I once believed that I was a victim of the diaspora. The Jewish diaspora to be exact. When my people (or at least I was told in temple that they were my people even though they feel like strangers to me) decided to leave their homeland (wherever that was) and spread out and seek economic and political refuge in America- certain irreplaceable things were left behind. In their pursuit to become Americanized the family that I was yet to be born into was slowly shedding their ethnic and cultural ways. Who would of thought that in less than seventy-five years there would be me, growing tall (from being overfed) in a very white centric suburban country club where my worst fear was getting hit in the head with a golf ball while walking to the bus stop.
Growing up I remember traces of the culture showing up that my great grandparents had left behind. My fathers parents spoke Yiddish to one another and my mother’s parents- well they had already been thoroughly Americanized by the time I was ten. I attended Hebrew school once a week and went to temple a couple of times a year on the high holidays. I was told I was a Jew and this is why I had to do uncomfortable things like get a bar mitzvah. Even though I felt no real connection to being Jewish, every Friday night my parents drank red wine, said a few blessings over candles and broke bread for the Sabbath. Sometimes my father’s parents would eat the table with us; sometimes it would be just me, my sister and my parents who seemed to be pledging allegiance to the nation of Israel at those dinners more so than being apart of any authentic Jewish culture. At least that is how it felt. There was always the Israeli flag flying just over my parents shoulder.
My father often spoke about how he grew up in a large family in the Jewish section of Philadelphia where there were always aunts, uncles and grandparents around. Women cooked and cleaned as the men kibitzed and fought. They would eat dinner together and seemed to emulate certain Jewish tribes that I learned about in Hebrew school. I will never forget the stories that my father’s mother told me about my grandfather’s mother who kept kosher and used to make booze and gefilte fish in her bathtub. Her husband, who I guess was also a kosher Jew, was killed by a train one Saturday night as he strolled home from the local bar with one of his mistresses hanging on his arm. After I heard this story I decided that I would never be kosher because I was afraid of breaking the pledge and then getting run over by what my grandmother called “the killer kosher train.” My mother’s family who still lived in Philadelphia while I was growing up in a sterile suburban country club in northern California- seemed to be neither here nor there. They visited every once in a while, gave me loving kisses, sang me songs and talked to me about school. However, still to this day I know nothing about their past and am still unsure of where they came from. I am not even sure I know exactly where my father’s parents came from. Such is the price one must often pay for Americanization.
Like Alexander in Phillip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint, I was growing up in a family that was shaped by some of the more conservative, discriminatory, separatist and fear filled aspects of the old Jewish world. I always made sense of my families behavior by referring to it as post-holocaust syndrome. The fear of being annihilated by the non-Jew seemed to keep my parents and grandparents on high alert. It also kept me home a lot and off the football team. Non-Jewish invaders were always scrutinized and judged before they were even allowed in through the door. There seemed to be two common words that were always used to describe white, black, brown, yellow and pink people- shiksa for the women and shkutz for the men. Still to this day when my grandmother (who is 94 and the last standing member of the old world Jewish family clan) asked me if my girlfriend was Jewish and I told her “no” her response was, “you are dating a shiksa!” Of course now when she says it there is a slight smile on her face rather than the age-old frown. However, this smile is not the result of becoming more liberal in her acceptance of other ethnicities. Instead it is one of the more enlightening side effects of dementia.
Growing up I often wondered where I came from. Everyone who seemed to be accepted in my community was white (there was sometimes the token African American or Asian kids who to me were more like creatures from another, non Jewish planet). Even though my skin was darker than everyone else’s, people just assumed I was tan. My skin color was closer to the Hispanic women who cleaned my house and the Hispanic men who mowed the lawns and kept the gardens looking tame. Maybe this is why I always felt at ease around the Mexicans who worked in my home. Even though they could not speak my language the similarity of our skin color told me I had more in common with them then I did with the white kids in my school. People often asked me where I was from and for the longest time I remembered responding “Jewish.” Still to this day I am not sure what to say so I just give in and call myself a “Russian Jew.” My father was very white and my mother was very dark, the gypsy and the European. I was somewhere in between. When I asked my parents and my grandparents where I came from the answer was always the same. Ambiguous and general. Someplace in Russia, maybe Odessa. Someplace in Poland but who knows where. The Nazis obliterated everything. Someplace in England. “England?” I often asked surprised. I still don’t get it.
As a possible victim of the diaspora I have grown up a man disconnected from his roots. I have Jewish practices to keep me tied to a past that seems to be getting further and further away but these Jewish practices do not feel like they resonate in my soul. I am a non-practicing Jew who occasionally engages in Jewish rituals like Yom Kippur or Hanukkah but mostly because I like the presents and the free meals. I often say that the growing up in the suburbs took the culture out of me and replaced it with little league sports, tennis, swimming, golf, shopping malls, boy scouts and lots of drunken nights completely detached from any notion of who I am or where I came from. The emphasis was more on money, status, career, achievement and celebrating the American dream that I felt had put everyone to sleep.
The past decade of my life has been dedicated to climbing out of the ruble created by growing up in an American wasteland. Even though I am still covered by the rubbles dust I feel like I have lifted off the heavy bricks that kept me stuck for so long. I have accepted that I will never really understand where I come from but I have been successful in forming a notion that I can live with. Rather than referring to any particular culture or ethnicity I have decided that I am a member of an uncertain gypsy race. Sometime I like to think of this band of thieves as an eastern European caravan of musicians, artisans, drunkards and lovers. Other times I see this caravan filled with impoverished Jews in search of a better life by hopping on a boat, falling asleep and waking up in the American dream. However, despite my romantic meanderings I mostly see this gypsy race as the human race. The black person, the brown person, the white person and the occasional yellow person are all traveling on this train. I see no difference in any of us. We are members of a human race, a human culture that is much broader than what our egos want to identify us as being. I do not want to go so far as to give into that spiritual idiom that we are all one, but if growing up in a cultureless suburb taught me anything it taught me that race is a human/political construct that has nothing to do with the truth of who we are and that we are much, much more than the cultural and ethnic sum of our parts.
When I found myself standing in front of a classroom filled with 42 teenage African Americans, Caucasians, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans I remember having the thought “man this is beautiful.” There I was in the epicenter of a multicultural inner city environment and I was probably the only one in that classroom that was still uncertain about where exactly I came from. I remember the daily struggle to make the information that I taught relevant to all the students in the classroom and daily I struggled against that one dreaded question, “why the hell do I have to know about this white man’s culture stuff? What does it have to do with my culture?” I could not of agreed with them more but as you can imagine my ideas about being apart of a human race did not go over well. I just found myself wearing the “hippie!” hat.
I remember half way through reading The Great Gatsby, the impatience and disconnect was palpable in the classroom. So I had us all throw our books out the window in protest of white centric education and we made it on to the evening news. We spent a lot of time talking about culture, race and ethnicity. Students brought to class “their” food. We read books from authors that came from a plethora of different cultures. We studied the machinations of white privilege. However, at the end of the day none of this was what connected me with my students. If anything it made us feel different from one another. What connected us was our mutual human experience. It was relating to one another as human beings and transcending the narrow confines of race, ethnicity and culture. The result of connecting in this way filled in the holes with hope and taught us all how to feel equal to one another. Maybe I am exaggerating all of this, projecting. I do this from time to time but if I know anything for certain working day after day in this multicultural environment taught me a great deal about who I am. Even though I am still uncertain about the who part I now know that I am something much larger than a suburban victim of the Jewish diaspora. But then again, maybe I really am that one thing I have tried to deny most of my adult life- a Jew?