IN THE BEGINNING, I barely knew what Judaism was, much less that I was connected to it in any way. You see, my paternal grandfather was the son of Ashkenazi immigrants. His paterfamilias had hightailed it out of the shtetl, arrived in the USA, Anglicized his family name, and become a Socialist. However, the son married a Lutheran girl, so in spite of having a Yiddish-speaking grandma, my own dad grew up more or less clueless as to what being a Jew was about. I, on the other hand, grew up in New York City, where youngsters of every color and creed learn the dreidel song in school. Despite having absolutely no Jewish influence from within my own family (unless you count a strong appreciation for Woody Allen films), I began to develop a casual pride in being descended, at least in part, from people who had survived forty years in the wilderness and gave one another gifts for eight days straight in December.
Pubescence seemed to deepen my connection to Jewishness. Being a devotee of musical theater, I quickly discovered Fiddler on the Roof, the core text of American Jewry; not coincidentally, it’s also a story of daughters growing up and leaving family ties (and traditions) behind in favor of romantic (unorthodox) love. To this day, when I watch the film of Fiddler, the scene where Tevye disowns Chava (his favorite) because she has married a gentile gets me crying like a baby. It pierces me to the core. (SPOILER: Tevye eventually forgives Chava…right before their entire town is forcibly evacuated by the Russian army. Oy!) I find myself similarly moved by another, less popular Judaic entertainment product, The Prince of Egypt; after seeing it, I bought and listened to the soundtrack obsessively (it should be mentioned that when this feature-length cartoon was released, I was already a full-grown adult). And yes, I was one of those audience members who sat in the theater sobbing at the end of Schindler’s List, which, being something of a masochist, I saw twice in two months. I’m pretty sure that lots of people, Jewish or not, had that same reaction; on the other hand, I know a number of Jewish people who actually consider the film offensive and embarrassing. But for me, the emotions stirred up are especially confusing. According to religious law, I’m not a Jew at all, but according to Israel’s Law of Return, I am eligible to reside there. My great-grandfather was one of over a dozen children, who scattered with their offspring across Europe; no doubt some of those lost cousins were murdered in the Shoah. The connection is obvious: it could have been me. If my immigrant ancestor had settled in Krakow instead of Philadelphia, I might not be here sharing my thoughts on pop culture with total strangers via the Internet.
If I were a deep or serious person, I might have responded to this yearning for Zion by traveling to the Holy Land or learning Hebrew. Instead, I have satisfied my ethnic cravings via food and sex – all secular all the way! I’ve always been a meat-and-potatoes kind of girl (my mother’s family is from the South, where pork fat is used to flavor the vegetables), though keeping kosher is out of the question (see previous mention of pork fat), so I get my Jewish jollies at the legendary Katz’s Delicatessen on Ludlow St., where the pastrami, brisket and pickles make me plotz. Then there are the men. Let’s just say that going to see a Judd Apatow movie makes me feel like some chicks from Jersey do when they go to Chippendales. When Seth Rogen declared in Knocked Up that if he or any of his friends got laid, they would have “Eric Bana in Munich” to thank, all I could think of was getting in a Paul Rudd/Rogen sandwich. There have been numerous goys in my life, but as I get older, more and more frequently I find myself enamored of gentlemen descended from the Twelve Tribes. Some are tall, some short; some fair and some dark; some Ashkenazi and some Sephardic (and at least one, both); but they all share that inquisitive, neurotic, sarcastic, guilt-ridden charm that made celebrities out of men as dissimilar as Einstein, Lenny Bruce, and Rahm Emanuel. The more they agonize, the more I sigh; the more they despair, the more I swoon.
Like I said, I’m definitely bound for hell when I die. It’s wrong to exoticize a cultural group. It’s especially wrong when that group’s identity has been forged by a long narrative of marginalization, attempted annihilation, and survivor guilt. But they say the heart wants what it wants. What my heart wants is to bask in the reflected glory of the world’s most successful minority – 0.2% of the total population, but over 20% of Nobel laureates and Ivy League university students. What my heart wants is to comfort those sons of Israel who shrink from the responsibility and the pressure of being in such an elite, careworn club. Despite my great-grandfather’s rejection of religion, his son’s union with a gentile, and my father’s total disinterest in observing Passover or Hanukkah, I am deeply in touch with the secret Jew within me. And if you were raised by parents who forced you to go to Hebrew school, gave you an extravagant Bar Mitzvah party, and then stopped caring about Judaism altogether unless Grandma Rose was coming to visit…well, you can be in touch with my secret Jew, too.