"First, Are You Jewish?"

By Lucy Kemnitzer <ritaxis@cruzio.com>

When I was 15 or 16 years old, I was involved in a Labor Zionist Youth Group, mainly because my friends were, like some of my friends were volunteering at the American Conservatory Theater so I volunteered there. We were practicing to do a folk dance routine -- I forget what the occasion was.

This guy, a little older than the others, came up to me and another girl, and said, "First, are you Jewish? Second, what's your name?"

The other girl's father was a preacher at Glide Memorial Baptist church, which I found out later he knew all along, and she certainly didn't look very Jewish -- she looked Japanese. As for me, I didn't have an answer. I told him my name, but I wouldn't talk to him otherwise. He was a jerk, generally. Now I'm a little more forgiving, in retrospect: the kid had just come back from a six months driving a tank in Israel, to a thoroughly pacifist San Francisco.

Well, I got to where I couldn't make peace with the "Zionist" part of the group's name anyway, and I drifted out of that group, but my answer to the question "are you Jewish?" kept changing. It seemed like an improper question, in so many ways. It seemed like the kind of question that could kill people.

I was in the first generation born completely after the concentration camps, and now, just to put a different spin on it, there was this strange violent nationalism coming out of Israel. Beyond that, and more realistically, the motivation for asking the question was so often some kind of everyday schoolyard-type exclusiveness. Jews who'd ask the question because they might like you better if you were a Jew yourself. Or they might like you less if you were an unobservant Jew. Non-Jews who might like you less if you were a Jew. And any kind of person who might think you're so quaint, anyway. Expect wit, a Yiddish accent, hutzpah.

And then it was not an easy question to answer, straight off, and without considering the possible bigotry of the person asking. My mother's family is Jewish: my father's family is not (my father entertained the possibility that his German ancestors were converted Jews, but the evidence is not what you'd call convincing). By some reckonings, that makes me a Jew: the inheritance goes through the mother's line. But I wasn't raised to do any observant things. We lit candles at Hanukkah, and spent Pesach with my aunt sometimes. I have never been to High Holy Days: I only know what's done because I have a book of K'tonton stories. I've only been in temple for bar/bat mitzvahs of friends, and for community celebrations. For me, Jewishness is family stories, history, a connection with the past. And the amazing dedication to freedom and justice that we renew each Passover.

At times I have thought this wasn't enough of a definition, and I waffled about claiming Jewishness. Through my 20s I said, "I'm a Jew if there's an anti-semite in the room."

When my son reached the age of 13, I hit the books, wanting to know what traditions I wasn't upholding. I learned a lot, and I appreciated the long, rich history of my people, and I also appreciated my grandmother and my mother, who saw fit to raise secular children.

It's no problem for me, now. I say it clearly and proudly: I'm a secular Jew, like Rosa Luxembourg, like Emma Goldman, like my mother. I am not defined by when I light candles, or what food I eat, or prayers that I do not say, though the generations of women whose lives were illuminated by these rituals have illuminated my life too.

 


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