A Jewish Humorist and Seventh-day Adventists
by Loren Seibold | 5 November 2021 |
A favorite topic of gossip among academy students in my generation was to speculate about people who used to be Seventh-day Adventists. Evil rock stars were a favorite. I remember a friend who said his brother knew Jim Morrison at an Adventist college. Turns out a Jim Morrison isn’t the Jim Morrison. Another said that Black Sabbath members were ex-Adventists, because, ya know, “sabbath.” (Those who made up this stuff weren’t especially incisive thinkers.) This kind of rubbish swirled through the isolated populations of boarding academies, and none was more isolated than Sheyenne River Academy.
Unlike the Mormons, our sect has never been very good at knowing what to do with famous church members. We like to note the connections where they occur: Magic Johnson’s mother, Little Richard, Clifton Davis, a family that Prince grew up in, and a few actors and actresses and musicians here and there who had Seventh-day Adventist mothers.
But we also love to look down on famous Adventists. To speak of such people as ex-Adventists or bad Adventists is a mark of our own spiritual rigor: we can’t be proud of them, because they can’t be good Adventists and keep the Sabbath and remain pure and eat the right foods. We are a bit relieved, I think, when they disappear.
So it’s the rare celebrity Adventist whose reputation can survive our collective judgment. People like Barry Black, Wintley Phipps, and Herbert Blomstedt have succeeded, but even they have their detractors.
Recently I came across a famous person who wasn’t a Seventh-day Adventist, but was exposed to Seventh-day Adventists at a young age, and who wrote about it quite extensively. I found his story instructive.
A childhood favorite
Almost all the reading material in the home I grew up in was Adventist, but we did get The Jamestown Sun, (which still exists) in which I read the funnies (my mother disapproved, but Dad read them too, so there wasn’t much she could say) and a couple of syndicated columnists. My favorite was the humorist Art Buchwald: even when quite young I found his humor sophisticated and compelling. Though I’d not paid much attention to his writing in recent years, I did take note of his death in 2007.
Then a couple of years ago on a bookshelf of an antique shop in Riverside, California, I saw one of Buchwald’s several memoirs, called Leaving Home (Putnam, 1995). As I paged through it the words “Seventh-Day Adventist” (sic) caught my eye. It turns out that Art Buchwald had a major Seventh-day Adventist influence in his early life.
When he was very small, Buchwald’s mother suffered severe mental illness for which she was sent to a private sanitarium. His father, a struggling businessman, was overwhelmed by it all. Having no place to turn as he tried to keep working, he sent his son Art and daughter Doris to “a small boarding house for sick children” in Flushing, New York, run by a German Seventh-day Adventist nurse named Schenk. Art described it as a positive experience in some ways:
Apart from the religious indoctrination, my memories of this home were not unhappy ones.
I lived there until I was five years old, and it played a vital role in my development. It was a large, warm house, set back on a generous piece of land with plenty of room for children to play. My memories of particular incidents from that time are rather dim, but I remember that they had a dog.
It is the religious indoctrination, of course, that fascinates me—and that continued to influence Buchwald throughout his life. He wrote, “During my sessions with [psychiatrist] Dr. Morse, I concluded that somebody had been messing around with my head during those early years and they left footprints on my brain.”
My strongest impression of the home was the strict religious upbringing I received. The nurses were God’s messengers on what constituted sin and what didn’t. I am talking about serious sin now. They practiced their religion faithfully, and they expected us to do the same. Eating meat, fish, and eggs was a sin. Dancing or listening to the radio was a sin. The German nurses filled my head and heart with hell and damnation, and if you broke the rules, their demons were waiting to shovel you into the fiery pit down below, somewhere near China.
Going to church
It’s hard to tell this story without quoting perhaps too much of the book. I only pray that the people at Putnam (which published Leaving Home) will forgive me on the grounds of our need to remind ourselves of a part of Adventism that I’m quite sure Buchwald would have wanted us to think about.
Although Buchwald says he has little memory of everyday life (apart from the dog) he has “total recall” of attending church. It required a trolley and many train changes (imagine that with 8 to10 little children!) that got them to a Seventh-day Adventist church on Riverside Drive in Manhattan.
The church was enormous and had scenes depicting the life of Jesus on many of the windows. But it was the area around the altar that intrigued me the most. There was a stage, and below the stage was what I took to be a swimming pool.…
I was fascinated when people were dunked into the water, and I was sure it was being done against their will. I was constantly waiting for someone not to come up, but it never happened, which disappointed me very much. There was a little thrashing around, but once everyone dried off they looked very happy.
Living and leaving
Buchwald says he was never mistreated at the children’s home. Yet “Although they took care of all our physical needs, they showed no love or affection that I can recall.”
Perhaps the funniest story is of his father and uncle coming to visit and bringing their own lunch: “delicatessen food—corned beef, pastrami, chicken, and herring.”
The nurses went crazy every time Pop opened his package. But my father was oblivious to what he was doing to the vegetarian household, and he could never understand why we didn’t eat any of the treats he brought for us. Doris and I used to watch with fascination as Pop and Oscar ate their corned beef and we waited for God to send a thunderbolt to strike them dead. My sister and I concluded that both my father and my Uncle Oscar had some magical powers to ward off the Lord’s vengeance on meat eaters.
He remembers that it was difficult to leave because “I was five years old and this was the third home from which I had been taken away.”
…Pop had a very difficult job getting us out of the house. I held on to the screen door, and Doris hid in the backyard .…We didn’t know our destination, but when we got to Jamaica after forty-five minutes on the trolley, we were still crying.
Their father tried to comfort them by taking them to a movie.
He couldn’t have come up with a worse idea, because it had been drilled into us from infancy by the Seventh-Day Adventists that movies were your ticket straight to hell. As he tried to drag us into the theater to see Laurel and Hardy, we were fighting to get out.
They cried so hard that the manager refunded their money and asked them to leave.
Much of this comes out in conversations between Buchwald and his family or his therapist. (Forgive him, in the following paragraph, for getting the fish-with-scales thing wrong—he wasn’t much of a religious Jew, either.)
I have spent almost as much time on the Seventh-Day Adventists in my analysis as I have on my mother. I am willing to bet that this place was responsible for many of my hang-ups. For many years I had dreams from that period. A blurred likeness of the devil kept popping up, and it wasn’t one of those friendly devils you see on canned ham salad—he was one mean son of a bitch. I conjured up all forms of sin from my childhood. I once had a bull with four horns attack me in a dream because I had eaten steak for dinner that night. To this day, I can’t eat fish with scales on them. I have made my peace with shellfish and meat, but there is still a tiny Seventh-Day Adventist inside of me screaming to get out every time I make a pass at a tuna fish sandwich.
When asked by his sister if he had wanted to be baptized, he says,
I knew that I didn’t belong to the people who were taking me to church. … They scared me with all their religious dogma, and even though I attended the rituals I had no interest in becoming a member of the congregation and being drowned on stage.
Eventually Pop decided to take Buchwald out of the Adventist children’s home.
I’ve always wondered what Pop must have been thinking seeing us in this Seventh-Day Adventist setup. He was not a very orthodox Jew, but he went to the synagogue and might be called a religious person.… I asked my sister Alice why Pop kept us in the home for so long. Alice said he didn’t realize how serious the religious part of our health care was. “When did he find out?” I said. “When you and Doris started singing Jesus Loves Me.”
Here Buchwald’s account of his Seventh-day Adventist connection mostly comes to an end. Yet here’s a final bit that touched me, a response to a question from his psychiatrist about his feelings toward his father for placing him there:
So maybe I was mad once in a while, but after all you can’t go blaming everyone else for your own life. Maybe I wouldn’t have been a writer or a funny man if I had stayed in one place as a child.
Unlike Art Buchwald, I inherited my faith from my family. Not just my parents, but nearly everyone I knew, was an Adventist.
I remember with fondness some parts of my religious upbringing. Our Little Friend and Primary Treasure stories about obeying mommy and daddy and trusting Jesus, the flannel board, the little red hearts with opening doors that had Jesus inside, the cradle-roll songs, many of which I can still sing today. Vacation Bible School and some Pathfinder activities. Having lunch with other church members on Sabbath, and singing around the piano.
Lessons about being a good boy or good girl were probably appropriate for that age group, and so was the notion of a good, kind Jesus.
But I also have reflected often about how early the stern and scary parts emerged: the judgment, the “Jesus loves you if you’re good but not if you’re bad,” the fear of not going to heaven, and the uncertainty of salvation. Heaven and hell, being saved or lost, an invisible Satan hanging over your shoulder—these are not things a child can negotiate.
By five years old I was already worried about my salvation, and before I reached a decade of life I knew about Catholic persecution of Sabbathkeepers, the close of probation and the unpardonable sin. (I’d be surprised if I were the only Adventist-raised child who can say that.)
So it’s not surprising that our faith came across this way to other children, too. The notion that our faith is inevitably winsome, inevitably compelling, just isn’t true. It certainly wasn’t to a young Art Buchwald. Adventists were nurturing to him at an essential time of his life. But what they gave with one hand, they took with the other: they left him with terrifying memories for his therapist to work on with him. (This included some stays in a mental hospital, as the rest of the book reveals.)
Ideally we should mature beyond this kind of faith, but I have many Adventist acquaintances who got stuck at that stage, whose faith as adults remains fearful, simplistic and almost superstitious. This kind of simplistic, rule-based, punitive faith, it could be argued, is what is still officially supported by the denomination.
I ran across this quote recently from Dr. Marlene Winell, a counselor who specializes in religious trauma:
The recovery and personal growth of a person recovering from fundamentalist indoctrination involves a major transformation unlike other kinds of trauma. This is because the “deep frame” that a person acquires and lives on the unconscious, cellular, all-encompassing daily experiential level includes assumptions that touch on every aspect of reality.
Perhaps Buchwald and many of the rest of us were not given a true picture of God, but instead frightening notions of heaven and hell when we were too young to hear them. We must be much more careful than we have been about how we present our faith to children. Yet I’m not at all sure how to ensure that happens in a church that still holds a great many legalistic, simplistic notions, that takes pride in its scary end time scenario, that teaches a simplistic obedience-or-punishment believe-the-truth-or-be-lost faith to adults!
Every writer would affirm that their tribulations contribute to their voice—perhaps even, in Buchwald’s case, his humor. And Buchwald obviously had more problems to cope with in childhood than his exposure to Seventh-day Adventism. Still, one wonders: what might the outcome have been had he remembered love and affection in that children’s home, rather than fear of hell and rules about what to eat?
Loren Seibold is the Executive Editor of Adventist Today.