An Israelite Without Guile
Kvetching in Antiphon
Last April, a very cruel month for the Church indeed, a visiting priest opened his homily with a running attack on the mass media. They were out to get the Holy Father, he said—to smear him, libel him, bastinado him—and all for the sake of their secularist agenda. All good, high-grade Catholic agitprop. But then Father's harangue took an unexpected turn. Citing a sympathetic column written by a Jewish pundit, he spread his hands and beamed.
"You see?" He cried. "This Jew gets it!"
I can't swear he used that particular, rather indelicate, construction. It's just possible he said, "This Jewish writer." But the fact that the words "this Jew" stick so stubbornly in my memory should testify to the speech's overall toxic effect. Quite unwittingly, the priest had invoked the ugly stereotype of the Jews who use their influence in—some would say control over—the media to attack Catholicism. By praising this one columnist, he had made him into the exception that proves the rule. It was like saying, "Alfredo works hard for a Mexican."
I hate to be a kvetch—Yiddish for a complainer. This sort of thing is best let go. The man meant no harm. He was young, new to the priesthood, and had grown up in the suburbs, where cultural sensitivity was, I'm guessing, a non-issue. But even now, making these allowances requires a teeth-grinding act of will. At the time—forget it. Right there in the pew, I had an Annie Hall hallucination. I could see myself in Father's eyes, growing a beard, side curls, and a mansion in Scarsdale.
The punchline; I'm not even Jewish.
At least, according to the best Jewish authorities, I never was. My father, now he was Jewish: a descendant of Galitzianers, bar mitzvah at thirteen, buried in a linen shroud at 66. The test, says Jewish law, rests with the mother, and mine is a cradle Catholic turned cafeteria Buddhist. My knowledge of Judaism is appallingly shallow; I wouldn't know a mikva from a Mossad agent. Nevertheless, I have a Jewish name and a Jewish punim. These alone would have been just grounds for the Nazis to deal me out a Jewish death, so I consider them just grounds for nurturing a Jewish sense of paranoia. My baptism may have tweaked the DNA of my soul, so to speak, but it did not give me a new birth certificate.
A surprising number of cradle Catholics feed the Jewish convert's sense of dual identity. In fact, some take the initiative in bestowing it. A friend of mine who is a converted Jew—full-blooded, folks, the real deal—tells me her fellow parishioners hasten to add, "She's Jewish!" when introducing her around. Some of my RCIA instructors regarded me with a sense of wonder, as they might a high-ranking KGB defector. I imagined them thinking, "This is what we used to pray for every Good Friday—this guy right here!" One dogged my steps for the better part of two years, insisting I have coffee with some other Jewish convert he knew. His ardor unnerved me. (What were us two landsmen supposed to do, anyway? Start our own ghetto?) To this day, by my own choice, I wouldn't know his friend from Adam Gopnik.
Owning any kind of Jewish identity, no matter how diluted or hybridized, means adopting a cockeyed view of history. Too often, what's bad for you is good for the rest of the world, and vice-versa. Some celebrated geniuses, like Wagner, Henry Ford, and General Patton might well have hated your guts on general principle. Conversely, some irredeemable gargoyles, like Generals Hideki Tojo and Rafael Leonidas Trujillo, might have saved your bacon (if that's the right word). When I saw 300, I rooted for Xerxes. After all, he was Esther's old man.
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon. His Open Salon blog is here.