You – the readers of a Jewish newspaper – probably wouldn’t call me Jewish. My father was a Viennese Jew; my mother, Irish-American. My father, a funny guy, called me a “semi-colleen” and was known to buy green bagels on Saint Patrick’s Day. But the only ethnic/cultural identity I have is Jewish. My father’s Viennese Jewish family was my extended family, and my mother, whose own mother married five times, rejected Irish-American Catholic culture as vulgar, cruel, and hypocritical, which is how she experienced it.
Worse perhaps, from the perspective of an observant person, my so-called Jewish identity is not steeped in Jewish ritual. My late father did have a Jewish education in Vienna – religious education was part of the public school curriculum. At the age of 10, I discovered Habonim camps where I met people who were a lot like me, but who had two Jewish parents. That’s where I got most of my Jewish lore – some Hebrew, prayers, familiarity with the rituals, songs, dances, as well the chalutznik spirit of old-fashioned Labor Zionism. (My great-grandmother was a Herzl, so I come by this semi-honestly.)
The Jewish values my father imparted were human rights, justice, and empathy. He escaped Nazi Austria in 1938 at 18 and went on to become a Foreign Service officer, a specialist in labor affairs in developing countries. He distinguished himself (though I believe it also hurt his career on more than one occasion) by calling attention to human rights abuses in countries where he served, even when it wasn’t politically convenient in the opinion of conservative or bureaucratic elements in the State Department. But people who deeply distrusted Americans or whites or foreigners trusted my father and took him into their confidence. He protected people in danger and helped the image of the U.S. abroad, which is after all the point of diplomacy, isn’t it?
My father was posted to Korea in the early 1970s, during Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship. After he received a somewhat grudging performance review, a senior officer chastised the reviewer, calling my father “the conscience of the embassy.” His last post, where he thrived, was Israel.
I have considered converting but never gone through with it because I don’t believe in God. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and sometimes painful not to be a “real Jew.” I’m decreasingly able to see myself going through such a process, as Judaism becomes more dominated by the ultra-Orthodox, whose relationship to democracy could be described as exploitative, even subversive, in many respects. By this, I’m referring for example to the Orthodox community taking control of local school boards in upstate New York, siphoning off special education subsidies to private yeshivas and impoverishing public schools in the process. But also, repression of women; the patriarchal impunity, which leads to abuses similar to those of Catholic priests; and racism. I vividly remember when my brown-skinned Guatemalan-born baby daughter toddled over to some Orthodox children in a Manhattan park, the parents wouldn’t look at her, nor would the children acknowledge or play with her. This is not the lesson Jews should derive from the Third Reich. Nor is hitching one’s wagon to the loudest, most corrupt, most venal Gentile in America. Right-wing Jews will be justifiably blamed as accomplices when sanity returns. Meanwhile, the armed monsters Trump let out of their cages, ever ungrateful, will hate and murder Jews as they have for millennia.
I feel both ferociously Jewish these days, and personally betrayed by the Trump-Orthodox-Netanyahu alliance. Do I have a right to speak as a Jew or for Jewish values? A lot of Jews would say no, I imagine. I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. I can speak for my father’s legacy, though he wasn’t a famous person. His values were, in the immortal words of Rabbi Hillel, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is commentary.” He was one of the few profoundly virtuous people I’ve known. The others (my late mother-in-law, and two women friends) happen to be practicing Christians, though I think their goodness is innate. They extracted the best of Christianity and made it the practice of their lives.
So here we are, with the Jewish holidays approaching. My extended family is attenuated to the point of being more like wafting tendrils of algae than a tree; the alte Leute are gone, except my mother, who is 95 and has dementia. My beloved uncle died two years ago, his wife, nearly six. My father died 15 years ago.
We are long-lived, but infertile. Neither my brother nor my one first cousin on my father’s side have children. I am the only one to have children. I hoped to give them a more formal Jewish education, but both had serious learning difficulties, and teaching them to read right to left without vowels was beyond my capacity as a mother. Their Jewish legacy, as I see it, is my father’s conscience and decency. I gave them voter registration forms the day each turned 18. My daughter votes in every election – midterms, primaries. The folks who watch the polls in her Baltimore neighborhood are thrilled to see such a committed millennial voter. Her grandpa would be too.
Julia Lichtblau’s writing has appeared in American Fiction, The American Scholar, Commonweal, The Common, Blackbird, Narrative, The Florida Review, and elsewhere. Formerly a journalist for BusinessWeek and Dow Jones Newswires, she lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.