Many months ago, I asked Freya to consider sharing some insights from her family’s heritage, expecting a fascinating look into a culture that has so much to do with our Christian heritage and yet so many of us are ignorant about it. After briefly chewing on the idea, life interrupted in an unexpected way (as you will see shortly). I’m thankful Freya returned to the subject, though; for a lesson awaits us all in her words.
I think you all know (or won’t be surprised to discover) we use pseudonyms around here to protect our privacy and safety in the real world. There is an old saying: “You can talk about things while washing the dishes that you can’t bring up over dinner.” Likewise, there are things you can discuss from behind the veil of anonymity that you cannot talk about in places where Google might happily dig it up and present it to your hopefully-future employer right before your interview. Imagine an interviewer’s face when you walk in just after she’s read your post about the biblical perspective on sex toys.
I mention this because my real name is stereotypically Jewish. If you heard it, even a basic awareness of the American Jewish population would lead you to wonder if I was one. You might even decide to politely ask me about it while we wash the dishes instead of at the dinner table. Since you were so polite, I’d answer yes. I married into a Jewish family.
My Resume of Jewishness
While there are complex rules about who is and who is not Jewish, many people consider me one because:
- I married one,
- I understand the faith decently,
- I practice many of its traditions, and
- I have a questionable level of ability in reading Hebrew.
I have a menorah and I know the children’s songs that go with it. I prayed Kaddish over my mother’s grave. I make better Passover soup than my husband’s grandmother (sorry Bubbe but thanks for helping me continue the tradition). I have a mezuzah on my door frame. I eat turkey bacon. Turkey bacon!!!
If being Jewish is a spectrum, I fall somewhere between chutzpah and mazel tov. At the very least I’m Jewish-ish.
So what is it to be more or less Jewish in America, yet raised Christian and attending a Christian church weekly? It’s lots of things.
It’s roasting marshmallows over the menorah, even though Jewish law says you may not use the flame for cooking, light, or anything practical like that. (There is nothing practical about roasted marshmallows — a game of semantics, but this is how the interpretation of Jewish law goes, sometimes. It’s how legal interpretation goes in general, if we’re honest.)
It’s laughing our way through sermons given by pastors who clearly have only read about Jewishness in a book, explaining how Moses was the Jewish Jesus, or that Jesus pulled the whole Communion concept out of thin air rather than repurposing a part of the Passover ritual.
It’s cringing at the use of yeast rolls for Communion, without understanding that this is a part of the Passover ritual which Jesus used as an illustration of the whole death-resurrection deal. You’re meant to perform the ritual with three unleavened breads, which are pierced during prep and develop golden-brown stripes during the baking process. You take the middle piece of this bready trinity, break it in half, hide part of it, reveal it later, and end dinner by breaking it up and sharing it with all participants. Unleavened, pierced, striped, hidden away, returned later, and ceremonially ingested along with a sip from the cup of wine that represents redemption, the cup that mustn’t be touched because the Messiah must come and drink from it first. When you leave the symbolism out of the ritual, it’s just a weird habit that excludes celiacs and fans of the Atkins diet. Jewishness is sometimes being the only one who understands what was communicated when the first person drank from that cup. It’s knowing how unnecessary the spoken words were. It’s knowing the depth of meaning communion likely held to the Jews who saw Jesus perform it for the first time.
But Jewishness can be tough to pin down, too. Sometimes it’s a culture. Sometimes it’s a religious faith. Sometimes it’s a basket of traditions and habits that simply exist.
At its core, Jewishness is a collective memory of things that happened so long ago that we assume there’s no way it could possibly impact any of us today. Yet like memories of the American Civil War, it truly does impact us today.
It impacts us when some of our elderly relatives wear long sleeves even in the unforgiving heat of an Arizona summer so no one will see the serial numbers on their arms. It impacts us when holidays bring them memories of siblings who didn’t survive to experience freedom with them. Such echoes of the past are chilling and all too real in a culture designed to remember the past.
The impact isn’t limited to yesterday. Stereotypes abound as people presume we are rich con artists, have some sort of bagel addiction, or condemn those who eat bacon. Common stereotypes from the past still impact us today simply because we have a stereotypically-Jewish surname.
Let me show you one way in which the past impacts us. If no children are around and you can handle coarse/racist language, watch the 22-minute film below or see it in the August 14, 2017 article by Elle Reeve on HBO’s Vice (note that the embedded video may auto-play on the article).
That “ancient history” that almost none of us has lived through impacted us when we watched people protesting the planned removal of a Civil War memorial by marching around chanting “Jews will not replace us” and other Nazi slogans translated to English (e.g. “blood and soil”). That was how they chose to show their support for a statue of Robert E. Lee, a military general who served in a war that had more to do with slavery than Jewishness.
It impacted us when we watched one of the protestors say that the death that occurred in Charlottesville was justified, because the person driving the car felt unsafe, and had no alternative but to accelerate into a crowd of pedestrians. It impacted us when he said it would be hard to improve upon their performance in Charlottesville, and that he believes a lot more people are going to die before they’ve accomplished their mission.
It impacted us when we heard our President state that good people were involved in that protest, that good people stood in a public space and shouted “blood and soil” and waved torches around and proudly proclaimed their willingness to frighten, intimidate, and even kill those who don’t share their ethnic and religious heritage.
It impacted us because they were not talking about historical monuments, about the American Civil War, or about preserving history. They were talking about my family. They were passionately executing a comprehensive strategy to fulfill their destiny of fundamentally changing society.
A large, frighteningly well-organized segment of America has begun a systematic plan that will make my family unsafe here, in our homeland.
And a much larger, but much-less-organized segment of America stands idly by, busied by daily life and dismissing these hatemongers as a minority not worth consideration, despite their clear ambition to become terrorists. And while it’s true that they are a minority — right now, today — this sort of thing is imprinted on the collective memory of the modern Jewish people. We’ve seen this scenario before, and it didn’t go well.
Which is why we are leaving the United States.
We’ve chosen our destination country. We’ve sorted out the visa path that will lead to permanent residency and citizenship. We’ve picked a cell phone provider, a neighbourhood, a church, a foster care agency that we’ll seek to adopt from, and a school. I’ve chosen the university from which I’ll earn my Master’s degree, and the job I intend to pursue.
Some might disagree with our choice. That’s all right. After all, one tenet of Christianity is that, within certain boundaries, each of us is free to make choices that are most appropriate for us.
Some might think we should stay and fight, defend our right to be here. But we have the unique perspective of having seen what happened last time a vocal minority spewed such venom and were dismissed and ignored (and even initially rejected) by the mainstream culture.
Some particularly patriotic people might think that since we’ve been pursuing education in fields that relate directly to national security that we have a duty to our country to work in those fields here. Our first duty is to our need to not be murdered.
Some might even think we’re paranoid conspiracy theorists. That’s all right. Read up on history: those Jews who fled Germany for the United States in the early 1930’s were paranoid conspiracy theorists, too — until one day they weren’t. If more of our ancestors had been equally paranoid, I would have a lot more relatives. And if they had been wrong, they would have still made nice, productive lives in the United States.
Thanks to my husband’s Bachelor’s degree, we have the opportunity to legally immigrate to the many other nations which set university-level education as a requirement for all but tourist and student visas. Since no one else in our families has a degree, they lack the luxury of choosing to move without refugee status. If our uneasy concern about the future safety of Jews in America proves valid, we will be contributing to the economy of our adopted nation and prepared to host and assist refugees from America. Maybe we’ll even be able to help our own relatives relocate. If our concerns prove invalid, we’ll still enjoy a nice, productive life in a place where we wanted to spend our retirement years anyhow. It’s Pascal’s wager, in a way.
And we’re okay with this. This is Jewishness; you have to accept all parts. Sort of like how my Irish genetic background means that along with green beer in mid-March and tasty potato-based meal products, I accept that I use more sunscreen in a day than most people do all year. Jews have to deal with the horrifying historical accounts and the perpetual possibility of ethnically-motivated violence, along with the happy traditions and rich faith heritage. It’s just the way of it.
In the meantime, we’re counting on you, America, to help prevent history from repeating itself. We’ll be doing all we can to support you from our new home because… well, let’s just say the Jewish mother jokes are only funny when you don’t have to live with an actual Jewish mother who actually does all those things. Some of those silly stereotypes exist for a reason. So we have GOT to get this sorted out before it comes down to having to move our parents overseas with us.