He was a sweet kid, around 20, I’d say, dark skinned and slightly plump and cheerful. He was the resident “Jack of All Trades” at the Newark Crowne Plaza Hotel, one morning, mopping the floors, another, serving breakfast, and when we couldn’t get the sound to work on our slide projector, he figured out the problem. He had become my right hand during my company’s annual conference.
“Where do you live?” I ask during a quiet moment between workshops.
“In Elizabeth,” he responds. “We’ve only been here a year. We came from Egypt. But we’re Jewish,” he adds, as an afterthought.
“I’m Jewish too!” I squeal, grabbing his hand, ecstatic that I have something so concrete in common with this delightful young man.
For a moment, I’m surprised at my own enthusiasm at our commonality. I don’t belong to a synagogue. I have no intention of signing up my children for Hebrew school. My youngest child isn’t even “officially Jewish,” as I neglected to hold her naming ceremony. My relationship with Judaism is complicated. I grew up in a strict, conservative Jewish household, had seven years of formal religious education, and then thirty years ago, I walked off the dais after giving my Bat Mitzvah Haftorah reading and never looked back. The reasons for this are complex and varied, but the end result is that a connectedness is just not there.
I don’t dislike Judaism. It’s a beautiful religion, yet I tired of going through the motions for something that never felt quite right. Yes, I have faith, yes, I believe in God, and I have a moral and ethical code by which I live. But my faith doesn’t fit neatly into a package with a label.
When I was faced with decisions about my children’s religious education, I had to take a long, hard look at the “why’s,” of sending them to Hebrew school. I came up empty. How could I make them go through years of religious education and Bar Mitzvah training for something that I have never fully and easily embraced?
Yet, my lack of religious observation or continual study of the Torah doesn’t change where I come from. I have grown to realize that being an observant Jew and having a Jewish heritage are mutually exclusive. There are the traditions I follow, the holiday dinners I host at my house, the Chanukah candles and preparation of homemade potato pancakes. There are the memories connected to these traditions that I will always hold close to my heart, my grandfather crooning out “Dayenu” at the Passover seder, childhood Purim carnivals (which are like a second Halloween), the excitement of winning a Dreidel game.
No matter what God I pray to, my heritage is steeply rooted. I will always stand up as a Jew. And I will ALWAYS stand up to the haters, because there are many. Ann Coulter hates me. The Klan hate me. People in my own town hate me and don’t even know it. Being part of a minority religion yet not “looking” different from other people lends to unexpected awkward moments. Do you know the remarks people have made to me about Jewish people – assuming I wasn’t?
No matter what God I pray to, my blood is 100% Jewish, or at least it would have been to Hitler. In a different time and place, I would have died in a camp. In a different time and place, I could have been beaten, like my uncle, by an anti-Semitic schoolmate. As a matter of fact, that still goes on all the time. I’ve just been lucky.
I will fight scrappy for the Jews because no matter what God I pray to, they’re still my people. But I’ll also fight scrappy for Muslims and Christians and Hindus and Jains and Buddhists.
Because they’re my people, too.
Who are taking different doors to get to the same room.
It’s a small room, people, so maybe it’s time to learn to love your neighbor.
This post is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. whose tireless mission opened doors to many rooms for all of us.
Where else to find me: