In the spirit of Hanukkah, I decided to let you all in on an excerpt and essay from my memoir, about growing up amongst anti-Semitism, my family, and questioning religion. From growing up with Christian lust, to my family history, to figuring out who “Jesus” was, to local Anti-Semitism, it’s all here.
Please share and enjoy! There won’t be many more excerpts put up in the spirit of the book’s publication.
Oh, and a happy Hanukkah to all who are celebrating!
Confession of an Ex-Self Hating Jew: On Rosaries, Kikes, and Noses
I am six years old when I discover the most beautiful necklace hanging off of my best friend Danielle’s bedpost. It’s a long string of pearly pink beads that has a cross hanging from it. When I go to look at the stunning jewels, my eyes float down to the cross, and that’s when I see him.
He is a miniaturized version of a man with his head hanging so low, it looks as if it could roll right off his neck. This is when I notice that his arms and legs are stuck to the cross beams, as if he is a dead bug stuck to a flyswatter. The necklace seems to be protecting Danielle’s bed.
“Where did you get this necklace? It’s so pretty! Let me wear it,” I go to grab it off her bedpost, and before I can put it around my neck, Danielle puts her hand out to stop me.
She says, “This is a rosary, you pray with it.”
Pray with it? It looks too pretty to not wear. Pretty things are for wearing, are for making women look beautiful. I am certain of that.
“This is Jesus here, on the cross, the son of God,” Danielle answers my questioning face.
Oh. Jesus. That guy. Except for Danielle doesn’t pronounce his name the way my mom does when she’s agitated. Danielle says his name very seriously. Unlike my mom who yells Jesus’ name when she’s mad as in “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph,” Danielle uses him as jewelry for her prayers so God will listen to her. I find it fascinating, and wonder what else might there be for me to know about this mysterious religion.
Doubting the existence of such a strange rule, I question her again.
“Are you sure I can’t wear it, even though it’s pretty?”
I am jealous of Danielle and this pretty necklace. I want one of my own. It’s way better than any of the jewelry my sisters wear. I’d even put it right up there with the rings my mother wears—in particular, the ring with all six of the family birthstones.
When I leave Danielle’s house, I stop to look at a picture that hangs on the living room wall that is closest to the entrance of her kitchen. It is him.
He has long brown hair that waves slightly at his temples. He is wearing white, his skin is buttered-brown, and his eyes a cornflower blue. It’s Jesus.
Every time I come to see Danielle, I see his face, watching me as I walk down the hallway, or as I go to head back to my house. He stares at me, watching my every footstep. I wonder why he looks so sad. I wonder why Jews don’t believe he is God’s son? Who is he, and who is God anyway?
I go home to ask my mom if she has rosary beads, but she doesn’t. Despite the fact that my mom was raised both Catholic and Protestant, she doesn’t have any remaining trinkets from her Catholic years. The only item of Christianity she has is her maiden name, Perry.
My mom told me that when she was little, she went to two churches each Sunday, the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, to keep both her Catholic Father and Protestant Mother happy.
“Really? Every Sunday—like each and every Sunday?”
I couldn’t imagine doing that. I have never been in a temple or a church. Danielle says she’ll have her communion, and then confirmation. She’ll even get a confirmation name. Apparently Jewish people get Hebrew names, like my dad’s —“Herschel, otherwise known as Heshie”—but my mom and dad can’t remember my Hebrew name. Apparently Little Poppy, my Dad’s father, took all of us when we were babies to the synagogue to be named. My parents think my name might Leah. It’s a good thing they remember my actual name. I guess when you have four kids that’s a victory in itself.
“Yup, every Sunday. I hated it. And the priests were racists. I was dating a boy from the church, a Puerto-Rican boy, and the priest said to me, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I said to him, why he believes in the same God we do? What’s the matta? He was just a racist. Bull crap. I told him that was bull crap.”
I like that my mom stood up to the guy. I don’t understand what the big deal was either. Why couldn’t she date a Puerto Rican? But what do I know about church anyway, or dating for that matter?
I do know that Danielle and most families in the neighborhood go to church during the weekend. I also know she prays. No one ever tells me to pray, or to believe in God. No one makes me skip meat on Fridays, or add “amen” at the end of a meal. My dad never says anything about his Jewish background or his parents unless I ask him, and then he grumbles something that I can’t understand. Essentially, what is it to be Jewish I wonder?
Sometimes when I go to bed at night, I talk right to the guy.
“God, I hope everything will be okay. Good night.”
Short and sweet, I hope he doesn’t mind that I call him just God. I mean, does he have a more proper name, or do I need to say something in particular in order to not make him mad? “Mommy, why did you become Jewish?” I ask the Strong Woman, otherwise known as my mom.
Why would she choose Hannukah over Christmas is what I am really wondering? At Christmas, everyone has his or her family over— Aunts, Uncles, cousins. They eat a huge dinner like it’s Thanksgiving, and people get more gifts. Danielle gets a whole bunch of wrapped presents, and a stocking! They have Santa, Rudolph, and Frosty the Snowman. It’s the most wonderful time of the year according to the guy on the radio. Who want to miss out on that?
On Hannukah, Mommy lights the menorah unless she is at work, and sometimes Daddy sings the Hannukah song, which sounds to me like, “Baah-rook-a tor-ah-hey new” and ends with the word “Hannukah.” If Daddy is working, my sister Dena sings a little, and Mom too. Then we open gifts, and that’s it. Unless mom makes latkes, and then we eat the latkes and maybe play dreidel if I can get my older sisters to play with me, otherwise, I play with myself and always win. But no one comes over or calls to say “Happy Hannukah.” Hanukkah tunes don’t blare over the radio.
Mom tells me there’s a Jewish Santa called “Kanta Claus.” I believe he drives a BMW and is married to a hot blonde lady who likes to drive the sportscar. Kanta is fit and muscular. I construct stories around his life that read like sitcoms.
Mom tells me that “By the time I met yaw fatha I was sick of going to two churches each week. I’d go in one church hearing one story, and then go in to anotha church that would only say opposite things. Catholics believe in saints and the other didn’t. One believed in worshipping Mary, and the other didn’t.”
If my mom’s family seems weird, my dad’s is an even bigger mystery to me. What I know about Daddy’s family is information given to me by my sisters and my mom, but for the most part, they all agree on the “facts.” After many years alone without children, my grandparents had my father in the year nineteen thirty-nine.
“A miracle baby, practically. Back then, that was unusual for a woman to have a baby so old,” my mom always tells me.
According to my mother, my father was doted on, a Jewish prince. He did work hard though; his parents owned a grocery store, and my father helped them or spent a lot of time alone at home. From Minsk, his Yiddish speaking, Kosher- keeping parents let their precious son break a few rules. Maybe some Chinese food in the house on occasion. Maybe he could eat pork and on the same plates. He was their King.
My mom talks about Dad’s parents: “When I married your fatha, you should have seen his motha. He was twenty-five years old and when his motha would come home she’d wail if she saw him cookin’ or me cookin’ for him. She’d say, “Oh Haralah my king, I am so sorry I am late to cook your suppa.”
In my mind I imagine a little tiny lady with an accent—like that woman in the Bullwinkle cartoon, moaning and groaning over her son.
“The man was twenty-five and his motha would still want to do everything for him,” as she recounts my dad’s reign as king in his childhood home.
“She passed out if you kids got a cold. She was very dramatic yaw Grandma Rosie,” Mom describes her.
When Grandma Rosie heard the news Dad was marrying a non-Jew, “She went to her bed and sat shiva, mourning because yaw fatha was marrying a shiksa!”
“I converted in a temple,” Mom recounts, “and they scrubbed me and scrubbed me, until all the Catholic was good and gone.”
She calls it a “mikveh,” whatever that is.
She remembers the day of her conversion: after being scrubbed, she went back home to my parent’s apartment still soaking wet on the subway from the Jews who couldn’t wait to wash the Christianity right out of her hair.
Despite her Scottish and Irish background, people ask my mom if she’s Jewish wherever we go.
Cashiers at the grocery store inspect my mom’s name on her credit card, and ask, “Lifshitz? You do look Jewish; maybe it’s the nose?”
The cashiers’ faces always look funny, as if they don’t know what to think about my mom. I always stand quietly thinking to myself, “How does someone look Jewish? Do I look Jewish?”
My mom laughs and repeats each time, “That’s funny. My nose. I’m a convert. My husband is Jewish, and my parents were Irish and Scottish.”
The cashiers laugh nervously, inspecting my mom’s face one more time. I think about my own nose that looks similar to my mother’s. It’s not a Jewish nose since Mom isn’t straight from the stock, but it’s a nose with meaning. A nose that I wish meant nothing but instead, was just pretty.
I never say a word to my mom, but I start to get this feeling that people think being Jewish is bad.
It is a late weekday afternoon, when I hear the phone ring. I run to answer it hoping it will be for me, but most likely it will be one of my sisters’ friends. It’s always for them.
“Hello?” I say in my most grown-up voice
With power and vengeance, the response comes,“Kike!”
Before I can say a word, the person hangs up on me. I know it is a bad word; nobody says good words with anger like that.
“Who was that?” Dena asks.
“I don’t know. They called me a kike,” I say, afraid to say the word out loud, just in case.
“Oh, that’s horrible! It’s a mean word people call Jews,” she says.
Jews. That means us, my family. That means me. A Kike.
“What does it mean exactly?” I ask because my curiosity always gets the better of me.
“It’s kind of like when people use the “N” word when talking about Black people. It’s really hateful and nasty.”
“Oh, wow,” I say, knowing from my mom that no one who is smart or nice says the “N” word. The “N” word is horrible, and Jews, we have a word too. A “K” word.
The K word, the sarcastic way someone might call me a “Jew” as if I were an ax murderer, and as I grow up the comments proliferate like, “You’re pretty for a Jewish girl,” and “but you’re not really Jewish, right?” These constant remarks from my peers and adults were enough to make me want to turn from my own identity. I was a self-hating Jew, mea culpa, mea culpa.
Besides my one close Jewish friend that I made in the fourth grade who shared her Hannukah holiday excitement with me and all the discussion over what we could or couldn’t eat during Passover (many things), I had no way to form a Jewish identity. Being Jewish was a concept, not a reality. A minority status and a community that I wondered about, yet had only a few roots in.
Later on as a teenager, I start to comment back to these phrases after being annoyed with the forty-one questions about my “Jewishness,” “I’m not really Jewish, just half,” as if the other half guaranteed that I was indeed, a normal non-tainted Jewish person. I was ashamed about something I didn’t even understand because the fact was that I never attended Hebrew school, nor did I ever go to Temple. Like a daily ritual that you do by rote memory yet have no clue why you’re still performing it, we lit candles on Hannukah, fasted on Yom Kippur once I was thirteen, celebrated with a big dinner on Rosh Hasannah, and stayed away from bread and corn syrup on Passover. Did I know why we did these things or all of the history behind it? No.
These were the facts and opinions I heard about Judiasm as a kid, some from family, some from friends, some from non-friends:
Jesus is not the son of god.
The Oil Lasted eight days for Hannukah.
Elijah drinks the wine on Passover.
Jews are cheap and stingy.
Jews have big noses and are unattractive.
We fast on Yom Kippur for our sins, but who knows what the sins are.
On the other hand, my sisters knew a bit more about our Jewish heritage—at least Dena and Debbie did. Dena and Debbie remember going to temple when they were little. My dad’s parents would have taken them because they were still alive then when my sisters were young. I guess things were different then, before I was born. When I was in my twenties, I asked my mom why we were never practicing Jews, like the few other Jewish people in Howell were, and the verdict was joining a synagogue cost too much and once my paternal grandparents died, my dad didn’t want to keep Kosher anymore, despite the fact that there was indeed a Kosher butcher in the town next door, that was full of Orthodox Jews and Hassidim.
It took me many years to actually ask my father if this was indeed true, if he really was a lazy Jew. If he really made excuses for keeping a kosher household, like the one he grew up in.
He laughed and said, “Yeah.I really like Chinese food.”
Who could blame him? He loved Chinese food so much as a kid and it was always our Christmas destination that I began to believe Chinese food was put on the earth for Jews, and not the Chinese.
So my mom converted to keep her in-laws happy, and to prevent us from shuffling around each Sunday to different churches and temples. As a kid who wasn’t raised around institutional religion, I became a free thinker. It was a good thing in many ways, yet every time December rolled around, I felt lonely as a child. It seemed as if God and Jesus were the most popular guys in town. Everyone knew of these two guys it seemed, and each holiday—Easter and Christmas in particular, families flocked to their churches, gathering with strangers and acknowledging in front of the public, that their families did indeed exist, and God damnit, they loved each other. I wanted to be one of those families; I wanted a place to define my family’s existence and culture. To find some answers about whom exactly we were, why we were here, and what might define us. Growing up my parents had something to call themselves, something to call theirs; my dad had a Bar mitzvah, standing up in front of the temple to claim his manhood, his Judaism, and my mother had her confirmation and her communion, defining her as a Catholic…and whatever rituals she participated in as a Protestant. But who was I? Who is Laura Lifshitz?
Or maybe more honestly, I wanted to be like the other kids who celebrated Christmas, Easter—all the gluttonous, high-octane, intensely orgasmic (sex can always be brought into the equation when you’re a Lifshitz) holidays that Christians and Catholics get to celebrate. What child wouldn’t want some fat guy or furry bunny to bring them tons of money and chocolate? What girl wouldn’t want to sit on some man’s lap and beg him to get her what she wants?
Okay, so some of us have bizarre quirks.
These feelings made me feel guilty—in traditional Jewish form. As if I were voting for the Perry side (maternal), and not for the Lifshitz side of my family. But I found myself thinking constantly, who are we? Who is the Lifshitz family, in my world of a nameless God?
No longer a self-hating Jew, now I can feel more of a tie and connection to being Jewish—about having an identity full of rich heritage. An identity that I still know very little about—that I long to have some meaningful connection to other than my family DNA. But for so long being Jewish to me, meant being lonely; as a child, I can remember feeling as if we were truly the only Lifshitzes on the planet. I can remember wondering why everyone else had cousins, aunts, and uncles, and me, I had no one—not even a second cousin. Or at least I didn’t know them. While my parents are only children, it still seemed as if my father’s family disappeared. The last I had seen them I was six, at some family function in Brooklyn, but after that I never saw them again. They became blurs in my childhood memory, beings with no faces, houses with no families, fictional characters in some other world
It is Christmas time and I am eight years old. Peeking outside my bedroom window, I see a blanket of Christmas lights covering my block. I hang up four of my socks on my dresser, and fill them with toys for my stuffed animals, pretending to be Santa. I tell the stuffed toys that line up around the perimeter of my bed, “Okay, we need to go to bed early if we want Santa to come.”
I sing “Silent Night,” or at least the words I think go along with the tune to “Silent Night.”
“Round your virgin, mother and child.”
I’m pretty good with music and lyrics. Lying in my bed with my dolls snuggled in tight all around me, I imagine Danielle and her family, telling jokes and eating snacks, getting ready for Midnight Mass. Danielle told me that her family goes to church at midnight to celebrate Christmas, and this sounds so cool. Going somewhere at Midnight? Awesome! I hug my Raggedy Ann who lies closest to my head, and I wish Santa could visit my house. That just for one night, once a year, I could be like everyone else.
© Laura Lifshitz-Hernandez and frommtvtomommy.com, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Laura Lifshitz-Hernandez and frommtvtomommy.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.