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.