Saturday, April 24, 2010

Yes, I'm Jewish. What's it to Ya?

I was born a Jew and raised to be proud of my heritage. I was picked on occasionally by all the neighborhood Catholic kids because we were the only Jewish family they knew. In retrospect, it wasn't antisemitism, it was just a way for kids to pick on each other. I made it easy for them because I was a geek. They picked on my geeky ways and my high GPA. They also made fun of the fact that I was always wearing hand-me-down clothes from my rich cousin: "I thought all Jews were rich!" and "Aren't you supposed to have a big nose?" The worst was, "Hey, there's a penny. Go get it, Jew!"

But, what did Judaism mean to me? I know we celebrated Chanukkah. I remember going to my cousins Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I think we went to Temple once, or maybe twice. I had seen (and heard) a shofar. I'd worn a yarmulke. I'd eaten matzoh (and matzoh-brie for breakfast - yum!).

But the big unspoken thing was my Bar Mitzvah. As in, I didn't have one. I remember asking my dad about it. My cousin, who was 6 months younger, was either getting ready for or just completed his Bar Mitzvah. He got tons of presents and was a Big Deal. What about me? Dad gave a non-committal reply. I think he asked if it was something I really wanted. Did I want to go to all that extra school to learn Hebrew? You know, that means cutting into your play time? Are you sure you want it? I eventually stopped asking and time went on. No coming of age ceremony for me.

I now have a 12 year old boy. He's asking the same questions. We took him to the Temple and met the rabbi. He was genuinely interested... for about a week. When I asked him again if he was serious, he said no, probably not. We have a family Bar Mitzvah coming up next month. I think I'm going alone.

Today on the golf course, I was paired up with a threesome which included Ares, an Israeli Jew. The first question he asked me was if my oldest (who was with me) was a Bar Mitzvah. I told him no and mentioned that I wasn't either. He gave me one of those looks, like, "Oh. I see." Then we let it drop.

I'm Jewish. My wife is Jewish. My family is Jewish. But what does that mean? I honestly have no idea. I have asked both of my kids if they've ever been picked on for being Jewish. They both said no. Lucky kids. For me, I got to experience all the downside of being Jewish with the only tangible upside being that I got presents for 8 days when my friends only got them on one.


The Sister said...

Just today our sister asked me if you were ever disapointed or felt that you had missed out on something because you didn't have a Bar Mitzvah. I said that I wasn't sure, but didn't think that it really mattered to you one way or another. I even remember dad's explanation about how much work it would be for you to learn Hebrew. Honestly, I think it all goes back to what you said earlier in your post. We weren't rich. Hebrew school wasn't just a necessity for becoming a Bar Mitzvah, it was (and IS) an expensive one. We were an exception to the all-Jews- are-rich-rule and not only did people throw pennies at us (which really bothered me as a kid), but the wealthy Jews (mostly from Merrywood, if you remember) looked down on us as well.

I, too, am proud of the fact that we were born and raised Jewish, but if you thought wearning the hand me downs of our rich cousins was bad, how do you think I felt having to wear them after Michele, who wore them after YOU? *wink*

SirFWALGMan said...

I had the same upbringing as you. I did go to Jewish camp and learn a little Hebrew. We celebrated both Christmas and Chanuka. Although I think we got the same amount of toys.. just spread out more.

Special K said...

I worked at a Jewish camp for 3 summers in college - Camp Comet, Space age camp for boys. I can still rip off a mean Baruch from time to time.

You may be interested in something that happened to me at the Bellagio back on the same day I met Dr. Pauly (or was it the day before).

DrChako said...

You know, Special K, I thought about including some information about my grandparents. They both escaped from a small town outside Kiev (they called it "smuggling the border") in order to escape the Nazis. This heritage is a part of who I am. The problem is that many of the older Jews I meet still have hate in their hearts regarding the Nazis. Most religious services end with some form of everyone saying, "Never again."

I get it. I also don't want to live with all that hate, nor do I want my kids to live with it. Our generation has our own enemies (al Qaeda chief among them), and I bet the next generation will have a new enemy of their own.

If I distance myself from my heritage, I guess I am partly responsible for actively working to forget that which should never be forgotten, lest it be repeated. I'm aware.

One quick aside - I've actually met Nazis. Not the neo-Nazi crap that springs up today, but real honest-to-goodness Nazis. It's from when we lived in Germany. They were the parents of our landlady. Of course, she and her husband just said they were members of the German Army, but the dates of their service can only mean they worked for der Fuerher. You know what? They were delightful. They knew we were Jewish and it just didn't matter. Time moves on.


KenP said...

There are some really nasty Jews out there. Pick an ethnicity or religion and the same hold true. When we don't like we look for differences and from the bottom of the particular barrel we're mucking with.

Regardless of religion there are always the good and bad based strictly on our prejudice. Any who are pushing that are the ones I make sure I have my wallet protected around.

My Jewish friends are mostly like your background -- Russian. They were the poor, johnny-come-lately crowd. Your story isn't unique, as you well know.

I was brought up and taught to respect the melting pot. That's out of favor. No longer can we just be Americans. When you want to hang something in front of it, you lose me. Your history seems to support my view. We all carry some baggage that clouds things a bit. Can sneak back into the picture at any time.

You want stupidity avoided look no farther than here. You wouldn't believe the garbage they tried to pound into my German Lutheran head. And, it was done by some of the nicest people you'd ever want to know. That is hardly unique anywhere. Go figure.

The real renaissance arrives when we put American first and then occasionally throw in whatever. You did that long ago. Time to return to the regularly scheduled program.

TenMile said...

This came from a Born Again, gun using Christian in FL.

I met an old Jew who carries, votes conservative, and believes in Jesus! This must be how birdwatchers feel when they spot a pileated woodpecker. Or whatever that rare kind of woodpecker is.

He was talking about a revival meeting down there. He and his friends are trying to get the fellow to the range with them.

BWoP said...

If I didn't identify as Jewish, I'd be missing half of my (least) favorite poker hand :-)

(FWIW, I didn't have a bat mitzvah. I thought about doing it later in life. Some people think it would be funny for my 39th birthday. The problem is that I have no desire to learn Hebrew.)

PrinceofHouston said...

Doc, just my two cents, but I really don't identify with any religion. Lord knows I been to a great many churches of various denominations, but I really enjoy studying different religions. One of my favorite classes in college was the History of Christianity told from a non religious point of view.
Not many people realize that Christians, Jews, and Muslims share an origin and all use the Old Testament as a basis for their religious texts.
You want to know what it is to be Jewish? Don't look at it as a religious quest, but rather a historical one that focuses on the cultural rather than the religious. I think it might open the spiritual side of your background up in an unbiased way.
Just a thought.

Jordan said...

Doc, where to start? I can write a whole post on this topic.

I had a bar mitzvah. During the practice with the cantor, I asked what the point was. I could read Hebrew phonetically, but I didn't understand what the words meant. My cantor offered to teach me Hebrew for real after I had my bar mitzvah. After my bar mitzvah, though, I never went back to temple.

I asked my Dad why I had to be bar mitzvahed since I didn't know what the words meant and he told me it was for my grandparents. That's the only reason why I did it.

In college, a chick from upstate NY hadn't met any Jews before. She asked me if it was a religion or an ethnicity. I said a religion, but a friend of mine (also Jewish) said ethnicity. I disagreed at the time, but now I realize he is right.

It isn't just the religious tropes that make an ethnic Jew. It's the values. A religious Jew may follow the religiion (although, there are various levels). Ethnic Jews, however, follow the values. Those values are different in some ways than Catholic values or other religious values. It's the things you mentioned, like an emphasis on education and family (which does overlap with other groups, naturally) and the willingness to self-examine. For instance, when I challenged the cantor, he explained that it was natural to challenge the religion and in fact is encouraged.

Our ancestors went through some particular struggles, including the Holocaust, but even before then in Pogroms in Russia and the Inquisition in Spain, to name two examples. Hell, even in the Bible and Old Testament, we were the whipping boys. That's ingrained in our cultural heritage that goes beyond religion.

So, I now consider myself an Ethnic Jew. I relate to the Jewish people and Jewish values, but I do no follow the religion at all.

Ironically, I may "force" my kids to have bar or bat mitzvahs too some day. My excuse will likely be, "Do it for your grandma."

Dawn Summers said...

hahahaha Well played, Jordan. BTW I thought I was gonna be your rabbi from now on!

Unknown said...

Born and raised Catholic, haven't been to church in over a decade. Personal decision and an awaking of sorts.

Me and the wife decided very early that religion is something the kids can decide for the themselves if they wish to pursue it. No forced Sunday school, no confirmation classes for 10 years, but it will be there if wanted.

Shawn said...

I too am Jewish, with roots coming from the same place. My family also fled Kiev to escape the Holocaust. And just like Jordan I had a Bar Mitzva, "for my grandparents."

There was a time when I was young when I was very religious. I even went as far as to keep kosher (hey, it's hard not to put cheese on tacos). And that was followed by a period where I considered myself atheist. Those beliefs have since matured to what would best be described as agnostic.

But Judaism will always remain a part of me. I agree with Jordan and his old collge friend. It's an ethnicity, a culture.

OhCaptain said...

I was born and raised Lutheran. I went to undergrad at a Lutheran college and majored in Religion (bet you didn't know that about me, in particular I was studying philosophy of religion, mostly post modernism. I'm that fun at parties). I pretty much found agnosticism as a teenager which only grew stronger in college. While majoring in religion, there were jokes about the two of us that were practicing agnostics (which is a joke...hehe). First, we were collectively called, the peanut gallery. Second, tradition dictated that seniors had to give a sermon in chapel. As fate would have, that would also be our first time inside the chapel building.

OhCountess has bit more church in her then me. I practice Christmas, the message of world peace and love is a good thing. My moral structures are Judeo/Christian. Pragmatically, they work for me but frankly, I'm a pragmatist skeptic.

Besides reading several variations of the Bible, I've also read parts of the Koran, Book of Mormon and heck, Dianetics. I particularly enjoy studying how the interactions of cultures and people through migration and displacement has changed the fundamentals of religious dogma. Like I said, I'm that fun a parties.

I grew up in a small town. We had a Jewish family in town. Most people were Lutheran, a couple of other Protestant types, my father was a recovering Catholic, there were a few more of them around. Ethnically, it was pretty Scandinavian. Not uncommon for these parts.

What have I learned through all of this? Paul was right, live and let live :)

lightning36 said...

I let this one sit in my mind for a bit. Initially reading it, I felt quite sad. Having two kids who were picked on in middle school, I hate hearing about kids who had to take crap. It was especially sad to read because I am Catholic.

I grew up in suburban Chicago and have gone to and worked in Catholic schools as well as public schools all my life. Yeah -- privileged Catholic kids, like other kids from families with money, can be nasty suckers sometimes. It's part of the reason I had my kids go to public school.

My wife and I are Catholic, but our children have chosen to go their own ways, which makes me sad but absolutely kills my wife.

Politically I am a moderate republican, but get frustrated from the hatred I see from some of the far right in my party, especially when it comes from people who love to talk about religion and God. Oh yeah -- I see lots of hatred and disrespect from the far left also.

What will the future bring? I do not know, but it seems to me that things are much better than they were generations ago. I have great hope for the future.

I grew up comfortable in my heritage -- ethnicity, religion, and things associated with it. It is a good feeling.

Seeing as how you are successful in your profession and have a great wife and family, you might think about making your next challenge the search for a deeper meaning of who you are. It might prove fulfilling.

DrChako said...

I don't know if any of the commenters subscribe to the comments on this thread, but I just wanted to say how touched I am by your thoughtful responses.

It seems there are many kindred spirits out there - off all religious stripes.


Unknown said...
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Wolfshead said...

Interesting bunch of comments. Me,I'm a retired Catholic. Being raised Catholic, with the Catholic schools and with mainly Catholic neighbors I never really ran across the religious animosity that you describe probably because my crowd didn't run across many others of different faiths. Not to say it wouldn't have happened as I do know the capacity for that kind of hatred was in some of the kids that I ran with. I hate using hatred tho because it wasn't a real hatred with a basis in any reality, more a "I go higher by pushing someone down" mentality.

Actually I never wonder about the faith of others except when they parade it in my face. To me it all depends on how others are willing to interact with me no matter what the religion or ethnicty of people. People have a problem with me it's not worth the energy to return the favor. Basically I'm too lazy to work on a grudge, especially one with no real basis. I am however fascinated by the religious and cultural differences among us and love to hear tales from those of different backgrounds as long as it's story telling and not prosletyzing. Thst's one of the reasons the post and comments interest me.

As it is my only belief system now is in the gods of poker and I'm just as likely to spit in their eye as to give thanks. Hopefully someday most people will come to think and act like the people who responded here, that beliefs are personal and to not push or belittle others thinking that their way is the only right way.