Any run-in with a Russian bathhouse is bound to shock: men chugging bottles of beer-like kvass, felt hats helping them sweat, sweat flying from birch branches as they beat their naked flesh. But what sticks with me most is this: stepping into the sudden heat, seeing them perched all around me, their privates dangling at my eye height. Feeling their stares. Realizing they are all uncircumcised.
I’ve never been much of a Jew: can’t speak Hebrew, wasn’t bar-mitzvahed, don’t believe in God. In Williamsburg I feel aligned with hipsters more than Chasids. I like mayonnaise on my pastrami. My grandmother shakes her head. Though she’s accepted my goyish ways, calls my wife “sweetheart” when, surely, her grandmother would have said “shiksa” instead.
Still, my father’s parents fled Germany just before the Holocaust, his grandfather was sent to a concentration camp, and, though, miraculously, he made it out, I know I have great aunts and uncles who did not. My mother’s grandfather was forced from his shtetl into the Russian army—for a Jew, near-certain death. In my family, the story of his flight is legend. I believe it, the way I’ve never questioned my father’s stint on a kibbutz. Though for a long time I couldn’t comprehend how his sister could move to Israel, trade Montana’s mountains for Tel-Aviv.
I’ve never wanted to visit there, not even when, for nearly a year, I lived a mere three hundred miles away. In Egypt, walking the fields around the village where I lived, I’d have this conversation, almost every day, nearly verbatim:
Egyptian Farmer (waving me over): “What’s your name?”
Me: “Josh.” (The Arabic, Yusha, would mark me as a Jew, so I used English.)
Farmer: “George? Like Bush?”
Me: “Yes, but I hate him.”
(Grins all around.)
Farmer: “Are you a Muslim?”
The suggestion that I read the Quran always followed this. I’d answer that I had. Which would stun him silent. To have read it and yet still not believe was nearly as incomprehensible as the concept of an atheist would have been. Though still better than a Jew.