The man who searched for the most secular Jew in the world

My mother used to tell a story about the man who searched for the most Secular Jew in the world. The man was desperate to meet this famous man who was world renowned for his devotion to the life of a Secular Jew. What kind of apikoyrus (apostate) would he find? Surely the man was basically a Christian, and not a Jew at all.

The man searched far and wide. He searched across Eastern Europe and even the small shtetl of Melbourne. Finally, after years of searching he found him. He travelled many days to get to the man’s house. He was shocked when he finally arrived and saw a small mezuzah on the man’s door. He was further surprised when he knocked on the door, entered the house and found himself surrounded by many, many books of Jewish learning. He saw chumashim, he saw volumes of mishnais, and siddurim. Finally, the man couldn’t hold it in, and he asked the man in disbelief, “Mr. Jew, how is it possible that you could be known as the most secular Jew in the world? You are surrounded by all these books, you clearly are well versed in Jewish laws and ideas. Your house indicates that you clearly engage in Jewish life. How is it possible that you are the most secular Jew in the world??” The man laughed, and simply replied, “I’m an apikoyrus, not an ignoramus.”

This story has always made me laugh and has hit close to home on a number of occasions. The way we, as Jews, label and judge one another’s Jewish identities continues to be a source of interest and wonderment. That Orthodox means more religious and Secular means disengaged. These labels, these assumptions are, at times, thrown around in a way that can be extremely damaging to our community.

I grew up as a Yiddish speaking Jew. My house was not frum. We drove on Shabbes, and ate out at non-kosher restaurants. Yet, my Jewish identity has always been central to who I am. I have been mocked, belittled and insulted that my Yiddish, somehow makes me less than people who use Hebrew as their Jewish identifier. I have always felt, more than hurt, rather baffled by these remarks. I was being excluded from a community. My perspective and point of view were being invalidated because I identified “incorrectly”.

How we miss out when we don’t allow ourselves to hear from a myriad of viewpoints. We miss out on recipes, music, stories and ideas. This, to me, is the saddest part of the way, we as a community, judge and label each other. We make assumptions without hearing each other out and miss out on creating a more diverse and meaningful expression of who we are as Jews. My Judaism doesn’t invalidate yours; it is just different from yours.

I do hope that as we move forward this year, renewed from our Pesach experiences that we can remember to not just hear, but listen to one another. To choose to see our differences as a learning opportunity and not something to be feared. Finally, to be open to whatever passionate Jews wish to contribute. In this way, we could finally be a community that supports and celebrates one another.

Feygi Phillips

Feygi Phillips grew up in a Yiddish speaking household in Melbourne. She graduated from Monash University with a Bachelor of Arts/Education in 2008 and from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America with a Masters of Modern Jewish Studies in 2011. She has dedicated her life to Jewish education and lives in Melbourne with her husband, Zac.