My Jewish Journey

When I was a very young child, I used to ask my parents, Why am I a Jew? My mother’s response was always, "Because your mother & father are Jewish." That answer satisfied me until I was six or seven years old but by then my question had multiplied & I needed something more to resolve my confusion. While I was always kept out of school on the High Holidays (because it was a shanda for the goyimwe didn’t belong to a synagogue, or light Chanukah candles & we never made, or even went to, a seder. I knew about all these things because my friends did them, so why didn’t we do them? How could I be Jewish without doing them?  I knew that Catholic children didn’t do those things so what made me different from Catholics? What made me Jewish? These questions followed me through my childhood & I was constantly trying to figure it out. 

At some point, my questions had morphed into a desire for a Jewish education which collided with my father’s adamant belief that "organized religion was the root cause for most world problems from famine to poverty. And in any conflict, every religious leader will claim God is on his side." A formal education, therefor, was out of the question. 

However, I did manage to get some minimal exposure because my dad’s best friend owned a Jewish summer camp. I began going to Camp Wahanda when I was six years old & continued, for the next thirteen years. Camp was kosher & I learned to say the motzi before every meal although it did make me sad. There were 2 dogs at camp called Trixie &  Mutzi. It just seemed unfair that we prayed for Mutzi 3 times a day but never said even one for Trixie.   

Being at camp was the happiest time of my childhood & it was there that I attended Erev Shabbat services. I learned the Sh'ma & Adon Olam which I thought were a special kind of camp song because instead of cheering for color war, we were cheering for God. 


Mrs. Donat w/ one of her 6 Great-Grandchildren

When I was 11 years old a remark- able family moved into my build- ing.  Alexander & Lena Donat were remarkable, even miraculous, be- cause they had survived the War- saw ghetto, including active parti- cipation in the Uprising, & then 9 different concentration & slave labor camps as well as 4 death marches. 

Their son, Billy was my age & we became friends.  He told me he’d been hidden in a Catholic orphan- age which was very confusing.  I knew he was Jewish so I didn’t un- derstand why he’d been in a Cath- olic orphanage; or any orphanage as, clearly, he was not an orphan; or what he meant by "hidden", or why he had been hiding at all.  Al- though I sometimes felt awkward about all his unspoken mysteries, he was very smart & funny, intro- duced me to jazz music & we both loved the theatre.

My relationship with the Donats & the influence of their story on my life cannot be overestimated.  Mrs. Donat was especially warm & friendly & I looked forward to our conversations whenever I visited Billy or we met in the lobby.   In fact, she was the first person who ever spoke to me as an adult. 

I was totally hypnotized by the number tattooed on her left forearm.  It was always visible when she wore short sleeves, & I was deeply embarrassed by my inability not to stare.  I think she understood my confusion & never failed to gently validate my curios- ity by offering answers to all my unasked questions.  In fact, she said she needed to tell me about everything that had happened.  She said it was very important for her to tell her story to everyone, but especially to somebody as young as I was.  She said every- body had a responsibility to remember & make sure that what had happened to her family & all the people they knew & loved would never again happen to anyone.  She said everybody had to be responsible for everybody else & that I must do my part by always crying out in protest whenever I saw something that I knew to be cruel, or unjust, or just wrong. Every time we talked she asked me to promise that I would repeat everything she had told me, to those even not yet born, so that the world could never forget.


During my years at Boston University, I volunteered at the   Kennedy Memorial Hospital, a residential facility for chil- dren with severe congenital motor diseases.  I worked on a   Cerebral Palsy unit with 30 boys age three to eleven.  The hospital was run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, a semi cloistered order, & I became good friends with Sister Pauline who was in charge of my unit. 

I sometimes attended mass in the small convent chapel, inspired first by curiosity & then drawn by the theatricality & beautiful a cappella chanting of the nuns.  I enjoyed stimulating discussions with Sister Pauline about Catholic belief & rituals but was made painfully aware of my deficient Jewish education by my inability to answer any of her questions.  She encouraged me to study Jewish history & teachings.   She said I owed it to myself to find out about my heritage. 


My distress over my lack of Jewish education was magnified by an in- cident that happened one night as we were putting the boys to bed. Most of the children were Catholic but there was one 9 year old who was Jewish & we developed a close bond.   Surrounded by Catholic symbols, his daily routine was in- fused with Catholic ritual & I was probably the only Jewish person with whom he had daily contact. 

As Sister Pauline was leading the boys in their night time rosary, Robbie called me over to his bed & asked me to please teach him the Jewish night prayers. It was a simple request & I panicked, afraid of answering  incorrectly or worse, not being able to answer at all.        I grasped at the first words that came to mind from Friday night services at camp, long before.  I taught him to say the Sh’ma, praying that it was O.K. while simultaneously promising myself to get the education I had always wanted.



Everything came together for me on Friday Nov. 22, 1963. Although I hadn’t been to services since my years at camp, I felt compelled to go the night of Pres. Kennedy's assassination.  The rabbi, Gunter Hirschberg, z"l, spoke eloquently & gave Jewish context to everythiing  I believed in: my growing activism in the Civil Rights Movement & my passionate opposition to our government’s "police action" in Viet Nam. I joined Rodeph Sholom immediately &, attended shabbos services regularly for the next 3 years. The more I learned the more I wanted to learn & I realized that I was becoming increasingly frustrated with the Reform service. I wanted, needed, to be a partici- pant but I felt like I was sitting in a polite audience watching the rabbi & cantor give a performance.

I left Rodeph Sholom & joined Brotherhood Synagogue where the service was much more tradition- al.  I was thrilled when, in 1968, Rabbi Irving Block asked me to start a shabbos program, reading bible stories to pre-K children.  I remained active at Brotherhood for many years & was invited to serve on the Advisory Board.  I became an adult bat mitzvah on the 1st day of Pesach, 1978.

Theo Bikel had introduced me to the American Jewish Congress & I was asked to serve on the Board of the Business & Professional Division.

I had been dating a prominent member of the Brotherhood Synagogue.   When I broke-up with him in 1979, I felt I had to leave Brotherhood & I joined the Recon- structionist shul, the Society for the Advancement of Judaism.

I loved the service at SAJ & found Rabbi Alan Miller to be both an inspiring teacher & dynamic speaker.  I remained at SAJ, on & off, until 2008 when they started experimenting with the service. I’ve always been insecure about my lack of education & feel that I don’t have the backround to make an informed decision to reject mean- ingful traditions.  So, once again, I was shul shopping & in Jan. 2009, started going to morning minyan at Ansche Chesed to say kaddish for my cousin.  I was overjoyed that I no longer had to wait for Shabbat to be Jewish. And I’d found a warm & welcoming community with other people I'd known from SAJ & even reunited with an old friend who'd served on one of my committees at Equity.

I volunteered at the Center for 
Jewish History, 2008 - 2010.


In April 2009, I joined the 
Sanctuary Minyan at Ansche 
Chesed and, in 2010, Minyan 
M'at. It was the best gift I 
could have given myself.

I taught myself to leyn torah which gives me an incalculable sense of accomplishment & great pleasure.

Over the years I have taken classes at several schools, in- cluding Spertus Institute, while on tour in Chicago; Drisha Institute (NYC), Skirball Center (NYC), & the 2 year Context program at the Jewish Theological Sem- inary of America. We studied Introduction to Bible, Jewish History, Rabbinics & Shoah. In 2014, I was awarded a one year scholarship to study Jew- ish Ethics in the Graduate School of JTS.

When I was studying Jewish Ethics at JTS I took a class in Liturgy. One of the assignments was to choose a prayer from the daily siddur & re-write it in my own words. Inspired by the prayer, Sim Shalom, & the work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, of Rabbis for Human Rights, I wrote the following:

        Dear God, grant peace to Israel and all who dwell therein.
        Soften the hearts of our people towards the Other, for we  
        were strangers in the land of Egypt and we will not behave  
        as Pharoh here in the land of Israel.

        Help our people to understand that  אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל  does not belong  
        to us, for the land belongs only to God and is beloved by all  
        created in the Devine image. 

        Grant our leaders the foresight to understand that the home 
        demolition of a terrorist will seed the creation of new 
        generations of terrorists. For in the rubble of the destroyed 
        home lies the shredded body of a beloved teddy bear. Thus it 
        fuels the anger and stokes the anguish of the heart-broken 
        and bewildered child whose years of pent-up rage will, one day,   
        explode in a quiet Jerusalem cafe.

        Help the daughters and sons of our cousin Ishmael to understand 
        that the soul of every human being comes from Allah and the 
        destruction of any human life is an offense to Allah, and His 
        Prophet, Muhammed. 

        Grant our leaders the judgement to distinguish between good and 
        bad fences so that they may build only good fences to protect the 
        lives of Israelis. A good fence prevents a terrorist from savagely 
        murdering innocent people. But a bad fence denies a person access 
        to her crops and without the harvest, she can neither feed her children 
        nor contribute to the welfare of her community. 

        Grant our policy makers the wisdom to know that in the untended, 
        withering vineyards, each rotting grape will foment and may evolve
        into the very terrorist we are determined to thwart.  

        Endow all leaders with vision and courage to, always, think and act 
        creatively in the pursuit of enduring peace. Praise be Thou O Lord our God,  
        Creator of all peoples and Giver of Peace.


by Barbara Colton                                    
Originally published in the on-line edition of 
The Daily Forward, September 2015                                 

In Deuteronomy 18:18, Moses says that God has told him, "I will raise up a prophet from among your own people. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to the people all that I command him."  Such a prophet was Theo Bikel, who passed away on July 21, 2015.  

My relationship with Theo existed on 3 levels: personal, professional and political. In the 2 top leadership positions of our union, Actors' Equity Association, we were a team. He was my mentor, my teacher and my counselor. But the most significant aspect our partnership was a deep friendship that spanned over 50 years

Theo and his parents immigrated to Palestine, from Vienna, 5 months after the Anschluss. The comparative ease of their escape, I think created survivor's guilt that Theo carried with him all his life. 

It could be said that his professional debut, in 1943, at the Habima Theatre was *bashert*, The production was Tevye, the Milkman and 24 years later, he went on to play Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof, the first of his more than 2000 perrformances in the role, more than any other actor. And it was my great joy to play Yenta in 2 of those productions. 

Theo was a singer and his songs reflected beliefs that were basic to his existance. He sang in his native Yiddish and in more than 20 other languages. He sang of peace, justice, workers' rights and freedom.  He sang of Jewish culture and Jewish values.  

Coincidently, we both became involved in union activity during the 1960 lockout to establish pension benefits. Theo rose through the ranks of Actors' Equity and, in 1973, he was elected President at the same time I was elected Recording Secretary.

Theo's leadership in organizing the National Council on the Arts and creating the National Endowment for the Arts was outstanding among his numerous accomplishments. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter appointed both of us to be panelists on the National Endowment. 


Theo taught me that Jewish silence in the face of injustice is intolerable and his causes became my causes. He was an active supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights as well as J Street and, at the time of his death, he was planning to make additional videos to support the work of R.H.R. 

As much as anybody I've ever known, Theo's actions were dictated by the mitzvot inscribed in the Holiness Code of the Book of Leviticus:    

         You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the 
           native among you and you shall love him as yourself for 
           you were strangers in Egypt
.  Lev. 19:33-34      
         You shall rebuke your kinsman and bear no guilt because 
           of him
.  vLev. 19:17 

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote in his classic work, The Prophets:                                         God is raging in the Prophets words.

Theo wrote: (Concerning the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982 & the Arab Phal-   angists who executed a massacre on the refugees at Sabre and Shatila)                                         The massacre should have been stopped by the Israeli forces.                             Many American Jews, myself included, were outraged by                                   what we perceived as Sharon's apparent lack of concern for                               the hapless victims.


Heschel wrote:                                                                                                                                    The prophet feels fiercely and his words are outbursts of violent                      emotion.

Theo wrote:                                                                                                                                          Even before Sabra and Shatila, I had considered Sharon to be                            a barbarian pig who single-handedly had raised vulgarity to                            an art form.

The massacre had resulted in a major diminution of support for UJA & Theo was asked to travel the country doing damage control. Although profoundly upset himself, he urged people to stay involved in order to deliver a strong message to the Begin govern- ment about moral & ethical conduct in wartime

Heschel wrote:                                                                                                                                           The prophet's rebuke is harsh and relentless.

Appearing on the Dick Cavett Show, Meir Kahane once tried to cozy up to Theo, alleging they both supported the same causes: the Jewish people & Israel. 

Theo's reprimand was immediate:                                                                                                 I have no more stomach for Jewish fascists than I have for the                          gentile kind. If Kahane pretends he's on my side because we're                          both Jews, then he has no idea what my side is. Being a Jew has                      no meaning at all to me, unless one is governed by moral precepts.                I am surprised that I have to tell this to a rabbi but then, what                          kind of rabbi advocates mass expulsion of Arabs from a country                      whose Jewish citizens have themselves been victims of ethnic                            cleansing?

Heschel wrote:                                                                                                                                             The prophet must speak to the people, whether they hear or                               refuse to hear.

Theo lamented, frequently, that American Jews are                                                                         less critical of Israeli policy than we would be of our own                                    government - even when that policy is wrong

Heschel wrote:                                                                                                                                             The prophet is an iconoclast. Beliefs cherished as certainties,                             the prophet exposes as scandalous pretentions. 

Reacting to Israeli government’s 1989 plan for settlement of newly arrived Soviet Jews, 
Theo protested:                                                                                                                                              It is unacceptable that Soviet Jews be used as pawns in a political                    game of creating more Jewish land in the territories.

Heschel wrote:                                                                                                                                              The essential task of the prophet is to declare the word of God                            to the here and now. To disclose the future in order to illumine                          what is involved in the present. 

At a meeting of the Emergency World Jewish Leadership Conference in Jerusalem, 
Theo warned:                                                                                                                                                  Putting Soviet Jews into the territories will permit the govern-                          ment to present the settlements as fait accompli, thereby remov-                      ing the 'land for peace formula' from the bargaining table. It is                        also an insidious way of tilting Israeli public opinion away from                    any notion of compromise, without which no peace process is                            feasible. 

In the last line of his autobiography, Theo wrote how he would like to be remembered:              Der zinger fun zayn folk.  [The singer of his people.]

To which I would respectfully add:                      
           Un der novi fun zayn folk. [And the prophet of his people.] 

I understand, now, that there are no easy answers to my childhood questions.               On reflection I realize that I’ve been discovering the answers, incrementally, at various seminal moments throughout my life. 


I am a Jew because 

     Judaism condemns my silence in the face of evil;

I am a Jew because 

     I must live for all the lives evaporated in shoah smoke; 

I am a Jew because 

     Judaism commands my action to save another’s life;

I am a Jew because 

     every answer inspires and encourages more questions;

I am a Jew because 

     Judaism challenges my intellect and dictates my behavior;

I am a Jew because 

     our traditions bind me to all Jews everywhere for all time;

I am a Jew because 

     davenning in community fills me with incomparable joy;

      I am a Jew because I choose to be.

*Although, ‘why I am a Jew’ is a commonly used phrase, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge Edmond Fleg’s classic work by that name.

Created by Barbara Colton