To Fit In, In Two Worlds
It’s March of this year and I’m standing at the El Al ticket counter.
“And what did you do at Passover?”
An intimidating man, the one I had specifically picked out and prayed would not question me, is doing just that before I pass through the gates to join my fellow Birthrighters.
Oh my God! I’m thinking They’re going to send me home because I’m not Jewish enough!
“We…” I stutter, trying to remember back to my childhood, trying to grab on to something especially convincing. “We…ate gefilte fish?”
No, wait, let’s go back further.
It’s a cold winter day in January, 1983, and I am born.
There we go.
I am born to a Jewish father and a German (with a little English and Irish) mother. At 8 months old, my parents divorce and I go to live with my Mother. My Mom has always been proud of my Jewish heritage and encouraged me to be too. But she is also fiercely Christian and from a proud German family so instead of Shabbat service and Hebrew school, my weekends as a child were filled with Sunday services at our church and German lessons at the Danke House. December brought with it a big German Christmas. Judaism was looked at from a Christian perspective (i.e. Mom bought me tape of Messianic Jewish music). When I turned 4, my Mom remarried. Her new husband was a 6’7’’ man of Czechoslovakian and Swedish descent. But mostly, his roots were “suburban.”
Occasionally, I would see the Jewish side of my family. Each time, it was almost like entering a mystical portal into a new world. I’d watch my Bubby kiss her mezuzah and then, when no one was looking, I’d stand on my tippy toes to try and reach it so I could copy her. Whenever we visited, I’d walk away with a Tupperware full of matzo ball soup. Whenever I’d leave, someone would “tuh tuh!” in my face to keep away the evil eye. And oh…Passover. Opening the Haggadah was like opening the Never Ending Story (quite literally, at some points…). The whole Passover experience would come alive in my mind, as I imagined the spectacle of frogs and flies and darkness. Listening to my uncle, my father, and my aunt fly through the blessings in Hebrew was enchanting – what were they saying and how did they know what to do?
It wasn’t all sweetness and light, of course, but even the problems we had with that side of the family were mysterious to me. This Jewish side of the family was, for lack of a better word, passionate. There was fighting and yelling (yelling! can you imagine? Growing up in a WASPy home, I certainly could not). Eventually the fighting and yelling got so bad that before I even reached my teenage years, that side of the family was out of my life.
And so I returned to a full-time Christian, European world, and Jewish Arden ceased to exist.
Because here’s the thing: even though I did my best to fit in (and God knows, as a teenager, that’s all you want to do), I never did. I’d look at my petite, blond best friend and then look at myself, course brown hair and big nose, and wonder why I looked so wrong. I’d sit at a family function and think…why don’t I act like any of these people? Although I was never made to feel ashamed of my Jewish heritage, no one ever talked about it other than my mom and me.
The older I got, the more distance I felt between the Anglo-Saxon community I was a part of and myself. I found myself beginning to cling to my Jewish identity. I didn’t even know what that meant. Of course, as a teenager attending a Christian high school, I didn’t have a lot of options, but I bought myself a t-shirt that said “Everyone Loves a Jewish Girl,” told people I wanted to get married under a chuppa, and set Hava Nagila as my ringtone. Nobody really knew what to make of it and they never asked me about it, which relieved me greatly since I wouldn’t have had any answers for them.
Ok, now let’s fast forward, all the way past El Al interrogations (which I passed, by the way) to Jerusalem. I’m sitting inside the Jewish Quarter on a Friday night, just around the corner from the Kotel. Our group leader is standing in front of us, saying “You may be the first one in your family to return to this place in 2,000 years…”
At that very moment, the pieces start to fall into place. That feeling I’ve had all my life? That’s thousands of years of history and tradition that I’m a part of. Yes, I’m a little German and a little English and even a tiny bit Irish and I’m proud of all of those things. But I’ve been to those places, I’ve studied their history and goodness, I’ve been steeped in their culture since birth. For the first time, I feel inspired – no – I feel driven to find out what it really means to be Jewish.
Since I’ve been home, I’ve done just that. I still don’t know what exactly it means to be German, English, Irish, and Jewish, but I’m learning. Along the way, I’m doing something crazy – I’m inviting that same white Anglo-Saxon Protestant community to join me in my traditions. Just last week, I had my first Shabbat meal with my family. I had no idea what I was doing (I pulled out my little Shabbox and did the best that I could), my step-dad kept saying “oy vey!”, my brother announced the kugel was “gross” and getting a picture for the NEXT Shabbat folks with all of us in it was nearly impossible. But in the end we still had a wonderful time together, enjoyed everyone’s company and even learned a little bit about each other. And later, I thought…maybe that is exactly what it’s all about.