The Four (Thousand, New) Questions

When I was growing up, I didn’t really have to think too much about what it meant to be a Jewish American. A large part of that was living in New Jersey, where being a member of the tribe isn’t exactly an anomaly. In Newark, pretty much all of my friends were Jewish or Black, until I spent 2nd grade in Catholic School. You’d think that might make it weird, but even then, it wasn’t. All my new friends just had Irish and Italian names, and I got to sit in the back during mass and read, which is the dream of every second grader. And when we moved to the suburbs, things became, if anything, more Jewy. We joined Temple Israel and actually tried going to services every once in a while, and I went to Hebrew school on Saturdays. At my suburban public grade school, I learned the term “Jappy” something my friends and I called other girls that we considered spoiled, regardless of whether or not they were Jewish, and in junior high, the school bus that came from the most wealthy, Jewish neighborhood in town was sometimes referred to as “The Jew Canoe.” Who did we learn these terms from? Other Jews. We were the ones trading in the laughable stereotypes, because that’s American Jewish culture all over: we joke because we can. It’s never been in doubt in my lifetime that we belong here, to the degree that we are comfortable poking fun at ourselves, enough that while we are very aware that we aren’t and will never be the majority — and if you forget that, you always have the 30 to 60 days of Christmas to remind you — we are perfectly okay with that; and enough to feel safe in the knowledge that the past is the past, because in the Tri-State Area in the 1970s and 80s, anti-Semitism was about as real to me as Star Wars: something that existed long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The same thing with Nazis. Nazis were the movie villains nobody got upset about. Nobody ever said, “Why do the Nazis always have to be the bad guys?” Why? Because they were the bad guys.

That doesn’t mean that my Jewish identity was 100% uncomplicated, mostly because I was raised to figure stuff out for myself. Mine were the kind of parents who took us to fancy restaurants and said, “Want to order the escargot? Have at it!”, perhaps not realizing that they’d end up with a seven-year-old who liked to try every appetizer on the menu but had a stomach the size of a golfball – which led to my parents gaining weight in the 70s, which led to their joining the exercise craze in the 80s…See how history happens? Being able to make my own decisions meant I could quit Hebrew school after one year (I was already a well-practiced quitter of stuff I didn’t like, such as wearing dresses and learning the violin). I felt a little guilty about it, so I was definitely Jewish in that way, but one of the reasons I couldn’t get behind religious school was the fact that Judaism was supposedly my religion, but – go figure – our family was not religious. My parents don’t agree on which type of not-religious they are, since my mother describes herself as an atheist and my father calls himself an agnostic, but that’s only if you push them, since neither of them cares enough about it either way. They still identify as Jewish, and therein lay the confusion for me: Judaism is kind of an ethnic identity as well as a religion, but in a weird way, because you can convert to it, which you can’t do with, say, Slavic, and because it’s not one where we all come from one specific place, since Jews were basically driven out of everywhere. Sure, my family were all driven out of one country, Poland, but that didn’t exactly make them feel Polish. No, we were definitely Jews, just the secular kind, which is actually a thing — although I didn’t know anyone else like that in high school, the result being that in my group of friends, a mix of Jews and non-Jews, I was in my own category of Jewish, But Doesn’t Know When Any of the Holidays Are.

When I went to college on the West Coast, where I was meeting new people all the time, it was common for people tell me I didn’t “look Jewish,” which seemed to just fit right in with every other confusing part of my Jewish identity. You might think that, as a stealth Jew, I’d finally be privy to negativity about us, but that never happened. That was around the time of the rise of the religious right, and there were a lot of born-again Christians at Stanford, my freshman dorm was full of them. But while they may have believed I was going to hell, most of them still seemed happy to hang with me while we were alive – one of them even took me out for fro yo once (that’s short for “frozen yogurt,” and eating it together at Stanford in 1987 was called “dating”). If anything, being Jewish around them was an advantage, because they never tried to rebirth me the way they did other Christians, like my poor freshman roommate – I would come back to our room to find her surrounded by a group of them, looking uncomfortable, like she was getting hit on by Jesus. Mind you, I know now that my school was a liberal bubble inside the liberal bubble that was Northern California, and that protected me from a lot of things. But while we were definitely dealing with racism and sexism on campus at the time, anti-Semitism? That just wasn’t a thing.

Neither was being a Jewish person who didn’t support Israel. I didn’t know all that much about Israel growing up. I knew that it was the Jewish state, where I had once had some relatives, and that my cousins and eventually my brother — who finished Hebrew school — went to visit because they felt like it was an important way to learn about who they were. I didn’t. But when, in college, I had my first conversation with someone who’d lived in Israel about the way that Israelis felt this constant existential threat to their existence that justified their defensive posture when it came to negotiating peace with the Palestinians, even though they clearly had vast military superiority, I didn’t necessarily agree, but I got it. I understood why Israelis felt that, in a visceral, six-million-dead-just-because-they-were-like-you way that I think most non-Jews can’t.

That was probably as much of a surprise to me as it was to anyone: that, on some level, in spite of not looking Jewish, or being able to speak Hebrew, or knowing what Sukkot was (if it wasn’t about eating or presents, it didn’t make it into the Nagler Canon of Holidays), I actually still somehow just was Jewish. And that part of my identity might never have really sunk in if I hadn’t become a New Yorker. Moving here didn’t just mean that I discovered Zabars, or that I was a bagel snob, or that I would be able to have lox at catering pretty much every day (and occasionally take some home if it was really good), although those things did indeed happen. New York was able to absorb and assimilate Jewish culture in a way that allowed it to flourish as one distinct flavor of the whole that is this city of many flavors. New York is a Jewish city – in same way that it’s also Italian, Irish, African-American, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Russian, Indian, Dominican, Pakistani, Caribbean, Mexican, and the list goes on depending on who’s arrived recently and who’s coming next. And so, from the way I relate to food, to my sense of humor, to my analytical and intellectual side, to how forthright/tactless I can be, to my overall worldview: living here enabled me to recognize that I just wouldn’t be this way if I weren’t Jewish.

Everything feels different in 2019 in so many, surreal ways, but what exactly it means to be Jewish in America is definitely a big one. I’ve felt some vulnerability and uncertainty as a woman for most of my life, as you do, but I’ve never felt that way about being a Jew until now. To the point that I can’t call myself “a Jew” any more, because suddenly, that’s an epithet. How the hell did that happen? When did we allow them to take that word away? Then there’s the realization of, Wait, we can’t make those jokes any more because there are people who actually still think that shit about us? And they’re telling other people? Fucking internet. Add to that the fault lines within the American Jewish community over Israel and the ground really starts to feel like it’s swaying under your feet. How much we should continue to support this country that seems increasingly unrecognizable to me, that is so racked by fear and sectarianism that it appears to have given up on peace and democracy, that votes for a leader who has demonstrated time and again that he is both racist and corrupt? Well, now that I’ve put it like that, okay, maybe this is something that Israel and the United States have in common right now, but that doesn’t make it any better for those of use who are trying to stay on the sane side of it all. I’m lucky that most of my family is in agreement with me on these issues, but my mother has some cousins with whom she is close that she had to ask to stop sending her political emails, because their conservative views about Israel seemed to have somehow spread to abortion and immigration, despite that fact that they live in San Francisco. Jewish Trump supporters? From the Bay Area? What the hell is the going on?! Come on, this can’t be us. When an audience at the Republican Jewish Coalition cheers when Trump says “Our country’s full. You can’t come in,” don’t they hear the eerie echos of what the American government said to the boats full of Jews they sent back to be slaughtered in the holocaust? Don’t they know that we are supposed to be sharp, and educated, and fucking liberals? Oh, wait, is “liberal” now a bad word not just among conservatives but for some on the left too, as in the “liberal elite who control everything” that they’re always talking about? But, double wait, wasn’t that just another way anti-Semites used to say “the Jews” without saying “the Jews”? But triple wait, aren’t Bernie Sanders and Glenn Greenwald Jewish? WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Of course, this about when all of your older Jewish relatives shake their heads at all of this and say, “See? This is exactly the shit always happens to us. Somehow, when things go bad in the world, and people start believing crazy conspiracy shit, that always turns back on the Jews.” I never believed that before, so to see it sort of happening right before my eyes is really something. But at the same time, I’m sure as hell not going to let that make me just silo up. Yeah, there are the swastikas, and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, and “Jews will not replace us,” but can we honestly say we have it worse than everyone else who’s under attack in this country right now? What’s the point of joining a grievance competition that just gives the people who are trying to divide the left exactly what they want? It’s how, when the new questions that confuse and divide us just keep coming — What do we say or not say about Ilhan Omar? What about the schism in the Women’s March? What about the Senate bill that would allow state and local governments to withhold contracts from those who boycott Israel that Chuck Schumer supported? — they just get us to go after each other.

Let’s not do that. Sure, maybe this is just another case of me getting older and less able to accept how the world is changing — sort of a, “Damn Nazis, get off my lawn!” type of thing – and maybe I should just go along with this new normal. But that’s one thing I know is definitely not me. MoTs like to talk shit out, sometimes too much, but eh. Let’s bring that tradition of analysis and argument — and I mean the kind where you’re forthright and emotional, but you still know how to listen — to bear on the questions we’re having both on the left and in the Jewish community about how we move forward, instead of fleeing back into our fears from the past.

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