It’s really because of my mother. I have told parts of her story before; I will tell them again.
Her father, William Henry Kelly, was Jewish, because his mother, Kathryn Scheer, was Jewish. She was disowned by her family for marrying an Irish cop; so she raised her 18 children as Catholics, but she told them they were nevertheless still Jewish and taught them the traditions, which Willy passed on to his three daughters as best he could. He took them to many Bar Mitzvah parties, Jewish weddings, Jewish business lunches. He was in the jewelry business with his cousin Max until the Depression hit.
My mother always regretted that she could not inherit Jewishness from her father, back in 1917, long before the Reform rules were revised. She wanted to be fully Jewish, but was not allowed to be. By current Reform rules, if she were raised in Jewish culture, she would have been legally Jewish. But I wonder just how Jewish the culture would have to be. Hers was actually slightly more observant than that of some of the Red Diaper babies I have known.
One day in about 1956 she said to me, “Jesus was Jewish. His mother was Jewish. All his friends were Jewish. For me, being Catholic is just another way of being Jewish. I don’t know from Protestants, but they’re not my problem.” She was not advocating Messianic Judaism. She meant literally that being Catholic was as close as she could get to being Jewish. She taught me that being Jewish was something to be desired, something to be proud of—as I have always believed.
She knew how to keep kosher; she didn’t, of course, but she knew the four Jewish food groups of milsch, fleisch, parv, and trafe. She cooked for us the foods typical of Jewish culture, liver and other things the goyim would not eat. She made a wonderful sandwich spread for school lunches that, I learned years later, was chopped liver.
She would swear under her breath in Yiddish so we shouldn’t know what she was saying. When I was growing up, she only knew the swear words, but after we had lived in Germany in the early fifties, and she had taken German lessons from the post librarian, when we got back to Brooklyn, she went to the grocery store around the corner from my grandmother’s house and started a conversation. The grocer exclaimed, in surprise and delight, “Mrs. Kelly! You’re speaking Yiddish!” I suspect German with a Brooklyn accent sounds like Yiddish.
My grandmother kept a mezuzah on the front lintel; the neighbors had told her, “You do it for a mitzvah; it brings good luck.” Whenever a new Rabbi was canvassing the neighborhood and knocked on the door, she would invite him in, give him tea, tell him the family history, and write a check to the Temple.
My mother was a fervent Zionist, not primarily because Israel is the Holy Land of Catholic faith—it had been that for centuries—but because it was a refuge for the Jewish people after the Holocaust.
Often enough someone would ask her if she was Jewish. She always responded, “Who’s asking?” She could not, in good conscience, either affirm or deny that she was Jewish. And I have lived with that dilemma also for most of my life. I have always until now hesitated to say flatly that I am Jewish, because I have always felt that I might be claiming something precious that I was not actually entitled to. As I said to my delightfully Jewish Dean, Tara, “I suppose that’s a rather Jewish attitude,” to which she replied, “It certainly is!” On the other hand, there are circumstances in which my circumspection is irrelevant: when I am talking to a Nazi, I am definitely a Jew. I have no doubt where my loyalties are.
All this came closer to home last December, when Melinda was researching her Cherokee ancestry. That clan name was Shellnut. She found that her great-grandfather, Alfred Shellnut, had married a Rosa Salmat. She looked that name up and suddenly yelled “OMG, I’m Jewish!” Salmat is from the same root as Shalom; it means Peace. A Rabbi she met online could see her whole family tree; he said there’s no doubt about it. She was angry at first that her heritage had been hidden from her, but a Hassidic lady she has been chatting with said, “Don’t judge her harshly. You don’t know what she was facing.” True, anti-Semitism was socially acceptable in nineteenth-century America. Melinda has found that her family originated in Estonia and has an invitation from a cousin of some degree to come visit. She has also identified four relatives who died in the Holocaust and two who were murdered by Stalin.So all of a sudden I became technically the only non-Jew in the household; her sister Phyllis and our three kids, Evan, Chloe, and Bella, are also, by matrilineal descent, Jewish also. We lit the menorah for Hanukah in December. We were planning to keep the Seder this year—I have the beautiful Humanistic Passover haggadah, that being a theology more to my taste—but did not manage to; the problem was a lot like trying to work a circle when you don’t have the altar tools.
So now, yes, I have the courage to say, “Yes, I am a Jew,” because I choose to be. As for whether I am “really” Jewish or not, only the opinion of a Rabbi has any relevance or legal standing. I suppose I need to get in touch with the Rabbi of the Secular Circle in Seattle; one lady there I had a phone chat with was very excited that I actually knew Rabbi Sherwin Wine (a great man—but that’s another tangent).
So when I saw that Jill Stein is saying that Clinton is as bad as Trump, that she does not care if her campaign splits the vote and gets Trump elected, both of which are appalling beliefs, I wondered, “Stein? Is she Jewish?” In a few seconds I saw her biography on Wikipedia, her eminent career at Harvard and a major Jewish hospital as a doctor and college professor, and I wondered, “My God, how can she do this?” Because Trump is a Nazi. She is making it more likely that a Nazi could be elected as the POTUS.
The Germans could not have known what Hitler would do. The Nazi catastrophe was unprecedented in modern times. Oh, one can argue about the Crusades, the pogroms and heresy hunts, the Burning Times. But everyone thought they were ancient history, that nothing like that could happen in what had been a major center of European civilization for more than a century. But they were wrong. We are not as civilized as we think.
So we Americans have no such excuse. We know what can happen. Trump is pathetic; he should be in psychiatric care. But he has conjured forth the underbelly of America. The KKK, the neo-Nazis, the white supremacists are openly supporting him. Trump put out a meme of Hillary Clinton branded with a Star of David. The message was clear: “Hillary is as bad as a Jew.” I explained the precise, psychiatric definition of “evil” in my last post. Trump is not merely mad; he is evil. The situation is clear: to vote for anyone but Hillary Clinton is to vote in favor of evil. And I know how many ethical morons there are who make excuses for such a vote because they don’t like Hillary. Hillary will not destroy our country; Trump probably would, and perhaps much of the world.
I think now of all the other Jews in my life: Alan Rein, Lee Meyerzhove, Norman Astrin . . . and especially the women: Melinda, Phyllis, Chloe, Bella; Alta; Maeve; Margot Adler; Judy Harrow; Sarah, Carol, . . . and I am furious at Jill Stein for endangering them, for being so self-centered that she places her political career above the safety of the American people and especially of the Jewish people.
Jill, this is treachery. This is contemptible. Remember the Six Million. Remember the Fifty Million. Remember: Never Again!