Being married to a self-proclaimed Evangelical Agnostic and drifting further and further away from my faith, the question loomed large. What are we going to do with the child? Since there is more to being a Jew than the religious aspects, we really were faced with a significant challenge. The Evangelical Agnostic is not shy about his feelings. At one point, he said anyone who followed any religion was “stupid.” I was sitting in the den. EA was standing in the doorway. Hanging on the wall, facing me was a plaque that reads “Shalom” (it’s still in the same spot but the den is now Milky’s bedroom). My house is not outfitted with Judaica but there are bits and pieces here and there. I collect dreidels. I have menorot (one via my grandmother and namesake). There is a mezuzah on the doorpost. None of these things speak to my level of commitment to my faith, though. At least not on a conscious level. They’re more along the lines of “things Kang likes” or “things you just do.” When you move into a home, you put a mezuzah on the doorpost. It’s just what is done. As Milkface grew inside me, I thought of the whole “stupid” comment while sitting in my den, looking at the word “Shalom” and trying to keep the definition and spirit present within and wonder…what do we with the kid?
While I’m of the Reform persuasion, looking back, my upbringing was leaning a bit conservative. Had it not been an interfaith marriage, I’m pretty sure our family would have been members of the Conservative temple. For years, my stepfather dragged me to and from shul for Hebrew school (Mondays or Tuesdays), Sunday school and confirmation classes. My mother would deal with my sullen, unpleasant tween self by forcing me out of bed, into a dress and over to temple for whatever classes were on Saturday and services. I’m a proud member of the Jew Camp Illuminati (credit to Foster Kamer for that brilliance), having gone away to the Poconos for eight glorious summers of shenanigans, kosher food, prayer and the opportunity to not be a minority for at least four to eight weeks a year. Jewish summer camp is a pretty big deal and I highly recommend reading City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder by Herman Wouk if you’re interested in learning about the long tradition of sending little Jewish kids off to the mountains in the summer since it’s been going on for nearly 100 years.
Ultimately, we decided that, at the very minimum, Milky would be culturally Jewish. He would identify as a Jew. Half of his family is Jewish. Random Yiddish words pop up in conversation so naturally that I’m completely unaware of the occurrence. My family is delightfully neurotic and prone to self-deprecating humor. On my part, there is a very strong passion to keep the family folklore alive – from how my father’s family managed to evade a Pogrom, my stepfather’s family experience with the Holocaust and the general immigrant experience that many Jews either had first hand or have heard via tales from their Bubbes and Zaydes. Then there’s the ugly baggage that comes along with being Jewish (culturally or observant) – bigotry and rampant racism. If the child is going to be raised as a Jew (practicing or non), we, as parents, are going to have to prepare him for that. There is no avoiding that. Not even if you grow up in suburbia with other Jews. The bigots…they will find you and depending on where you are in life, what your experiences are and how you are adept at managing this bullshit, your life will become a temporary hell.
Now that we consigned Milky to his fate, without his permission (something oft criticized by the EA set), all we needed to do was put the plan in motion. Here you go, kid. Have fun with your new identify! You is J00, now. You will have latkes, gefilte fish and chopped liver and like them. You will grow up being told that you will be a doctor and a doctor you will be (Sorry, it’s your father’s fault you were born male). Your mommy will wreak such havoc with your psyche that all future romantic partners will curse my existence for perpetuity. And don’t even think about looking at a state college, pal. It’s Hopkins, MIT or Duke for you. Fret not, you’ll find other young, Jewish males whose soul has been sucked from them, too. You will sit around bars and basements with them, watch sports and critique the game play at an expert level while being completely unable to play said game yourself because, let’s face it, we’re not exactly athletic people. You’re welcome. Really. You should be a little more gracious and appreciative, however. Mommy had to do an enormous amount of work and sacrifice a great deal of herself to provide you with all of this. And you won’t even pick up the phone and call…
Since we are not religious and are not practicing anything other than how to not leave the living room looking like a toy tornado ripped through it, religious symbols, holidays and other things haven’t exactly been high on the list of things we discuss. Sure, we’ll whip out the menorah at Chanukkah and light the candles but we also have the tree and give presents on Christmas. Dock may not like the concept of religion but he sure as shit loves the concept of presents. This year, however, things are changing as Milky is in kinderMAPP and is learning *everything* at a pace that defies description. This includes symbolism. Last month, it occurred to Milky that the “stars” are ours and the “t’s” belong to everyone else. Ok. Time to discuss religion, explain symbolism and tell him that there are many more flavors at the old ice cream parlor. But the point – Milky knows he is Jewish and he seems pretty down with that. Kewl. Let’s hope he doesn’t decide he wants to go to synagogue or have a Bar Mitzvah because I’m not sure I want to deal with that aspect of it for reasons I’ll explain later.
The drawback to Milky’s realization and self-identification is now he knows he’s Jewish and to my point earlier, this privilege comes with a whole lot of unnecessary and unpleasant baggage. The other day I wrote about my experiences on Rosh Hashanah where the Jews were eating each other. I don’t want Milky to experience that. I don’t want Milky to have to listen to ramblings about how Jewish he is because his lineage isn’t 100% Jewish. I don’t want Milky to be put in the position of questioning his identity as I was when I was a teenager. That shit hurts! You think you’re in a safe zone when you’re among your own and it turns out…you’re not! Scripture is murky and can be interpreted many different ways. Some may say that certain people aren’t Jewish but others will accept that they are. People outside the faith make no distinction when it’s time to put us on train cars, though. So, that’s huge problem number one: potential discrimination from within the tribe. I don’t like dealing with that. Do you think I want to put my child in those crosshairs? Say what you will about my parenting methods but no one can say that I’m not one hell of a protective mom.
On to problem number two: discrimination and intimidation from everyone and everywhere else. I mean, do I really have to cite specific examples? Is that really necessary? Were we not paying attention in history class, folks? Very well – what happened yesterday in Paris? Unsatisfied with the outcome at Charlie Hebdo’s office, the fanatics decided to raise the bar on the berserk scale and go buck wild at a kosher grocery shortly before the start of Sabbath. Four people were killed. Why? Wrong place at the wrong time? Did they do something offensive? Did they run over a cute little bunny on their way to work? Possibly. Nope. Nope. They were killed because they were Jewish. Of course. Now, France doesn’t have the best track record managing anti-Semitism and I feel fairly comfortable pointing a finger because I did spend time in France and did spend over ten years of my life studying all things French. So no, I’m not rambling from a knee-jerk perspective, looking for a source to assign blame. That said, you know it’s bad, you know it’s legitimate when François Hollande flatly declares the attack at Hyper Cacher was anti-Semitic.
I should like to add – as the events of yesterday unfolded and I was jabbering with my family, this came as a surprise to no one. We all saw this coming. As soon as the words “kosher market” were said, we knew. We knew why. We knew what the outcome would be. We know these things because we have lived this directly or indirectly. And, as I mentioned the other day, there will be plenty of commentary stating that the evil, horrible Jews deserved what they got.
Tell me, again, why I chose this life for my child? Of all the things I could bestow on my kid, I decided to give him a life of managing this? What was I thinking? Why am I even thinking these things? I’m not the one with the fucking problem. Neither is my family. Nor most Jews. And please, shut the fuck up about Israel. This is about being Jewish; not Israeli. Stop linking the two every single time something happens and stop using politics as an excuse to be a fucking racist asshole. Jews don’t deserve to be targeted because of the actions of a nation they don’t live in. YES. It is that simple. Furthermore, if people keep attacking Jews and killing us, these people are simply enforcing the need for a Jewish state where we nice, minding-our-own-damn-business Jews can go about our lives without having pennies thrown at us, having to endure hate speech, see swastikas, listen to “jokes” or worry about being killed.
My question about whether or not human beings deserve such a privilege as religion may be nearing an answer in my own brain. I’m beginning to lean towards: NO. It’s far too destructive and we do not use the tool/device as we should. Looking back through history, we haven’t been, either. My personal perspective – I’m very close to cashing in the old chips and walking out the door with my remaining kitty. I know I’ll never cease being a cultural Jew and that part I will not relinquish. That part I will pass along to my child. As for the religious aspect, I don’t think I am capable of fully relinquishing that, either. There’s too much guilt and fear. Yet another reason why I wonder if religion is a good thing. If you think about walking away from it but don’t because you’re guilty or afraid – that isn’t a good thing. That’s an abusive relationship, is it not?
Another day, more words, continuing frustrations and no answers. And in due course, I’m going to have to have the conversation that all Jewish parents have with their children. I’m going to have the good fortune of trying to explain why, throughout history, people have been killing us because of religion. No amount of self-deprecating humor, jokes about the IJC or funny stories about the insane allegations that Mommy is an agent of Mossad will soften the blow, either.