I’m Jewish. That shouldn’t come as any big surprise to anybody that knows me, or reads my blog. But sometimes I just feel the need to say it–to make sure that there are no misunderstandings on either side of the aisle. After all, my last name is Scottish and so you might be fooled.
It’s my husband’s family that carries the Scottish heritage, but I’ve embraced it, having always been a fan of the country. Now that I’ve been there multiple times, it’s actually become one of my favorite places on earth. So there’s haggis – my Scottish side, and challa – my Jewish side. (Challa is actually a nod to “Rachallah” – my Yiddish name used by my father as a term of endearment my entire life, and later adopted by my husband. It is not the bread.)
Back to the fact that I’m Jewish. I feel the need to state it aloud sometimes. I don’t shy away from it; nor do I hide it. I’ve struggled my entire life to determine how, and if, my Jewishness defines me; to what boundaries does my Judaism extend; and for what reasons I remain Jewish. I always come back to the fact that, given a choice, I would always choose Judaism. It’s true that I really don’t know much about any other religion, but there are truly beautiful bits of Judaism that would always bring me back. It’s as much my culture as my religion.
I had never felt like I didn’t belong…until I landed in a country where I did.
All that aside, why do I feel compelled to write this today? Well, the truth is things are always fomenting in my head. It’s a virtual witch’s cauldron of thoughts always brewing in there. But this one kept coming up to the top, and I’ll tell you why.
Yesterday, at physical therapy, the woman next to me on the treadmill while I was pedaling spiked hills on the bike, struck up a conversation. I’d seen her there before and knew she was a long-time “church lady” of a local, large church. We had the usual mundane conversation that always started with discussion of our injuries, as I tried to explain my torn Deltoid ligament and lateral tendon between ragged breaths. (Spikes are hard!) Then we talked about local stuff and she asked me my name, wondering if she knew my family.
She finished before I did and, in taking her leave, said “Well, God bless you.” Then she looked at me and said, “If that’s okay to say.” My reply was “Of course! I’ll accept blessings from anybody, any day I can get them.” I continued, “I’m Jewish, but I still believe in God.” (And I do, and I don’t, and that’s my own personal Jacobian struggle.)
The gear shifted in her mind. I saw it in her eyes. I’d seen it many times before, after all. Jewish. Okay. What can I say. She opened her mouth, and said something about the mixed-marriage couple that were her neighbors. The husband was Catholic but the wife was Jewish. And they were SO NICE. And their kids? Also, THE NICEST, SWEETEST KIDS EVER. Accolades flew. Because, after all, she knew Jews and they were wonderful people. She was proving to me how open-minded she was.
Am I being fair? Maybe not. I have nothing against her personally. She seems like a wonderful, caring person and I wish her fast healing. But I am 43 years old. I’ve dealt with this subtle prejudice all of my life. “What prejudice?” I hear you asking me. Well, think about this. The minute you start to wonder about the politically correct thing to say to a particular person is almost always the minute that you’ve started to become aware that the person isn’t the same as you. That, somehow, you are You and they are Other.
I always come back to the fact that, given a choice, I would always choose Judaism.
I was lucky enough to grow up in central New Jersey, in an area with many other Jews. My friends were (and are) a mixed bag of religions, and I never felt left out or odd or different. I never yearned for a Hanukkah bush and I participated in my share of Easter egg hunts. Nobody ever accused me of murdering Jesus; nobody ever asked to see my horns.
But then I went to live in Israel, as part of a program called Livnot U’lehibanot. I met other American Jews from all over the U.S. and their stories of growing up Jewish weren’t as benign as mine. They HAD been accused of killing Jesus. They HAD been asked to show their horns. I hadn’t ever heard of such a thing! It was the early ’90s. I had lived a sheltered, assimilated childhood without even knowing it. I was a minority in my own country, with no awareness that I was Other. I felt like a fraud.
I had never felt like I didn’t belong…until I landed in a country where I did. Where mezuzot were on the doors of stores and the weekly “day of rest” was the Jewish Sabbath and not the Christian one. To this day it’s hard to articulate what it felt to realize that, in a way, I’d come home to Israel, when I’d left my childhood home thousands of miles away.
Still, I chose not to live in Israel, for many reasons. And I chose to marry a non-Jew, for many reasons. And with my husband’s support, we belong to a local temple and our children are being raised in the Jewish faith. Because I’m an all-or-nothing type of gal, I now co-chair the temple’s women’s group. We attend services and I take comfort in the familiarity of it; like putting on a well-worn cozy sweater that you’ve had and loved for years.
Through it all I’m aware of a prejudice that I was too naïve to see when I was younger, but that has become all too subtly familiar. That of the lady in physical therapy, and of the people who have told me that I “look” Jewish through the years. While it may be “benign” prejudice, I would counter that “benign” prejudice helped the Holocaust happen just as much as “malignant” prejudice did. Because “benign” prejudice stood by and watched and did nothing.
I was a minority in my own country, with no awareness that I was Other. I felt like a fraud.
You think I’m overreacting? God, I hope so.
But let me ask you: When you go to services at your church on the holiest day of the year, are there security guards? Because there are for us.
Do your kids have drills for emergency terrorist situations at Sunday school? Because mine do.
And the biggest irony; the saddest thing of all is this. Our temple prides itself on welcoming everybody–mixed marriages, gay individuals, lesbian couples, etc. Our doors are flung wide open for all to come inside. At least in the proverbial sense.
In reality, our doors must be kept locked at all times. Because we’re Jewish in an increasingly threatening world.
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