My paternal grandparents lived across from a canal in Long Beach on Long Island. We went to their house every weekend and—at least in the confusing palace of memory—I spent much of my childhood sitting on their porch, rocking back and forth on a glider in the shade. I remember my grandmother’s pliant arms, her strong opinions, my grandfather’s worry, his strength, his pale blue eyes. I could have listened to them telling stories for hours, and often did.
Because my grandfather was religious, it’s him that I think of first when I think of being Jewish: his broad back in his gray suit and his quiet sense of bearing the weight of the world. I often think that if he were a foul-tempered man instead of gentle and beloved, I might have had negative associations with Judaism. But my grandfather trudging off to temple is linked for me to how he was a landlord who could never bring himself to collect rent if the tenant’s child played a musical instrument; it’s linked to the poetic stories he told me about how the bluebird became blue. His Jewishness is linked with his goodness, and I see him in every talis, every yarmulke.
We tend to romanticize the past, the older generation. They sang Passover songs with so much more feeling, with more gusto than my parents. Now my parents are the eldest and they sing with more gusto than me. In that house by the canal, there were so many great aunts and uncles: dashing and troubled, sweet-tempered and oddly formal, fat and funny and weary. We miss our elders, their less polished style; their more (how, exactly?) obviously Jewish voices. We miss their more direct line to the old country—whichever country, the borders were always changing—somewhere in Eastern Europe. We miss them but we are not like them. We are more like everyone else.
When I was twenty, I met a charming elderly man on a train in Greece who told me I looked like an angel. He insisted on escorting me to my destination. At some point during our time together, during the man’s patient explanation of Greek history, he explained to me that the Jews were evil.
I looked him in the eyes and said: But I’m Jewish.
No, he said, no, no. As if I was merely confused.
Yes, I assured him. I’m a Jew. This was one hundred percent true and my family (as far as we know) is one hundred percent Jewish. There was nothing complicated about that fact.
And I was raised by my parents to marry someone Jewish. There was no ambivalence there, no liberal-minded wiggle room.
When I met my husband in my mid-twenties, he was living in a small town at the bottom of the Baja Peninsula. He is neither Mexican nor is he Jewish. We fell madly in love and that was that. Though he is not a fan of organized religion, he agreed to raise our future children Jewish, but this was going to be my responsibility. How, I wondered, was I going to nurture a religious identity, when my own life didn’t include much in the way of religious ritual?
Before our twin boys were born, I tried to articulate what I wanted in terms of passing on Jewish tradition, and I usually returned to this: I want them to feel Jewish.
But they will, my husband always calmly explained. You’’l make sure they do, because it’s important to you.
But is it? I wondered.
It is, he assured me.
We’ve always spent most of our winters living in Mexico, and this was the fourth winter our boys have gone to school there. We have an international community of friends and it’s a life we treasure. This past winter one of my seven-year-old sons came home from school and he looked upset.
What’’ the matter? I asked.
He told me how a boy had announced that Christians were better than Jews. And that hurt my feelings, my son said, because I’m a Jew.
It was obviously a distressing moment, but I admit I felt a tiny twist of relief. Because despite having lived a largely secular life, despite being part of a family tree that is one half gentile, there was no question that my son felt personally insulted. And though of course I don’t want my child to feel insulted, I was also grateful to know he felt this sense of Jewish belonging. What followed, that afternoon, was a discussion about identity and religion and bigotry. We asked each other questions, my son and I. We each went on at length. It was—I realized—a very Jewish conversation.
I recently attended my friend’s father’s memorial. It was held at the Faculty House of Columbia University in a perfectly lovely nondescript room with a bar. An elegant man with an appealingly mysterious accent led the service. I imagined he’d been a student of my friend’s father, who was a playwright and professor, or perhaps he worked for the University in some capacity. As the memorial unfolded, three things immediately came to mind: the deceased was roughly the age of the two protagonists in my new novel, A Dual Inheritance; like my protagonists, he’d gone to Harvard, and—though I knew my friend’s father was Jewish—there was no reference to it here. It was an entirely secular experience.
I thought of how my mother always says that there’s something cold and empty when an official service has no religious framework, and as so many friends and family paid loving and witty tribute to this obviously talented, stubborn, erudite, caring man, I carried on a mental argument with my mother, whose Judaism is expressed differently—more politically, more conservatively, less fraught—than mine is. I argued in my head for secularism. Here was a great example, I reasoned; here was a deep tribute without being defined by a religion into which my friend’s father happened to be born. He’d been orphaned fairly young, had a massive heart attack as a young man, had never thought he’d live past forty. He’d also been widowed young and had raised a daughter—my friend—who was now happily living in Berlin, raising a German-speaking son with a non-Jewish husband. You see, I told my mother in my silent protest,life can be so much bigger than religion.
At the end of the evening, after many remembrances, the man who’d led the service stood. He introduced himself as not only a friend of the deceased, but his rabbi. Though my friend’s father hadn’t led a religious life, he’d evidently been interested—especially toward the end—in questions of faith. The rabbi then introduced the deceased’s friend from Harvard, a man as not-Jewish as one can possibly be, an opera singer who stated it was his friend’s request that he sing this particular song, a song he imagined his dear friend enjoyed assigning because it was one that the opera singer didn’t know. I think he also knew how much I’d enjoy learning it, he said.
Then he sang.
It was the Mourner’s Kaddish.
And—despite all of those (deeply held!) mental arguments with my mother—that’s when I finally started to cry.