What’s My #ish

The Jewish Federations of North America are conducting a campaign under the title “What’s your #ish”:

Being Jewish means something different to everyone. Whatever it means to you is your #ish.

(For those who are not familiar with Twitter, “#” denotes a tag that they can easily track and display the content on their website)

Cutesy marketing but the question is something I think about often. What does it mean for me to be Jewish, or Russian-Jewish, or even Russian-Jewish-American as the top of my blog announces to the visitors? This post has been stuck in my head for a couple of weeks, I thought how to make it non-offensive and given up; I made some mental notes, then some written ones and I am still not so sure what it will look in the end. All I know at this point that it will contain a lot more “I dont’s” than “I do’s”.

Here we go:

  • I don’t believe in God, I don’t do anything religious, I don’t attend a synagogue and when I do on some occasions like weddings, I feel uncomfortable seeing how people are asking and thanking God for things. I don’t feel superior, I just don’t get it. I grew up with the notion that the “Religion is the opium of the people” and so far haven’t seen anything to change my mind.
  • I don’t cover my head, I work every Saturday, I go out on Friday nights (if I am lucky); I spend most of the Jewish Holidays at work, and fast on Yom Kippur mostly to see if I can stay away from food for a day. Long time ago when I still lived in Ukraine, I went to a synagogue with a group of friends during a holiday, I think it was Simchat Torah; a group of men was dancing there like it was the best day of their lives. We looked at each other and left. Since then (late 80’s) I only visited a synagogue once (without being invited to a wedding or Bat/Bar Mitzvah)
  • I eat whatever I like. My kitchen is the opposite of kosher. At any time I have enough pork in it to make a small pig. My Dad used to pack a slab of salt-pork when I went on trips – it didn’t require refrigeration. I like ham and cheese sandwiches; I mix meat and dairy at will. I have no interest in finding out which foods are kosher and what’s not allowed and why. If it’s tasty I’ll eat it, kosher or not.
  • In my whole life I’ve only dated a Jewish woman for two months; I never made a point of looking for one (which cast a lifetime of not-so-well hidden-sadness on my Mom). My short experience was filled with drama, but I am sure both of us being Jewish had nothing to do with it. Sometimes I think it would be neat to try, but so far it didn’t work out this way. Lately, I’ve been thinking that only a Vietnamese woman who knows how to cook Pho can be my true love. Every week I go to the Vietnam Cafe hoping to get noticed.
  • I don’t get conversions to Judaism. Things like this (watch the clip) don’t make me tear up with joy. To be fair, I don’t get any religious conversions; sometimes I try to guess the reason, most of the time I just shrug. Maybe we need someone to observe the rules we don’t like, pass around those righteous “I stand with Israel” emails and fight our battles on Facebook and Twitter. Whatever.
  • I don’t stand with Israel, I don’t feel that it’s my country even though I have relatives and friends there. Israeli Independence day does not invoke any feelings in me. Let me correct that, I don’t stand with Israel automatically because I am a Jew. I stand with Israel because I am a thinking person who can see through the provocations and lies which are so transparent, you have to be an idiot not to see what’s really going on. I can go back through the last 100 years reciting episodes like this for hours. There are less and less people like me even among the Jews. It’s everybody’s loss, not because I am so smart but because the rest of the world may see it when it’s too late, but what’s new. In the meantime, I do what I can, just little things.
  • I still prefer the sound of the Yiddish language to the Israel’s official Hebrew. I remember my Grandma speaking Yiddish with her friends in the little town where she lived and although I don’t speak and hardly understand either, Yiddish with its schlimazels and meshuggeners sounds like music to my ears, while Hebrew sounds foreign and cold.

That should be enough for now. The “I do” part is not nearly as extensive:

  • I like Jewish food, more precisely Eastern European Jewish food, and even more precisely my Mom’s cooking. I am sure some of these recipes were passed down through generations, others were made up on the spot to use what little food was on hand, but it’s my comfort food. I don’t think I ever identified it as Jewish, just like I never identified spaghetti with Italian. And most of the time there is a box of Matzos in the house.
  • I play the Jewish national sport – guessing who else is Jewish. It was a lot more fun in the USSR since many famous people hid their Jewishness as well as they could and during movies and concerts every Jew in the country was pointing them out.

I can’t think of much else. In my childhood it was easy, my Jewish nationality was stamped right there in the “fifth line” on my passport. Tens of thousands of people strove to have this line changed to something else, so their kids would not be subjected to the antisemitism and discrimination. Then the same people paid big money to change it back so they can emigrate to Israel or the USA.

I think about it a lot. Do my multiple “dont’s” betray the memories and dreams of my ancestors, who carried their Jewish identities through a lot tougher times than I could imagine? Would they be proud of me? I don’t know. When I think about my connection with my people, there is no place where I feel it more than at the Jewish cemetery. I wrote about it before, but the Kansas City cemetery I was writing about is faceless and sad. The Jewish cemetery in Odessa, Ukraine where some of my relatives are buried is full of life; it has faces, it tells the stories. Life stories, love stories, tragedies, achievements, accidents, births, deaths, emigration, relationships, memories. My Dad took me there once or twice and we walked around visiting our relatives, his college professors, famous restaurant singers, doctors, teachers, criminals; he knew many people there, too many. Now during my rare visits I walk around as well; I don’t know anyone, but it doesn’t matter: I come to feel my roots, or as some marketing schmuck would put it “my #ish”

My Grandparents. The plate on the left at the bottom is for my uncle who died in New York

Maybe it’s better that my parents let me figure this out on my own. It’s taking me a long time but some day I’ll get there. My daughter is a lot more decisive with these things, I never push her one way or another but she seems to have a pretty good idea who she is.
Maybe this #ish thing is just skipping a generation.
*I knew this would turn out long, and I didn’t even get to include the video of dancing Jews.

  • Mmmm, Pho. I am addicted to #7 at Sung Son.

    I like when people think I’m Jewish and then do backflips of apologies when I tell them I’m not. (I always try to ease their discomfort with a “But I could be!”) It’s much easier being nothing, except when proselytizers come to the door… Then I’m a little too much House of Rude.

    • Is it better than Vietnam Cafe?
      You do have something Jewish in your looks 🙂

  • I love this entry; I’m sure you recall my asking you some questions about your religious beliefs. It seems to me that most Jews are like you, and not really religious at all, although keep in mind you’re the only Jewish person I’ve met; my experience with Jewish people is mostly what I’ve seen on the Tonight Show over the years… haaaa! Oh, and I never really understood people converting to Judaism either, considering Jews don’t proselytize. Seems to me a person needs to be born Jewish.
    My own religious leanings these days are so all-over-the-place that I’d make everybody on all sides angry if I did an entry of this kind. So I shall refrain. I am a believer, and that’s about as much as I want to own up to. It makes me angry that religious institutions make so much money without having to pay taxes. Enough said.

  • Nuke

    A very candid and informative post. The closest Jewish friend I have ever had, in the Navy, had a very similar take on his Jewishness. He embraced the cultural heritage of being Jewish but was hardly devout about the religious aspects of it. I never asked if he actually believed, but I know he didn’t attend services.

    Your situation is also very close to many “Christians” that I know. When asked, they are Christian. but when pressed for details of their belief they actually come across as agnostic at best. Spirituality is harder for some to define for themselves than it is for others. My own beliefs are very fluid, and my answers to questions about them may change daily.

    Anyway, again I say nice post. I understand that religion is a hot button topic but I think you handled it with some grace. I can see people disagreeing but I see no reason for anybody to be angry with you.

  • Koreans are the Jews of Asia

    Best line: At any time I have enough pork in it to make a small pig.

    p.s. From what I’m told, pho is generally restaurant food only. Vietnamese people don’t make it at home. But there are many other reasons to marry a Vietnamese woman, I’m sure!

  • SKC Observer

    As a religious person I so thank you for the line, “I don’t feel superior, I just don’t get it.” For two reasons: One, the arrogance of some who profess atheism can be like nails on a chalk board–just the most irritating noise in the world. Two, while it’s rather a long shot, it still indicates a certain openness. I appreciate that. I will respect it too, by not barraging people who sit in the place you do with stupid salemanship type God talk.

    And you make me DROOL when you talk about food. Where is this Vietnam Cafe?

    • Vietnam cafe is on 5th and Campbell near the City market. I will probably be there again this Saturday around 4:15 trying the next menu item.

  • I think a lot of times that organized religion gets in the way of faith anyway.

  • I travel for JOOLS

    Of course you don’t want to give up your family and that’s what about being Jewish apparently means the most to you. Religion is a personal thing. I think some day you may feel differently than you do now.

  • Wise King Solomon said that fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, but if you don’t believe in God that doesn’t apply. All the same, it will never be lost on me that within six months of the time I quit eating pork and shellfish and stopped working and shopping on Saturdays, all of my dreams came true. I could go down the fantasy checklist and mark them off, one by one, and they all came true and continue to this day (I keep having to make up new ones). So I will never go back to the life I lived thirteen years ago, running to Price Chopper with every paycheck to load up on shrimp and scallops. I might have eaten well, but I lived in darkness.

    It’s just sad to me that people think they have to convert to Judaism to receive that kind of blessing. You don’t have to. God makes the same promise to Gentiles as he does to His people. A Christian need not renounce the salvation of the Messiah to share in the blessings of the children of Abraham.

  • I travel for JOOLS

    p.s. I didn’t mean to imply you had to give up your family of course. Obviously they are supportive of you regardless. I just meant that your family and ancestry is and should be important to you.

  • Leigh Ann, I don’t even like scallops, can I get half of my wishes please 🙂
    Jools, I know what you mean. Thanks.

  • Well, to be honest, I’m still waiting for the whole “world peace” fantasy… But I do know that each step took me in a better direction.