Creative Nonfiction
Comments 4

Being Half A Jew, Reluctantly

As a pre-teen, I didn’t often tell people I was Jewish. The frizzy hair, the glasses, the freckles, and braces – those were enough to contend with. Not that being Jewish should have been something to contend with. Yet in my adolescent mind, despite my liberal New York City upbringing and United Nations International School education, it was.

Even in college, being Jewish was something I joked about. “This half of me is Jewish,” I would say, drawing a line down my face, indicating the left half. By then I had tamed my hair, gotten contact lenses, embraced my skin, and lost the braces. Yet my ancestry was still something of an ‘otherness’, something I wasn’t as willing to embrace, or to wear.

Growing up in a half-Jewish half-Italian but completely agnostic family has its perks; we celebrated all the holidays. We lit a Menorah and had a Christmas tree, enjoyed Easter Egg Hunts and Passover Seders, without ever attending church or synagogue. I loved Matzoh and equally so the feast of the seven fish on Christmas eve – an Italian (albeit Catholic) tradition (whose Catholic connections we never noted). Yet, my connection to my Jewish ancestry was far, far away.

My dad was born in 1924 – he was 28 years older than my mother, and 65 when I was born (70 when my brother was born). By the time I came around my paternal grandparents were dead. All I had as a keepsake from them were my blue eyes – my grandma Sonia’s eyes. And a silver plated torah that sat in my dad’s underwear drawer. All I knew of Hebrew was Mazel Tov, and how to sing Dayenu over and over – though my Yiddish was impeccable, but most New Yorkers are at least semi-fluent…

I felt more connected to the other half of me – the Italian-American half. My mom’s side of the family was big. Grandma, Grandpa, Great Uncle, a plethora of cousins, family-friends – all of whom were Italian, all of whom came from Staten Island. I learned how to stuff calamari and drink espresso. I revelled in this big family and its connections to a world that, though geographically far away, felt very close on Staten Island with its hills and its pasticcerias and salumerias. In being Italian-American, I felt at home in myself.

I did not feel at home in being Jewish. When I got older we had more serious celebrations, particularly passover seders at a family friend’s, whose wife – a woman I loved and admired – had passed away. The seders had their own home-made haggadah with mournful poems and frequent breaks for tears. The room was dark. The girls weren’t allowed to wear yarmulke – at our family seders when I was young, we all wore them. We had to wait for each dish to be passed dutifully, and I couldn’t skip the parsley dipped in salt water, as I usually did, without feeling a pang of guilt.

I was a guest at this service – observing something that didn’t feel relevant to me. The guilt I felt was not because of sadness in my languishing Jewish-ness. It was in not wanting to partake – not wanting to fake it. Not wanting to admit myself into this clan of mourning, of sadness, of constant remembrance of millennia old wounds, reckoning them to the ones we felt day to day – the missing, the longing.

Then my dad died.

I won’t claim that his death awakened in me a sudden desire to connect to my Jewish roots. It didn’t. At all. I still felt the same loose tie, a funny but perhaps unwanted tie… like my Jewish ancestry was, for lack of a better phrase, the red headed step child. To be included, but only at its own expense. I did not feel any more close to god or my ancestors, all I felt was the missing, the longing, the sadness and mourning that comes with death. But I did not feel Jewish about it. It wasn’t a Jewish loss.

In November 2008, about five months after his death, a college friend approached me about auditioning for The Trial of God. I’d never read it, but was vaguely aware of Elie Wiesel as a prominent figure in Jewish literature, and in Holocaust remembrences. So I got a copy of the play and read it. This. This spoke to me.

See, my dad was a poet and a playwright – someone who loved theatre and art and Dylan Thomas above most everything else. This was what my mourning latched onto. Not a diaspora, not a silver plated torah locked away in a drawer, not a long line of ancestral mourning. But a play, a play about Jews but a play more about identity and questioning, about not wanting to be Jewish, about being Jewish, about loss and love.

I auditioned, and was granted the roll of Maria – the only Christian in the entire play. Ironic, huh?

It’s been several years since that play, and since the death of my dad, and since the Holocaust. In the space since the Holocaust, so many other genocides have happened – continue to happen. None of these losses are greater than the others – but what I want to see so desperately in Holocaust remembrance is a light shone on other losses. Let’s use this day to talk about the massacre of Native Americans, of Slavery, of Japanese internment camps, of Comfort Women, of Female Genital Mutilation, of the treatment of Muslims in our very day and age, of sexism and racism and homophobia.

I am still reluctantly half a Jew, but less reluctantly now than before – because now I can see that being Jewish is being part of something greater, connecting to a history of genocide and ridicule…, but that isn’t special, and it certainly isn’t forgotten. It isn’t forgotten in the way other ethnic cleansing has been forgotten, or other genocides have been swept under the rug of history. So today, I have decided to raise up my half-Jewish flag, and do what I hope my dad would want me to do with it – not look inwardly, but look outward at the world and use my tool of writing, the one I inherited from him, to place my voice in the never ending collage of stories of loss and history, in an attempt to never forget.

So I end with a quote from Trial of God. Shalom.

You would like to hear the victims? So would I. But they do not talk. They cannot come to the witness stand. They’re dead. You hear me? The witnesses for the prosecution are the dead. All of them. I could call them, summon them a thousand times, and they would not appear here before you. They are not accustomed to taking a walk outside, and surely not on Purim eve. You want to know where they are? At the cemetary. At the bottom of mass graves. I implore the court to consider their absence as the weightiest of proofs, as the heaviest of accusations. They are witnesses, Your Honor, invisible and silent witnesses, but still witnesses! Let their testimony enter your conscience and your memory! Let their premature, unjust deaths turn into an outcry so forceful that it will make the universe tremble with fear and remorse!

Image originally by Laura Baum, edited by me.

4 Comments

  1. barbaraberkley says

    This is beautifully written, Ella. Your last paragraph gave me goosebumps – even before reading the closing quote. I look forward to reading more from you!

    Like

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