Jew-ish October 18, 2013

Me with a tiny man outside tiny synagogue, outside Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem. June 1990.
Me with a tiny man outside tiny synagogue, outside Orthodox quarter of Jerusalem. June 1990.

Perfect!!!  I thought of this about a month or so ago as a way to describe my religious life/beliefs, such as they are.  Jew-ish.  “Ish!”  It’s right there in the name!  I’m a Jew.  Ish. Kinda in the middle – sorta…

That helped me crystallize some of the ways in which I am a full-fledged Jew, and ways in which I am kinda, sorta – you know, Jew-ish.  Hope you don’t mind my sharing.

Some ways in which I am JEWISH:

– Genetically.  Both of my parents, all four of their parents, and many previous generations going back to Odessa, Russia, and somewhere in Poland in the 1800s are and were Jews.

–  I attended synagogue many Friday nights as a child.

–  I consider it a big loss that I don’t know how to speak and read Hebrew and Yiddish.

–  Dancing the Hora and to the song Mayim – even if I don’t know or like the dancer next to me – gives me unspeakable joy and makes me feel like it is possible to bridge any and all gaps.

–  I know that in Judaism, Chanukah is not one of the holiest celebrations.  In fact, it is far less holy than the celebration of the weekly Sabbath.  (Politics aside, my admiration for the way Joe Leiberman does the Sabbath borders on envy.)

–  My reaction to visiting the Wailing Wall in Israel?  Overwhelmed with emotion and history and the sudden, physical impulse to cry.  (People of other religions have this reaction, too, but they don’t have it as a result of their being Jewish…)

–  I feel fiercely protective of Israel and its right to exist, and deeply, almost personally ashamed when I hear of any misconduct towards Palestinians.

–  My biggest motivation to give blood regularly was taught to me by a more religious boyfriend from my college days.  He told me that giving blood is one of the highest forms of mitzvah (good deed) there is.  You are giving others a chance to live, regardless of how deserving of it those people may be.  You have no idea who will receive your blood, and it doesn’t matter.  You are giving it anonymously, without any expectation of being thanked or recognized by the recipient.

–  In a larger sense, I am Jewish in that I’m proud of Judaism’s focus on life here on earth.  Judaism doesn’t promise Heavenly rewards for performing good deeds, but prizes good deeds because they are life-sustaining.

Some ways in which I am JEW-ISH:

–  The main reason I attended synagogue regularly as a child was to hang out with my dad, who played organ there.

–  I’ve never really done anything to learn Hebrew or Yiddish.

–  While I am aware of the importance of the Sabbath in Judaism, I don’t do anything as an adult to honor it.  In fact, the only Jewish holiday we celebrate in our house?  You guessed it… Chanukah.  Feel free to call me a hypocrite.

–  I married a Catholic – partly because he and I were much more in line religiously than I was with any of my previous Jewish boyfriends.

–  Even though we decided long ago we’d raise the kids as Jews, my 14-year-old daughter declared recently that she was not Jewish, but half-Jewish and half-Catholic.  While at first I was bothered by this, (and curious about how that actually works,) it didn’t take me long to shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, I guess that’s fair…”  Especially since we did virtually nothing as parents to infuse Judaism into their lives.   I mean, for crying out loud – last Passover my 12-year-old son looked in the pantry, and asked with a puzzled look on his face, “What’s Mmmmaht-zoooohhhhh?”

–  I don’t feel the need to surround myself with other Jews, though I do enjoy being so surrounded.  I mean, come on.  I live in Catonsville.  I think I’m one of seven Jews in this here town.

There is, however, one aspect of my deep connection to Judaism that is not up for debate.  It involves humor and stereotype.  Here is an example:

Q:  How did the rabbi cope with an infestation of mice in the synagogue?

A:  He bar mitzvahed them all, and they never came back.


Q:  Why do Jews make good football players?

A:  They are always trying to get the quarter back.

Not funny.  Not funny to me at all.

Why not?  I’ve been trying for many, many years to figure out why I find the “Jews = cheap” stereotype so much more offensive and upsetting than the others. I know it isn’t true…some Jews are tightwads, but so are some people of every religion on earth.   Most Jewish people I know, though, are generous to a fault, and not just with their families.

So, why am I so sensitive?  I can laugh at other jokes and stereotypes about Jews with the best of them – “The 2013-Year-Old Man” continues to leave me breathless with laughter even 30 years after I first heard it.

I finally realized that the stereotype of Jews being cheap feels almost threatening to me.  It feels like it’s right up there with “Christ-killer” in the way it has been used to demonize Jewish people.  It’s been used to galvanize contempt among non-Jews and in the worst cases, as a justification for murder.

I’m fairly sure Medieval anti-semitism wasn’t fueled by hatred of the Jews for not continuing their religious education past the age of 13.  And, while widely used to portray Jews as hideous, I know big noses weren’t the real impetus behind Hitler’s Final Solution.  Perception of Jews as money-grubbing, greedy and financially powerful, though?  Much more frequently exploited to stir the pots of hatred, sometimes to horrific end.

This may not be rational, and by no means do I think my view represents or speaks for others. All feelings about religion are intensely personal and personalized, as are mine. But it does help me understand why no matter how loving a relationship I have with you, a joke or comment like this will make me feel uneasy at best, and at worst, at least a small part of me will feel unsafe.  In that way, I am Jewish to my core.

Also from my trip to Israel - Yad Vashem - Israel's memorial to victims of the Holocaust.
Also from my trip to Israel – Yad Vashem – Israel’s memorial to victims of the Holocaust.
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