Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Goy Meets World

Ever since I can remember, my mother has insisted that I’m Jewish. Technically speaking she’s right; she is Jewish herself, and according to halakha this makes me Jewish by default, despite my father’s blond hair and blue eyes. But her insistence was in the face of no particular resistance, which always made it seem kind of odd to me. Age 12, I’d be playing Nintendo, totally engrossed in the pixelated-yet-bucolic fantasy world of The Legend of Zelda, and out of nowhere my mother’s saying, “Danny, you do know you’re Jewish, right?” Uh, sure, whatever, Mom. Could you stop standing in front of the TV? Age 15, making myself a snack in the kitchen, or more likely cycling between desperate searches of the effectively-empty fridge and the nothing-here-but-raisins-and-Ovaltine pantry, when all of a sudden: “This is really important to me: never, ever, ever forget that you’re Jewish, OK hun?” Mom, stop being weird, and why don’t we have anything to eat? Age 17, returning home after a night of clandestine drinking, hoping that no one is still awake, tip-toeing upstairs, almost safe in my room, until I hear a muffled, tired voice reaching out from her bedroom, escaping along with a sliver of lamplight from the crack between door and floor. “Dan, could you come here for a second?” Shit. “Hi honey, just wanted to remind you to always remember that you are Jewish!Mom, not now, can’t you see that I’m drunk?

These reminders weren’t spurred by any particular events, so far as I could tell. They’d come a few times a year – quarterly updates on my status as a Jew. OK, I’m Jewish. Yup, still Jewish. Not Jewish anymore – wait, no, that was a mistake, still Jewish. And so on. But they were always spontaneous -- unprompted and inexplicable. As I got older my reactions to my mother’s interventions got progressively more cynical. As a boy, I don’t think I really understood what she meant or why she was concerned, and I’d go along with whatever she said because, well, she was my mom. And I could tell that me being aware of my Jewishness was really important to her even if I didn’t really know why. By the beginning of high school I’d respond with greater indifference and less sincerity. By the time I’d graduated, I’d actually say something like, “No, Mom, I’m not Jewish,” just to get her goat. She’d look aghast for a second, then I’d grin at succeeding in provoking such a reaction, and she’d look relieved to know I was only joshing her, but remain undeterred by my insufferable teenage sarcasm. “But seriously Danny, you really are.” And though I’d never push it farther than this, I’d at least think, “But seriously, am I?”

Why did I have to be such a stick in the mud? Why couldn’t I just appease my mother, accept my heritage and get back to the truly important matter at hand, be it video games, snacklust or drunken pseudo-sleep, respectively? I wasn’t trying to be a thorn in my mother’s side by compounding her confounding worry over my religious identity. But it just didn’t make sense to me; how could I consider myself a Jew – how could she expect me to consider myself a Jew – when I have done literally nothing Jewish in my life? When I was 13 I went to a friend’s bar mitzvah, though I only really remember the after-party, which included a lot of Limp Bizkit, a fair amount of doing “the worm”, and a never-ending slow-dance to that never-ending song, “Stairway to Heaven”, which, looking back, doesn’t seem like the best candidate for slow-dancing.

We celebrate Christmas and Easter, admittedly in the strictly commercial/secular tradition. But Hanukkah never got anything more than a guilty mention, my mother promising to no one in particular that we’d actually, finally celebrate it next year. I think a menorah might have been dragged out of the basement or some closet one year, but it remained empty, unfilled by candles, generally neglected in favor of the Christmas tree, which featured presents and silly ornaments. We did get Hanukkah gelt every year, but I wasn’t even aware until college that those delicious little chocolate coins were called gelt or were of Jewish origin. For many years the extent of my knowledge of Passover was limited to what I’d learned from watching Nickelodeon. Rosh Hashanah has never signified anything to me beyond the generic “Jewish New Year” and Yom Kippur, well, I still don’t really know what Yom Kippur is.

The only Jewish thing I can remember happening in my house is my mother's annual lighting of a yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of her father's passing. I was young when he died, so my memories of Grandpa Ving, or Oompah as I knew him, are extremely vague. Trying to recount them is a bit like trying to describe a flame – with some luck I could paint a barely adequate picture with words, but some critical, unifying detail will always escape and the painting will fall flat. Memories and candlelight alike are always dancing, refusing to sit still for the portrait, defying all attempts at capture. Put a flame in a jar and it will shortly be extinguished. Put a memory on a page and it ceases waltzing through your head; instead it just lies there, static and external, its vibrancy sacrificed for consistency and ease of examination, like a butterfly skewered by an entomologist’s pin or a frog suspended in formaldehyde.

Oompah is still dancing eternal in my mind, and is best described non-specifically, as a presence rather than as an aggregation of poorly-remembered instances: he was a great man, a constant source of smiles, seemingly able to suck any sadness out of his surroundings and through some unknown internal metabolic pathway turn it directly into good cheer. I was fortunate to know him at all, even if only in my more tender years – my love of jumping on his belly and hearing his equally pained and jolly exhalations, somewhere between laughter and wheezing, was the foundation of our relationship – but I still feel that I’ve missed out on knowing someone who would have been a great friend throughout all phases of my life.

It might seem like Judaism would be a perfect way for me to connect with my grandfather, but therein lies the rub: my grandfather basically renounced his Jewish faith in rebellion against his extremely orthodox parents, either directly or indirectly. His household, the one in which my mother was raised, saw no enforcement of religious practice and also embraced those commercial Christian holidays that descended from Paganism and have fallen into utter secularism. My mother, in a sense, is no more Jewish than I am, although her yahrzeit candle lighting does tip the balance in her favor as it’s countered by my nothing. But why is she so insistent that I identify with a religion that I’ve never practiced, that she never practiced, and that her father deliberately stopped practicing?

I know it sounds like a naïve, even simple-minded question – “Why is heritage important?” – but I suppose it’s less about why heritage is important than what heritage is if it’s divorced from tradition or ritual. I’ve always been aware that Judaism, maybe more so than other religions, lends itself to a neat distinction between those who are religiously Jewish and those who are ethnically or culturally Jewish. But I find myself wondering if it’s even possible to be Jewish at all without any hint of religion; or rather, if it is possible to be just ethnically Jewish, what is it about Judaism as opposed to other religions that allows for this distinction? I’m an ethnic Jew because my matrilineal ancestors were Jewish, but I also have Christian ancestry, so why aren’t I ethnically Christian? Why does that sound like such a weird thing to say, “ethnically Christian”, but ethnically Jewish actually makes sense? Could it be that I am at once a Jew but not Jewish?

I’m not asking these questions because I want to cast doubt on the validity of ethnic Jewishness, but because I actually do feel like a Jew and I’m not really sure why. Maybe it’s from years of internalizing my mother’s exhortations. Maybe I really am Jewish on some level, even if I can’t explain it and don’t understand it. But still, by calling myself a Jew I feel like I am taking something I haven’t earned, like I’m diluting the true meaning of what it means to be Jewish. I mean, if I can call myself a Jew despite a pretty consistent track record of doing absolutely nothing Jewish, then who can’t? It's not like just anyone can join the Tribe, right? There are standards to uphold, hurdles to jump, poles to limbo under, and I don't think I've done any of the above. The truth is, I want to be a Jew, but I’d be lying to myself - and to my mother - if I said I was sure that I am one now or ever have been in the past.

I finally do understand why my mother never relented, and why my grandfather wasn’t suddenly not Jewish after escaping his parents’ orthodoxy, and why my Jewish heritage is important and relevant even though I’ve never practiced the religion; certain things can define us, whether we choose to embrace them or not, if we even have a choice at all. Regardless of how I see myself, I am a Jew in the eyes of a large number of people in the world, and there are a huge number of people who don’t have the luxury of being able to wax philosophic about their relationship with Judaism. For many, there is no choice or self-determination involved in personal identity, and this of course extends far beyond religion. In this sense I have a responsibility to acknowledge my heritage, for to shy away from it would be wishy-washy, if not cowardly.

But still, understanding the importance of my Jewish heritage doesn’t automatically make me a Jew. The thing about heritage is that, even though it’s inherited, it still has to be taught. An acorn might contain the potential to become an oak tree, but without proper nourishment it will never reach such heights. If being Jewish was as easy as calling myself a Jew, then Jewish I would be, but there’s more to it than that – sure, I’ve got the curly hair that I begrudgingly will acknowledge as a Jewfro, I’ve got the self-deprecating sense of humor and I’ve got an almost frightening love of bagels and smoked fish, but I just don’t know if I’ve got the pintele Yid. But now, more so than ever, it’s something I’m looking for, hoping that with a little bit of effort and help from osmosis or maybe some unknown internal process I’ll be able to absorb it from my surroundings, from my friends and my family, and one day I’ll say honestly and with a clean conscience, “Yes, Mom, I know that I am a Jew.”

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