David Post: The true meaning of religion

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 2, 2012

(Editor’s note: This column has been slightly revised from an earlier version.)

By David Post 
“Let us … ask His help and His blessing, but knowing here on earth God’s work must truly be our own.”
Though said by a Catholic, that is my religion. I am not Christian. I am Jewish.
As a child in the 1950s, I was required to take Bible classes, the New Testament, in public schools. Jews only study the Old Testament. Every school day started with a prayer “in Jesus’ name.” I was taught to sing “Jesus Loves Me,” Christian hymns and Christmas carols.
When I was 7, my best friend asked about a Menorah, a candle holder, in my house. I told him we were Jewish. He told his parents, who didn’t allow him to play with me anymore.
All of my grandparents were raised in extremely religious little villages called “shtetls” in Europe, like the one in “Fiddler on the Roof.” They immigrated to the U.S. around 1900 to escape religious persecution.
My father’s dad had one of those long Russian names with a few dozen letters, lots of z’s and k’s, and very few vowels. At Ellis Island, he spoke no English and walked away with a shortened name, Pozarik.
My dad grew up in the melting pot outside New York city. To avoid job discrimination, especially during the Depression, his brother and sister changed their name, and my dad’s (who was a minor) to Post.
After school, my dad had to go to religious school, which meant three more hours of reading and homework after public school. My dad preferred baseball and all thing American, so when his mother got a job and wasn’t home when he got out of school, he played baseball instead of going to Jewish Day School.
My mom’s father studied architecture before immigrating to the United States, but Jews found it very difficult to be architects (or lawyers or doctors) in the United States 100 years ago, and very few were able to overcome the obstacles of discrimination. Instead, with a horse and a push cart, my grandfather trekked from New York to El Paso and back to Virginia buying and selling cloth remnants. He met my grandmother in South Carolina and they opened a clothing store, moving from town to town during the Depression before landing in Salisbury.
Though the grandfather she never met was a rabbi, my mother never lived in a town with a synagogue and had no formal religious education. In the early 1950s, the few Jewish families in town, including my parents, built a synagogue. We had Sabbath services and a Sunday School with a dozen children ranging in age from 5 to 14. Each week, we had homework in history, Hebrew and ethics. Saturday nights were study time, with more chapters to read, homework to turn in and tests the next morning.
My mother, who had to teach herself what she had never been taught, was the hardest teacher. In 1962, my parents asked Ben Shapiro, a local merchant, to train me for my Bar Mitzvah, a ceremony when a Jew becomes personally responsible before God for his own actions. It was the first in Salisbury.
My mother, Rose Post, spent decades writing newspaper columns that from time to time introduced many aspects of Judaism to this very small conservative rural city. She was proud of being Jewish and perhaps the most religious person I ever knew. She thought that Judaism, Christianity, Muslim, Hinduism, Islam and Buddhism all teach the same lessons in humanity about helping and respecting each other. She wrote about people who had American stories because this country, unique among others, was founded on principles of tolerance and welcome for all.
Many of our founding fathers left Europe for the United States to get out from under the crushing hand of the church in their everyday lives. They preached tolerance and individualism in matters of conscience, memorializing that belief as the most important personal freedom in the First Amendment. Certainly, most were Christian, but they recognized the need to protect the minority and created a country for all of us.
Though public prayer and song may not reflect my beliefs, I’m confident that they are well intentioned and never to suggest that one religion is superior to another. It’s simply a matter of me being a minority, which I accept along with the many other blessings that this country offers.
To me, prayer is private. Respectful of others. Completely personal. Different for everyone.
“God’s work must truly be our own.” In his first moments as president, John Kennedy taught me what my true religion is.
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David Post is a co-owner of the Salisbury Pharmacy and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.