Quest for Meaning

by Mark Scher

I came from a Jewish family and I do not think single drop of Aryan blood flows through my veins. It is an absurd thing to say, perhaps, as all racism is absurd.

At the same time, I have never been a Jew in the religious sense. My mother’s family left the Judaic faith many years ago and could have been considered radical assimilationists, and many of them are buried at the Catholic cemetery in Warsaw. When I was a year old, my mother had me baptized at the Catholic church in our neighborhood. I was not aware of this fact until during my last visit to Poland, before my mother’s death. She gave me my baptismal certificate together with a medal of the Virgin Mary and described the circumstances surrounding my baptism.

Why did she have me baptized? She, my sister, my Brazilian aunt, her husband and their daughter were all baptized in a Catholic church, and many of them, especially my Brazilian family are not aware of their Jewish background and very religious. My sister even made her first communion. I think that my mother, although herself a Polish patriot from a very assimilated family, was fully aware of Polish antisemitism, especially after the notorious pogrom in Kielce a few months before my birth, and she probably decided that a baptismal certificate might make my life easier in an antisemitic and fanatically Catholic society. She simply wanted to protect me. My babysitter used to take me to church, when I was a young child, and I do not think that my parents cared one way or another. In addition, we were always celebrating Christmas and Easter, and I was completely ignorant about such important Jewish holidays as Passover or Jewish New Year. Religion was never a topic of interest or discussion in our house, except once.

Following the political liberalization in Poland in 1956, Catholic religious instruction was introduced in all schools in Poland. One of my schoolmates with whom I was friendly decided to try to make a good Catholic out of me and convinced me to go to the initial class. I went out of curiosity. The catechist was thrilled to have a Jew in her class and excited about the possibility of a good deed for a Catholic Church. When, after coming home, I described my experience, my father, who was a declared atheist, got very upset. (I don’t think my mother was so concerned, because I remember that she was smiling.) At any rate, I never went back.

I am not a convert, since I never changed religion and from the religious point of view, I am neither Jew nor a Christian. I became aware of my Jewish background by accident from my schoolmates but until 1968 (the year of a government-organized antisemitic campaign in Poland) did not consider it too important, and I was never personally affected by antisemitism. I never experienced any unpleasantness in school or at the university.

Even now, although I feel Jewish (not in a religious sense) and I am interested in Jewish history and culture, I do not consider Jews the epicenter of the universe, nor the most phenomenal of nations.

My wife, despite being a nonbeliever like me, has much stronger Jewish feelings that I, and it was her decision to send our son to a Hebrew school in preparation for his bar mitzvah. I was rather ambivalent about the whole process because of my upbringing, but she probably rightly decided that our son should be aware and conscious of his background. Despite my initial indifference to the whole process, we joined a modern and progressive reformed temple in preparation for my son’s bar mitzvah ceremony. I found religious services boring but inoffensive. Currently we do not belong to a synagogue, and I am not interested in joining any religious institution.

As I get older, I am no longer as anti-religious as I used to be. I would probably consider myself not an atheist but an agnostic, and I am not really preoccupied with the existence of the Supreme Being or life after death.

Mark Scher: I came to the United States as a refugee in 1969. I am a graduate of law schools in Poland the the United States. I practiced law in New York for over 30 years. I have been a member of LP² for the past 15 years and I have coordinated or co-coordinated 10 study groups.