A Jew?

  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?

I Am Not Franz Kafka?

All through out my twenties I thought I was Franz Kafka (July 3, 1883- June 3, 1924). He was skinny, tall, introverted, alienated, intellectual, dark-skinned, well dressed, nervous, dramatic and Jewish. So was I. Kafka had a deep longing to be a writer and so did I. He loved literature, his sister, women, exercise and hated his job- just like I did. Kafka had a father, Hermann Kafka (1852-1931), who was a huge, dominating, worldly, loud, overbearing, oppressive and successful business man- just like mine. Kafka wrote “Letter To His Father” in which he spoke of being profoundly affected, both physically and psychologically, by his father’s authoritative and demanding character. I could have written the exact same letter to my father and I often did (I would copy Kafka’s letter and put some sentences in my own words and then mail a shorter version of “Brief an den Vader” to my father). So many things seemed to indicate to me that Kafka was just like I or I was just like him. I deeply related to his short stories and read and re-read his novels America, The Trial and The Castle. His novella, “The Metamorphosis” felt like the perfect metaphor for my life.

One of the difficulties of aging is that as years pass one begins to realize the misguided thinking of ones youth. One sees how much of their behavior was a fervid rebellion or unorganized folly against parents, orthodoxy and attempts to control- no matter how much one thought their behavior was authentic, ideological and revolutionary at the time. The joys of youth are hidden in its naivety, in youth’s ignorance of the root cause of behavior (I miss those days). As I have traveled through my thirties and am nearing my forties (shedding some of the anger and idealisms of my youth) I am beginning to realize that I am not like Kafka at all. At least I don’t think so. On the 18th of June 1906, Franz Kafka received his Doctorate of Law. He went to work for a large Italian insurance company where he worked for a year before quitting. Then he found a job with Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute for the Kingdom of Bohemia where he worked for the next fourteen years of his life. I have never worked this long at any job with such uncompromising dedication as Kafka- nor would I want to. Kafka was a diligent and reliable employee although he often complained that he “despised the job.” His father often referred to his son’s career choice as “Brotberuf,” literally meaning “bread job,” a job done only to pay the bills. I would never want to imagine living like this.

I am not a Zionist. I have difficulty relating to those who are. It is not clear if Franz Kafka was a Zionist (I think he was) even though he sympathized with the Jews whom he thought deserved a homeland in Palestine. I have very little sympathy for Israel whose government and military is committing and has been committing for years daily human rights violations against the Palestinian people. Kafka would certainly not condone Israels current militaristic behavior but we would certainly have differing opinions about the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and the Jewish diaspora- were Kafka alive today. Even though there is not a lot of “Jewishness” in Kafka’s literary work- Kafka was very interested in Yiddish Theatre and Yiddish Literature, whereas I find these two art forms incredibly dull. Judaism does not appeal to me as it did to Kafka. Kafka read the Talmud daily and the few times that I have tried to read the Talmud I have fallen asleep.

Kafka was a very spiritual man and so am I. However, Kafka’s spirituality was very philosophical whereas mine is metaphysical, almost verging upon the new age. Gustav Janouch, who would often visit Kafka at work and then record the things that they talked about (which was later published as the book “Conversations With Kafka”) said that Kafka was a saint dressed in businessman clothes. Kafka often spoke about the virtues of patience. I have a tendency to be impatient. I have always wanted what I want now but Kafka once said, “Patience is the master-key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forbearing.” Kafka was simply talking about the Buddhist idea of “letting go and being in the moment.” Unlike Kafka, who is said to have been a master of being in the moment, I am almost incapable of spending more than a minute or two in the “now.”

Kafka once said to Gustav while they where on a crystalline autumn day walk, “there is no such thing as bending or breaking. It is a question only of overcoming, which begins with overcoming oneself. That cannot be avoided. To abandon the path is always to break into pieces. One must patiently accept everything and let it grow within oneself. The barriers of the fear-ridden can only be broken by love. One must, in the dead leaves that rustle around one, already see the young, fresh green of spring, and wait. Patience is the true foundation on which to make one’s dreams come true.” I happen to completely agree with this sentiment. I often practice this way of being myself and talk about it with others. The major difference between Kafka and I is that when I say something like this to people they look confused or take me for a new age freak. But when Kafka said the exact same thing- it gets recorded and written down in a book! I am not complaining, nor am I jealous of Kafka- I just recognize that Kafka and I obviously have very different ways of enunciating and expressing our ideas.

I have always enjoyed working nights or staying up late into the night. It is strange to me that Kafka would say something like, “working at night is very bad for one’s health. And besides you tear yourself out of the human community. The night side of life becomes the day-side for you, and what is day for other men changes into a dream for you.” I find this strange because I know that Kafka would often return home from work at three or four in the afternoon, take a nap, eat dinner and then write until late in the evening. He had to be at work before the sun came up, six days a week, and he would very often only sleep two or three hours a night because he would stay up slaving away at his stories or novels. I myself often work as a waiter when I cannot find any other way to make economic ends meet (also one benefit to working as a waiter is that I can have my days free to write, paint, read or do whatever I want). I enjoy the nighttime hours that allow me to feel separate from the normalized nine to five “human community.” A writer is often an outsider anyways- and my work as a waiter often confirms my outsider status. Kafka may disagree with my chosen line of work and tell me that I am selling myself short or that it is bad for my health to work late into the night- but I could easily turn the situation around and call him a hypocrite.

No, I am not Kafka. Sure, if someone compared our biographies they would find superficial similarities. Kafka was a health nut and so am I. Kafka was continually dependent on and exhausted by his fathers support, so am I. Kafka had issues with sex, intimacy and choosing between the writing life and the domestic life- so do I. Kafka liked to draw, so do I. Kafka prayed, I meditate. Kafka loved the streets, palaces, gardens and churches of the city where he was born and I love the rolling hills, smells, trees and avenues of the city where I grew up. Kafka was too shy and reserved for friendship and sometimes I think I am as well. Kafka talked about the coming age where the world would be populated with robots, catastrophe, bureaucracy and “chains that can not be broken because there are no chains that can be seen.” I am living in this age. Several years before the holocaust occurred Kafka said “we live in a morass of corroding lies and illusions, in which terrible and monstrous things happen, which journalists report with amused objectivity and thus- without anyone noticing- trample on the lives of millions of people as if they were worthless insects (Fox News comes immediately to mind).” I feel like the same thing could be said about the world in which I currently reside. But even with all these similarities between Kafka and I- I am no Franz Kafka.

“Man does not grow from below upwards but from within outwards. This is a fundamental condition of all freedom in life,” Kafka said to Gustave one day as he was buried in paperwork that was stacked up in piles on his desk. The room in which Kafka worked was filled with rows of desks and Gustav sat in a chair besides Kafka’s desk listening to him talk. “It is not an artificially constructed social environment but an attitude to oneself and to the world, which it is a perpetual struggle to maintain. It is the condition of man’s freedom.” Gustave could not help but think that Kafka could be an enlightened being hidden away in the machinations of the bureaucratic work-a-day world. I myself need to find an “ordinary” job so that I can afford some financial security in my life. Like Kafka’s dreams, my dreams of being a writer have not quite worked out and lately, I have been realizing how much my consciousness or my thoughts determines the reality that I experience. I am starting to get glimpses of how it is my attitude or way of perceiving that creates my reality. As much as my intellectual mind wants to disregard this spiritual truth- I am starting to understand how this is really works. But still- this does not make me Franz Kafka.

Through out my twenties I never saw Kafka as a guru or a beholder of deep spiritual wisdom. Now I do. Instead I saw him as an existentialist- a victim of a society that constantly tried to tear him away from his art. I related to Kafka’s struggle against his father and his constant attempts to be taken seriously as a writer by his family, friends and the surrounding world in which he lived. Kafka only had a few short stories published in his lifetime and was virtually unknown as a writer and human being. Kafka would often go to soirees or intellectual gatherings and read his stories out loud to those few people who were willing to listen. I, on the other hand, keep a blog in which I write stories and essays for the few people who are willing to read my work. Kafka struggled to balance his literary aspirations with his career, his parents and his relationships with women- I do the same. Without question- Kafka suffered and struggled through out his life to create the body of literature, which is now known as some of the greatest writings of the twentieth century. Even though he demanded that all his work be burned upon the time of his death- his friend Max Brod ignored this final wish upon realizing how great his writings really were. I myself would never want my work destroyed after my death and I have every intention of being a well-respected writer long before I am gone.

I am not Kafka? No I am not. The more I write the more I become more aware of the naivety or mistaken thinking in my twenties. Maybe one might disagree with this because the superficial similarities between Kafka and I outweigh the differences. Kafka slept with his window open, and so do I. Kafka believed in the power of prayer and so do I. Kafka tried hard to please his father often sacrificing his true self- so do I. Maybe I am Kafka and maybe I am not- but it is pretty clear to me that I am not. Above my desk hangs a picture of Kafka and a quote from Kafka that I read every day. It brings me comfort and validation to know that someone from the distant past understood the truths that I believe in today. The quote says, “Just be quiet and patient. Let evil and unpleasantness pass quietly over you. Do not try to avoid them. On the contrary, observe them carefully. Let active understanding take the place of reflex irritation, and you will grow out of your trouble. Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness.” After reading this I always take a deep breath, hold it and think, no I am definitely not Franz Kafka. Then I exhale.