Thursday, November 27, 2003

Raising a Jew, Greenberg Style

Raising a Jew, Greenberg Style
Stacey Greenberg

Whenever I tell anyone about my family’s religious history I get a knot in my stomach. I am always a bit afraid that I’m going to be found out or kicked out or ridiculed or something. I have never really felt like I fit into the Jewish community although I do identify as Jewish. My husband (raised Catholic by a Buddhist mother) and I had a Jewish wedding and vowed to raise a Jewish family, but I’m finding myself at a bit of a loss. I don’t know if I know how to do that, and what does that mean exactly? I have books and props and a Temple membership, but I already feel like I might be failing and my son is only 18 months old.

I was born to a Jewish mother (by conversion) and father (by birth). My father was far from religious and had to be coerced into participating in Seders, was dragged kicking and screaming to the synagogue for high holidays only to fall asleep, and had no problem with us going out on Friday nights to eat BBQ. He passed on very little “Jewish wisdom” to us; the most we got were some Yiddish swear words and lively rants in favor of Hanukah Harry and his Hanukah bush at holiday time. My mom was raised by a Catholic father and evangelical mother. Her father’s family was actually descended from Spanish Jews who fled to South America only to be converted to Catholicism. My mother said she always “felt” Jewish growing up, although I’m not sure why. When my older sister, Leslie, was born, my maternal grandmother took her to get baptized one afternoon under the guise of babysitting. She didn’t tell anyone until after she had done it. This did not go over well with my father’s side of the family and eight years later when Tracey and I were born, my mother had converted. We were therefore, “officially Jewish” according to Jewish Law (it is passed through the mother).

My paternal grandfather died before I was born and my paternal grandmother soon after. With them, the insistence of “doing” anything Jewish died too. I knew I was a Jew growing up, and that in Memphis it wasn’t necessarily something to flaunt or be proud of. My (fraternal) twin sister got teased endlessly because of her big nose. People made fun of our last name (Greenberg=Greenturd). Kids told me jokes like, “Why did the Jews wander the desert for 40 years? Because they heard that somebody dropped a quarter.” We didn’t live in a Jewish neighborhood, have Jewish relatives in town, or even have any Jewish friends. And we celebrated Christmas so my maternal grandmother wouldn’t get “upset.” And honestly, we didn’t mind getting presents or decorating the tree so it wasn’t a very hard sell.

It wasn’t until we were about 12 that my mom started sending Tracey and I to religious school on Sundays and later on Wednesday nights. (By this time, Leslie was 20 and wasn’t included in the new push to be “more” Jewish.) We tried to fit in at Temple, but never really did. The only thing that won us any favor in the eyes of our classmates was the fact that we were picked up in a Porsche. (My dad had an endless string of Porsche clunkers that never ran for more than a few months at a time. It was by no means an indication of any kind of wealth on our part. My Kmart brand wannabe Capezios were quickly uncovered as the fakes they were by Marcy Faber.) Even when we moved to the suburbs and attended the high school with the highest population of Jews in town, we remained on the fringe. Tracey was a blue-haired stoner and I was a bow-headed soccer player. We didn’t belong to Mefty, the JCC, or any of the “cool” Jewish sororities. Neither one of us had a Jewish boyfriend or a Bat Mitzvah. If it weren’t for Tracey’s nose or our last name, no one would have ever thought we were Jewish.

After graduating high school, I attended the local liberal arts college and was immersed in the land of the non-Jews. There were required religious studies classes and my very own Rabbi taught the class on Judaism. There was also a class on the Holocaust. In these classes, I found myself in a new role, the token Jew. Suddenly I was the college spokesperson for Judaism and I didn’t know anything! It was mortifying. After my Sophomore year, I decided to spend the summer in Israel. I knew friends who were studying there and a car accident the summer before left me with a wad of cash. Hope, my childhood friend and fellow beneficiary in the head on collision, decided to come with me. We basically left without any clue what we would do upon arrival. We figured we’d meet up with my friend and volunteer to work at the kibbutz where he was staying. However, by the time we got there, he had left and dropping his name didn’t open any doors for us. They didn’t need any volunteers. Fortunately for us, Hope was tall, blonde, and beautiful. We were immediately identified at the bus station as travelers by a hot German guy named Frank who worked for a youth hostel. The hostel was in Tel Aviv, walking distance from the Mediterranean, and populated with interesting people our age from all over the world. The owners soon fell in love with Hope and we got the royal treatment.

We probably would have stayed at the hostel forever if we hadn’t have blown all our money partying in our first two weeks we were there. We finally managed to find the kibbutz office after many failed attempts and ended up living on Kibbutz Gilgal in the West Bank (by choice). The other volunteers were mostly English and our age. We stayed on the kibbutz for two months and had a blast; we even managed to get to know some Israelis. As a part of national army duty, a group of young Israeli soldiers lived next to our compound. While I was busy skinny dipping with Englishmen, Hope fell in love with a young army stud named Sharon. He spent a lot of time teaching us important Hebrew words and phrases (i.e. penis and “Can I have a beer?”), and explaining cultural traditions (i.e. how the Israeli workers showered with their guns). We also grew close to a few of the kibbutzniks and felt at home in no time.

The six day work week started to feel normal and we looked forward to Friday night Shabbat services and other celebrations. We learned the ropes of traveling in country and were invited to visit our friend’s families in town. The kibbutzniks took us on field trips to Masada and the Dead Sea. We developed a taste for falafel and hummus. Even the weak beer and nasty cigarettes started to taste good. We were popular. We worked hard and were promoted to the date trees…quite an accomplishment for volunteers. If my liberal arts college tuition wasn’t so pricey and my sense of obligation so strong, I would have willingly stayed on the kibbutz indefinitely like many volunteers before me. That summer, I felt accepted in a way that I never had before. In Israel just saying you are Jewish is enough. You are in the club.

My summer in Israel was enough for me to stop feeling like a poseur. When the time came, I insisted on having a Jewish wedding and I felt 100% confident presenting my case against circumcision to the Rabbi when my son was born. No one could take away my Jewishness, or my son’s for that matter. Even if I never set foot in a Temple again. I’ll probably never be the kind of Jew that people write about or emulate, but I’ll continue to do what I can and hope that it’s enough to give Satchel a sense of belonging, even if he’s the only kid at Camp Jacob with an intact foreskin.

We are laying a Jewish foundation, small as it may be. To our credit, we did do a naming ceremony for Satchel, a.k.a. Shlomo Nitzan (“Peace Bud”); I have even incorporated his Jewish name into a catchy song for him. We have been known to celebrate Shabbat on occasion. The Hanukah candles were a hit last year. (We took him to a sing along and I stoutly refused to have a Christmas tree much to my husband’s dismay.) Soon Satchel will be old enough to go to Sunday School. Maybe we could even learn Hebrew together? Then go to Israel for a homeschool semester on the kibbutz? That would be fun. Maybe in teaching him, I can teach myself and we can both be more involved in the Jewish community. I can befriend all of the mothers of the kids in his religious school class! I’ll volunteer at the JCC…or coach the JCC soccer team. Maybe I’ll even have a Bat Mitzvah at age 44 – when Satchel’s ready for his Bar Mitzvah – we could study together! Ok, I’m getting carried away. Maybe we can just be us and have that be enough.

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