Are you Jewish? It’s such a difficult question for me.
And for many purposes the answer is correct. Most people who ask are Jewish themselves, and what they really want to know is, Will you celebrate the High Holidays? Do you live the way we do? Or, perhaps, Are your choices helping to preserve a Jewish legacy?
In these cases, I must assess whether any part of my Jewish heritage would be meaningful to the people questioning me. I usually decide that my having grown up with a nonobservant Jewish father in Squirrel Hill, a supremely Jewish neighborhood–where many non-Jews have greater knowledge of Judaism than I do–is not worth mentioning in these cases. In fact, I even blank out on some aspects of Jewish traditions, and have made at least one inappropriate phone call on Yom Kippur because I didn’t put it on my calendar and couldn’t hold the date in my head.
When someone expresses antisemitism, however, I’m down with the Tribe. One surreal evening, on a low-budget trip where I was staying in a noisy hostel, a jam-packed crash pad for club hoppers in Miami Beach, I met Victor, a young man from Mexico, friendly enough and mostly harmless. He gave me a piece of cross-cultural information I truly needed later when I moved to South Florida: down here, you aren’t really dancing unless you move your hips.
Just for company, I went on a bus ride with him down to Bayfront Park. We went for a short stroll, then came back to the bus stop. On the bench there, a young woman dressed in spandex, so heavily made up with dark lipstick and bright eye shadow that she could have been the personification of the city of Miami, was admiring her own long pink nails. “People say they aren’t mine,” she told us. “Of course they’re mine. I bought them.”
On the bus ride back, Victor started in telling me–entirely casually, as part of a description of his life in Mexico–that he didn’t like Jews, as though disliking Jewish people was a hobby or popular pastime. So of course I said, “I’m Jewish.” He responded with protestations of disbelief, which weren’t nearly as charming as he thought. It didn’t seem to occur to him that if I didn’t fit his idea of a Jew, he might want to question his own views.
Are you Jewish? In less extreme cases, where people are merely curious about my background or beliefs, I respond with humor and deflection. Sometimes I say “That’s a good question,” and leave it at that. If pressed, I tell my mother’s story (previously alluded to in this weblog) of my four-year-old self getting a magic marker and drawing a line down my middle, then asking “Hey, Mom, which halfa me is Jewish?”
In truth, my fragmentary Jewish heritage has always been a tender subject over which I am prone to shock and turmoil. My first Passover seder, for instance, around age 7, was one at a friend’s house, and for reasons I’ll never know, my father and I arrived after the start. Despite the awkwardness of this, our hosts were kind, seating me at the children’s table and doing their best to catch me up, briefly, with what was going on. I grasped, at least, that this was a special meal and that this was why we were eating servings bits of food, an egg, some parsley, crackers called matzah, instead of filling our plates.
I was hungry and knew only one or two of the kids at the table but did my best to stick with the program. The next thing I remember was biting into a solid chunk of horseradish, the “bitter herb” that recalls bitterness of slavery. Even if “bitter” had been part of my vocabulary, the word would not have prepared me for what I experienced. My eyes started watering before I knew what had happened. It felt like someone had jammed a sharpened stick into my tongue and kicked me in the head to boot. It hurt as much as anything I had experienced up to that point.
In retrospect, I tell myself that I got the full effect: a moment of uncomprehending pain offered a minuscule taste of unfathomable misery. Worse than the pain was the feeling of isolation. I didn’t understand the occasion well enough to communicate with anyone about what was happening with me. I have never overcome my childhood confusions over religions, not just the baffling expectations of Judaism but also the reasons that some of my Christian classmate gave me about why I was going to go to hell. I give you my word as a lapsed Unitarian that you will not find me cleaving to organized faiths of any kind. Yet I must acknowledge how deeply the Western religions have influenced me.
Absolutely, I believe in God, with no apologies for the dubious roots of my beliefs–a children’s Bible, an intently Catholic babysitter, a smattering of televangelist broadcasts that used to come on before morning cartoons. I had an LP of adapted Old Testament stories that I played over and over, alternately with the soundtrack from The Aristocats.
I identified with Noah for his headstrong nonconformity. Once, during a battle with neighborhood kids, I imagined I was Sampson, jumping up on a bench wielding, ironically, a dried-up pork chop as if it were the jawbone of an ass. In my fantasy life, I was also young Jesus discoursing with the old men in the temple. In my head I debated theological points with the Reverend Rex Humbard, who led broadcasts from the Cathedral of Tomorrow (and later officiated at Elvis’s funeral).
Some of my friends have attested that an emphasis on belief strikes them as culturally Christian, whereas Judaism centers on acts of worship. I am told that that many congregations would recognize me as Jewish if I simply embraced the identity. This makes sense: with all the trials that Jewish people have suffered, and with the world population of Jews on the decline, there is a need for an affirming and active approach.
On the other hand, another friend once told me that even converts or children whose mothers are converts do not count as “real” Jews, and that intermarriage was not just a threat but an affront to the Jewish people. Still, he was mystified and hurt when I quietly desisted from the friendship. I couldn’t verbalize my impressions that (a) his racialist views might actually be destructive toward Judaism and (b) he had objected to very my existence.
On the third hand, my second seder, at the home of my long-time friend Daniel, was a healing and clarifying experience. Partly, that was because I was much older, with duller taste buds and stronger powers of inference. Mostly it was because of actions of Dan and his family, especially his parents, Roz and Al.
Some people of some religions have a habit of explaining things to you in sentences so formal that you know you’re an outsider. You also know that the difference matters to the explainer. I suppose that this is often a form of self-protection, guarding against an outsider’s possible lack of respect. In any case, it is a way of being that Roz and Al abjured.
Additionally, on two occasions, they invited both me and my dad for Thanksgiving, seating us at the end their large dining room table, across from a print (of a painting by Tully Filmus) that they have of a scholar in a prayer shawl. I’ve always liked that painting, filled in lightly with vigorous strokes of blue and black, and the way the scholar leans over his text, patient and tranquil.
While writing this article, I had to check in with Dan, because I had the vague impression that my dad was there for one of their seders. (It seems not.) If I conflated the two occasions, it was not because the holidays are in any way interchangeable, but because the quality of hospitality at their home was always the same.
Dan’s family chatted us up in a way that affirmed the intimate relationship that all of us shared with Squirrel Hill and its history. They joked with each other and even bickered a bit about whose job it was to get the nice china out on the table. In no way did they inquire into who or what we were or were not. We were guests in their home and that was sufficient answer for everything.
In truth, though, my Jewish identity does not hinge on whether or not Jewish groups or settings are welcoming to me, swayed as I am by other elements in my background. I have a family heritage of agnosticism, or at least of religious non-affiliation, that matters to me as much as any affiliation could. In an expansive mood like the one I’m in now, I’ll tell you I’m on a mission from God to refuse labels and to withhold straight answers.
And still, though I know I am in profound contradiction with the central Jewish traditions of shared observance, I still feel like a Jew–albeit a bad Jew, and arguably a useless one, recalcitrantly wayward and willfully. Even Jesus had a beef with the lukewarm adherent, and yet the question “Are you a Jew?” is different from the one I ask myself.
When I ask, “Am I a Jew?” the answer is yes, waveringly, defiantly, guiltily, and eternally yes.