The Pintele Yid (Yiddish for “Jewish spark” )

by Guest Contributor Matthew Egan

My fiancée, Soo, put The Savages on our Netflix queue. Despite plenty of slice-of-life humor, I found it to be an unyieldingly bleak story about two children putting their father in a nursing home. In one scene, the son (Philip Seymour Hoffman), shows an old movie to help his father with the transition. The movie? The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson. Not a good choice, considering that they invited the entire nursing home including the predominantly black staff. Blink and you might miss the father react hysterically to a scene of the young protagonist getting beaten by his Orthodox Jewish father. But Jenkins doesn’t linger there, moving to Jolson applying blackface and highlighting the gap between the white, theater professor son and the black, working class staff.

This moment, so quickly covered over, is the only reference in the film to the family’s Jewishness. I think the director, Tamara Jenkins, was intentionally pointing to the assimilation of the two children as something that estranged them from their own father. Since the children won’t acknowledge their connection to Jewishness, the film can’t explore it. If you happen to notice it, that moment is poignant precisely because it can’t be explored. It tints the rest of the film, but uncertainly. No other moment of the film is decidedly Jewish, but details like the children’s interest in theater can be understood as such. This universally recognizable story of a dysfunctional family is also a particular story of the assimilated, Jewish experience in America. The relationship between these two stories, however, remains unclear.

Up to that moment, I was enjoying the film. It’s good, if you like to sit with painful social dysfunction. But once I noticed it was a “Jewish” film, I was hooked. After the film, I went online to find out if Jenkins is Jewish and to try to fill in the Jewish side of this story. She says of herself, “I’m half-Italian and half-Jewish, so I eat lots of food on both sides. I’m very attracted to both sides culturally.” Looking for Jews like that can be a bad habit, promoting stereotypes and the myth of Jewish power. But it’s a hobby enjoyed by both Jews and antisemites, omnipresent in the Jewish press. For me, I’m trying to get a better handle on what it means to be Jewish. Like in Jenkins’ story, I’ve found Jewishness to be underexplored, so that I’m not sure what it means and how it’s affected my life. To my mother’s surprise when I asked her while writing this, at age 34, I knew almost nothing of our family history.

I don’t think that’s unusual for American Jews. At a Jewish wedding recently, the Rabbi made a running joke of the words “Jericho, New York” in the middle of the Aramaic-language ketubah (wedding contract), suggesting an expectation of displacement. With the flowering of a new, Jewish, youth culture embodied in publications like Heeb, Jewcy, and Jewlicious, this sense of displacement and a drive to find roots is coming forward for many young Jews.

My grandmother came to the US with her sisters from Kiev in 1923, after her mother died in childbirth. As bad as the Pale of Settlement was (it always gets excluded from more general histories for space considerations, but I think I have to do that here as well), this was an especially scary time for Ukrainian Jews. The story, though it comes to me through my grandmother, is that that they survived because she was such a cute baby that the soldiers left their house alone. They moved to Brooklyn, but her sisters, recent immigrants themselves, couldn’t afford to take care of her, so my grandmother grew up in an orphanage upstate. She maybe did okay as a mother considering that she didn’t have a maternal role model, but my mother only felt close to her after my grandfather passed away. They sent my mother to Hebrew school, but not to become religious. Grandpa’s parents forced religion down his throat, so he only hoped for his children to be connected to their Jewish heritage and culture. While she smoked outside, passing cars used to scream at my mother, “Christ Killer” or “Jew Bastard.” She tells me she didn’t want to be Jewish. And almost all of her relationships, including two marriages, were with lapsed Catholics. My aunt and uncle also married men from Catholic backgrounds.

I always joke that my father converted to Chemistry.

One of the things my mother liked about my father was his large, close family and the way she had been accepted into it prior to the marriage. The Catholic Church insisted that there could be no wedding ceremony outside their Church. Not even a civil wedding, let alone one in a Synagogue. So my parents only had a civil wedding, and my father’s family refused to come. His mother, an alcoholic who died at 46 from cirrhosis, would call her mother in the middle of the night to complain about my mother leading my father to Hell. My parents divorced when I was very young. They weren’t well suited for each other in the first place, but it probably led to an even more assimilated upbringing for me.

When I was 12, I spent about five minutes contemplating a Bar Mitzvah. Friends talked about Hebrew school or Jewish summer camp, and I was hoping to find a way to be included in that. Mom told me it would make my grandparents happy, in a tone of voice that distanced her from them, but that it would be a lot of work. I dropped it. Two or three times, Mom and I celebrated Hanukah. In Judaism, you’re supposed to cover your head before G-d. For most observant Jews worldwide, that applies at all times. In America, most Jews only do it during prayer. We didn’t even have head coverings, so we used paper napkins. Hanukah is actually quite a minor holiday, exaggerated by its proximity to Christmas. I only learned of the major holiday of Shavuot, which celebrates G-d giving Moses the Ten Commandments, in the last few weeks. Jewishness was never a topic that could sustain a conversation — we were too secular — so I learned about Judaism mostly the same way my Christian classmates did in school.

And I’m still learning in pretty much the same way.

When I’d visit my grandparents in Florida, I almost never wore shoes inside, and my grandmother hated when I came to the dinner table barefoot. She told me that it’s a sign of mourning in Judaism, but I couldn’t understand why Jewish rituals meant anything to her. I don’t know when I realized that lobster isn’t kosher, but I knew she wasn’t observant. It would drive my grandfather crazy when I’d have a sandwich with mayonnaise. He’d explain by saying it wasn’t kosher [to mix meat and dairy, though I didn't know that then], but he didn’t keep kosher, either. When I pointed that out, he’d turn inward.

I describe myself as assimilated. When I say that, I don’t mean that I’m secular. Judaism and Jewishness are national, cultural, and ethnic categories as well as religious labels. My grandparents weren’t believers any more than my mother was. And while I’m less religious than Mom, she’s amazed at how strongly I’ve come to identify with Jewishness. But not only do I not speak Hebrew, I don’t know Yiddish either. I’ve learned more about Jewish cooking from Molly Katzen’s vegetarian Moosewood cookbooks than from my family. But every once in a while, when I would describe myself as “half-Jewish” growing up, someone would ask if it was my mother who was Jewish and tell me, “So you’re a real Jew then.” It was surreal that gentiles would force religious law (traditionally, Jewishness is passed on through the mother but not the father) on me that way, but I was especially unprepared as I hadn’t yet unpacked the ethnic and religious components of Jewishness.

This year, a Jewish friend I know from a Buddhist temple, Richard invited me and Soo over for Passover. It was my first ever Passover Seder. Richard’s wife, Robin, a strongly atheistic Christian (I didn’t ask if she was raised Catholic), has astounding Hebrew and knowledge of Jewish history. She asked where my family was from, and on telling her that and when they immigrated, she put together a picture I had never thought to imagine. Unfortunately, I didn’t know the story well enough, and what I told Robin was off by about 15 years. But even if it was wrong, it was like a revelation that my family had a history that was specific. The way she asked, just after getting my name, indicated how she saw it as part of my identity, and I suddenly realized it was, whether I knew the story or not, important in who I am and how I came to be.

When I was 19, in Pittsburgh for college, I came across a piece of graffiti that said, “End the Occupation: Nuke Israel.” That graffiti was the first time I’d ever had to really place Jewishness (or Israel) in my life. That night, friends told me about fliers they had taken from the windshields of cars, but they wouldn’t tell me what they said except that it was awful. I always knew there were still people who hated Jews, but they had a fairytale quality. They didn’t really exist for me until then. Though it wasn’t an immediate threat, and I recognized that, I was entirely unprepared.

I grew up in a sort of Uncanny valley, vaguely aware that I was different from others. If I were born in the Bible Belt (or Russia), I might have yearned to be only vaguely aware of a difference, but there’s a risk to understating the effects. Thinking of myself primarily as white, I didn’t think much about antisemitism. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve realized what a great hole this was in my life. Identifying as white meant denying a great deal of my own family history. That’s how I could get the story of my grandmother’s immigration wrong. It also meant I was incapable of applying any sort of antiracist analysis to my own life. Today, to the extent that I’m able to understand an assimilated identity, it’s primarily from readings and discussions of non-Jews dealing with their mixed or immigrant identities in poetry and film classes. Li Young Lee stands out, together with a chapter on Native Americans in boarding schools that I read for a class.

But now I’ve been to concerts by Rav Shmuel and Y-Love, and I’ve had that feeling of being surrounded by people who “look like me.” It wasn’t really about looks – Y-Love doesn’t really look like me in a physical sense – but I really felt that I belonged and looked like I belonged in a profound way. I imagine this is what people who have been to Israel mean when they return and say they “felt at home.” All the questions I was anxious to ask (strange at a concert) became silly. In the Jewish spaces created by those concerts, there wasn’t a pressure to cover over anything over. I felt comfortable with myself in a way I never had before. In a way that made me realize for the first time how uncomfortable I had been before.

For a long time, there’s been a promise made to Jews that we would be safe if only we assimilated, but that promise was always a nice way of explaining a threat. If ever anyone could spot the difference, then they felt a right to hate us. Today, even as multiculturalism has replaced assimilation as the favored way to organize society, Jews are still expected to and still try to assimilate. We’re assumed to be happy with our supposedly successful and completed assimilation. That, however, ignores the costs of assimilation and that we assimilated under pressure from more than 2,000 years of violence. And it assumes that antisemitism is something from the past, ignoring the history of Jewish oppression. Violence against Jews has always come in waves separated by periods of peace and relative prosperity. Most importantly, it ignores that Jews still face violence and, to a lesser extent, discrimination.

Jews like myself aren’t the typical targets of violent antisemitism. With a beard, I’ve been told that I look like Seth Rogan. Last Christmas, my mother pointed at her nose and said, “Does this look like a Jewish nose,” when a guest referred to Jews as a race. Instead of people like us, most violence and vandalism is directed at visibly Jewish spaces, synagogues or Jewish community centers. Holocaust memorial centers. So the promise that assimilation will bring peace remains tempting, especially as antisemitism rises.

But the worst antisemites hate assimilated Jews more than visible Jews. They obsess over “crypto-Jews” (they’ll tell you Rupert Murdoch and Ted Turner are both Jews) who have hidden their Jewishness to better infiltrate white society. And when they act out violently, they pick targets that aren’t in any way Jewish. Like the Murrah Federal Building. Timothy McVeigh’s favorite book was The Turner Diaries, a bible for the far right, and instruction manual for fomenting a race war. It even includes instructions on how to make the bomb McVeigh used. Like in Nazi propaganda, there are many hated groups, but Jews play a central and explanatory role that can’t be ignored. For them, a real war between the races is only possible when Jewish control of the American government is exposed.

Average Americans, referred to as “sheeple,” are hypnotized by Jewish propaganda, and it is Jews who are holding whites down. The talk about Jewish control of the media and government as a way of explaining everything. (Pick any historical event and google it with “Zionist,” for a random conspiracy theory. Pokemon!?! Apparently, no one is safe.) Jewish power and agency are always exaggerated.

So, the more we assimilate, the more nervous these antisemites get. If we’re successful at challenging antisemitism, it seems to confirm their theories of Jewish power. If we speak out against antisemitism, it confirms their worst fears. So Jews often prefer to keep quiet, to ignore antisemitism and to emphasize the possibility of assimilation. But eventually, that which is uncanny gets rejected with disproportionate zeal, and it is never Jews with the power to determine whether we’re accepted as assimilated. We’ve tried being quiet, and it didn’t work. Moreover, I think we’re only beginning to recognize the cost.

Today, I practice Buddhism. (I used to describe myself as a Jubu, but that also means “housewife” in Korean, so I’ve switched to Buju.) About 30% of new Buddhists in America are of Jewish heritage. At my Zen Center here in New York, the Zen Master, Abbot, the head dharma teacher, and the current house master are all Jewish. I think it was David Mamet who pointed out the absurdity of secular, American Jews looking for religion or spirituality who never consider Judaism. There’s not a lot I could say to him. What little I’ve learned about Judaism (excepting the fundamentalists) is truly beautiful, but for me it can only be a way to understand Jewish culture. Soo, who I met at the Zen Center, and I have talked about raising a child with a Jewish/Korean/American identity. It’s a hard balance to include everything without forcing anything. She almost offered to convert so that Jews who don’t recognize patrilineal descent would accept our child as Jewish, but she feels it would be a lie to convert without expecting to adhere closely to the religion. But we will both work to instill our child with a sense of where s/he came from.

While writing this article, I read a book on Holocaust films. A major theme can be summed up in the chapter title, “Whose History Is It?” That chapter argues, “Spielberg’s film [Schindler’s List] fixes the Holocuast at its center while it concurrently returns to a model that places the Jew on the periphery of history whereby he or she functions only as a victim.” When the film came out, a lot of people made a big deal that it was by a Jewish director. There were stories throughout the media about Jews crying at the theater. But it’s a story in which completely one-dimensional Jews exist to showcase Christian compassion. That’s been common in Holocaust films, especially from the 50′s, but it also echoes centuries old philosemitism that takes a sympathetic or even romanticized view of Jews without agency. Perhaps antisemitic conspiracism is like how a woman, idealized in oppression, instantly becomes a castrating bitch when she achieves any measure of power.

When we talk about antisemitism, we tend not to discuss it as contemporary oppression. I think we fail to do that because it’s institutionalized and internalized in subtle ways. The demand to assimilate functions effortlessly, making Jews invisible except through antisemitism. At a friend’s birthday party recently, I met someone who grew up in New York’s Chinatown. I introduced myself when I heard her talking to Soo about the need for understanding one’s roots.

When I noted that I was discovering this, and had recently become interesting in my roots, she had some trouble understanding. In her eyes, I was simply white and my Jewishness was invisible. How can we have a conversation about Jewishness and antisemitism like that? So, I’ve written this with an eye to writing a more coherent story for my own life, where Jewishness is not a detail to be briefly mentioned and then forgotten. And I’ve written with the intention of helping us all to understand how Jewish voices can be blunted in the broader discourse.

So, I mean this article as a coming out story.