Anthony T. Kronman—
My parents were intelligent atheists. They had a battery of reasons for their disbelief. But as I eventually discovered, their disdain for religion was not the product of reasoned reflection alone. Nor did it come to them only as mature adults. I learned from the stories they told me about their own childhood that religion had once been a tremendous force in their lives whose influence they had both fought hard to escape.
My father grew up on the Lower East Side in New York City in the early years of the twentieth century. His parents, Ignatz and Julia, had come to America in the 1890s from the country that became Hungary after the First World War. Ignatz was a tailor and Julia a seamstress, like many of the Jews who lived in the neighborhood where they settled. They had five children, including my father, who seems to have been an especially bright child.
In 1918, my father’s parents sent him to Cincinnati to study at the Hebrew Union College. He graduated six years later with a rabbinical degree and for two years after that officiated at the Washington Hebrew Congregation in Washington, D.C. Then, for reasons he never fully explained, to me at least, he left the rabbinate and practicing Judaism altogether.
After a brief stint in his brother Sam’s furniture-making business in New York, my father moved to Los Angeles in 1935, where he had a decades-long career as a radio and television writer. In 1940, his friend Louella Parsons introduced him to my mother at Schwab’s Drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. They married soon after. My mother was eighteen years younger and strikingly beautiful. In the 1930s she had been an actress at Warner Brothers, where she starred in several films with Ronald Reagan before leaving for reasons that also were never clearly explained, though I suspect sexual predation had something to do with it.
When my father was there as a student in the early 1920s, the Hebrew Union College was a hotbed of progressive Jewish thought—of Bible criticism and other “scientific” approaches to the study of religion that were eating like an acid into the heart of orthodox belief. Reform Judaism had come to America in the 1840s. It was a marginal phenomenon in Europe but flourished here. Its relaxed approach to orthodoxy was well- suited to the conditions of American life and appealed to many Jews eager to assimilate. The Hebrew Union College was the flagship of the Reform movement in America. Its curriculum and culture challenged traditional beliefs with gleeful abandon. At a dinner for the first graduating class in 1883, the menu included soft-shell crabs and frogs’ legs. It was called the Trefa Banquet.3
I suspect that when my father arrived at the Hebrew Union College at the age of eighteen, he was already less than perfectly deferential to established authority. (A note in the registrar’s files from his first year at the college states that my father’s “conduct in Dr. Newmark’s class is not such as it should be and that the Faculty sincerely hopes that the cause for the complaint will soon be corrected.”)
Six years of study in an intellectually adventurous environment must have reinforced every rebellious bone in my father’s body. By the time he graduated at twenty-four, he had read Nietzsche and other dangerous writers. He had become a “free-thinker” (his phrase). Ordained as a rabbi and certified to preach, he thought of religion as ethics in disguise—a system of perfectly reasonable moral teachings hidden behind an accumulation of absurd superstitions and nonsensical practices that serve no rational purpose at all.
Perhaps my father went to Cincinnati disposed to such a view, rebelliously inclined against the Old-World orthodoxy of his immigrant parents. Or perhaps it first took shape in his early twenties, under the influence of the critical ideas he absorbed from his teachers, who stood at the far end of liberal Jewish thought. In any case, it was the view of religion my father held for the rest of his life.
It did not inspire him to become a strident critic of religion (as my mother was). He saw religion as a sop for simple-minded people who need to have their ethics dressed in rituals and incantations to bolster their commitment to behave as they ought. But my father assigned no independent value to religion. Mostly, he just lost interest in it. Debating religious ideas seemed to him a colossal waste of time. Much better, he thought, to spend it weeding our vegetable garden.
My mother, by contrast, was not disinterested in religion. She actively hated it. She had experienced religion as a profoundly destructive force in her own life and spoke with ferocious passion about its scarring effects.
My maternal grandmother, Viola, was born in 1893 on a farm in Missouri. She held the terrifying beliefs about heaven and hell that were preached by the primitive evangelical Christianity of the old-stock Americans among whom she was raised.4 She changed her religious affiliation several times later in life. In her mid-fifties, she converted to Roman Catholicism. My mother’s mother remained a religious fanatic until the day she died.
When my mother was growing up in Los Angeles in the 1920s, my grandmother dragged her to countless revivals and prayer meetings in churches and open-air tents. My mother heard Amy Semple McPherson preach at the Angelus Temple in Echo Park and saw her perform the faith-healing miracles for which she was famous. As a child, my mother was taught that God is a vigilant presence, always there, always judging, able to see her innermost thoughts and ready to punish her for the wicked ones (of which she knew she had many). Religion was, for her, a region of mystery and fear—inexorable, irrational, and cruel.
In time, my mother managed to escape the pull of religion through a nearly super-human effort to see and judge things for herself—a liberation she won on her own. Later in life, looking back at the world she had left behind, my mother saw religion as the symbol and cause of all the ignorance and bigotry that trapped nearly everyone else in her family. My mother’s hatred of religion became the most powerful expression of the pride she took in her own improbable victory over the narrow circumstances of her birth. It was the source of the energy with which she defended everything that in her mind stood in opposition to religion—science, tolerance, the pleasure of reading—and of the devotion with which she taught these things to her children.
My father’s disdain for religion was cooler than my mother’s. He did not feel so damaged by it. He lacked her pas- sion for the subject and deferred to her stronger feelings, which became the norm in my family. But their shared antagonism toward religious ideas and practices, in all their different forms, was a bond between these otherwise remarkably different human beings. They agreed—they simply assumed—that there would be no religion at our table: my father because he had no interest in it and my mother because she viewed God as a monstrous force from which her children must be protected at all costs. And so God was nowhere in my home—except as a dan- ger that was present throughout, like an invisible virus. My parents did their best to shield me from it.
They were only partly successful.
3. Reform Judaism emerged from what David Sorkin calls the “religious Enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, which had a profound effect on Jewish as well as Catholic and Protestant thought. See David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008). It attracted only a modest following in Europe but quickly grew to prominence in the United States. See Michael A. Meyer, Response to Modernity: A History of the Reform Movement in Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1995), esp. chap. 6, “America: The Reform Movement’s Land of Promise.” Today, more than a third of American Jews identify with the Reform movement—the single largest denomination. See “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” Pew (Oct. 1, 2013): 10.
From its beginning, the Hebrew Union College was known for its skeptical hostility to orthodox beliefs. The banquet held to honor the college’s first graduating class exemplifies this attitude. It has come to be called the Trefa Banquet, a name that denotes the serving of non-kosher food, in this case clams and other shellfish, and dairy after meat courses. John J. Appel published the menu in “The Trefa Banquet,” Commentary 41.2 (Feb. 1966): 75– 78. He suggests the menu was not a mistake—the caterer was Jewish. In any case, the founder of the college, Rabbi Isaac M. Wise, though probably unaware of plans for the menu, turned the banquet “first into a test case of liberal convictions and gradually into an act of assertion of the ‘new’ Judaism,” less concerned with kashruth, or dietary law. Ibid., 78. Samuel S. Cohon’s “The History of the Hebrew Union College,” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 40.1 (1950): 17–55, is a comprehensive history of the college from its founding in 1875 through 1950. See also “An Intimate Portrait of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations—A Centennial Documentary,” American Jewish Archives Journal 25.1 (1973): 3–114; Lance J. Sussman, “The Myth of the Trefa Banquet: American Culinary Culture and the Radicalization of Food Policy in American Reform Judaism,” American Jewish Archives Journal 57.1 (2005): 29–47.
4. Hiram Wesley Evans’s 1926 essay, “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism,” offers a good portrait of the religious and cultural milieu into which my maternal grandmother was born a quarter century before. “The Klan’s Fight for Americanism,” North American Review 223 (March–May 1926): 33–63. The brand of Christianized Americanism that Evans defends is just what Mencken found so loathsome. See “On Being an American,” 32 (“the Ku Klux Klan was, to all intents and purposes, simply the secular arm of the Methodist Church”), and the satirical “Contributions to the Study of Vulgar Psychology,” in Prejudices: Fourth Series (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1924), 266–68.
From After Disbelief: On Disenchantment, Disappointment, Eternity, and Joy by Anthony T. Kronman. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.
Anthony Kronman is Sterling Professor of Law and a former dean at Yale Law School. He is the author of Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan and Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life. He lives on Block Island, RI.