A left-wing atheist ponders his religious heritage
Born in the Bronx in 1927, Mitchell Berkowitz has vivid memories of his Yiddish-speaking neighbors and the early-morning sound of horse-drawn milk wagons. As a child during the Depression, he spent summers in upstate New York, where farmers rented out rooms to working-class Jewish families to make ends meet; the rooms were called kuch alayns, which is Yiddish for “cook for yourself.” He was inducted into the navy on May 8, 1945—the very day that the war in Europe ended. During a mass exercise drill on a hot California field, he learned that the Japanese had surrendered.
Berkowitz, who still lives in the borough where he was born and raised, is pale, intense, and remarkably youthful looking. He has been passionately involved in the labor movement for most of his life. Immediately after the war, he followed his father, Harry, and his brother, Pinky, into the furriers’ union, but he soon took a job with the Progressive Party as a mimeograph machine operator and shipping room worker, and got caught up in the excitement of political activism. After becoming a professional printer and working at low-wage jobs for a few years, he organized the workers of a non-union shop and joined the Amalgamated Lithographers of America, Local 1. He worked as a union printer for thirty-three years until his retirement in 1988. He’s continued his activism in the years since, working mostly on issues (such as the fight against privatization) at Co-op City, the vast below-market housing complex in the Bronx where he resides. His partner of thirty-five years, Susan Joseph, is also a socially conscious citizen, and together they are members of Veterans for Peace. A lifelong socialist, he’s intensely critical of religion, and certain that God is a foolish and dangerous product of people’s imaginations. I wanted to know how he could be so sure.
You’re a son of immigrants. Can you tell me a little bit about your family?
My parents came from Romania around 1920. They had lived in Galatz, a small port city on the Black Sea, just a few miles from Russia. They were very poor; their life was the shtetl life.
My father’s father didn’t work regularly and was a bit of a drinker. My father was taken into the Romanian army at a very early age. Jews were not taken in as soldiers; they were taken in as servants, and in the army he was an apprentice tailor. My mother’s father was a decorative carriage painter. I don’t know if either my father or mother had much schooling.
Was your family religious back in Romania?
They weren’t religious so much as they were practicing. Which sounds a little strange, but they had the—how should I put it?—culture and tradition of Jewish religious living. But neither of my parents was ever interested in God. Practicing in the shtetl meant, I think, community life more than religious observance.
When you were a kid, were they still practicing?
Not at all. They left it behind completely. There’s a story in my family about my brother, sister, and me asking my father why he didn’t use his tefillin, the leather straps that the Orthodox Jews put on when they daven. He said, “In the old country I needed religion. Here I need the union.”
What do you think he meant?
Well, for shtetl Jews in the small towns of Eastern Europe—where anti-Semitism was very, very strong—religious life was the protection. Being together with other Jews, you had a group. You didn’t stand alone. And as a worker in the fur trade here in New York City, to my father it looked like his protection was the union. It’s sort of ironic, but in the fur industry in those days the religious Jews were the bosses, the employers. And the workers were more inspired by the warmth they got out of unionization. They didn’t have to stand up to the boss alone; they stood with a group.
When I worked there, New York’s fur industry was centered in hundreds of mostly small shops in tall buildings along Seventh Avenue between Twenty-fifth and Thirtieth Streets. Before going up to the shops to work at 8 a.m., workers—most were Jewish, almost all were union members—filled the Seventh Avenue sidewalks, gossiping about the trade and talking or arguing about the nation, or the world. After work many drifted to the Fur Workers Union Hall on Twenty-sixth and Eighth Avenue for more of the same or to see a business agent or get something taken care of in the union’s health clinic. Unionism provided shtetl-like community and protection. So my father’s transfer from religion to the union became my attitude. I was never bar mitzvahed; neither was my brother.
In my family we have a parallel story to yours about the tefillin: My great grandmother’s sister came over to visit from Russia. She went to the supermarket with my great grandmother, and was looking at the meat. She pointed at a piece and said, “What’s this mark?” It was a USDA stamp. When my great grandmother explained that the government had inspected it, her sister said, “Great! So you don’t have to keep kosher anymore.”
Do you believe in God?
I don’t. I think that all belief in God stems from prehistory, when man’s ancestors needed explanations for things that they didn’t have the equipment to explain. We have much more equipment for explaining how the body works, how nature works, even how space works, so we don’t have to invent gods. And not only do I think it’s not practical or sensible, but I think it’s harmful, because a belief in supernatural powers takes away from action in solving problems.
What’s an example of something going on today where you see people’s belief in God being harmful?
Certainly in the way in the last decade or two where there has been a marriage between religious organizations and political activity, much to the detriment of the nation.
Like the funding of “faith-based” charities?
Yeah, and the right-wing evangelical organizations that have intervened in politics and have helped reactionary political forces with things that have little to do with stopping wars or improving the economy. The so-called family values that disregard the destruction of families by war and by economic disparity.
What about the people who really do brave and good things in the name of religion? The priests and nuns who went down to El Salvador, Buddhist monks fighting for justice, even the scores of American rabbis who are activists? To me it seems that sometimes people actually get a kind of superhuman courage or strength from their faith.
All religions have significant ethical components. They’re a part of the teachings of any religion, and there are people who sincerely respond to that part of a religious practice. The people you mentioned, the Catholic liberation priests, are not exactly coddled by the Vatican.
Do you think that the ethics your parents taught you were connected in some way to Jewish ethics or Judaism?
Not really. Well, maybe I got it without knowing it. As they had. What I did get from them was the flavor of Jewish life. I like the language; my parents both loved the Yiddish language. And I connect to the tradition of struggle. The immigrants came over from poor communities and they had to struggle here. Humanism came easy. Socialism came easy. During the first part of the twentieth century, Jewish life in America was full of unionism and aspiration for social justice. I got those things from my parents, but I don’t know if it came from their Jewishness or if it came from the way they had to struggle to earn a living.
I like the progressive history of Jews in the world and in America, going back even to the 1800s, when the Jews were big in revolutionary movements in Europe. And in union movements here in the United States and into the 1900s. I don’t know, but I really do hope it’s a reflection of the ancient ethical component of Jewish tradition or Jewish religion.
Tell me more about your connection to Jewish culture, separate from the religious tradition.
Well, the Jews have a great literature. My mother loved the stories of Sholem Aleichem. She had a complete set of his works, which she read all her life, from volume one right through twenty-eight, and then all over again.
The music that was written in New York and other Jewish communities in the U.S.—operettas, songs—I love all of that! For about a decade in the fifties I was in this group called the Jewish Young Folk Singers, which I helped organize along with my brother. Eventually it was five choruses in different parts of New York City with a total of maybe 250 singers. It was very successful, very exciting. The emphasis was on Jewish music; we did a lot of labor music. Songs of poverty. And of joy: dance music came from the same labor writers from the twenties and thirties. Many of the composers of Jewish music were laborers, workers in shops, and they wrote music on the side.
You are so passionate about your political views. How do you define them?
What I see is that the organization of society under capitalism is not equitable, and that the inequities lead to a whole lot of wrong things. So my political belief is definitely socialism. I think that socialism is achievable not by, you know, capturing the post office here on Gun Hill Road, but through all the struggles that working people have to go through, and the education they pick up in those struggles. I believe they will push society that way eventually. Even here in America.
You said socialism is your “political belief.” Do you think there’s a danger of political movements or ideologies having the same problems that you see religions having?
Yes, there is a danger. Movements and organizations that are progressive, by the very nature of their struggle, become sometimes too guarded, too self-enclosed, and too tyrannical.
I’m also wondering about the people who follow a political movement in the way you might see people following religion: blindly and without questioning. Isn’t that dangerous?
Yes, definitely. It just one of the things that has to be faced. You know, when babies start teething, it’s painful. But they’ve got to do it. And political movements can be like infants. They go through things that they have to learn how to cope with. Like: how do you take power and not abuse power?
When you were growing up in the Bronx, did you have friends who were from more religious families?
No. I never went into a synagogue, in fact, until I was well into adulthood. I don’t remember what the occasion was—probably a funeral, or a bar mitzvah or something.
Have you ever had moments when you wished you believed in God?
As an atheist, how do you cope with the knowledge of your own mortality?
Well, I’ll tell you, I guess it’s just a belief in what’s nice about what is. What I have seen, the enjoyments I have, the things I approve of—that, to me, is something to lean on. I don’t need something invented.