The fact that you’re reading this already indicates what a different world you live in from the one I inhabited in 1967. In 1967, I would never have been reading anything that had “Torah” in the title.
And of course, there was no such thing as websites, let alone Jewish websites.
Not only because of the simple absence in those environs of any Jews aside from us, and the Grohers on the other side of town, and – of course – all our relatives from New York, New Jersey and Long Island who showed up once a year on Thanksgiving. That was the holiday which afforded our extended family a sense of its ancient ties and religious identity: when the men sat down together to watch the Super-bowl on TV – turkey dinners balanced precariously on their laps; and when we cousins – second, third, and once and twice removed – put the Beatles on full-blast on the record player, getting our annual taste of joyful tribal communality; and down in the kitchen, the day our mothers and grandmothers and aunts and great aunts, in their aprons, would stand around talking and joking and cooking. The relatives’ names – Cantor, Goldblum, Lessack, Silberberg – declared blatantly (unlike my own nuclear family’s more neutral, passkey sort of name) which club had granted me free lifetime membership – the one I, along with Groucho, would never want to join.
Nor just because in that era, in the society in which I was raised, no publication identifying itself as Jewish would have ever found itself inside a mailbox alongside our home-delivered New York Times (the latter’s masthead with its Semitic-sounding names notwithstanding.) A hypothetical publication with a name such as Jewish Week, or The Jewish Observer, or (my goodness, what’s that?!) Mishpacha or even the Reform Jews’ Tikkun, would have had about as much chance of appearing locally as a neighbor showing up at the country club in yarmulke and payos for Saturday morning golf.
No, it was due to something else – related but distinct from the aforementioned practical impediments. In that world, the word, the word itself, was seldom uttered. It was an expression of the curious phenomenon which characterizes the Jewish experience, whereby nothing is heavier than something, and absence of the positive is not neutral, but negative. As has been said by the Hebrew University mathematician, Professor Eliyahu Rips, who got his atheistic upbringing in the staunchly Deity-free Soviet Union:
“The covenant creates ties and the ties are inescapable. If you do not make a force to make them positive they will manifest themselves in a negative way. The society will make you feel that you are connected to something negative. Then alienated Jews are escaping from the inescapable burden, time and time again repeating this Sisyphean torture, in escaping from Judaism. The rejection is because people feel themselves to be in the shadow of something negative against their will.”
In her final years, my mother on more than one occasion recalled ruefully that as a girl during the Depression, she’d dreamed of having children who wouldn’t be saddled with all the baggage of sorrow her own parents had had to carry through life. If they ever heard the kind of anti-Semitic epithet to which she and my father had been subjected as first-generation Americans, her completely assimilated offspring would be so far removed, she hoped, from the stigma that they’d turn around baffled and say, “Who? Me?”
By the time the baggage was passed on to me – heavy as it was – it was empty.
From a certain perspective, one could say my mother got her wish. Faigle’s granddaughter was no more knowledgeable about Jews, Judaism, Jewish history, and Jewish tradition than the Anglo-Saxon Protestant children who were my real companions, some of them beloved companions, along the tense journey through childhood. As it turned out, though, unexpectedly, I did inherit the baggage, no less than any heirloom intentionally bequeathed. But by the time it was passed on to me – heavy as it was – it was empty. Empty, and unopened, the baggage felt genuinely dangerous: an unstable cargo of unmentionable, volatile questions I didn’t want to ask, or have answered. I had no idea what was in there weighing me down, and wasn’t inclined to wonder, but the “inescapable burden” contained in that nothingness – which in other times and places, for other Jews, had constituted a specifically Jewish identity – was as onerous a load for a child to lug around as anything borne by her ancestors.
Then, one summer night, probably after a day spent enjoying myself in the country club’s turquoise-blue chlorinated pool, CBS Evening News brought into our living room a war in… Israel. About what? The details didn’t get my attention. Only that according to Walter Cronkite, the Jews had won.
I’d been aware, peripherally, that a Jewish country existed, but had never really heard anything specific.
This weird information reached me like some kind of weak light from a far-off star.
I’d never heard there was such a thing as historical Jewish victories, never heard what Chanukah signified, or Purim. The only image I’d ever associated vividly with the Jewish People was that they’d been gassed in concentration camps. My overriding emotion had always been a pervasive, unacknowledged, unarticulated, indefinable shame, and a real, though vague, all-embracing fear, and on top of all that, a load of guilt and self-contempt for feeling that way – guilt and self-contempt I couldn’t account for or construe. On some level I’d always known: I’m the opposite of courageous.
There was something else, in addition, that became indelibly associated in my mind with the 1967 War – even more potently, actually, than the war itself – carrying, as it did, a more immediate emotional resonance for me than anything going on in that obscure and distant land of pyramids called the Middle East.
It was something which in my childish heart I assumed – perhaps rightly – could happen only because of that Jewish victory in war, in its wake. It seemed part and parcel of this new, strange, positive idea about Jews that seemed to be suddenly rearing up its head.
An actress with brown eyes and brown hair (like me!) appeared sometime that same summer on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, by virtue of her starring role on Broadway in a production of…The Diary of Anne Frank. This actress – I suspected she wasn’t Jewish – was named Molly Perkins. I thought: she’s probably not. But she was playing…Anne Frank.
And even if she wasn’t… Anne Frank sure was.
All my childish envy had always been directed toward the blonde, blue-eyed girls at school. Now I stared at that photograph on the cover and was saturated with hopeless longing. She was so pretty, maddeningly so, yet Jewish…It amazed me. How I wished I could look like that.
This actress…this beautiful girl…by taking part in this play, was daring to associate herself with…
Inside me, something shifted.
A brand new thought, a new notion, came into being. And though it didn’t take long for it to go back into hiding, overtaken again by nothingness, not to emerge again until the first time I saw Shabbat candles four years later, I dared to wonder who I was.
A version of this article appeared originally in Jewish Week.