But When I’m Talking to a Nazi, I Have No Doubt that I’m Jewish

But When I’m Talking to a Nazi, I Have No Doubt that I’m Jewish June 13, 2016

In response to a blog I posted a while back entitled, “So Am I Jewish?” in which I was speculating about what the rules are in the various branches of Judaism for defining who’s a member, one woman asked, “Are you willing to stand with us?” My immediate thought was “But I always have!” I began thinking about why I felt that way and realized the story goes back to my great-great-grandfather, Jacob Scheer.

My mother, Marie Cecile Kelly, told me that Jacob had come to the US via Hamburg in the early 19th century. She did not know where his journey had begun and never told me his wife’s name, but Jacob and his wife had two daughters, Kathryn and Anna. Kathryn fell in love with and married an Irish Catholic cop, John Raymond Kelly, whose beat was in Central Park, without her father’s blessing, so she was disowned by her family. That was Jewish custom in 19th-century New York. I have tried to imagine how deeply Kathryn was hurt by being excluded from her community.

I know that some women, thus shunned, would turn their backs on that former community and walk completely away from it. Not Kathryn. She raised her 18 children as Catholics, so that they would have a community, but she also taught them that they were Jewish, Jewish Catholics, and taught them all the traditions. (And by halakah, as I learned from Rabbi Sherwin Wine, they were Jewish. He said to me, “If you’re born Jewish, you’re always Jewish. Nothing else matters.”) So my grandfather, William Henry Kelly, her second oldest (the oldest, John, died in World War I), passed those traditions on to his three daughters as best he could.

The shunning did not apply to the next generation. Jacob’s other daughter, Anna, married Joseph Slyman and was not disowned. Their children included Joe Junior and Max, whom my mother called “Uncle Joe” and “Uncle Max,” although they were her father’s cousins. (After all, calling him “First Cousin Once Removed Max” would have been impossibly clumsy.) Willy (as my grandmother Gertrude called him) was in the jewelry business with Max until the Depression hit, then sold car parts until he retired.

My mother and her sisters, while growing up, were frequently taken to Bar Mitzvah parties, Jewish weddings, Jewish businessmen’s lunches. Grandma Gertrude kept a mezuzah on the lintel of the front door. Growing up, I did not know it was unusual to have a mother, devoted to the Sacred Heart, who knew how to keep kosher (she didn’t, but she knew how), who would swear under breath in Yiddish so we shouldn’t know what she was saying, who made this wonderful sandwich spread for school lunches that I later learned was chopped liver, and who, when asked if she was Jewish, as occasionally happened, would always respond, “Who’s asking?”

On a day when I was about 15, in the midst of a discussion about religion, my mother said to me, “Jesus was Jewish. His mother was Jewish. All his friends were Jewish. As far as I’m concerned, being Catholic is just another way of being Jewish. I don’t know from Protestants, but they’re not my problem.” Thinking back, I think what I was hearing was an echo of Kathryn’s sorrow and regret, passed down by my grandfather to my mother. She meant what she said, literally. Being Catholic was the only way she had to still be Jewish, because being Jewish was something to be desired, something to be proud of. And that is why I have always known that. That is why I have always avoided flatly claiming to be Jewish, because I have always felt I might be claiming something precious that I in fact was not entitled to. (I recently told all this to my delightfully Jewish Dean, and said, “I suppose that’s a very Jewish attitude.” She replied, “It certainly is!”)

Since Melinda discovered about 6 months ago that she’s Jewish, and so are her sister and our kids, I have been technically the only non-Jew in the household. This has not been very comfortable. Of course, we’re still Pagan. As Jewitches we are a known variety, though not quite a distinct branch, perhaps a category under Secularism, next to the Socialists, of whom I have been one since converted by my oldest friend, Alan Rein, when I was about 15.

Today there was a story on Facebook about a boy who was beaten up at his school solely because he was Jewish. It’s beginning again. The utterly contemptible Trump is luring the anti-Semites out of the woodpile, as well as many other kinds of bigots. Trump is a Nazi. (If you want to quibble about whether he’s actually a Fascist, I say, “Fuck off.”) Confronted by him, I can cast my doubts aside and say, “Yes, I’m a Jew.” And I’ll see if I can find a Rabbi who would agree with me.




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