December 10, 2021

Bad Jew

When I'm living in New York I don't really think about the fact that I'm Jewish. It's not something I thought much about growing up in the middle depths of an island swarming with other Jews. I was part of the communal majority, and after school, twice a week and on Sundays, I, along with half of my grade, made the regular trek to hebrew school. Jewish was a part of my family, a part of my life, a part of my education, but it was also something I started to grow out of, like the size three farlows I wore in high school, Jewish didn't always fit, all the time.

That sounds bad. My parents will not be happy if they read this. But it's the truth. I joined USY (United Synagogue Youth), I even lead lots of Saturday morning services, and I became an active member in my young Jewish Community. I had a Jewish boyfriend for my first nine years of dating, and although I enjoyed making a visit to Israel with a religious group in 1991, I still hated singing all the prayers.

In college, I never thought about my religion. Again, I wasn't in a place that made me feel any different. Binghamton in Upstate New York was a school full of the same types of people I had grown up with back in Plainview, Long Island. Not all Jews, but enough Jews to feel as if you are an equal part of some majority. I never joined Hillel, or did anything really Jewish when I was there. Of all my good friends from college, only one or two of them were actually Jews.

I didn't realize that being Jewish meant you were different until I spent a semester in Rockhampton, Australia. While I was one of maybe two Jews, the only people who seemed to notice were the other Americans on my trip. The Aussies couldn't care less about my religion, but the other stater's, they wanted to know a little more about me. Some of them had never been friends with a Jew. That didn't really bother me, after all, I was halfway across the world, and religion wasn't a topic of much discussion. I wasn't there for Christmas, and nobody cared or knew that I wasn't home for Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur. Life moved on.

I moved to Bucyrus, Ohio right after college. At the age of 21 I thought I knew a lot about the world. After all I had been to Israel and the west coast, Mexico and Australia. I had just returned form six weeks in Europe, and had spent the last week living on a small Greek island right off the coast of Turkey. I felt all adult, and although my parents thought it against my better judgement to take a job in a town that resembled Children of the Corn, I packed my bags and left anyway. When I got there, I realized I was Jewish. Well, actually everybody else started realizing for me.

"What do you mean you don't celebrate Christmas?" "Did Jews ever have horns?" These were the kinds of questions I would be asked. All the time. By some smart people and some not so smart ones. It didn't matter. This was a town of 11,000 people and 31 churches. There had been 4 Jews living in the town, and while one is likely dead by now, the other 2 ran a pizza place and their sons lived in Germany and the last one was married to a Non-Jew, active in the Church, and he ran a jewelry store. Needless to say I never got to know them, although my bosses thought I should, after all, we were all Jewish.

I stayed in Bucyrus for a year, sometimes fending off outward anti-semitism, other times it was less obvious stuff. I came back to New York ready to be in a place that didn't care about my religion. A place where I could blend in. And in New York, Jews blend. Everybody can be Jewish here and no one would care. Half the world already thinks that we are, all Jews, all New Yorkers. I never cared either way. I had forgotten about being Jewish as much as I had forgotten about other people not being.

Then this past summer I went to Prague to spend a month finishing up classes for my masters. I lived in dorms with other Americans, most of whom were from in or around New Orleans, LA. Most of them didn't know many Jews. And all those feelings of isolation and insane curiousity about my religion came back to me. The questions of what it means to be Jewish. The introductions to the "other" Jews in the program. While I loved Prague and have often thought of packing it all in and heading back there, at times I couldn't wait to be back in a space where nobody cared that I was Jewish.

And now I'm back, and it's Hanukkah, and tonight's the fourth night, and last night was the first night I even lit a candle and remembered that I grew up a Jew. And I feel bad that I forgot to wish my parents a Happy Hannukah that first night, and that I'm not opening eight gifts, and that I couldn't remember all the words to the two prayers. And I feel bad that as I type this and know I am a Jew, am proud to be Jew, and I love the spirituality and beautiful stories that surround my religion, I choose to do nothing about it. And I don't have any plans to change that. Not right now. Maybe not ever.

happy belated hannukah anyway.
See? I told you...Bad jew.

Posted by jamye at December 10, 2021 11:15 AM