Growing Up Jewish in America
From generation to generation…
I’m 8 years old, in Central Florida. Two neighborhood kids have wrestled me to the ground, and their hands are clawing wildly through my thick, curly hair.
“I know you’ve got horns. My parents told me.”
“Yeah, my pastor told me all about you Jews and your demon horns.”
I’m crying of course, because it hurts, and I’m scared, and I’m half-convinced they’re going to find some horns under there.
They scratch and they rip, but they only find my scalp.
Finally, they let me go, to catch my breath and notice the grass stains on my neon pink leggings.
As they walk away together, I hear one conclude,
“She must’ve got them removed.”
This year, after talking about it in therapy, I finally told my mom this story.
Why didn’t I talk to her then? Why did I suffer alone?
That same year, I won the 3rd grade spelling bee and math bee on the same day. In so many ways, I was flourishing.
So why did I keep this pain to myself?
Anti-Semitism on the rise
The recent shooting at Tree of Life synagogue has me reflecting on my own experience growing up Jewish in America.
The ADL says anti-Semitism is on the rise, that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the US rose 57% in 2017:
“The sharp rise was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.”
The ADL’s definition of an anti-Semitic incident would certainly include things like the bullying that 8-year-old me endured. But just as I didn’t report my #metoo stories, I didn’t tell anyone about the anti-Semitism I dealt with. Anti-Semitic incidents are obviously much more prevalent than the statistics show.
My hope is that rather than there being more anti-Semitism, more people are reporting it, instead of living in shame.
The words chosen people aside, Jews understand that we are just one Other in a world full of Others. Judaism’s not about converting people. There’s not one way to be Jewish, and Jewish certainly isn’t the only way to be. It’s just who we are, who I am.
You can be somebody else.
My mom’s mantra has always been, “Celebrate our differences.”
So it doesn’t surprise me that the Tree of Life shooter targeted this synagogue because he saw them on a list of synagogues taking part in National Refugee Shabbat, a campaign of the HIAS, a Jewish nonprofit dedicated to helping refugees from all over the world, Jewish or not, to find safe homes.
My Jewishness has always been intersectional, compatible with my queerness, with my femaleness, with my family’s celebration of differences.
And so, even when I determined the idea of God (as a bearded dude raining down laws) was pretty ridiculous, I never considered renouncing my Judaism.
“I am a Jew because…”
I’m 26 years old, on a rooftop in Tel Aviv, on my free 10-day Birthright trip. Because I’m sympathetic to both Palestinians and Israelis, I’ve chosen a pluralistic trip option (with tour stops like this), and I’m surrounded by new friends who also skew secular and have room for nuance.
We’ve just finished our short Shabbat service, watching the sun set over the Mediterranean, and over a dessert of fresh dates, we discuss:
“I am a Jew because…”
Many of these American Jews worry they’re “not Jewish enough,” either because their moms aren’t Jewish or because they don’t go to temple. I’ve been ordering falafel all week for my new friends, because my limited Hebrew is the best in the group.
Our guide tells us we are all here because we are Jewish. There is no Jewish enough; there is just Jewish.
“You are Jewish enough for Hitler to kill you, so you are Jewish enough for Israel,” he says.
I start crying. Then sobbing. A new friend is holding me. I’m gasping for breath.
I am realizing that I have lived my whole life not feeling safe, and that finally, for a moment, I am safe.
My mom is home worrying about bus bombs.
Just that afternoon, armed guards checked my bag for explosives before I entered the shuk.
I know that very close, there are Palestinians with very legitimate grievances, and also that Israel is surrounded by countries full of people who would be happy to see Israel go away forever.
But suddenly I realize I love Israel, that I want it so badly to exist, for there to be somewhere where I can just be me.
“I am a Jew because…”
Because I am an Other. It’s ironic to let Hitler determine who’s Jewish, but it’s what I’ve always done. I am a Jew because everyone around me is not, and I’ll never fit in. They are normal, and I am… Other. I’ll never be beautiful. I’ll never be safe. I’ll always be blamed, mistrusted, hated, misunderstood.
Here in Israel, I am not Other. I am just me. I look around at these beautiful people. They have dark eyes and thick, dark hair; and I see that maybe I am beautiful too. I feel that I am smart, loved, adventurous, brave. I am a strong Jewish woman, and so, finally, I exhale 26 years of Otherness, and I let myself be enough.
“What should my grandma name be?”
When my husband and I found out we were pregnant, we waited just one day before we called my parents to share the happy news. They were appropriately ecstatic. We hung up the phone, started to discuss who to call next, when my mom called back:
“Okay, so it’s time to pick out my grandma name. I’m on a website. There are traditional grandma names, trendy grandma names, sassy ones. Fancy ones. Clearly I’m not fancy.”
Putting aside whether it was time to pick out her grandma name, I thought it was obvious: she was a Jewish grandmother, so she would be Bubbie.
“No, my Bubbie was from the Old Country. I can’t be Bubbie. I don’t speak Yiddish.”
And so, throughout the pregnancy, even at the baby shower, she was Grammy.
But when that baby was born, she finally embraced the title Bubbie. To me, she was so clearly the Jewish matriarch my baby deserved. Her mom had died when she was a kid, from aggressive, early-onset breast cancer, from the BRCA gene, common in Ashkenazi Jewish families. Her only sister had died from BRCA as well. So, to me, she had always been the matriarch, the Bubbie.
She is Jewish because I am Jewish because my mom is Jewish.
Many Jews, rather than using the would-Hitler-kill-you test, say Judaism flows through the mom. (If you have a Jewish dad but not a mom, you can do an easy conversion ceremony if you want.)
And so, even to traditionalists, my daughter — my white-passing technically only 25% Jewish daughter — is a Jew. Full stop. She is Jewish because I am Jewish because my mom is Jewish. And so, if my daughter has a child with a non-Jew, that child will be Jewish, no matter that a gene test would show them to be only 12.5% Jewish. Will people be shaking their heads at my grandkids the way they were doing at Elizabeth Warren?
I know the difference:
Warren (is upfront that she) doesn’t know her family history, doesn’t have a connection to a Native culture.
So many Jews are worried that our culture will evaporate if we intermarry. My mom received a very hard time about intermarriage. Her father wouldn’t even meet my dad, for so many years, until my parents finally eloped, and my grandpa got on board so he could know his grandchildren someday.
Now I’ve gone and intermarried too (something none of my Jewish cousins have done, by the way).
And I am raising my kid as culturally Jewish, 25%-be-damned.
She’s been singing her aleph-bet since before she was 2, and she gets super-excited about candles and latkes on Hanukkah. We’ve got a shelf full of PJ Library books, and she’s saving up coins in a tzedakah box. (She wants to donate it to a cat shelter when it gets full.)
My gentile husband is thrilled that our daughter is the recipient of a rich culture.
There’s a hunger inside me…
My dad was supportive too, though he never learned Hebrew past an awkward recitation of the Shabbat wine blessing.
Each Yom Kippur, once I got old enough, the whole family would fast together. No food or water from sundown to sundown. We’d go to temple together and hear the shofar, and then sometimes take my brother to soccer practice. (This seems like a really bad idea, looking back, but I guess my parents let my brother make the call for himself.)
My main memory though, of the fasting, is my Dad singing a Snickers commercial on the long drive home:
“There’s a hunger inside me, and it won’t go away. There’s a hunger inside me, growing stronger every day.”
I felt so angry. I was hungry and grumpy, and the point was to focus inward, to atone for all the ways we’d morally failed in the past year, to get ready to start fresh, to do better.
And instead, I was just filled with rage at my dad:
“You’re not even Jewish. You don’t have to do this. If you’re hungry, just eat something!”
At Hebrew school, they told us that if we didn’t atone on Yom Kippur, then our name might not end up in God’s good book. Unlike the Santa naughty or nice list, this meant we’d die in the coming year.
Even though I was unsure if God was even a thing, I was pretty sure that snapping at my dad meant I was going to die that year.
But I also wished he’d just eat a freakin’ sandwich already.
Will we ever be safe?
Here’s something I jotted down last year, when the tiki-torch-toting white supremacists showed themselves in Charlottesville:
Escalation of civil war seems almost inevitable right now, so I am having these fucked up thoughts like, “To be safe, do I need to hide that Tzivia and I are Jewish (change her name)? Will we need to take our BLM sticker off our car?” Western Washington is safe though, would be far from the frontlines. I think when I daydream about Cascadia, it’s because I just want to believe I’m safe; want to believe that, now that I’m in the PNW, the South can’t get me.
I’m glad that all my friends know now that Nazis aren’t just boogeymen; they’re real and they’re in this country, and in other countries too, and I don’t know what to do… except to keep loving each other, to go to marches, and to raise our kids with an understanding of diversity and love and to make sure that they stand up for all the Others, whether they feel like one or not. And hopefully someday, if we keep teaching diversity and love, we’ll do away with the whole idea of the Other, because society/media/etc will stop feeding us this idea that there even is a Default.
Am I a person of color?
The day before the Tree of Life synagogue shooting, I saw a conversation in a yoga Facebook group where someone called someone else out on being anti-Semitic. The offender said it wasn’t anti-Semitic, and a white ally commented that people of color could say for themselves what was/wasn’t racist. The offender replied that, Whatever, Jewish people aren’t people of color. It’s just a religion.
Am I a person of color?
My brother and I were the only Jewish kids in our elementary school. From the time I was aware of race, it was made clear to me by others that I was Other. That there was a White Default and I was not it.
It all hit at once when I was 8.
I started Hebrew school that year, read the V’ahavta for show and tell. I was learning to read another language, and I was so proud of myself.
This is the year they came looking for my horns.
This is the year our class wrote holiday letters to people in the military, and everyone in class received heaps of mail back, with stickers and photos and cards. I had mentioned Hanukkah in my letter (alongside gymnastics and double Dutch), so I received only one reply, on a torn scrap of paper, in an envelope with no return address:
“You’re going to hell, you fucking Jew.”
And this is the year I made a video with two blonde friends for a class project. My teacher videotaped us in the classroom, as one of the blonde girls and I sat in our bathing suits on beach towels.
Blonde #1: “I like you and all. But I wish we could be BEST FRIENDS.”
Curly-haired Jewish Me: “Now we can!” (pulls out an aerosol can) “With Twin Spray!”
Blonde #1: “Wow, now we can be BEST FRIENDS!”
Blonde #2 (on my goddamn towel): “Thanks, Twin Spray!”
The day I “became a woman”
When I was 12 years old, I invited all my friends from school to temple and then a huge party for my Bat Mitzvah. A couple of my friends’ parents forbid them to set foot in a temple, but everyone was allowed at the party.
Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the first day a Jewish person is treated as an adult member of the congregation and allowed up to the bimah to read from the Torah. We say “read,” but the Torah lacks vowels and tropes (music notes, basically), so it takes a lot of preparation to learn enough to sing the Torah portions with only the consonants in front of us.
I knew that in some Orthodox congregations, only men are ever allowed to read from the Torah, so I made sure to really do it up: I spent a year preparing, learning to sing four Torah portions instead of just one.
I was in 7th grade, and I had hidden my voice all through elementary school. I wanted to sing, but my school chorus sang mostly Christmas songs, and that made me very uncomfortable. In 6th grade, I was one of only two kids in the class who didn’t join chorus. I remember the loneliness, playing with Lincoln logs in the classroom, with the one other kid, while everyone else sang their hearts out with the Christian privilege they didn’t even know they had.
At my Bat Mitzvah, I finally rose my voice, in Hebrew, and my mother cried happy tears and told me I sang like a bird.
Caught between privilege and racism
I don’t talk or write about any of this much, because I know I have so much privilege. I know that other minorities have it so much worse. While I understand that privilege and racism aren’t all-or-nothing, I sometimes feel shame when I talk about myself as a victim, because while Jews deal with plenty of micro-aggressions and conspiracy theory-based anger, we are free of some of the worst systemic racism that affects other people of color.
Sometimes it’s hard to be an ally when you’re fearing for your own safety, but I’m committed to keep doing it. We’re in this together.