When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to fall in love and get married. But it wasn’t fairytalesque dreams of Prince Charming or romantic notion that fueled my desire.
It was because I was eager to change my last name.
My ears prickled. My spirit flinched. —
“…those stinking Jews…”
With a caricatured smirk crooking his lips, my old boss was referring to someone with whom he had to deal in business. As soon as the words defiled the space between us, he realized he shouldn’t have said it and he tried to lighten the moment by laughing it off, “I shouldn’t have said that….”
Or thought it.
Or meant it.
(But he did and he did and he did.)
I quickly changed the subject and didn’t acknowledge his offensive remark, but I wish I had the guts to have called him on it. I don’t know whether it was shock or fear of confrontation that sealed my lips.
He didn’t know my maiden name.
We were raised in a Christian home though my parents didn’t share a common faith. My mother was a believer but my father was…
He fasted on the Holy days and went to temple on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. He went to church with us on Easter and Christmas (the irony is not wasted) and whenever we had a children’s choir performance. He often watched televised Billy Graham crusades.
He never spoke of his faith that I remember. We weren’t taught the significance and beauty of Judaic ritual. When I discovered as an adult how the Law pointed to Christ, how ritual and tradition forshadowed the Savior Israel longed for, I lamented my ignorance.
My father’s silence proclaimed a subtle shame.
I’ve never talked about this before. It’s proving more difficult than I anticipated.
The first time I went to Temple I made it no farther than the synagogue parking lot. It was dark, certain to be empty, and the perfect place for my high school boyfriend and I to kiss without the mortification of my younger brother busting in and scratching his rear on the corner of our console TV.
The second time I went to Temple – the last time - it was to speak with the Rabbi about my father’s funeral service.
He taught us about Kriah and we stood to show our strength. He gave us black ribbons to wear and we repeated ancient blessing–
Barukh atah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha’olam dayan ha’emet.
Blessed are You, Adonai Our God, Ruler of the Universe, the True Judge.
Kriah is a practice seeded in the grief of the faith’s patriarchs; Jacob and David and Job tearing their clothes in heartache and anguish over love’s loss.
God, it is beautiful.
People used to go fishing to try to find out if I was Jewish; my name certainly suggested it. They thought they were being sly by asking me about my “background” but I knew what they were after; too many people had tried it for me not to know what they were really asking.
Truth was, I didn’t know the answer for sure. When I toured the Jüdischen Museum in Berlin last summer, I realized my confusion wasn’t totally due to my stupidity or my father’s failure to provide proper explanation; even within Judaism there are different views about the definition of a Jew.
Truth is, I’ve spent a lot of years trying to prove I wasn’t a Jew.
I don’t know why…
Jesus was a Jew.
That last one was a lie; I DO know why.
Prejudice is lion masquerading as lamb. It wears crafty disguise.
But it can’t be fully hidden, can it?
An off-color joke exposes it.
The heart of a friend is revealed when she reduces your thriftiness to an age-old stereotype.
The expressive shadow in the eyes of a new acquaintance, hearing your last name the first time and repeating it back as a question. Yes, that flash of wonder is obvious to a practiced observer.
When your boss insinuates strategic business practice is based on race or religion or culture or ethnicity. Hell, he doesn’t even know which one.
I suppose it’s important to mention I grew up in the South where silver-haired ladies want to know about Your F a m i l y . When they inquire, it’s not so much to get to know you as it is to make a judgment and cram you into pigeon holes.
Parents naturally want to protect their children; they want a better life for them.
My parents understood the impenetrable barriers and invisible boundaries of Southern Life in the ’60s and ’70s.
I don’t know if there was much discussion about religion between Mama and Daddy but I do know it would’ve been easier to raise us as Christians.
We Now I Layed Me Down to Sleep every night and God blessed everyone who shared our life and blood. Dinnertime began with a blessing.
Before Mama died she got Daddy to promise to keep taking us to church; he dropped his country club membership, a posthumous gift to her. For him, Sunday worship included a Titlest, spikey shoes and his bag of clubs.
I’d never go so far as to say I’ve been persecuted because of my maiden name, but there’s no doubt it has altered some people’s opinions of me upon learning it; there have been plenty of social snubs through the years that I couldn’t help wondering about, too. This perspective was informed in part from a stepmother who often spoke of prejudice against our family, but more so from derogatory comments said in my presence from friends. Christian friends, from childhood through adult.
I despise the people pleaser in me who never confronted anyone when they said something hurtful along these lines.
Especially now that I’m married, it’s easy enough to “hide” my “transgression.”
But I wonder what it must have been like, what it must be like, to be a person of color in our country.
Sweet Jesus, I wonder…and it breaks my heart to imagine how horrible it must be. Because I’ve had a tiny sip compared to my black friends who have had a bucket poured over their heads.
It’s a gift, isn’t it? Because I’ve felt the sting of prejudism, my empathy for others is increased. I have a heightened sense of awareness and sensitivity. In this I feel kindred to Joseph when he told his brothers “…you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good…” (Genesis 50:20a).
Had I been alive during the reign of Hitler and the Third Reich, living where we lived last year, I would have known people who were sentenced to Dachau’s Hell; I likely would have been related to a few. And, it’s just as likely that I would have been transported to a women’s camp…if I were lucky (unlucky?).
My father was born in the 1930s. Some of his earliest memories would have been about World War II.
I suspect that’s one of the reasons he made some of the parenting choices he did.