Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ethnicity Crisis Part 1: Tradition!

I have been having a bit of a crisis the last year or so. This is going to be long, so I might split it up into parts.

Some background:

My father is from a mostly Greek family. My mother is from a mostly Polish/German/French family. Dad's family is Greek Orthodox Catholic. Mom's was raised Jewish. My parents are both second generation American. As far as cultural/ethnic background, they made sure we knew where our genes were from (more than the above list, but I'll spare you the complex details of my family tree) and that was pretty much it. As far as religious training, well...both of my parents walked away from the faith of their families at fairly young ages. My dad declined his confirmation as a teen. My mother is the only child in her family to not have a Bat Mitzvah. They raised us fairly agnostically, with one caveat. We did the major Jewish holidays because my paternal grandmother made my parents promise to raise us in the Jewish faith due to how the Catholic church treated her for getting divorced when my grandfather abandoned her with six kids.

So I grew up doing Seders and lighting Channuka candles, but it was something done as an addendum to the bigger, flashier, heavily marketed holidays. We would open Easter baskets after Seder, or celebrate only one night of Channuka and combine it with a Christmas tree trimming party. The other holidays were celebrated with dinner at Grandmom's but without any context of what those holidays meant.

My mom gave me the choice between Hebrew school and dance classes as a kid. I wanted to be a ballerina, and I had no reason to learn another language, so I chose dance classes. I preferred "A Chorus Line" over "Fiddler on the Roof" even though I could sing the entire score from both.

My peers at school were aware of my Jewish heritage, but since I wasn't actively participating in the culture or the community, I couldn't bond with them over it. I couldn't bond with the non-Jew kids either. Agnostic childhood kind of leaves you floating...you aren't being swept into a community you may not want with responsibilities that you don't understand before you are of an age to reason, but at the same time you are watching your friends have milestones that you can't share. It was during my years in elementary and middle school that I experienced anti-Semitism directed at me for the first time, but I did not have the critical consciousness to name it as such. I learned to joke about my heritage without ever feeling a deep connection to it.

I dabbled in radical atheism, and in paganism. I found a spiritually comfortable midpoint that is not one or the other, though I still can't find anything that makes me comfortable with the idea of a deity.

I have gone to the Holocaust museum in DC. I have seen the paperwork, written in German, that recorded the fate of the members of my family who did not manage to make it out of Europe in time. I felt a stirring, a deep sadness, but at the same time, it was not a sadness that differed from how I felt about any of the hundreds of injustices that I fought against in my life. It saddened me, hurt me deeply that people could do this to other people, but I never associated it with my self. I never associated these events with me, no matter how many times I cried at the end of "The Devil's Arithmetic" or "Number the Stars" or how worn my copy of "All-of-a-kind Family" got.

In college I decided to study the Middle East. I was prompted by a gut feeling during the "discussion" surrounding 9/11 that all this talk, about Arabs and Islam and how "they" hate us because their culture/religion says to, was false. this led to studying Israel and Palestine, and the sudden realization that, when the Israeli gov't talks about benefiting Jews everywhere, they meant me, and when anti-Israel groups talked about the "vast Zionist conspiracy," they were also talking about me...

I started seeing a connection coming from me to that place on the other side of the planet that everyone in the US is always fretting about, but often with talking points from pundits that bear little to no resemblance to any fact I have ever seen as the basis of their fretting.

I suddenly felt my ethnic Jew-ness for the first time. It settled around me like a hand-me-down sweater that doesn't quite fit, is too heavy, has a pattern that is unpopular to the point of encouraging anger and/or ridicule and is shaped like someone else from years of wear. And I reacted in a way that anyone who has dealt with kids will be familiar with.

I stuffed the sweater into the back of my mental dresser drawer, behind my rainbow hot-pants, my boho skirts and my t-shirts with radical, liberal political slogans and symbols, and tried to pretend that it wasn't there. The problem was...its one of those big, floofy knit things that takes up three times its actual area when folded, and every time I opened the drawer, it had taken up a bit more space...

To be continued...

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