventeen, five days a week for classes, the other days for services. The leader of that congregation, Rabbi Bernard L. Berzon , remains incandescent in my memory four decades later. Friday evenings in his home were almost as likely to include discussions of Shakespeare or Dostoevsky as Talmud and Torah. But he glowed with a love for the Jewish people, the Jewish Torah, and the Jewish God.

“I lost my faith at seventeen amid the rebellions of the sixties, a philosophy course in my first semester in college, and of course a great love. At the beginning of that semester I used to walk half way across Brooklyn to see the young lady on Friday nights; at the end of it I no longer saw the meaning of God. I never regained my faith, and I was largely out of touch with anything Jewish for fifteen years. I had reconstructed a world view based on science—evolution, anthropology, and behavioral biology would eventually explain my nature and that of every other human being. But unlike some non-believers, I considered my loss of faith precisely that—a loss.

“Still, I maintained what I considered a strong inner Jewish identity. With my name, average looks, and non-distinctive voice I could easily have passed, but I always found an excuse to let people know that I was Jewish. During those years I read extensively about the Holocaust, married someone nominally Jewish, followed the novels of Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Saul Bellow very faithfully, and ate bagels and lox. That was about it.

“At seventeen, in the throes of the sixties, I may have thought that both sectarianism and God were on the way out, but at thirty I knew better. At thirty-two, when my first child was born, I was ready for some kind of Jewish reawakening. When she was eight days old I was walking around Harvard Yard with her in a Snugli and I noticed some music at Memorial Church. It was Yom Kippur, and I was amazed to find about 1,500 people in a Reform Jewish service there. I had been on the Harvard campus for sixteen years and never realized how large and active the Jewish community was. And this was not the largest service. The Conservative one in Memorial Hall held 2,500, the Orthodox one 750, a Reconstructionist service and others many more. I had had no idea.

“As Chanukah approached, I looked into my newborn daughter’s eyes and asked myself, ‘Are three thousand years of tradition going to end with me?’ I lit Chanukah candles for the first time in fifteen years. So it went, as not faith, but Jewish practices reentered my life. Many required negotiations with my wife, who had grown up virtually devoid of them. When we had our son circumcised, it was a ritual in our home on the eighth day, and we read the passage where God commands Abraham to circumcise and seal the covenant. And he who is not circumcised in the skin of his foreskin…that soul shall be cut off from his people. This ominous shadow would not fall on our son, who now had a Jewish identity, Jewish anatomy, and Jewish vulnerability. After moving to Atlanta, and thanks in no small part to my wife’s open-mindedness, we joined a synagogue and gave our three children a Jewish education. That way as adults they would have a choice.

“In 1985 I went to Israel for the first time with a group of college professors sponsored by the American Jewish Committee . To say that this had a major impact on me would be the understatement of that decade. It so happened that we arrived on Christmas Day, and as the bus took us from the airport through the streets of Tel Aviv, I realized I was looking at a normal working day, without decorations or Christian music, as people shopped or found their way home in the gathering dusk. For the first time in my life I was in a Jewish country, not a Christian one. I also felt shame that I had waited so long to make the pilgrimage, although as a child I had absorbed Zionist ideals. Near the end of that for me momentous trip, I was walking atop the Masada fortress when a fellow traveler asked me why I looked so pained. ‘This is the greatest adventure in Jewish history,’ I said–meaning modern Israel–’and I am not a part of it.’

“The six months after that trip were a daze of admiration and affection very much like being in love. I woke up and went to sleep thinking about Israel, feeling the pain of separation from the beloved, steeped in fantasies about moving there to be with her. My wife was feeling the pinch of jealousy, I think, when she asked at breakfast one morning, ‘Where is this going?’ The answer turned out to be increased involvement in the Jewish community and the mounting of a course called ‘Anthropology of the Jews.’ This would be a stretch for me, since my expertise was in the biological basis of human behavior, but there was no course in Jewish anthropology at my university. I thought I could fill the gap, since I knew a lot about anthropology and a lot about the Jews.

“It was much harder than that, but as I taught it for more than a decade, I learned what I needed to know, and then some. The end result was this book, motivated by personal involvement with Jews and Judaism but informed by an extensive literature. I was greatly aided in my adult education by two years in the Wexner Foundation Heritage Program seminars—created by Rabbi Herbert Friedman —which revived what I knew in childhood and added much more. I eventually made six more trips to Israel, talking extensively with people in three kibbutzim, three West Bank settlements, Tel Aviv, Haifa, and of course Jerusalem. My friendships with Israelis range across all walks of life and from one end of the political spectrum to the other, including an ultra-Orthodox rabbi with a long beard and a black coat, bronze-tanned pioneers, career warriors, and left-wing activists. Some of their views make me very uncomfortable, but I mainly listen. On one trip my eldest daughter—the one for whom I first lit the Chanukah candles—took me to meet her friends in Ramallah and Amman. It was bracing and important to hear, see, and feel their side of the story.

“I also visited and studied many archeological sites and began to understand in a new way how this ancient people emerged from a rock-strewn, brown-and-green, sun-washed landscape and acquired the values that changed the world. I saw a good deal of the rest of the Jewish world as well, visiting synagogues in Edinburgh, Paris, Padua, Cairo, and other cities—some now just museums—and the heart of Jewish mysticism in Girona, Spain. I also visited the concentration camp at Dachau. This book may not be based on conventional research, but a great deal of lived experience went into it.

“The most important of these experiences are not in travels though, but in the course of my own American Jewish journey. I began as an Orthodox boy, became a skeptical uninvolved young man, and grew back into Jewishness as children entered my life. I can perhaps be fairly accused of practicing ‘pediatric Judaism,’ the contemptuous term some rabbis use for people who engage in Jewish activities through and for their children. But my favorite definition of a Jew is an unofficial one: someone who has Jewish children. By that definition as well as several others, I am certainly a Jew. Yet there is more to my holiday and Friday night observances than ‘for the children’s sake.’ I love the forms, the ritual, the poetry, the haunting melodies that take me back to 1950s Brooklyn. On that first trip to Israel I went to the Western Wall several times, picked up a prayer book, and chanted the prayers I had said so many times as a boy. One day I heard Yehuda Rosenman, our fine guide on that trip, say to a colleague behind me, ‘There’s Mel Konner again, praying to the God that he doesn’t believe in.’

“This is very Jewish. The Torah tells us that when Moses offered God’s Law to the Hebrew people, they said ‘We will do and we will hear.’ This paradox of practice before really hearing, practice leading to understanding, is characteristically Jewish. There is no leap of faith, no rebirth in the Jewish God. There are practices that lead to and confirm faith every day. As the rabbi of my childhood said when I asked him about my doubts—I can still see the intensity on his face—’If you lose your faith, it will be a terrible thing.’ He raised a finger in a characteristic gesture. ‘But don’t stop coming to shul.’

“I did stop for a long time, and when I started again, not at all consistently, it may have been too late. Certainly I have not had my faith reawakened. But I have had my love for the tradition and my allegiance to the people who practice it reconfirmed beyond all measure. This has been immensely rewarding for me, both an emotional and an intellectual adventure. I hope that, in a small way, this book—the culmination of my search so far–may help other Jews to understand their Jewishness and their history. I hope too that the many non-Jewish friends of the Jews will find in it some answers to their questions about this people. And, perhaps quixotically, I hope that even some enemies of the Jews may find in it reasons to mitigate their enmity, or even to awaken their sympathy. The epigraph I chose for the book comes from the Havdalah service that ends the Sabbath. ‘So let it be with us’ does not, in my mind, only refer to the Jews. It refers to all humanity. For surely the making of a decent, prosperous, peaceful world will help to ensure Jewish survival.”