04 January 2019

Paradoxes of an assimilated Americanised quarter-Jew

My ambivalent, attenuated Jewishness often feels like a catch-22, as I’ve said before. On the one hand, even indicating it or pointing it out makes me feel fraudulent. A friend of mine, actually a former roommate of mine from college, posted this comment on Facebook:
Truth be told most Jews are not Jewish in any meaningful sense. They don’t go to Temple, don’t know their aleph beys, don’t keep the Sabbath, don’t keep kosher or observe Jewish law. They don’t speak Yiddish or Hebrew. They don’t marry within the faith and they don’t raise their kids Jewish.
I hasten to note that he wasn’t singling me out, or intending to single me out, with this comment. He was speaking to the state of American Jewishness generally. But I have to admit, that’s me all over, guilty as charged. I don’t keep kosher and don’t go to Temple because that’s not my religious tradition. I learned how to say the Sh’ma Yisroel, but don’t know any more Hebrew than that, and my Yiddish is limited to a couple of phrases my parents use. At best, I belong to the beta Gershom. My Jewish grandmother, halakhically speaking on the ‘wrong side’ of the family (my dad’s), married outside the faith and died young, never getting the chance to raise her children as Jews. So what the hell am I doing even calling attention? Isn’t that cheating? Isn’t that theft? Isn’t that appropriating something that isn’t rightfully mine? I am not and never have been a member of this community. Isn’t it presumptuous and officious to assume any kind of responsibility for it? I can’t stand it when American evangelicals, Messianics and the like put on cosplay as Jews, like Jewishness is their toy-box, to use Dr Weiss’s phrase. But when I talk about my family history, given the degree to which the Jewishness of that history has been watered-down in precisely the way that my former roomie describes, is what I do any better at all?

At the same time, pointedly not speaking about my immigrant Jewish grandmother, not saying anything about what this beautiful Wisconsin girl with my sister’s face in black-and-white photos has meant to me, also seems not only like a cop-out, but also like a kind of historical denial. It feels like participating in some kind of cover-up: like soaking a library in gasoline, dropping a lit match and walking away. History matters a great deal, even and especially if it’s the kind of history that might give you neuroses. It took me a very long time to realise and to process that when my Dad told me he ‘doesn’t have a Zionist bone’ in his body, he was giving voice to far more than just his politics. He was indicating, perhaps indirectly, an entire family history of doyikayt. Whether Bundism was their explicit politics or not, my foremothers and forefathers lived an entire way of being Jewish that was Yiddish, non-Zionist, localist and leftist - that I had no idea about prior to my high school years.

This may be expressed as a paradox: I am just enough of a Jew to be neurotic about not being one. Another paradox is that it is my Tory sensibility that militates in me that, whether I like it or not, I’m part of this localist-leftist Yiddish history. I don’t get to choose that, just like I don’t get to choose who my grandparents are. Given that, the least-bad option as far as I can tell, as it were my best plea for clemency, is to simply be humble and be honest about all of the foregoing, and allow others - Jewish and not - to come to their own determinations.

In fact, whatever falsity may be hidden in it, such honest, humble remembrance is all the more important now. The politics of the (Eastern) European far-right resurgence, its echoes on these shores, the violent Ukrainian, Polish and Hungarian nationalisms that have begun their steady creep out of the shadows of history, render this remembrance necessary and urgent. The far-right resurgence on both sides of the Atlantic not only summons old ideological ghosts, but it rhymes and pairs off all too neatly with the historic and resurgent nationalist pretensions of Israel as the only territorial safe haven for Jews, which must therefore be accomplished even if it means depriving Palestinian Arabs in perpetuity. These triple lies have to be confronted as one if the Jewish people will live in peace, either with their neighbours, their histories or, ultimately, their consciences. Historically, the group which confronted them the most convincingly were the Jewish localists.

I am not Jewish in a religious sense: whatever I have is only the assimilated-apostate Jewishness of Saint Constantine and Saint Bunakov. But I can remember those in my family who were Jewish, and I can remember the way that they were. It may be a vain and pretentious hope, but if there is even a chance that such an anamnesis can, even in some small and yet-unseen way, cut short a cycle of tragœdy that seems to be repeating itself, it should be made.

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