Family

January 14 2013
14

Sculpture at Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site

i.

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.

 

ii.

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.

 

iii.

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…

confusing.

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.

 

iv.

I’ve never talked about this before.  It’s proving more difficult than I anticipated.

 

v.

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.

 

vi.

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.

Definition of a Jew

From an info panel in Berlin’s Jewish Museum.

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.

 

vii.

Wait.

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.

 

viii.

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.

 

ix.

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).

 

x.
I spent the better part of last year living in Germany and one of the last places we had opportunity to visit was the Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial Site.  It’s hard to express the emotions evoked from reading the exhibition material and walking through the remaining buildings and grounds….
intrigue
disbelief
horror
anguish…

And haunting.

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.

14 comments

  1. Becky

    Thank you so much for sharing your story with us! As someone in the “cultural majority” of our country, I often don’t realize what it’s like for someone who isn’t, even in just a small way. Thanks for widening my perspective just a bit more. :)

    Reply
    • Becky,

      First, thank you for commenting here. I’m nervous? aware? self-conscious? about this post, and I’m glad *someone* said something…anything. It’s so personal, ya know? And while it might not seem like a big deal to anyone who’s read it…it was a big deal for me to share it.

      That’s the pride speaking…or ridiculous concern about what people might think.

      Anyway, thank you for your tender response; I’m grateful :).

      Reply
      • Becky

        Hi again Robin!

        I’m glad to! I thought it was so interesting to see life from a different perspective. But yes, I can understand, when something is close to our hearts, it’s hard to write about and sometimes even harder when it seems to have just fallen flat among listeners.

        I look forward to reading more that you write. :)

        Reply
  2. Identity and family and culture and religion. We are a crazy mix up of parts, aren’t we? Thank you for sharing, and for wrestling. I think even though we don’t all have a name that sounds a certain wey, we do this to everyone. What’s your job? What’s yoru husand’s job? Is it a job we elevate or devalue? What are your kids good at doing? People even make guesses about my maiden name and married name. Still, some of them are more fraught with prejudice than others. This is a good reminder. And a big story.

    Reply
    • Thanks, Jen. Just speaking into this space makes a difference to me; I’m grateful. You make the best point in that there are numerous ways we all subtly do this to others. And I’m glad to have that reminder sung back to me!

      Reply
  3. Wow, do I get this. I, too, have a maiden name (and actually, a married name) that sometimes raises question marks on people’s faces. And I would not be surprised to discover somewhere in one family tree or the other that the question might be answered in the affirmative. But I have never, ever, had to bear the wounds for those question marks. A little discomfort is one thing, but outright blackballing is another. I worked for a woman when I was in college who was academically the cream of the crop, but was rejected from a fine college after an interview. That’s when she saw them mark an “H” on her application – “H” for Hebrew. Prejudice is alive and well, in this country, around the world and in our souls, too. To deny it is to deny being human. We can confess it, release it, ask for an openness of spirit and repudiate any ugly response within ourselves, but it is good to be on the lookout for evidence of it within. So I thank you, Robin, for ‘going there’ with this post and exploring the different ways in which it subtly makes its presence known. Well done.

    Reply
  4. Ed

    Thank you for sharing this story. Wow.

    It’s interesting to think of how people are offending you without even realizing it. I’ve hit a little of this with my Polish last name. People are like, “Oh, you’re Polish! That means you’re hard headed and stupid!” Or something like that. And they’re joking and stuff, but it gets old. I want them to leave me and my Americanized Polish name alone.

    Reply
  5. Robin, I applaud your decision to share this story, even as you’re still figuring out what you think about it all. I can only imagine the discussions your parents had and the quiet load you’ve carried all these years. Thank you for giving us this insight and caution against the assumptions we often make and the prejudices we carry. I grew up with Jewish friends and I don’t recall them having a similar experience. But then again, maybe they didn’t want to say anything. I long for a day when people will see past so-called barriers and recognize the need for unity.

    Reply
  6. I’m endlessly fascinated by how a person’s heritage and family culture influences the person they grow to be. What mystery and meaning can be found there.

    I know this was challenging for you to share, but I am so glad you did. I can only imagine what it was like to grow up in the South with a branding that couldn’t be hidden, and there is no doubt those formative years shaped how you related to the stories of others.

    As Diana said, thank you for going there with us. Clearly, it is no small thing.

    Reply
  7. I, too, am proud of you for sharing this. It is beautifully crafted, very vulnerable, and I feel it shines a bit of light on the path so that I can understand the world around me better. Thank you also for honoring your parents, even when you still wrestle with some of the decisions they made. I understand some of that too, and I can hear the tenderness in your memories.

    Reply
  8. This cut me to the quick, in the way only beauty does.

    You are so vulnerable here, Robin, but so gracious even in your uncertainty. I will pray God’s light on your path as you continue to process. And speaking as someone who went to bed at night praying God would make her Jewish as she slept (true story), I might also be a little bit jealous. ;)

    Reply
  9. Cara

    Wow! I get this too, in some small way. I grew up in Houston, TX and never thought twice about all my Jewish friends. I thought it would of been kind of cool because they always got out of school for the Jewish holidays. Now as an adult, living in a small town in Alabama I am painfully aware of all kinds of prejudices. I’ve been here six years and I’m still excluded from many parties, groups and activities because “I’m not from here” It is a very exclusive and often times mean spirited town. Thanks for your vulnerability. It makes you real.

    Reply
  10. This is poignant and beautiful amidst the broken. Thank you for sharing this.

    Reply
  11. This Christian girl who is also half-Jewish on her dad’s side wants to say thank you for writing this… You’ve inspired me to look at my own past too.

    Reply

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