Image Credit: paper.prankster
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.” –Psalms 133
When my 11-year-old daughter informed me that she wanted a bat mitzvah, I felt a blend of alarm and pride. I never had a bat mitzvah and had no idea what it entailed to do so. My knowledge of Judaism included in order of familiarity: Hanukah, Passover, Purim and some conversational Hebrew. I had done little to inspire in her any sense of Jewish allegiance and yet she came to this decision on her own.
When I inquired with her why she wanted a bat mitzvah, my daughter, Flora, named in Ashkenazi tradition after my deceased grandmother Florence, responded, “For the party.” I wasn’t even sure how she knew there was a party. I couldn’t recall if I had mentioned it before. “And I want to be better at Hebrew than you,” she said, shamelessly showing her competitive nature. I explained to her that this would entail weekly Hebrew lessons and hours spent in Jewish services as I wondered where we would even find such things in our small rural village in northern New Mexico. She agreed to this, implying it was worth it to her.
“Okay,” I said, “But I need to understand more about why you want to do this.”
“In school the kids make fun of me because I can’t pronounce the Spanish words well and because I don’t know anything about Mexican culture. I want to show them that I have my own culture and my own language.”
Okay, I nodded, this I could understand.
We live in northern New Mexico where the majority of the population is, as they call themselves, Hispanic or Indian and the rest is, as we are called, Anglo. There are not many Jews. Ever since Flora was in Kindergarten, I have visited her school in December to do a presentation about Hanukkah for her class. Many of the students had never heard of the holiday or met a Jew. Being Jewish makes my daughter feel like an outsider, as well as special. She is unique, but she is separate. And without a firm grasp of Jewish identity, she is not only separate from the larger mainstream culture, but her own culture as well.
Growing up, I searched for belonging and identity anywhere I caught a glimmer of myself in reflection. As a child, when a classmate asked me what religion I was, I answered simply, “Both.” In my sheltered existence, I thought there were only two religions, Christianity and Judaism. My unconscious attempts to ride the line between two identities didn’t actually result in the answer I gave. The real answer was, “Neither.”
My Italian father wished to endow me with Italian pride, “You’re a guinea,” he’d remind me, turning the derogatory expression into a term of honor. “Don’t be ashamed to be a guinea.”
On the other hand, my Jewish mother disdained Judaism. She hated going to synagogue as a child and found the religion boring. To her credit, she hated all religions. A liberal bohemian, she was outspoken about her belief that religion was the source of all war, and so she thought all religion should be banned. The only bible in our house was A Course in Miracles. I don’t think my Catholic father cared all that much either way, and so I was raised without religion.
I remember vaguely at the beginning of my life, my cousins coming over for Passover seder. I remember fondly trading my gefilte fish for matzoh balls with my cousin. I remember a Passover with friends, pretending to be drunk on Manischewitz when I was eight and the adults going along with it. Every year we lit the menorah for Hanukah for eight nights, so I could collect my eight presents. It took me decades to memorize the prayer for some reason, probably a lack of desire, and still, only half of it.
Additionally, it is important to note, that I grew up in a Jewish community in the New York suburbs of Manhattan. I went to at least twenty bar/bat mitzvahs. I did not go to Hebrew school or belong to a synagogue. Because I was only half-Jewish, I was different and didn’t feel like I fit in, much like my daughter feels.
I am not a True Blue Jew.
A True Blue Jew, as I understand it, is a Jew who has two Jewish parents, maybe even four Jewish grandparents. When they spit in a cup, their DNA comes back 100% Jew, or pretty close.
A Jewish friend of mine, upon learning that my father is Catholic said, “Oh, you’re a Cashew.” I understood immediately yet another clever euphemism of Jewish culture that Cashew meant Catholic Jew.
A term for a Jew who wasn’t raised going to synagogue but is interested in learning about their culture is “Jew Curious.”
My close friend has a Jewish father. She refers to herself jokingly as,” Jew-ish.”
And while these terms are meant to at once initiate you into the tribe by stating, you are one of us, they also serve to set boundaries and hold people at a distance. You are “kinda” one of us. The existence of this slang vernacular tossed around among secular Jews serves to demonstrate a core dilemma of Jewish culture today, the sense that one Jew is more Jew than another.
I do not stress with Flora that she is not a True Blue Jew. I think she already knows that. She’s only a quarter Jewish as far as her DNA goes. Although she can’t quite express it in words, she knows what we don’t talk about, that having her Bat Mitzvah will solidify her identity as Jewish.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I started to have any interest in my Jewish roots. I went to events thrown by the Jewish Student Union and took a class with Jewish scholar Jacob Kushner. Before my Senior year, in 1996, I went to Israel to live on a Kibbutz with the intent to learn more about what it meant to be Jewish. There, two opposing sentiments influenced me for the rest of my life.
First, I learned that some Jews might judge my lack of Jewishness.
Every other day, I had Hebrew lessons with a group of American and Canadian students. Even in the lowest level class, I was still remarkably less knowledgeable of Hebrew than the others. When Sam, an American I befriended when I first arrived on the kibbutz, discovered that my father was Catholic, he told me he would keep it a secret from the others. I didn’t understand what he meant, but only a week later I heard him outside of class mocking another man, Jason, because his only tie to Judaism was his paternal grandfather. “How can you be expected to know anything about Hebrew?” Sam said, “You’re not even a Jew.” My throat clenched and my cheeks reddened. I wanted to defend Jason, to say that he had every right to learn about his culture, even if it was only a small part of who he was. But I kept my mouth shut because I was afraid Sam would see through me. I was afraid of being outed as also not Jewish enough.
Second, I learned that I was Jewish enough.
My Hebrew teacher, Moishe, did not concern himself with my degree of Jewishness. It was irrelevant as long as I was there. Every day after class, we were inundated with talk about how wonderful Israel was, how important it was to the Jews. He was a Zionist and all he wanted was a few good Jews to join the ranks, make aliyah and move to Israel, bring their Jewish friends with them. To him, I was only a Jew.
Though these two lessons are in conflict with each other and my opinion of Israeli politics has skewed my feelings considerably, being there, I felt a sense of belonging I never had before. I could feel my culture deep in my bones, pulsing through my blood and I felt proud to call myself Jewish. After, I never doubted who I was again.
For many years, I resented my mother for not teaching me about my culture. She knows all the prayers, all the songs, all the dances and takes them for granted. She uses Yiddish phrases frequently and yet, I know none of this. I knew nothing of Jewish religion. I’m embarrassed to say that up until recently, I thought Judaism was just like Christianity but without Jesus and the new testament stuff. On the other hand, I am glad that religion was not forced on me. Perhaps I would have also had a disdain for it like my mother did. Instead, I was able to seek out religion and spiritual beliefs on my own later in life when I was old enough to give it my own meaning.
Jewish identity is more complex than a religious affiliation. I believe that having Jewish blood makes you a Jew. It means you carry transgenerational trauma in your genes. In many ways this is more binding than observing all 613 mitzvot in the Torah or even knowing what I mean by that. In a modern society wrought with digital disconnection, a sense of identity is a sense of belonging. Or in the ominous words of Jewish author Norman Mailer, “When the time comes, they won’t ask what kind of Jew you are.” A Jew by any other name is still a Jew.
I take my daughter to the local Jewish Community Center, not quite a synagogue like I was accustomed to seeing where I grew up, but a small room with a Torah and a rabbi. Flora doesn’t always want to go, but it is a condition of earning her bat mitzvah along with reading Jewish literature, books about Jewish life and completing a community service project. I never force her though. She always has a choice.
When I first joined the small congregation, I was shy about my heritage. When people hear my very Italian sounding last name, they do not recognize it as Jewish. I am uncustomarily tattooed all over. When they sing the prayers and the whole congregation raises their voices, I mumble awkwardly, my voice lowered toward the prayer book because I don’t know the words. I was scared that they would find me out and dismiss me as not True Blue enough or simply, a Jew Curious Cashew. Just as when I was a child, I did not feel like I fit in entirely, though I understood it was my job to help my daughter feel like she fit in. I was even more concerned they might discover how little Jew was in her DNA, even though I knew rationally that it would not matter to them. My Christian-raised agnostic husband gamely sits in the back of the room with us, looking dubious and clueless, hoping to earn himself the right to make a few Jewish jokes. “Why not?” he’ll quip, “I made a Jew.”
In time, I learned that there are many shades of Jew in our small congregation. One man’s mother is not Jewish. Another woman doesn’t have any Jewish genes but converted as a child. Many don’t know how to read Hebrew. It soon became clear to me that my degree of Jewishness has less to do with my genetic make-up and everything to do with my decision to call myself Jewish and participate in Jewish culture.
With my daughter’s Jewish learning, I have also taken on the journey of my own Jewish learning. This time, I am going deeper than just discovering my culture, and I am now discovering the spiritual side of the religion. I would still rather chant kirtan at the ashram, but I am learning to appreciate my connection to the words that all Jews sing in unison. Last year on the High Holy Days, I even wept a little as I let go of my self-conscious beliefs that I wasn’t Jewish enough and opened up to the possibility that maybe it doesn’t matter.
I have learned recently that having a bat mitzvah celebration is a modern phenomenon. In fact, when a Jewish girl turns of age, she automatically becomes a bat mitzvah. With or without the ceremony, she becomes a full-fledged member of the Jewish community with all the obligations and responsibilities that entails. Although that seems straightforward enough, for my family, it’s not that simple. If Flora had never decided to have a bat mitzvah ceremony, she would not be attending services or learning Hebrew prayers or studying about Judaism. For her, the celebration is an opportunity to say to her family, friends and community that she is embracing Judaism and she is proud to be Jewish. And I’m proud of her.
Johanna DeBiase is the author of the fabulist novella Mama & the Hungry Hole (Wordcraft of Oregon, 2015) and the poetry chapbook, Gestation (Finishing Line Press, 2020). She writes from New Mexico where she is spellbound by the energy vortex of Taos Mountain. Her writing has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Portland Review, Queen Mob’s Teahouse and Monkeybicycle, among others. She is a writing teacher, collage artist, yoga instructor and mother of one. Find her at www.johannadebiase.com.