I Am Not Jewish, I Am Jewish

It was hard to know what to pay attention to yesterday. Fires, shootings, elections, the Constitution, pipe bombs, demonizing the media, Russia, the Caravan, children STILL separated from parents, war-torn everywhere. Everything else pales. And yet we keep on with our small lives, surviving, loving, laughing, singing. I’m privileged to be able to turn away when I must, protest when I can, read, cry. There’s no comfort, and yet there is. I send love out to the world. It has to be enough.

It was an exhausting day, and yet I could not turn away from the news, there was so much that needed attention, so much bearing witness. I went to the Move On/Indivisible rally to protest Whitaker’s appointment and demand his recusal and to protect Mueller’s investigation. I should have carried a sign that said “Protesting this shit since 1969” because that’s how tired I felt, and because rallies always make me think about that first peace march I attended, protesting the war in Viet Nam. Not In My Name should not have to be a permanent rallying cry as the government continues to flaunt the will of the people.

No One is Above the Law Rally, Portland

No One is Above the Law Rally, Portland

The rabbi at the rally mentioned that it was Kristallnacht eve, and how many of us suffer an epigenetic memory of horrors from our past, from our ancestral past. We sang a couple songs in Hebrew, which was surprising and a little uncomfortable in that very not-Jewish Portland crowd. At the same time it was heartening and warming on that cold evening as darkness fell to chant some ancient words that I didn’t understand, singing ya da die ya da die ya da die as Jews have done for a very long time.

495px-Map_showing_the_percentage_of_Jews_in_the_Pale_of_Settlement_and_Congress_Poland,_The_Jewish_Encyclopedia_(1905)

My people came from Vilna, in the Pale of Settlement, Poland/Russia

I never felt much connection to the pogroms that my great grandparents (on one side) and great great grandparents (on the other) suffered through and escaped. No one in my family ever talked about it. And yet I broke down last week during choir as 35 of us sang You Are Held By Holy Angels in four part harmony, following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. It is inexplicable to me that I can feel rage and disgust and horror at the slights, racism, prejudices that surround us daily, and yet when it is a Jewish tragedy, there is first that same twinge of grief or horror, but then the hurt goes deeper, tears rise unexpectedly, mourning comes unbidden and without thought and I am cracked open. I somehow have a gene-deep tie to my history.

My explanation to others (and to myself) about being Jewish has always been, “I’m not that Jewish.” Or, “I’m a cultural Jew.” I thought I said it because I’m not a religious god worshipping person, but I realize now that I have said it, believed it, promoted it as a way of hiding, as a way of deflecting closer examination, spurning possible prejudice, and not wanting to be different in that way. It didn’t occur to me until now that this was what I was doing, but I am! I do! I want to blend in, I want to be just another American, I want to protect my privilege, I don’t want to be different. I don’t have to be hated for who I am. I can hide in a way that people of color can’t hide, and I use and depend on that privilege, even while thinking my nose and my appearance are a dead giveaway. I’d fit right in with those my Jewish Polish peasant ancestors.

Sometimes a friend would say that they wish they were Jewish, or they’d incorporate Jewish observances into their spiritual practice. Part of me never understood this, but I also felt a twinge of gratitude and pride at being a Jew, at being able to ignore being a Jew because I just was.

And yet, when there is a Jewish holiday, a Jewish gathering, a Jewish tragedy, a Jewish song, Jewish suffering, Jewish arguments, Jewish discrimination, Jewish spotlight of any kind, there’s a quickening, a recognition, an identification, a warmth, a connection, and I feel utterly Jewish, completely immersed in whatever feeling and emotion that go with the experience. Whether it’s a joyful gathering or a tragedy, there is the same bittersweet sadness, a mourning that courses through my body, the edge of tears that come up unbidden. That night at choir opened me up, bringing me to a place where there was only grief and despair, when the 11 dead people in the synagogue were the same as the millions dead in the Holocaust in the last century, and millions dead in eastern European pogroms in the century before that, and the piles of bodies from centuries before that. It is impossible for me to understand the hate and fear and lack of control that Others feel, why such a small number of people create an imbalance in the world that it must be controlled with violence and discrimination, or with subtle put-downs, with not so funny jokes about money or noses or whatever it is that annoys people about Jews.

I spent a year in Israel during my junior year of college. I went not to discover my roots or learn about my people or find God or even to be with people like me. It was because I needed to flee a broken heart and a broken life and start anew, and the best paths available to me through college without a language requirement were England or Israel, and England didn’t much interest me. So there I was in Israel with other Jewish Americans who in fact WERE there to discover their roots, deepen their Judaism and be with their people. Even then I continued to reject that identification and sought out Israelis who were not necessarily religious, just Jewish by virtue of living in a Jewish State, and being in a Jewish army. We didn’t talk about being Jewish, we didn’t have to.

Family Passover Seder

Family at Annual Passover Seder

I was continually surprised at my response to being there, me who was not very Jewish. I learned pride and identification and connection and warmth at being a Jew among Jews. I was linked through past tragedy, through celebrating and observing seders and shabbats. I learned the connectedness of these occasions that were similarly observed by people all over the world at the same time. That we repeat the same songs, the same chants, the same prayers, the same rituals that millions of Jews have repeated for thousands of years. That is a powerful thing that my years of suburban religious school or growing up in a Jewish family had not prepared me for, and that being one of few Jews at school (who all seemed to avoid each other) had never made me feel.

My wedding

I fought with my mother to have my wedding be more hippie than Jewy.

When I came back and met a nice Jewish boy, I still denied that it was about him being Jewish – that was an accident, that was a fluke, he just happened to be Jewish. But when I visited his home, when I met his parents and felt their warmth and familiarity I felt like I was one of them, and I fell in love, and knew he was my soul mate. I married him. We had a Jewish wedding, with three rabbis officiating, our son had a bris, both kids had Bar Mitzvahs, we sent them on Birthright Israel, we have yearly Passover seders, I attended High Holiday services for many years – but only to please my family. None of it came from religious fervor, and so I still thought of myself as a hidden Jew, an assimilated Jew, a privileged American Jew, and so, not really Jewish.

Jewish Festival with Kol B'Seder

Sometimes I played up the Jew part.

I spent the last several years of my career “working for the Jews” as I still joke. When I applied for a position, I didn’t know it was a Jewish organization until I was called in for an interview, and always felt some discomfort at my subsequent work there, doing PR, writing Jewish things. I just knew how, and I laughed at myself for it, and felt a little apart from my more Jewish colleagues, not quite one of the crowd. When people asked where I work and I’d feel apologetic about my answer, or say that I worked for “a local non-profit” because it wasn’t me, these weren’t my people, it was a job but not a mission. But when we had emergency drill, when we had to hire extra security because of anti-semitic threats, I knew that I would be targeted along with everyone else. “They” didn’t care how Jewish I was.

It’s been a long day, a long career, a long life, but I know, I admit it, there’s something there, some connection with Jews around the world (well, still not the ultra-conservative ones), that let me know yes, whatever it means, I am Jewish, I am Jewish, I am Jewish.

5 thoughts on “I Am Not Jewish, I Am Jewish

  1. Amazing. So profound and unpretentiously spot-on. Totally relate. Thank you for your gift of articulating such nuanced life-stuff. I am Jewish. love you to the Jewish moon! xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

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