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Guest Post by Riley Kilmore: The Underrecognized Influence of Judaism on Everything

It seems to me to be the primary business of living: learning, growing, gaining in understanding, broadening the scope of our minds till we can recognize how intrinsically connected we all really are.

 Like a lot of people, I grew up in a religious home.

By that I don't mean in a family that simply went to church on a regular basis. Being raised in a religious home, to my way of thinking, means being brought up in one whose very fabric is cut from the cloth of whatever religion it adheres to—in a family whose every choice, decision, and consideration is underpinned by and overlayed with the tenets of its faith.

But what I didn't realize as a young child was how much my upbringing was also underpinned and overlayed by a religion my family didn't adhere to: Judaism.

Sure, I was taught Catholicism grew out of a foundational Judaism much like a branch grafted onto an olive tree, but somehow I thought back then that it ended there, in antiquity: a fork in an ancient road where two paths forever diverged.

Roots of an Awakening

My pop went to France in WWII, part of a wave of Americans sent to stop the Nazis. Unlike so many, he came home. For some spell of time he was in Le Harve, a Normandy shore town. Little did I suspect as a young girl that I too would end up there, thirty-five years after he did—as an intercultural exchange student.

As an AFS highschooler staying with a host family in Le Havre, I did a lot of walking around that town, a lot of thinking about how any street I walked down might have felt my father's footsteps years before. I thought about the way the town must've looked in his day under the scourge of war, about how being there connected me to his past in a visceral way that just having been born his daughter never had.

But it also connected me to more, to a history bigger than his own.

Till I traveled overseas at age sixteen from the small, white, Holsum Wonderbread world I grew up in, my exposure to Judaism and WWII consisted primarily of having read The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, having watched The Great Escape on TV, and having seen Fiddler On the Roof in theaters. Mere seeds planted in the mind of a child.

But if planted in fertile soil, seeds grow. My mind was the soil, those streets of Le Havre the fertile ground beneath it.

Years later I would have the opportunity to travel to Germany, as well, after having spent sobering hours at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and after having graduated from a college that founded the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education. I was living the realization that roads may indeed diverge in antiquity, but those roads remain linked by countless smaller arteries we travel every day.

From the vantage point of later years I can now see so many things all the more clearly. I hope most of us can. It seems to me to be the primary business of living: learning, growing, gaining in understanding, broadening the scope of our minds till we can recognize how intrinsically connected we all really are.

I can see now that even our language as a family, back when I was growing up, was laced with Judaic influence thanks to Yiddish persuasion. Yiddish, a Germanic language, isn't Hebrew, but it's culturally Jewish, and my pop's people hailed from Germany on both his maternal and paternal sides. As a kid, I just thought all those quirky words that had somehow been passed down to us and were so fun to say had come to us through our surrounding Pennsylvania Dutch neighbors: schmooze, schlep, glitch, schmaltz, schmuck, putz, klutz.

Primary vs Secondary Sources

If you've ever done research for any kind of writing project, you're acquainted with the difference between primary and secondary sources. For instance, Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl, an account written in and about the historical times that comprised her short life, are a primary source, while all the books written about her life by others are secondary sources.

I propose there's a tertiary kind of source, one in which an influential aspect of something is neither sought after nor realized, but is there on the page unintentionally. I'm speaking of countless books I (and incalculably many others) have read that were written by Jewish authors, but in which anything Jewish was not the point.

All we are, as individuals, necessarily informs the words we speak and the works we create, and this is no less true of authors than it is of anyone else. Therefore, even fiction penned by Jewish authors is going to be underpinned—often unconsciously—by tenets the author holds and the beliefs inculcated within her, in youth. This is true for writers of any demographic, of course, and it's a fine thing.

The subtle, tertiary influences in our lives, assuming they're good influences, broaden our minds and enrich us in positive ways we may never consciously realize.

Today I might recognize many authors as Jewish either by their names (which, of course, one can't always go by) or by having learned about them, but in the years I was growing up and reading their works, I hadn't a clue nor a care what religion any writer adhered to. Ones that come to mind? Judy Blume, Carl Sagan, Ayn Rand, Maurice Sendak, Leon Uris, Tom Stoppard, Isaac Asimov, Judith Viorst. But the list goes on, and there are certainly places online to find far more comprehensive lists if you're curious.


Two of the most influential pieces of music from my childhood were the soundtracks to the films To Kill A Mockingbird (based on the book by Harper Lee) and Exodus (based on the book by Leon Uris). To this day I listen to both quite often.

The soundtrack to Mockingbird was composed by Elmer Bernstein, a prolific composer known for the music to many films. The soundtrack haunted me from the first time (of many) I saw the movie, and I longed for years to find a recording of it so I could listen to it at my leisure. When I went off to college I met fellow theatre student, Al Pompa, who had the LP soundtrack to Mockingbird and graciously let me listen to it to my heart's content. Nowadays I have the CD—having bought it as soon as CD's became a thing.

Exodus, on the other hand, stood alone as mere music to me for many years. My mother had the LP album (that I inherited and have to this day) which I recall putting on the turntable countless times in my youth and daydreaming to the drama, romance, and sweeping majesty of that soundtrack. It would be years before I realized it went to a movie (and got to see it) and a book (and finally read it). The music is the brainchild of composer Ernest Gold.

In a significant way, these two pieces of music were formative to me in becoming the author I did. In my early decades I would lie and listen to these soundtracks and do some serious composing of my own: stories fueled by the mystery, drama, pathos, and triumphs suggested in their shifting melodies.

Echoes of Gold's and Bernstein's influence live on today in my sweeping sci-fantasy family saga, Heir to Oblivion, which was my writing MFA thesis novel (for which I'm still *cough, cough* seeking a publishing home) and in my recently published debut children's novel, Shay the Brave (Wild Ink Publishing, Jan. 2024).

I know the same is true for many writers, that their works were sparked by musical inspiration— whether or not their favorite composers were Jewish. 

It's Everywhere; It's Everywhere

I could go on ad infinitum: politics, science, education, theatre, poetry, law, exploration, heroism, and on and on—the influence of Judaic history, philosophy, faith, and endurance underlies every walk of life for countless many of us, whether or not we ever come to realize it, so better, perhaps, that we do.

None of us can divorce ourselves from either the seen or unseen influences that have touched our lives. May we all learn, therefore, to recognize and respect the origins of those influences whenever and wherever we realize they're hovering softly about us, a too-often unsung wind beneath our wings.

Photos: (Caption: Le Havre, France, in ruins, WWII); (Caption: The author, Pennsylvania circa 1976, just prior to schlepping over to France); (Caption: Pictured: The LP in question, after all these years, and—of course—my dog, Oji)

Author bio

A veteran firefighter and one of the first women police officers in Lancaster Co., PA., Kilmore holds an MFA in Fiction Writing from Seton Hill University. Her work has appeared in GRIT, Lynx Eye, Beacons of Tomorrow, The Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Cosmic Brownies, and Literary Mama: Readings for the Maternally Inclined. Kilmore won the 2023 West Virginia Fiction Competition judged by author Ann Pancake and has been recognized by the PA Council on the Arts Works in Progress Grant Program. Her debut novel, a middle grade fantasy championing intercultural alliances (Shay the Brave), is available from Wild Ink Publishing. You can follow Kilmore on social media sites such as Facebook and read her weekly blog. 

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Tuesday, 23 April 2024

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