Better Left Undefined
I have a memory of my mother laughing at my milk-and-cookie disappearing-act story and proclaiming, “Oh, Jasmin, there’s no such thing as Santa Claus. You’re Jewish!”
My older brother, Jeremy, cackled out loud at this. There were still cookie crumbs on his shirt and dried milk caked onto the corners of his mouth, though I, at 5, convinced myself that it was a fashion statement, and that Santa did, in fact, eat our Oreos.
It was the early-’80s then, and I had been hoping for a gift that was something fluorescent. Jeremy and I had just returned from our father’s house where we celebrated Christmas, playing with our new Fisher-Price train set in fast motion, knowing that we had only limited time before we were due home to celebrate Hanukkah with our mother.
Mom was Jewish, and thus my brother and I were enrolled in Hebrew School one day a week at a progressive Reform synagogue, where lots of the kids had two mommies. By the time I was 8, Mom married Wayne, my current step-dad of nearly 20 years, and he brought a big plastic Christmas tree into the house and boldly set it beside Mom’s menorah. All of a sudden, my mother, who had previously dismissed my story of Santa for fear that I might grow up to be a nun, was setting out stockings with puffy-paint letters spelling out my name.
Oh, what devotion can do.
My childhood was a cataclysm of religions, faiths, and Hallmark celebrations. Around the holidays, Mom used to keep a Hanukkah room and a Christmas room. To get from one to the other, my brother and step-dad were kindly instructed to leave their yarmulkes on the bread box in the hallway.
“Remember, you’re Jewish,” Mom would say as she handed us our stocking-stuffers. “We are celebrating your step-father and respecting his holiday.”
His holiday. I was shocked, years later, when I found out that Christmas was, in fact, Jesus’ birthday. I had always assumed it was Wayne’s.
Jewish to me was not a religion, it was a race. I was Jewish just as my dad’s mom was Italian or Michael Jackson was black (he was, back then). Jewish meant that my grandma could teach me how to curse in Yiddish, that I could eat candy apples on Purim, that my cousins and I could taste a tiny bit of the sickeningly sweet Manischewitz wine each Passover. It was a culture, a tradition, but not a religion.
By the time I got to college, I did like any nice Jewish girl would and rebelled. I decided that all religion was bogus and insisted on maintaining that I was atheist. I read depressing poetry, smoked clove cigarettes, and, on the exhale, proclaimed, “All religion was created out of fear, anyway.” I was so smart.
Until, that is, my cat Rocky died. When Rocky died and his spirit was as vibrant and palpable as ever, lovingly haunting my mother’s New Jersey home, I knew that there had to be something deeper than meets the eye. This is when I began to separate the concept of religion from the idea of belief and the role of intention.
The truth is, it doesn’t really matter how I define myself. My childhood taught me that we are all a whole lot closer to one another than people want to think. My step-dad, my father, Santa, the gay parents of my Hebrew school classmates, even my dead cat Rocky–we are all just trying to do good by the power of a bigger source. For me, that source is universal, and involves all beings of all backgrounds.
My Hebrew school teachers preached that Jews are “the chosen people.” With respect to Abrahamic religions and traditions, I have found that once anything or anyone is deemed “chosen,” we are given (or take) unjust power. My spirituality consists of a grounded awareness that none of us are “chosen”; rather, we are all sentient, including both human and non-human animals alike.
Though I carry my Jewish heritage with me as a link to my mother and her mother, it was a culmination of my interfaith upbringing, my progressive bra-burning mother, and my own deviance that have led me to question authority. By doing so, I have weeded out the religious and traditional aspects of my childhood that haven’t served me, held onto the parts that have, and created a delicious smorgasbord of this and that, which may be better left undefined.