Neither of my parents were observant Jews. Yes, we belonged to a reform temple and would attend services there for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, but other than that, we were mostly Jews in name only. We ate bagels, cream cheese, and lox, but also bacon; that about says it all.
My brother had a Bar Mitzvah, but that happened while my grandfathers were still alive, two Jewish immigrants from an area of Eastern Europe that was sometimes Russia and sometimes not; sounds familiar, no? My grandfather Bill used to hide under the floorboards to avoid harassment during pogroms by the local Cossacks; he immigrated to America when he was twelve. Thereafter, he assimilated, learning English, gaining a trade, and opening a business. His social circle was Jewish; restrictions against Jews were common. I don’t know if he believed in God, but he believed in the promise of America.
I never had my Bar Mitzvah; by the time I turned thirteen my grandfathers had died, and the pressure was off. Many of my friends were Jews, but I was also friends with non-Jews like Jimmy Goodridge; he boasted that his ancestor was William Bradford, who arrived on the Mayflower. One day at lunch, Jimmy’s older brother Billy announced, he could “smell a Jew a mile away,” but because I was Jimmy’s friend, he said I was a “good” Jew. That meant I didn’t bring attention to my Jewishness.
I was an all-American, middle-class kid with a bicycle, baseball glove, and sneakers. I liked Good Humor ice cream, drank milk from the bottle, and went to summer camp. That I was a Jew didn’t cause me many problems, but I never forgot about it. Being Jewish in a non-Jewish world is a big deal; it colors my outlook on life, my fears, my hopes, and expectations.
Jews have been hounded and pushed around for thousands of years. Queen Isabella expelled Jews from Spain in 1492; in 1942, while Hitler sought to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, Stalin persecuted Jews in Russia. In 2017, neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanted “Jews will not replace us.” In the words of writer George Steiner, “Somewhere the determination to kill Jews, to harass them from the earth simply because they are, is always alive.”
My awareness of hatred of Jews has been lifelong, as it has been for every Jew with a heart. In its way, this awareness forms a bond I feel with every other Jew, observant or otherwise, and is also responsible for the both the anxiety and joy I feel. I’m just two generations away from the attacks of the Russian Cossacks, and a part of me is anxiously awaiting their return. I’m not being paranoid, just realistic, frankly; ask Ukraine’s President Zelensky. At the same time, I revel in my survival, joyful and grateful when I awaken each day into this beautiful world.
While serving on the City Council I once received a crude hand-written letter with a Tennessee post-mark. I’d managed to make my way onto a hate-group mailing list. “We’re going to kill you and your kike mother,” it read. Threats like this drove my relatives out of Hungary, Poland, and Ukraine.
I go by all sorts of names: Buddhist, New Yorker, American, Lefty, middle-class; but I’ll always be a Jew.