A writer endeavors to learn exactly how ordinary people arrive at their systems of belief and disbelief
As someone obsessed with the joke of being human—that is, the combination of being conscious and mortal—I find myself seeking but never finding answers to my grand theological and philosophical questions. As part of this search, I decided to talk to others to see how they approach these conundrums. Lee Greenfeld is an underground rock impresario. He manages bands including the Dansettes and the Black Hollies and is a co-owner of a bar in Brooklyn. For a decade, he published and edited the ‘zine Soundviews: Subterranean Music and Culture. An only child and lifelong contrarian, Lee was raised in a secular Jewish home in Brooklyn by atheist parents.
How old you were when you became aware of your own mortality?
I’ve always been aware of it in a certain sense. I was kind of a depressed kid. Not in a clinical sense, but depressed—it sounds like some bullshit egotistical intellectual thing—on an existential level.
A philosophical level?
Yeah. Something that I connected with at a young age was Woody Allen’s work because he talks about angst in a humorous way, but also on a kind of cultural, secular Jewish level as opposed to a religious one. As the years went on I got into a lot of trouble and made a lot of bad choices; I put myself in positions quite often where I tested the limits of my mortality.
Can you talk about the first one of those times that you remember?
Writing graffiti. I had romanticized graffiti culture from watching Style Wars, and I’d walked around New York and studied graffiti, from tags on the subway to South Brooklyn murals. What looked like vandalism to others looked like the markings of tribes to me. I was 12 or 13 the first time I went to write on the trains at the lay-ups—where they keep the trains when they’re out of service underground. You have to jump up under the tracks to get there. Between Canal Street and City Hall, there’s a whole underground station, where they keep trains overnight. And that was a moment where there was this great exhilaration of excitement and fear—knowing I was doing something with the threat of arrest, or assault because there’s a lot of violence in graffiti culture. And there’s the third rail. I finally stopped because I got slashed with a box cutter by another graffiti artist when I’d already started Soundviews. But there was something that drew me to it at the beginning, and that kept me going, that was tied to mortality. Risk, I guess.
You made a distinction a minute ago between a religious Jewish sense of mortality and a secular one. Is your family religious?
No. My dad’s grandfather was pretty religious. He went to temple every week, gave money to the temple when he could even though he was poor, and had a social existence within the community of Coney Island and Brighton. But around the time when word started coming into the States about what was going on in Germany and Eastern Europe—this is how the story goes, but there might be a little myth to it—he told the rabbi that he wasn’t coming back because either God didn’t exist because of what was happening or if God did exist and was allowing it to happen, he didn’t want to have anything to do with him. I’ve made it in my own head that that was where religion died in my family. My dad was bar mitzvahed, but he’s always been an atheist. My mom was always an atheist. My grandmother never seemed religious, but she really wanted me to get bar mitzvahed, and when I refused she was mad, really pissed off. I felt like it would be totally fake for me.
My dad told me, ‘Get bar mitzvahed, you’ll get a lot of presents.’ But I couldn’t. I was idealistic. At one point my parents asked me to go to Hebrew school because they wanted me to figure things out. They didn’t want to push their atheistic views on me.
But you knew for sure by then that you couldn’t believe in God?
I couldn’t believe in anything about religion. As I’ve gotten older I’ve embraced being Jewish on a cultural level, but I pretty much despise organized religion. I’ve struggled to separate identities. Are you a Jew? Is it a race? A religion? As a kid it was hard to understand.
It still is hard for me in some ways. It’s even hard to identify culturally or ethnically what makes us Jewish. You and I are both from Russian Jewish families, but there are Jews in China.
But they’ve adopted Judaism.
They’ve been in China for a thousand years.
There’s something in me: I know I’m Jewish, I understand the feeling. Have I forced myself to feel that? I don’t know. But I guess that is how the cultural oversoul or folk-soul works. It becomes part of your fabric. My mom is still an atheist, she doesn’t go to synagogue. But in the past few years I’ve joked with her that she’s the super-Jew. She volunteers at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, every book she reads has some Jewish theme to it. It’s hard to reconcile, but I dig it.
Do you feel that there’s a difference between being an active atheist and just not believing?
Oh, yeah. I hate definitions, but I suppose “active atheist” would mean that you think about it and ponder it rather than just saying “I don’t believe in God” and that’s it. I think I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve investigated it enough.
Are you actively against believing?
Camus said, “I can understand only in human terms. I understand the things I touch, things that offer me resistance.”
Actual physical resistance (presses his hand on table). When I first read that I was like, wow. Any of the concepts of God in any religion, Jewish or otherwise, from the white-bearded guy in the sky to some sort of abstract power that makes things happen, make no sense to me. I have trouble understanding how someone could think that’s real, except that they have blind faith.
It’s hard for me to look at organized religion and separate it from politics and history; religion has been used to control people so often. But that quote—”things that I can touch, things that offer me resistance”—we’re terribly limited, even sensorially. So, if you’re going to make existence only what we humans can see or touch, that’s smaller than what is out there.
I don’t even understand the concept of personal faith. I remember when I was young, smoking a lot of pot and reading all the obvious books that you do when you’re getting into 60s counterculture—Zen stuff, for instance, and Siddhartha. And I found that a little cooler, but I still felt that there was this absurdist level to it. I found a lot of it beautiful, and I think a lot of religious ceremony can be quite beautiful. I also think a lot of religious ceremony can be quite morbid and repressive.
If you don’t believe in God, how do you live day-to-day without becoming overwhelmed by the fact that you’re going to die?
Why can’t you have intellectual pursuits to deal with that rather than an irrational crutch? Look, I have respect for someone who’s really religious, they’ve investigated it, thrown themselves into it. The rabbi, the priest, the imam. But why is it that whether you’re really a good Jew or not, you get the fringe benefits from your religion? Jews place great emphasis on being charitable. I don’t see why you need a book or a rabbi to tell you that you should give to charity. I should give to others because I want to, not because I think it makes me a good Jew. What if you’re selfish, and deep down you don’t want to give? Then you’re being dishonest. Unless it can turn you around and make you good. But I don’t have that faith in people.
I’m sorry to say it, but it might be human nature to create religion. You could call some of the early cave paintings—depicting events that people wanted to happen, methods of making them happen—a form of religion.
Or government. What’s the difference? It’s in human nature to develop a system to govern, be it in a political, practical sense or in a moral sense. Religion’s like a moral government.
Can you expand on that?
I just came up with that, but I really like it. Religion and government are both dictating laws.
Maybe it’s the penalty for breaking the laws that’s different: what kind of punishment you wind up with. Spiritual? Physical? Economical?
I guess it’s a matter of where you get your sense of wrong and right. Bertrand Russell‘s writing on religion blows me away. Why I Am Not a Christian‘s lead essay, as well as most of the others, deals with religion and hypocrisy, but he was a total humanist, a leftist. He was a war protester from World War I through Vietnam. He wrote an antinuclear manifesto with Albert Einstein and was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. You can have these things without religion.
Should each person create their own system??
If they need a system. But I think each person should strive toward not having any system whatsoever.