Jewish in My Mind
JEWISH was Kathe Kollewitz lithographs of thin women and hungry babies in your living room; Pete Seeger records on your hi-fi: If I had a Hammer, This Land is Your Land, There Once Was a Union Maid (who never was afraid, of goons and ginks and company finks and deputy sheriffs who made the raid…). Jewish was warm bagels and mountains of cream cheese and your grandmother with thick ankles and flesh-colored stockings rolled up just below her kneecaps, heaping strawberry jam on your plate.
Why oh why couldn’t I be Jewish? It was embarrassing, always being the guest. I wanted to be the host, to ask someone else to set the table, my table, before eating my food.
I tried unsuccessfully to bring my father into the spirit of my quest. Over hamburgers at the Blue Mill Tavern on one of our week-end visits, I probed. Couldn’t that great-great-grandmother named
Mottinger have been just a little bit Jewish? Couldn’t I, on the basis of this almost certain fact, be allowed to stay home on Jewish holidays? It was lonely at school on those mysterious days, whose rituals were never really explained to me; it was taken for granted that I knew. I hated not being in on the secret, but was too shy to ask the real meaning of those “holidays”—or were they true holy days? They seemed a lot more serious than Christmas and Easter, with all the reindeer and bunnies and Bing Crosby on every friggin’ loudspeaker in Woolworth’s. A few blue and white greeting cards in the windows of the Hallmark shop did nothing to dispel the mystery. I was given no helpful clues by my lapsed Catholic mother or my ex-Methodist father. “No,” my father would repeat each time I asked, “the Mottsingers were Austrian mercenaries who made guns during the Revolutionary War. I doubt they were Jewish.”
I wanted it so much. Jewish was co-ed summer camp, fathers with strange accents who said vine instead of wine and always came home without stopping first for a scotch and soda at the corner bar. Jewish was reading the newspaper and looking worried while dinner was being cooked and the kids did their homework. After dinner, Jewish was your father shaking off his day job, going into the den and closing the door and doing his “writing,” like my friend Laura Liben’s dad.
Jewish was kitchen cabinets chockful of canned apricots and pears and boxes of delicious macaroons and matzohs and in the refrigerator tangy wine-colored horseradish and mysterious packages in white paper: sliced turkey, aged Emmenthal, roast beef that had just a hint of pink in the middle. Bowls of tuna fish salad loaded with freshly chopped celery. Ice cream in the freezer.
Jewish was teasing and laughing and sometimes your father shouting like my best friend Janie’s when she ran up a $25 phone bill talking to her boyfriend, or if your new cocker spaniel peed on the old Turkish carpet in the hall. Jewish was art lessons and guitar lessons and fancy, painful wire braces for crooked teeth, and every spring new Capezio flats and for your father new heels on the same old brown lace-ups.
Jewish was inviting weird kids like me for dinner—my very infrequent chance to eat such unforgettable food: thick slices of pot roast and string beans and beets and hot rolls with real butter, and noodle pudding sprinkled with cinnamon for dessert. Or meat loaf with a crusty top of onions and tomato sauce, rye bread, cheesecake. No, Jewish was never fried SPAM or chile con carne from the can or the Vegetarian Special at Riker’s in Sheridan Square. I think I hoped that if I ate enough dinners with my Jewish friends, that I could become Jewish: an early version of ‘you are what you eat.’
Many years later I was browsing in a used bookstore in Union Square and opened an anthology of prize-winning stories to find one by a writer named Meyer Liben. He was the Jewish father working, night after night, behind the closed study door! After the day job, the money job. Not for him the eternal résumé to write and rewrite, visits to the pawn shop and the unpaid loans from friends.
And apparently Mr. Liben had written many more stories. Many more. All the tip-toeing and shushing had not been for nothing. I was happy for Laura, and sad for myself.
Being Jewish was doing something serious, and getting it right. And I would never be Jewish.