A Question of Faith?
May is "Asian American Awareness Month" here in San Francisco. Given the population demographics of our city, one month seems inadequate.
For me, however, May is "Jewish Community Events Month." Counting last night's "New Israeli Fund" dinner, honoring a co-worker, I am now halfway through this month's four (4) Jewish-themed dinners/parties, not counting the ones that include kids, like this Sunday's walkathon.
Four-and-a-half years ago, we went looking for a grade school to fit our outstanding pre-school aged Jawa. Armed with paranoia, anxiety and a lot of free time (me, can you imagine, jobless), S. Bullock and I pored over the available options, finding that, in general, San Francisco private grade schools fell into one of three categories:
- Hippie schools
- Society matron schools
- Specialized, small schools
Along with a few wild cards, like schools for "gifted" kids and religious schools.
At first, naturally, I refused to consider any of the religious schools, including the Jewish ones. "I wouldn't send my kid to a Catholic school," said the partially Catholic-educated (and former Catholic high school-teaching) me, "why would I send him to a Jewish school?"
To me, growing up mostly in Orange County, being Jewish meant a few things. It meant that we sat alone in class when everyone else went to Christian Release Time. It meant nasty comments when I complained that we shouldn't have Christian New Wave bands play on the quad at lunch. It meant Richard Parks presenting me with an attractively wrapped box of Matzoball soup mix in drafting class, then sharing a hearty laugh with the rest of the class (and the teacher) at his cleverness. It meant finding the presence of any religion, including my own, boring at best, offensive at worst. It meant my teenage love story complicated further by my girlfriend's mother reminding me that as "a nice Jewish boy," I couldn't possibly figure in her future plans. And that wasn't the last time that happened, either.
It meant weird-looking people speaking a weird language, re-affirming whatever outsider status I already felt, being a kid from a small town in Pennsylvania suddenly thrown into the wolf's den that was Southern California in the 1970s and 80s.
I cannot say that I developed any kind of Jewish identity, other than to wince when otherwise nice-seeming acquaintences would "Jew someone down," and congratulate themselves for getting a good deal. You're there, but you're not there; part of the crowd but not quite part of the crowd. And unlike other minority groups, you blend in enough that people don't know to watch themselves around you.
And most of the truly hot blonde California girls were off-limits, because we were going to Hell.
This is not to say that I ever became a true self-hating Jew, like the guy who owned the bar I worked in when I moved to Seattle. I tried to Jew-bond with him during the holidays, and he said, "I don't want to hear any of that Jewish sh-t!" Not a practicing Jew, and not altogether comfortable with the otherness, nevertheless I always made sure people knew that I was Jewish, except around other Jews, of course. When S Bullock married me, I begged her not to take my name. "Why would you want the hassles of carrying around a Jewish surname when you're not Jewish?" I wondered.
Back to 2001, and we're looking for a school. In San Francisco, that means tours, interviews, sometimes IQ tests. It's a several months-long process, promising nothing, and San Francisco parents love nothing more than to complain about it.
At first, we considered only 4 schools -- a wealthy matron school, a hippie school, a specialized small school and a gifted kid school. We were encouraged to consider more, and were running out of options, so we visited the Jew school, against my wishes.
Surprisingly, my response was immediate and visceral. I felt it in my gut: these were my people. As I have said many times since, "Being Jewish means you can run but you can't hide." We chose the Jewish school, over even the exclusive gifted kid school that sent 11 of its 15 graduates onto Ivy League universities. On the first day of kindergarten, we passed a fellow parent in the parking lot. "I'm pregnant," she announced. "I've had three miscarriages, so I'm being extra careful." Sandra Bullock blanched. "Welcome to Jewish school," I whispered.
Now, four years later, non-Jewish SB, the Jawa and I are all active members of the local Jewish community. We subscribe to the Jewish newspaper. I personally have raised my Jewish identity to obnoxious levels, to the point where I sometimes test myself to see how long I can talk to someone before making it very clear that I am Jewish.
Naturally, I am no more devout than I was 4 years ago. I still think temple is boring, and if pushed, wouldn't really know the answer to "is there a God?" I've found that how religious you are has little to do with how Jewish you are. I'm angry that I can't answer "Jewish" when someone asks me my ethnicity.
I can't say that claiming your Jewish identity makes life easier, certainly not in San Francisco, where, as a friend told me recently, "facism comes from the left." Ours is not, and has seldom been, a popular cause. It seems that any nutcase who comes into power immediately decides that his first task will be to get rid of the Jews. I have had fiery arguments with people I normally agree with about everything, and I'm not the type to have a fiery argument and then just chalk it up to healthy disagreement.
It's still something I grapple with, daily. We drive me crazy, at times. Some of the stereotypes turn out to be true. And I am amazed to find how myopic my Southern California-generated understanding of us is. I have never lived in New York, Israel or Los Angeles, so I don't know what it's like to live where Jews are quarterbacks, contractors or tough guys, where we live among, as liked and feared as, everyone else.
We are unique, often strange, and the only religion you'll find actually ridiculing itself during services in a house of worship. Only in Jewish school will an almost-unanimous furor rise from parents who learn that their kindergartenders are learning Creation. Probably doesn't work that way at St. Brigid's. "Only in Jewish school," I told Sandra Bullock, "will the Jews complain that it's too Jewish."
The good part is that as I get older, I'll get funnier. Who's funnier than old Jewish guys? And I have learned to feel okay taking real pride in what we've done, as a people. Even the part that happened in the 60s. There is great reason for pride. We've done some great things.
As Daniel Pearl said, just before they cut his head off, "I am a Jew, and I am an American." For better or worse, that's how it shakes out. You can run, but you can't hide.