I didn't grow up with what you would call a strong Jewish identity. We never went to synagogue when I was a kid, not even on the High Holidays, and we occasionally had a very abridged Passover Seder.
When I turned 13, I decided to have a Bar Mitzvah. My father had one, as his dad before him. I didn't want to be the one to break the chain, even though it meant nothing to me. In the end I had one lesson from my father's friend, an old Reconstructionist rabbi. It must have been Purim time (a holiday I had never heard of), because he explained to me that Hamantashan are triangular because Haman wore a funny hat. That was the extent of my Jewish education. I memorized the blessings on the Torah and recited them in the basement of a church one Friday night in front of my immediate family. I was too embarrassed to invite my friends.
I didn't dare tell my friend about my Bar Mitzvah. Judaism was something to be ashamed of.
My best friend's father thought he was Native American, so when he turned 13 he had a whole tribal initiation vision quest ceremony in the woods. I wished I could have had something meaningful like that. I didn't dare tell my friend about my Bar Mitzvah. Judaism was something to be ashamed of.
There was one exception. Like most Jews, the only holiday that we observed with fervor was Chanukah. The “holiday spirit” was in the air and we had to keep up with our non-Jewish neighbors -- although they always outdid us. I remember arguing with my best friend about who gets more presents, Jews or Christians. In the end we concluded that it all had to do with how rich your parents were. Mine were not, but they did the best they could. For some reason we always got socks.
Each night, we ran to light those multi-colored candles in the window on our tarnished silver menorah that nobody ever thought to polish. We felt pride -- proud to be Jewish. Although our rituals were empty, I knew they were deeper than that red ‘n white Christmas culture sold to the American masses. We were part of the anti-establishment. We were a minority.
My parents were ex-hippy wannabies whose best memories were of the Sixties. Bob Dylan and tofu were staples in our house. They instilled liberalism into us, and in many ways that was our Jewish identity. Jews were democrats, Jews didn't eat white bread, Jews supported the underdog, Jews were liberal and open-minded. Jews defied empires and stood up against the established authority. Jews challenged prejudices.
Another thing about Jews was that they didn't believe in God. I remember refusing to stand up for the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary school because it mentioned God, and God was a Christian thing. That was the message we absorbed as children.
My mother never had any problem with inter-faith dating. In fact, in keeping with her beliefs, she was all for multi-culturalism. Unless of course, I brought home a WASP girlfriend. Then she let me know she was unhappy. I accused her of being racist but that clearly wasn't the case -- she would have been happy if I’d been dating an African American girl. It wasn't about race, it was the fact that we Jews were an ethinic minority and we respected minority cultures.
Celtic was good. They were also a repressed minority.
I once told my mom that my WASP girlfriend's parents didn't curse in the house, quite a contrast from ours. "That's because they're WASPs," she snapped back. "We Jews express our emotions!" I ended the discussion by telling my mother that their family wasn't WASP anyway; it was Scottish. Celtic was good. They were also a repressed minority.
When I was in college, I started experimenting with other religions, searching for a spiritual path of my own, to satisfy my yearning heart. At one point, while traveling in Scotland, I started reading the New Testament years before I had ever opened the "Old" one. I found it to be surprisingly interesting, and many aspects fit into the new-age philosophy I was building for myself. I was able to turn a blind eye to the parts I didn’t like -- all that fire and brimstone -- writing it off as “later additions by charlatans.” The main teachings, however, were beautiful -- like “love your neighbor.”
I went out and bought a silver cross -- a Celtic cross, mind you. I didn't believe in Christianity, but I felt that the teachings of Jesus were true, along with the teachings of the prophets of every world religion. As I put the cross on, I felt like I had just overcome a family prejudice that had lasted millennium. This was one area where my mother lacked an open mind. This was the ultimate expression of my Judaism -- breaking down barriers, freeing myself of bigoted shackles. Jews were open-minded and challenged the status quo! And I had performed the ultimate act of defiance.
Shortly after I stepped off the plane back home, I realized my mistake. When I saw the look on my mother's face, I removed the cross from around my neck and never wore it again. Even though I tried to explain that I wasn't wearing it because of Christianity, but rather because of the teachings it represented of universal love, it didn't work. There were certain barriers that you just couldn't cross. Jews don't wear crosses.
Abraham and Free Thinking
When I eventually learned more about Judaism in a yeshiva years later, I was surprised to see how much it differed from my upbringing. The biggest shock of all was when I started reading a book on Jewish mysticism. At that point in my life, I believed strongly in One Creator -- an unlimited source of love and light that filled and surrounded all of creation. Not one as opposed to two, but rather one because He is all there is. My beliefs were strongly based on Eastern religions, where once again, I put on tinted glasses and read the parts I liked. Buddhism speaks of the oneness of everything, which I surmised must mean the belief in One God. Bowing to idols was just a later addition.
I was shocked to discover that Jews also believed in One God.
While reading this Jewish book, however, I was shocked to discover that Jews also believed in One God. History says that Abraham was the first to promulgate monotheism, but I always understood that to mean a vindictive old man with a beard who sat in the sky smiting people. Reading this book opened my eyes to a whole new perspective on Judaism. Jews also believe in One God -- a compassionate, loving, infinite Creator who is the Source of everything.
When I look back in retrospect at my Jewish identity growing up, or lack thereof, I am amazed at how much of my liberal Jewish upbringing actually came from Jewish values: equal rights, respect for women, care for the environment. And I was astonished that well-known “Christian” teachings like “love your neighbor” are straight from the Torah (Leviticus 19:18).
Abraham was called the Ivri (Hebrew) which means “the one who crossed over,” because he stood on one side of the world while the rest of humanity was on the other. He opposed the greatest rulers, empires, and philosophers of his time in order to stand up for his beliefs. He was the ultimate free thinker, defying the status quo, against the establishment.
We Jews have always been the minority, but our voice has been loud and we have had the courage to stand up against the mighty and the many. We held onto our small flames in the face of their mighty torches. We may not always know what it means to be Jewish, but we know that we are different from the Smiths and the Joneses. We’re a minority. We don't eat white bread. We’re proud to be Jewish.