The Conditional Jew

"Are we Jewish?" I asked my father. "Only when they come around for the camps next time," he said.

"Are we Jewish?" I asked my father. "Only when they come around for the camps next time," he said.

I didn’t know I was Jewish until my first day of second grade at Crocker Farm elementary school, in Amherst, Massachusetts. There I was, eight years old and all alone on the playground, and this kid walks up to me and says, “Are you Jewish?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “What’s Jewish?”

The kid was smaller than I was, with thick glasses and a few freckles, straight, light brown hair. He said, “It’s someone with dark hair and dark eyes.”

If that’s what it was, well, yes, I was Jewish. But I told him, “I don’t know. I’ll ask my mom.”

And I have been asking that question–”Am I Jewish?”–for the last twenty-five years.

I knew already that I wasn’t a Christian. Back in Athens, Georgia–our former residence–the Christian kids waited on our lawn for the Christian bus to the Christian school, while I had to walk the mile to regular school.

Regular school, public school, I realized later, meant the place the black kids and the poor white kids attended. It was the early ’70s, not long after desegregation, and those who could afford it plucked their kids from public school, reenacting segregation as much as they could muster.

I didn’t long to be with the white kids, but I longed to take the bus, to join what I thought was their private Sunday morning celebration, where they all dressed in their Gunne Sax best and (I assumed) ate sugary snacks that we of the brown rice balls and aloe vera juice were not allowed. I imagined they ate lots of donuts at church.

Our religion, as far as I knew then, was “hippiedom,” a very small segment of Athens society. I longed to be a part of a larger group.

My mother did let me go to church, just once, with the next-door neighbors. And it turned out there was not a single donut under that vaulted ceiling, in the musty dark–just a pasty old guy with pointy, Spockish ears, lecturing in monotone.  Everyone opened up their books and sang songs I didn’t know. Clearly, that was not my tribe.

So when I asked my mother if I was Jewish that day in Amherst, I set out on a lifelong search for identity.

“Yes,” she said, “We’re Jewish.”

Eureka! I belonged to a group.

And then–”But not really.”

“I’m not really a Jew,” said my grandma when I asked her the question, “I’m Jew-ish.” She had grown up in the Jewish ghetto of Flatbush, Brooklyn, but she was atypical–with a socialist single mother who raised five children on her own and deigned to purchase a non-kosher turkey at Thanksgiving (though she insisted the kids not tell the neighbors). My grandmother had once dated a Christian boy, she said, when she was 15.

“Just once?” I asked.

She shrugged. “I felt funny.”

That was the extent to which she was Jewish: She felt uncomfortable being intimate with men who were not. She, too, identified as a socialist more than as a Jew. Her idea of a good time was handing out leaflets at the supermarket, urging shoppers to boycott grapes, or not to buy light bulbs from GE.

Then she married my grandfather, also from Flatbush. He was the favorite of his four brothers for one reason: he had a small nose, so didn’t look like a Jew. His kid brothers–now in their nineties–still resent him for this. The slope of their noses, the bump in the middle, repelled their mother, from whom the nose had come.

To my grandfather, “Jewish” was a look, and a language. He taught me words in Jewish that he felt I needed to know: ongapatchka, meshugana, and all the words for penis: schmeckle, schlong, putz.

The Jewish identity my grandparents accepted was conditional. Grandma felt less Jewish than others in her strictly Jewish neighborhood, but totally Jewish when sitting next to Michael Fitzpatrick at the movies. For Grampa, Jewish identity included a physical form, and he was excused from his membership by way of his modest-sized nose. He could promote or deny his Jewishness as he chose.

My mother’s parents had died when she was small, and weren’t able to help me at all in my search, so these are the people I turned to, the people who’d raised my father, given him his sense of “Jewish.”

My father. He was religiously counter-cultural, a disciple of folk music, maybe. When I asked him if we were Jewish, he said, “Only when they come around for the camps next time.” I had no idea what he meant.

My father’s sister, my Aunt Suzie, was adopted, had blue eyes and a ski jump Anglo nose (which we all coveted), and straight, straight hair. My Playskool kingdom for straight hair, I thought. Aunt Suzie married an Israeli man, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, and  became the most Jewish of all of us, and yet she did not look the part, according to the Davis definition of “Jewish”.

There isn’t one drop of my blood that’s not Ashkenazi, and yet there hasn’t been a practicing, observant, religious or even spiritual member of my family for at least four generations.

“Jewish,” say the Davises, is relative. If I’m standing in a room full of Hassids, I’m not Jewish. If I’m visiting the Vatican, yes, I’m a Jew. And, yes, I suppose if we were having a little World War II reenactment, they’d round me up and plop me on the slow train to Birkenau.

But in college, I decided to be Jewish. What other group could I join? I was at Hampshire College, hippie capital of the college universe, and we were all so similar. But Jews at my college went on field trips and they had special dinners on Friday nights, with candles and singing. I learned the songs. They were willing to let me in on their rituals, forgive me my lack of knowledge. They let me belong.

I felt like a Jew. I did. I made up names for Jewish kosher restaurants–Jew Goo Gai Pan–and for Jewish lesbian magazines–Labia Menorah, KykeDyke. I could make the right kind of Jew jokes. My goyem friends (I learned some more words: goy, shiksa) called me the female Woody Allen.

So now what? When I walk into a room, the first thing I do is to scout for Jews, or folks who look like the Davis definition of a Jew: I’m searching for the Ashkenazi. Once I’ve divided the group in my mind, I mix them all back up again, but for that brief moment where the room is separated into two banks, I am on the Jewish side. It doesn’t matter if I can’t speak “Jewish” and I don’t believe in G-d. I’m on the Jewish side of the room.

I resurveyed my family recently. “Only when they come around for the camps,” repeated my father.

“Okay,” I said, “but what does that mean?”

“You really have to be Jewish,” he said to me. “You don’t have the option of not being it.”

He meant, I think, that certain sectors of the world will view me as Jewish, no matter what. That there is something historical, or genetic, that I have inherited, whether I acknowledge it or not. When it all boils down, I am a Jew, no matter what I want to be. Yet others will never accept me that way. My membership to the group is ever-shifting, as far as I’m concerned, but in certain segments of society, it’s fixed.

My mother answered yes, but then she said, were someone other than I to ask her, she would say no. It’s a kind of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, a privacy issue, to her.

My stepfather, who now belongs to the Freedom from Religion society, called from the background, “We’re not Jewish. It’s a religion.”

My 98-year-old grandfather (Grandma died two years ago) said, “Yes.” But then he added, “I have no religion, and I have no faith that I belong to. I am a creature of the world, and I have no ties.”

My brother, who had just gotten married, claimed he was marrying a Jew, but she is half-Jewish, on her father’s side, and a country club blond. Still, he said, she’s more Jewish than we are. She can tick off the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

I am still yearning to be a member of a tribe, though now that tribe is more defined: Adult Children of Hippies, I call my caste, and, more specifically, those who think Jewish jokes are funny, whose families were once really Jewish, long, long ago.

Lisa Selin-Davis is the author of a novel, Belly (Little, Brown and Company). She lives in Brooklyn and teaches creative writing at the Pratt Institute of Art.