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September 28, 1984 - Image 91

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1984-09-28

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Friday, September 28, 1984


In search of
Jewish Identity.

Two personal reflections

Two young
Jewish backdib
discuss their personal explora
tic/ty and the struggle to grow u# what

SPeciat ti. The Jewish News

Being born Jewish no longer
ensures an emotional connection to the
Jewish people. Nor does it ensure a per-
sonal relationship to God experienced
through prayer. Even the rites of bar
mitzvah and bat mitzvah hardly de-
fine the meaning of Judaism for Jews
living in contemporary society. The
search for Jewish identity itself is now
rarely experienced without conflict.
We are seeking to discover the
meaning of Judaism, of the uniquely
Jewish experience of God for our own
lives. "Too Little, Too Much" is a per
record of that search which began
with exploring our Jewish pasts. It will
probably raise more questions than it
will answer.

Too Little



I was relieved when our Washington
Heights synagogue, victim of a
"changing" neighborhood, became
some sort of church. I'd only been in-
side once, for a campaign speech of
John Lindsay's, but my father's dry
cleaning store was on the same block,
and when I worked there on Saturday
mornings I felt guilty and uncomfort-
able. I wished we were closed. Even
though we weren't observant, it didn't
seem right. My father, once a Czech
cheder bocher (yeshiva student), had
lost his religious belief during the war,
maybe in Bergen-Belsen, or earlier as
a sniper in the hills ( I didn't know

which hills). Asking him to close the
store would've been foolish.
As I watched from behind the
scarred counter, watched the men and
boys in suits, the women lovely and
correct, the girls trying to be, I felt
alien. I had no idea what they did in-
side the high-fronted vaguely
Moorish-looking building, only that
they did it without me. I had not ben
bar mitzvah, neither had my brother. I
suppose I didn't believe it mattered.
How was I Jewish? My parents
spoke Yiddish at home and I under-
stood it; I went to a Workmen's Circle
Sunday school for too many years; I
was sensitive to any threat to Israel or
American Jews. I had more than a
vague idea of Jewish history and liter-
ature, but Torah, prayer, religious ob-
servance of holidays (not mere culi-
nary recognition) were all another
world, one I didn't even know enough
about to truly ignore. It didn't exist. I
was culturally Jewish, or perhaps
more accurately, the son of parents
who were culturally Jewish. So I could
feel superior, with my father, to the
Reform rabbi who drove to services in a
Cadillac and laugh with my mother at
the women's "Easter" hats she found
so appalling. I know I once wanted to
go to services with a junior high school
friend, was excited and nervous, won-
dering what to wear, but the plans fell
through somehow and I never passed
beyond contempt and distance, never
prayed or even watched others pray in
the synagogue two blocks from our
apartment building.

What I remember best of all my
Workmen's Circle classes in Yiddish
literature and Jewish history was the
Torah class, where the ratio of Hebrew
to Yiddish on the page intrigued me.
The thick square of Hebrew words
seemed so dark and dense, impenetra-
ble. Koheleth, Ecclesiastes, is most
vivid, because of the vanity of vanities ,
refrain —"nishtikeit" in Yiddish. Van-
ity of vanities. It pre-empted itself for

hat was observed? We lit
Chanukah candles and perhaps
my father said a prayer under his
breath. My brother and I got
Chanukah gelt. My parents each lit a
yahrzeit licht on Yom Kippur and the
anniversary of their parents' deaths.
We ate "holiday dinners" — to which
my father was invariably late from the
store — but we never had a Seder. I
resisted the huge Workmen's Circle
Seders and never went to a real one
until I was 26, so Passover always em-
barrassed me, especially when non-
Jewish friends asked what I did.
I had no sense of Jewish holidays
marking spiritual as well as historical
time. I suppose I identified with other
Jews to some degree but I felt no deep
connection. I was only nominally
Jewish no matter how much history I
Somehow, subtly, I came to feel
both estranged from religious Jews
and better 'than them, more rational
and realistic — as if true observance
were nonsense.


everley Sheila Douglas, tall,
blonde, kind, lovely, was not
Jewish. She was its very opposite: she

was from New Zealand. We met in our
sophomore year at Fordham and fell in
love in our junior year. I had chosen a
Catholic college because the campus
was small, my brother's Jewish
girlfriend had a fine writing teacher
there and that was my career goal, and
because it was Catholic, I believe now.
(I even did work study in Campus
Ministries for two years.)

Bev intrigued me because she was
so different from American girls, sof-
ter, quieter. The fact that she wasn't
Jewish didn't matter at the beginning.
There was no conflict until we neared
graduation, when her visa was run-
ning out; it was time for couples to get
married or at least get serious. For two
years, Bev and I were fun to watch and
be with, shining with the delicate
snobbery of first love, and everyone
expected us to get married (except my
parents, who took things in stride;
after all, I'd dates a black girl, too, and
nothing happened . . .). Friends told
me what they thought, what others
thought, what I should think: a chorus,
a babble deciding my life for me — or
trying to help. Bev, very English,
could not talk about the future or her
feelings; I, very scared, could only
stumble. I wanted to marry her, or
maybe wanted not to lose her. Most of
all, I wanted not to feel split. But she
wasn't Jewish and I began discovering

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