Even in my forties, I still learned things by talking with my mother. On her sixty-fourth birthday, I asked her, “About your father. What did he feel, believe, do?”
“He came to Mass, stood in back, helped to collect the money, and especially he liked Mary.”
“But did he think he was Jewish?”
“Why, yes, of course. All the Scheers had converted in Germany, but only because they had to. Over here they could choose what to be.”
“Then they were .. . . Marranos?”
“That’s Spanish . . .sword-point Christians.”
“Oh, yes, they always knew they were Jewish.”
So,.Kol Nidre, the prayer the Spanish Jews used to apologize to God for having submitted to conversion. At last that part of my childhood started to make sense.
Jacob and Joseph Scheer came over through Hamburg about the 1850s. Mom says no one ever talked of Joseph’s wife; but she and Joseph had two daughters. One, Katherine, wed an Irish cop named John Raymond Kelly whose beat was in Central Park; So her family disowned Her; that’s how it was back then. They had eighteen kids, and she taught them both traditions, to be Jewish Catholics.
William Henry Kelly, my grampa, was second, could flap his ears, had a red beard (when he let it grow), married an English-Irish-French Catholic girl named Gertrude Regina Cody, had three daughters, to whom he passed on what he had been taught of Jewish tradition, went into jewelry with Uncle Max, lived in what I’m told was a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn—Avenue U and Ocean Parkway (it never looked very Jewish to me, with all the Italians and Irish around, but turf’s turf)—went bust in the Depression, and had to sell car parts for the rest of his life. His daughters were raised Catholic, of very course, but still . .
Joseph Scheer’s other daughter, Anna, wed Joseph Slyman. Their son, Joe Junior, was the man Mom called Uncle Joe, though, to be precise, he was my grandfather’s cousin. The Slymans were the Jewish side of the family, and Willy—that’s what Gertrude called him—was always taking his daughters off with Uncle Joe to Hasidic weddings, Bar Mitzvah parties, Jewish businessmen’s lunches.
Once at a lunch when Mom and Rita were very young, finger bowls were served; so the two little Catholic girls dipped their fingers in and blessed themselves. The hall roared with laughter, and the two girls almost cried. The men went all shamefaced. All evening they kept reaching over, heaping the girls’ plates high with creampuffs.
So I was raised a Catholic with a little Marrano spice. My brother, sisters, and I were the only kids we knew with a mother devoted to the Sacred Heart who could have kept kosher if she had wanted, and swore under her breath in Yiddish so that we kids shouldn’t know what she was saying. It did not seem strange at the time, but then I knew no one else to compare her knowledge to. She also made this wonderful sandwich spread for our school-lunch sandwiches that I much later learned was chopped liver.
Sure, there were gaps. We went to Mass, not temple. We did not speak Yiddish, though we knew many of the words. When asked, “Are you Jewish?” Mom always replied, “Who’s asking?” But I never heard of Seder until my best friend in high school, Alan Rein, told me his family kept it. I found it hard to grasp why such staunch atheists would celebrate the Seder. (When, many years later, I asked my neighbor Nancy, daughter of Bud and Malvina Reynolds, about this, she just laughed, “Atheists who keep the Seder! That’s us!”)
Once when Alan was at my house for dinner, my mother said, “Oh, we’re having hot dogs wrapped in bacon. I don’t suppose you can have that.”
Alan looked puzzled and said, “We have bacon all the time.”
After Alan had gone home, she yelled at me, “So what do they read? In New York, any Jew who didn’t keep kosher was a Communist! No one in our family!” (This was the 1950s. I told that to Nancy, too. “But it’s true! We are!” she laughed.)
“On my grandmother’s grave!” she invoked. “Me? Anti-Semitic? When I’m a quarter Jewish? Bite your tongue! Who cares what you or they are? Be a Catholic! Be a Jew! But be a good one!”
It did not seem a topic it would profit me to pursue; so I bit my tongue.
At some other time, my mother said, “Jesus was Jewish. His mother was Jewis. All his friends were Jewish. So, by me, being Catholic is just another way of being Jewish. I don’t know from Protestants, but they’re not my problem.”
Sometimes my good friend Peter comes on “Jewisher than thou” when I mangle some Yiddish word, as if being Jewish were a secret society. Some day I’ll have to tell him about the Jewish side of my family and say, “Look, I was not raised kosher. What do I know from Yiddish? By halakah, I’m not a Jew. But I was born in nineteen-forty, and, by my Jewish Grampa, if I’d been born in Germany, I would have been sent to Auschwitz as a Jew, and that ought to count for something even now.” But having written it, I guess I don’t have to say it.
My oldest daughter, Maeve, is Jewish, as her mother, Alta, is, and as her grandmother Edna was. Edna had been adopted, but when she was a teenager, a small committee came to see her, to let her know she was actually the daughter of a daughter of a prominent San Francisco Jewish family (I suppose maybe the Hobergs or Reinhardts), because she had, of course, the right to know. I thought Maeve was no longer Jewish because she had been baptized at age six, her uncle holding her over the baptismal font, during my experiment with trying to be a good Catholic again. But when I met the wonderful Rabbi Sherwin Wine, while I was working for Jeremy Tarcher, “He said, “Nah, that’s the Israeli Law of Return. By halakah, if you’re born a Jew, you’re always a Jew.”
There wa s a day in 1990 when I met Jeremy Tarcher for lunch somewhere out on Sunset, to persuade him to hire me. In the lobby I noticed all these guys wearing Yarmulkes and remembered it was Yom Kippur. During lunch, we were talking about family and so on, and Jeremy at one point was saying, “Well, my family wasn’t very, um, . . . “
“Religious,” I finished for him.
“Yeah, religious,” he agreed.
“Well, a good Yom Tov to you anyway,” I said, feeling a little smug about knowing to say that.
Jeremy looked rather bemused and said, “I guess it stands to reason that a guy eating shrimp cocktail on Yom Kippur isn’t very religious.”
Some time later, going over something in his office, I told Jeremy more about my family and concluded, “I know by Orthodox Rabbis I’m not Jewish, but by Orthodox Rabbis, who is?”
Jeremy shrugged and said, “Certainly not me. Let’s get back to work.”
I’m very grateful that I got to work with him for a while. He taught me a huge amount about how trade publishing actually works.
Recently I was chatting in the lunchroom with our new Dean, Tara, who turns out to also come from a straddling-the-fence kind of family, somewhat like mine. I was saying to her, “So here I am, in between my grandfather and my daughter. I’ve never flat-out claimed to be Jewish, because that feels like I might be claiming something precious that I’m really not entitled to. But I suppose that’s a rather Jewish attitude, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” she replied, “It certainly is.”
However, if I ever find myself talking to a Nazi, then I am a Jew.