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Rebecca Newberger Goldstein: secular humanist with a soul

Philosopher and novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is a humanist whose life and work have been shaped by religion.

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Marrying at a young age allowed Goldstein to pursue the education she longed for. She could now enjoy the freedoms a married woman was allowed within the orthodox community of White Plains. Her husband, himself a mathematician, encouraged her philosophical pursuits, and she went through college and graduate school before having children.

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Having graduated summa cum laude in philosophy from Barnard College, Goldstein went on to pursue a Ph.D. at Princeton University, where she wrote her dissertation "Reduction, Realism and the Mind" under the guidance of Thomas Nagel. Currently a professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University, Nagel remembers her as "highly intelligent, with a clear, logical mind, and intuitively sensitive to the profound difficulty of philosophical problems." Her first job was as an assistant professor of Philosophy at Barnard, where she taught for 10 years starting in 1976.

Two years into her job her eldest daughter was born. At the end of the 1980s, by that time a mother of two, Goldstein went on to be a visiting professor at Rutgers in the philosophy deparment before taking a stab at teaching creative writing in Columbia's MFA program. All the while, Goldstein continued to rush home from classes on Fridays to be able to cook the Sabbath meal for her family.

A CRAZY AND SCHIZOPHRENIC LIFE, that's how she remembers it. Though her husband and family knew of her atheism, Goldstein kept her beliefs from everyone else, determined to keep a harmonious environment for her daughters, not wanting to confuse their worlds. Home and philosophy were strictly separated, as rigorously as the kosher kitchen she kept. The perfection of her kitchen was much to the pride of her mother, who was not pleased with Goldstein's profession or literary ambitions. Goldstein's outward religious performance – the one thing her mother was proud of – was the only thing Goldstein ever did to satisfy duty instead of passion.

Goldstein's two daughters, Yael and Danielle, followed in their mother's footsteps: studying philosophy, and eventually becoming writers. Both attended yeshiva for grade school and high school in New Jersey's Highland Park, an orthodox Jewish community. Her eldest daughter was shocked when she finally learned of her mother's life-long atheism. "You cannot imagine how strange it is to have gone through the yeshiva only to emerge into an adulthood in which your mother is the Humanist of the Year," writes Yael, 33, and a novelist, living in San Francisco. Danielle, 26, a graduate student in philosophy at New York University, was less surprised. Unable to remember a time that she didn't question religion, Danielle even calls herself a "born heathen" and thinks she might have always known about her mother's atheism.


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