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"You Don't Have to Be Jewish"

Sometimes when I mention something anti-semitic that happened to me to a gentile, I get the response that is the title of this essay.  If it’s so bad, why do you stay Jewish?  I’ve even been told that anti-Semitism isn’t real oppression, because after all, I can stop being Jewish any time I like.  Well.

Let’s pretend for just a moment that it isn’t dehumanizing at all to ask someone to strip themselves of their cultural, religious, and ethnic identity in exchange for basic respect.  Let’s pretend that forced and coerced assimilation hasn’t been used as tools of oppression , and that this hasn’t let deep cultural wounds in people all over the world.  Let’s pretend that our culture isn’t something valuable to us.  Let’s pretend that after thousands and thousands of years of gentiles trying to do away with our irritating Jewishness through mass murder and forced conversions it isn’t horribly offensive to suggest Jews give up that Jewishness to be tolerated.  Let’s pretend that every Jewish person has the ability to up and move at a moment’s notice to somewhere where no one has ever met them or knows that they were “once a Jew” since after all, in the minds of many, former Jews are just as bad as current ones.  Let’s pretend all of that for the sake of this essay and ask, would it work?

My great great grandfather left Oregon and moved to the east coast.  He passed himself off as a Christian to go to West Point back before Jews were allowed in.  He married a woman from a wealthy Milanese family, who died when their children were very young of Type I diabetes only a year before insulin became available.  He discovered [minor but profitable scientific discovery redacted, to protect my anonymity], but his patent lawyer cheated him out of the patent, and sold it, and now my great great grandfather’s name only shows up in scientific texts, and on his court case.  In flagrant defiance of the courts, he continued to manufacture his discovery until the corporation that owned the patent had him shut down.  It’s pretty obvious reading the court case that my great great grandfather’s opponents didn’t have a legal leg to stand on, and the judge didn’t care.  In spite of the fact that my great great grandfather wasn’t open about his Jewishness, he still had a Jewish last name, recognizably Ashkenazi facial features.  This was enough.  The judge ruled against him, leaving him almost destitute.

My great great grandfather had four children, only the oldest three of them knew about their Jewish heritage.  The youngest was from his second wife, and born late in his father’s life.  My grandmother remembers him fondly as an older brother type figure, and I have no idea what happened to him after my great grandfather moved his children to Pennsylvania Dutch country.  The second youngest was a pedophile who sexually abused his daughters, and my aunt, and the family cut off contact with him.  The second oldest brother moved to California, became a screen writer, worked on pro-America propaganda films during WWII, and was a practicing Jew.  The oldest was my great grandfather.  He raised his children with no idea of their Jewish heritage.  This didn’t stop the local Pennsylvania Dutch gentiles from knowing.  This meant that my grandmother never understood why when other girls got pregnant in high school and dropped out to get married, people would shake their heads, and that would be the end of it, but when she got pregnant and dropped out of high school to marry her boyfriend, she was a whore who ruined a good boy.  My great uncle didn’t know why the families of all the local girls kept running him off.  Finally, he confronted his father, after one girl told him her family would never let her date a Jew.  The whole town knew, even if they didn’t.

My great aunt married a Pennsylvania Dutch man a few towns over, and their daughter, my mother’s first cousin, came of age in the 1970s.  She had thick, frizzy, curly Jewish hair.  She never faced overt anti-Semitism.  She had a gentile last name, neighbors who didn’t know the family history, and good luck.  But she ran right into the beauty norms that label Ashkenazi facial features like hers as ugly and undesirable.  After her creep of a husband had spent their whole marriage calling her [name redacted] Africa, and The Great White African, he left her for a gentile girl with sleek blonde hair and a little nose.  She now straightens and bleaches her hair, and has had a nose job.  She looks ridiculous, and she still talks about how much she hates the looks she inherited from her mother.

My mom also had a childhood without overt anti-Semitism.  My grandmother took her children to live in the same town as her sister, and to hear my mother tell it, her childhood was downright idyllic.  Here too though, there is pain in my mother’s stories of how her grandfather kept his distance, and lied and kept secrets from the grandchildren he so loved in an effort to keep his Jewish heritage from tainting them, his goy grandchildren.  My mom also tells stories about the way no one at her school had ever met a Jew, and everyone told anti-Semitic jokes, and she would tell them to her grandfather, blissfully unaware of why he would go so quiet afterwards.

After divorcing my grandfather, my grandmother moved to Florida.  Almost all of her friends there were Jewish.  Growing up, they took me to the symphony and to art museums, drove me to the library, introduced me to comedy, books, food, and theater.  They welcomed me into their homes as if I were their own grandchild, and I grew up thinking all old people spoke with a Brooklyn accent.  My grandmother, barely aware of her own Jewish heritage, surrounded herself with Jewish people, because it felt familiar and right to her, because for all her father and grandfather had tried to strip away their Jewish identity and assimilate, there was something they missed, something my grandmother’s Jewish friends shared with her, something that goes deeper than religion or conscious thought, but are instead values and ways of thinking, passed down to my grandmother from her Jewish family.  In the last twelve years, they have all succumbed to old age, and my grandmother is the last one left.  It makes me enormously happy that they all lived long enough to see their goy adopted granddaughter make the choice to be Jewish.

My mother began studying Judaism when I was ten years old and soon after began taking me to synagogue.  This coincided with the treatment for my immune disorder beginning to work, and my neurological state finally improving, which means that these are some of my very first memories.  I don’t remember my childhood without Judaism.  My mother made the formal choice to begin the process of conversion when I was twelve.   She was the only one in her class who wasn’t marrying a Jewish spouse.  Her conversion ceremony was held eleven days after my thirteenth birthday, on Halloween.  The three rabbis, my mother and I all wore our costumes.  It was only after this that my mother found her great uncle’s name on a list of Jewish screenwriters, and my grandmother finally told her about her Jewish heritage.  My mother, denied her Jewish identity by her grandfather and great grandfather’s fears, and yet raised disconnected from the mainstream American gentile culture, she like my grandmother gravitated towards Jewish friends, and then Judaism itself, seeking, and finding that which was missing.

I began calling myself Jewish a few months after my mother converted though I have never formally converted myself.  Every so often I think about going through the process, but it feels wrong, as if I’m saying, now, now is when I start my Jewish life, as if I am denying the Jewish life I have lived for as long as I can remember.

My town in California where we lived while my mother was going through the process of conversion didn’t have a synagogue, and the synagogue she chose did not happen to be the one that most of the Jewish people in my town went to.  No one in town or at my school knew she went there.  No one had ever been told she, we, were Jewish.  Yet when I was ten, a girl grabbed my arm, pushed herself in close, and whispered “kike!” in my ear.  My middle school science teacher made every effort to fail me along with the other Jewish students.  In sixth grade, a girl told me that she could never vote for a Jew like me (in reference to Joe Lieberman’s vice presidential candidacy)  because you couldn’t be a good person unless you were Christian.  This was before I ever called myself Jewish.  When my mother converted, everyone in town was surprised.  People kept coming up to my mother to tell her they thought she already was Jewish.  No one had told them we were Jewish, and yet the whole town knew, even if we didn’t.

For the ambitions of my great great grandfather, and the fears of my great grandfather, my family has been sundered from our culture, our history, and our identity.  My mother, my grandmother, and I are left to reconstruct from scraps traditions that should be our birthright.  And it didn’t work.  No matter how much of our Jewishness my family stripped away from ourselves, it lingered in bits and pieces, like beacons to the anti-Semites.  Don’t tell me I can stop being Jewish any time.  My family tried that.  It didn’t work.


( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 3rd, 2014 08:36 pm (UTC)
This might sound weird or too personal so feel free not to anwer, but... what does being Jewish mean for you?

My great-grandfather was Jewish and he was a Holocaust survivor, but he was the last Jewish person in the the family - my great-grandmother and my grandmother never practiced the religion. He died long before I was born and I know very little about him from my father, but I've always wondered about my cultural heritage and tried to connect with him somehow. I visited Theresienstadt once, but it didn't give me anything except sorrow and respect for all the people who suffered there. I know I can't really know who he was but... well.

I know so little about Judaism and Jewish culture. I didn't even know what "Hanukkah" was until I got into the WC fandom. It's just that researching information on wikipedia or google feels so flat and distant. Our teacher at high school was supposed to teach us about the Jewish culture, but all she did was recite a long list of holidays and then taking us to the parts of town that used to be Jewish, the highlight being an old Jewish graveyard.

I've heard enough about people dying; what about how they live? I know it differs family from family, but I'd be grateful for just... something. A story, a detail, an image or a tradition... something. Does that make any sense?
Jun. 4th, 2014 01:26 am (UTC)
Wow, um, that's not actually a question anyone has ever asked me, at least not that way. being Jewish has meant different things to me at different times. When I was ten, it was this strange thing, and it was my mother's thing, not mine thanks, but I wanted to go to temple whenever my mom did because the Rabbi gave me books (secret to my heart, that). When I was eleven and twelve, it meant living with ghosts and shadows, and learning bit by bit that so many of the little things, the traditions my family had that I thought no one else did (or that everyone else did) were Jewish customs and traditions, like my mother and grandmother insisting that when someone died, flowers were useless, you brought their family food, so that they didn't even need to think about it while they grieved, or the way I was taught to treat books almost like sacred relics.

When I was fourteen and the first of my grandmother's Jewish friends had died, it meant this desperate need to go to a synagogue, any synagogue, and be there when everyone said the mourner's kaddish, and just be there, surrounded by people who knew how to mourn a man who had meant so much to me the way he wanted to be mourned, the way he had mourned when he had lost people close to him, and the way his family mourned him all the way across the country from me. When I was fifteen, it meant knowing all the Jewish kids, and being friends with all of them, and having people to laugh with when my mother bought a menorah modeled after the synagogues destroyed by the Nazis, because it was just so wrong. It meant my second stalker stealing my things and leaving them on my desk covered in swastikas. It meant hearing anti-Semitic slurs hurled at me, and kids throwing me the Nazi salute in the hall. It meant all of us Jewish kids hanging out after school and making ridiculous puns and eating sacrilegious ham and cheese sandwiches for Passover.

It meant having one more thing to try to catch up on after the yawning blankness that was my childhood. It also meant being able to go to the synagogue and have people I felt safe with, because they were taught to value the things I was taught to value, and understood why these things were important.

Now, it means knowing that so many of my family's traditions will never be recovered, and I have to make them anew. It's a bittersweet feeling, knowing that I don't have a matzo ball soup recipe from my grandmother. My children and grandchildren will learn my recipe instead. I don't have the stories of holidays past, but my children will hear about the first Seder I hosted in college, and how we sang all of the prayers in the Haggadah to the tune of Dayenu, because it was the only song I could remember. It means that strange and slow process of learning Hebrew and going to synagogue, and realizing you know what you're singing. It's about being what I always was and didn't have a name for. It's about Friday evenings with the family, and no, really Mom, I'm twenty five, you don't need to say the blessing over me. It's about family stories, and memories, and study. It's about being at home in my own skin.

It;s about moral obligations, youth group, torah school, community, being Jewish is this whole spiderweb part of my life that touches everything and is threaded inextricably through me.
Jun. 4th, 2014 01:33 am (UTC)
So many gentiles have this odd notion that the way to forge a connection to Jewish culture is through deep tragedy, and confronting the Jewish dead, which as you realized is a dead end. Judaism isn't just about dead Jews, it's about those of us who live and express our Jewishness in a million different ways. And the best thing to do is what you just did, ask. Jewish culture places a huge emphasis on learning, but also on teaching. You can never go wrong asking with the sincere desire to learn.

Edited at 2014-06-04 12:07 pm (UTC)
Jun. 4th, 2014 01:59 pm (UTC)
Thank you so much for sharing all of this. Because of my country's history (first with Nazi occupation, then forty years of communist oppression), only an extremely small minority still lives here. I've never met anyone Jewish in person, or if they were, I didn't know, so it means a lot to me to learn something about the culture at least this way. Thank you again.

In regard to your original post, I'm sorry you and your family had to deal with this sort of intolerance, and I'm glad you were able to reconnect with your origins - good for you! It's sad that some of the traditions were lost, but then I imagine there must be something satisfying in rediscovering them and passing them on. They've tried and failed to take away your identity - I guess that's the best victory over bulies, racists and other kind of jerks.

I read you mention some movies/books in the comments below - are there some good ones with Jewish characters that don't deal with Nazism but have the characters doing "normal" stuff, like going to work or awkwardly dealing with first love?
Jun. 4th, 2014 03:35 pm (UTC)
My mother and grandmother both grew up not meeting anyone Jewish outside their families until my grandmother moved to Florida. There really isn't a way to make those connections without meeting and talking to Jewish people, which is really unfair to the people who don't have that opportunity. I was lucky. I had lots of Jewish friends growing up who knew my family history, at least vaguely, and didn't laugh (or at least not meanly) when I asked questions.

What I wish I had, and that I can't recreate, are the versions of the customs that my family had. I can practice Jewish tradition myself, make a tradition for the family that comes after me, but I will be the first in my family to do them this way. This is why I prize so highly the traditions that somehow survived almost completely intact. My family never made a big deal out of Christmas, my mom's family hadn't, and my dad had nasty memories associated with it, but one thing we did do, was every year, my siblings and I got oranges, chocolate coins, and checks from my parents, my grandmother, and her sister, the first of which is a family tradition, and the second and third are Hanukkah gelt repackaged. This is the way my family celebrates this holiday, and I don't have to remake it.

I'm actually putting together just such a list, mostly of YA books. (I may have gotten a little annoyed when I saw that all of the books on the weneeddiversebooks list with Jewish characters were Holocaust novels, and most of them only had Jewish side characters) but anyway, I haven't read most of the books I need to for the list, but I'm getting there. Dave at Night by Gail Carson Levine, which is mentioned below is about a Sephardi Jewish boy who sneaks out of his New York orphanage very night and experiences the Harlem Renaissance. The Chosen and The Promise by Chaim Potok are classics about two mid-century American Ashkenazi Jewish boys, one mainstream orthodox, one Hasid, who become friends. I'll have more soon.
Jun. 4th, 2014 09:08 am (UTC)
In what world, in what universe, is it okay to tell someone that not being Jewish is the solution to anti-Semitism? I mean, how does anyone get it into their head to say something so bigoted and ignorant? This is an excellent rebuttal that does a great job pointing out that even if we left aside the genocidal implications and the fact that it's no protection (the Nazis came for assimilated and converted Jews), it's also impossible. I'm sometimes amazed by how even-tempered and reasonable you are in the face of rampant stupidity, but then I am reminded that my prickly temper is also a privilege of the majority--I feel safe enough to be angry; I can afford to be.

In better news from the literary world, it turns out Dave at Night has aged well and continues to be awesome. I was excited when the book seemed to be touching on material I've read about in The Warmth of Other Suns. "Is this a rent party? It seems to be a rent party. Yes, It's a rent party! OMG IT'S LANGSTON HUGHES *fans self*" The descriptions of Dave's psyche and the world around him are so spot-on and so rich. I kept turning the scenes into movie scenes in my head, dreaming of how to get Dave's numerous hilarious observations through to the screen, how to cut the scene to heighten the suspense in a tense cat-and-mouse sequence. The beautiful scene where he envisions jazz music as a picture, as befits a budding artist, could be done as an overlay of bright colors like a city night and straight lines like shooting stars over the jazz-playing while Dave sits there, entranced. I can even see Dave's face. You'd need at least three or four highly talented child actors, preferably with Jewish features (for Dave, a Harvey/Eli composite, Mike, and Alfie) and Dave will have to be actually eleven or Irma Lee aged up because a fourteen-year-old getting the hots for a ten-year-old is no longer politically correct, but that's no-

Oh, who am I kidding. A movie filled with Jewish and black characters? It won't fly and we'd be lucky if it didn't get whitewashed to hell. Still. I can dream, can't I? Besides, the book still has time to screw up with the ending. I'm not going to get my hopes up too much, though 2/3 of the way through I am enjoying myself very, very much.
Jun. 4th, 2014 11:22 am (UTC)
Yeah, well, strangely enough, it's a sure bet that the person saying it is an anti-Semite, and I just hadn't cottoned on yet. And depending how safe I feel, I either give them the dirtiest of dirty looks, or smile that "I'm a nice Jewish girl who has been taught not to offend the anti-Semites because they're scary when provoked", but either way what I want to do is start screaming "fuck your goddamn, ignorant, bigoted shit, you fucking asswipe!" This is why I feel so much safer at temple. It's not that Jewish people are better people, it's just that they don't say crap like this to me.

Oh, I'm so glad! I really need to reread it. I've got the first few novels from my list, and the first seems kinda like improving literature. And I read the sequel to The School for Good and Evil and I'm caught between writing a real review and just letting out a string of curses.

Oh, who am I kidding. A movie filled with Jewish and black characters? It won't fly and we'd be lucky if it didn't get whitewashed to hell.

Yeah. "I'm caught between yes it would be a great movie!" and "no, there's no way this would turn out well." A movie is only allowed to be full of black characters if it's about slavery (and even then) or "for blacks only" and a movie is only allowed to be about Jewish characters if it's a comedy, a Holocaust movie, or Fiddler on the Roof.
Jun. 4th, 2014 05:32 pm (UTC)
This is why I feel so much safer at temple. It's not that Jewish people are better people, it's just that they don't say crap like this to me.

Yes, exactly. It's part of the reason why I far prefer to live in Korea, not because it's perfect here but because it's safe. Safe for me, that is, because I'm a member of the majority here. Also many fewer guns in the civilian world.

LOL, A World Without Princes not working out? It has such a promising title, too.

I finished Dave at Night and quite liked it. The ending was rather pat and happy, but it was happy in a way that made sense for the story. Definitely one of the better novels I read lately, and I've been reading some of the classics like The Age of Innocence and The Killer Angels. I feel rather silly for not realizing Carson had written Ella Enchanted, though I never read EE so I have that excuse. I'd also bought the audiobook version of her book Writing Magic, though I haven't listened to it yet.

A movie is only allowed to be full of black characters if it's about slavery (and even then) or "for blacks only" and a movie is only allowed to be about Jewish characters if it's a comedy, a Holocaust movie, or Fiddler on the Roof.

It occurs to me that there are many atrocity movies but not enough sub-atrocity movies about bigotry, i.e. movies dealing with everyday racism, anti-semitism etc. The cynical part of me wonders if that's because focusing on the worst of the worst excesses of human crimes--slavery, genocide and so on--allows majority audiences the comfort of knowing, "Hey, we're not that bad so we're all right." I have definitely seen this kind of "it's not racism unless it's slavery/lynching," "it's not anti-semitism if it's not genocide" arguments floating around the Web, so I think my speculation has some grounds. I'm pretty sure the anti-semites who say abhorrent things to you feel pretty damned good about themselves because they're totally not Nazis. They can hear Holocaust stories or watch a movie and gain assurance of their moral superiority compared to those people.
Jun. 4th, 2014 06:29 pm (UTC)
I wrote a short review of A World Without Princes but the even shorter version is that Chainani tried to write an allegory on gender, and he's a chauvinistic, gender essentialist, transphobic ass.

Ella Enchanted was the first book by her I read. My grandmother loves it. It's how I got her into YA.

The "Hey, we're not that bad so we're all right" is extremely common, and I think you're dead on about its effect on what movies get made.
Jun. 10th, 2014 12:59 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the post, it's a fascinating (tragic, infuriating) read.
Jun. 10th, 2014 03:07 pm (UTC)
Thanks. It's kind of weird looking back on it knowing that my blood connection to the Jewish people is actually pretty thin, but that because of the fact that for a series of reasons, the non-Jewish parent in each generation didn't have much to do with the cultural shaping of their kids (died too young like my great great grandmother, grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, and was in many ways very culturally Jewish herself, like my great grandmother, uninvolved like my grandfather, thoroughly disconnected from his own cultural roots and very quiet like my father) we ended up very very culturally Ashkenazi Jewish anyway.

My blood connection is probably stronger than that, but not by much. I have inherited some very interesting typically Ashkenazi genetic diseases that aren't found on my mother's side, probably through my father's mother, whose own mother was blue eyed, and had a blue eyed husband, yet somehow kept having brown eyed children.
Jun. 10th, 2014 05:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks for sharing. I was very lucky to grow up in suburban NJ where anti-Semitism is very low, but I remember how shocked I was when I encountered it online, or on my first trip to Italy.

I had an professor in college once who believed ethnicity is fluid and completely changeable. And while theoretically this is true, I was very uncomfortable with the idea because I knew the great lengths I would have to go to to not be Jewish.
Jun. 10th, 2014 06:07 pm (UTC)
My small town in California had really low levels of anti-Semitism, which is why the incidents I experienced stood out to me, unlike where I lived in New Mexico, which was intensely anti-Semitic, and very frightening. In California, everybody thought my family was Jewish, but almost no one cared. My California town was ableist as fuck, though, which is why I never ever want to go back.

I had an professor in college once who believed ethnicity is fluid and completely changeable.

I guess that's true, in the same way molasses is fluid. It's also sticky.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )