If a person with Jewish blood doesn’t identify with Judaism, can they avoid anti-Semitism? Should they?
Moscow, Russia, 1995
discovered the fact of my half-Jewishness in an offhand way, while asking my father about the rituals of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russians’ attachment to icons. I’d remembered seeing small icons of Mary or Jesus or some saint secreted in people’s kitchen cupboards or behind clothing, back when we’d lived in the Soviet Union for a brief period, and I was curious whether his mother had done the same.
“My parents were actually Jewish,” he said. “And my father was from Ukraine, not Russia.”
“It was Soviet times,” he said. “I was raised atheist. My parents were humanists; they didn’t care about religion. But yes, they were both Jewish, from very traditional villages.”
We leaned against the embankment sloping down to the Moskva River. Plastic water bottles and other trash floated against the concrete below; a boat full of sightseers chugged past, blasting garish Russian pop music and directing tourists’ cameras to Gorky Park’s dense trees on the opposite side of the river. We’d been walking from his apartment toward the footbridge that crossed over to Gorky, but had to pause. Moscow’s poor air quality felt brutal; I was finding it hard to breathe.
“Why didn’t you ever tell us?” Jewish history, aside from the Holocaust, wasn’t something I’d ever been curious about. I didn’t care then about identity, or what a Jewish heritage might mean to me, but I still wanted to know. It seemed a silly thing to keep secret.
My parents were only recently separated, and this was one of my first forays into reshaping the chronicles of my father’s upbringing and background. Our family stories up until then had been structured by my mother, with her polyglot’s grasp of language and narrative. She was the one who described my Russian grandparents to me, who wrote essays about Leningrad from when she’d studied there in the ’60s, who directed my and my sisters’ curiosity about any heritage we could lay claim to. A scholar of Russian poetry, teacher of Russian language at the local university, and writer, she knew how to draw storylines that I rarely questioned. Only after they separated and my father ended up back in Russia did I think to ask him for his own versions of his life before they’d met.
He started with a walking tour of Leningrad — renamed St. Petersburg by then — where he related little anecdotes from his childhood. That he was ethnically Jewish came later, as an afterthought. I thought there was nothing more to say on the subject.
“When we moved back to Montana,” he told me, “your mother was worried about prejudice, about your girls’ safety.” Ridiculous, I thought. The Holocaust might be important history, but still, it was history. In the past. Jewishness, as a racial fact, posed no threat to my two sisters and me.
I was 19. I’d never even heard the word pogrom. What did I know?
Boston, Massachusetts, 2003
finished reading an essay about Russia to my travel writing workshop, a favorite class in the MFA program I was attending. When I glanced up, everyone was staring at me.
“Your parents didn’t tell you you were half-Jewish?” asked my teacher, who’d been raised just outside New York City, which I had yet to see even once. Most of my classmates had spent their entire lives either near there, or here in Boston. Aside from one other woman in this 12-member group, I hadn’t met anyone else in the MFA program who wasn’t from the East Coast.
“No. My dad just mentioned it to me when I was 19.” I’d never seen her look startled in class, but she did now.
“That’s a really big deal,” she said. “You’re going to have to write more about that.”
“But it doesn’t really matter to me.”
“It’s going to matter to your readers.” She took in my confused expression and dropped the subject.
That night I met a couple friends from Boston for beers and mentioned that this fixation on the fact of my Jewish blood had left me slightly irritated.
“They didn’t tell you you were half-Jewish?” they asked.
Was this an East Coast-West Coast difference, I wondered? Why did it seem so important to everyone when I didn’t care? I was raised by a Russian father from Leningrad and a mother descended from pioneers who’d homesteaded in Eastern Montana in the late 1800s. That was my identity, and it had been hard enough growing up in small-town Montana during the Reagan and Bush years with intellectual parents — one of whom had an accent that labeled him “Red” or “Commie” no matter where we went — without anything else in the mix. I wasn’t interested in going kosher or learning about Jewish traditions, and was an atheist no matter what religion washed through my family’s past.
No one found it necessary to acknowledge that I was baptized in a Presbyterian church, raised mostly Episcopalian, confirmed Lutheran, married in the Church of England, and couldn’t tell you the difference between any of them. Clearly, though, the muddle of my claim to ethnic Jewishness had some import for everyone else that I was missing.
“So are we even Russian?” I asked my father, this time over a transcontinental phone line and an eight-hour time difference. He was settled in Moscow permanently by then, running a small coffee roasting business after spending most of his life as an engineer, first in the Soviet Union and then in the U.S. He confided to me later that he was nearly 50 before he realized he didn’t want to be an engineer — he’d trained at a time when that was the best, most secure job a person could get. His parents had been engineers, as were his siblings, and my only cousin was a mathematician. Stepping away from semi-conductors into boutique coffee and entrepreneurship was a risk he might never have imagined taking if his parents had still been alive.
My questions kept coming back to those parents: where they were from, what their dreams had been, the hard realities of their lives. The fact of their Jewishness, though, bobbed up irrepressibly in workshops where I aired out drafts of My Russian Condition, the book I was writing about my heritage and lifelong relationship with the country. I was starting to wonder if the title was even valid. The fact of ethnic identity as distinct from national, different peoples slipping against each other like oil and water within the same geopolitical boundaries, was something I was only beginning to grasp.
“It depends on who you’re talking to, or maybe where. Russians and Jews hate each other,” my father said. “Here, you are either Russian or Jewish.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
He laughed. “You know what my mother said when I told her I would marry your mother?”
“At least she’s not Russian.”
My parents had met in 1969 while my mother was on a Fulbright scholarship studying Russian Silver Age poets. She tried living in the Soviet Union at first, but eventually he chose exile and came back to America with her, thrown into a foreign language and a culture it took him years to fathom. He missed his family, he admits to me now, his friends and life, even as he raised three daughters and grew attached to Montana.
He left in 1974 and never saw his father again. It was almost 25 years before he was able to return after being exiled; I met my grandmother when I was 14, three years before she died. She must have known back in 1970, when told of their impending marriage, that never seeing her son again would be a possibility. And still, she would rather have seen him marry an American than an ethnic Russian. She’d discarded her religion, but some prejudices ran too deep to leave behind.
I work as a freelance textbook copy editor, which means I can spend a week shifting from correcting commas in second-grade vocabulary lessons to fact-checking for high school biology to writing the incorrect answer choices for multiple-choice Algebra II exams. It’s detailed and often dull work, but every now and then I get something with actual dense, chewy content that engages the curious part of my brain in addition to the finicky grammar-fixated part.
One of those came along two years ago, when a small publisher asked me to first proofread and then rewrite the index for a book geared to high school students titled A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism by Phyllis Goldstein.
Indexing is intensive, time-consuming work. I spent 70 hours painstakingly getting down every name, then creating categories and sub-categories for every single topic and subject and theme covered in the book. Themes and subjects like: “concentration camps –death camps, use of as”; “conversions, forced –under Christian rule –under Muslim rule –in Russian army”; “Jewish conspiracy, international charges of”; “purity-of-blood laws”; “ritual murder charge (See also blood libel).”
The book starts in Egypt over 2,500 years ago, trots along through centuries of expulsions and mass murders, and continues to the present day, detailing modern events like anti-Semitic flare-ups at the 2001 World Conference Against Racism and former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s use of the fictitious (yet depressingly resilient) book The Protocols of the Elders of Zion to back up his outspoken Holocaust denial. Protocols was fabricated in Russia in the early 1900s and purported to be an actual document detailing a Jewish plan for world domination. Despite its having been exposed as a forgery shortly after first printing, it continues to be used as justification for various degrees of anti-Semitism.
I worked on that book long into the night for two weeks, racing against a deadline, creating blizzards of Post-it notes. I stored away the litany of pogroms — violent riots or massacres usually aimed at a specific ethnic or religious group, frequently Jewish — mass murders, thefts of children, forced conversions, army conscriptions that amounted to death sentences, all of it with the backlog of modern knowledge about the various kinds of horrors we humans are capable of inflicting on each other, of our stunning inability to let reason, much less empathy, triumph over hate or fear.
Somewhere in that two weeks, deeply immersed in the hard-to-swallow details of false accusations and continent-sweeping massacres, this fact sank into my gut, nesting alongside other absolutes, like my love of wilderness and the knowledge that I would do anything to physically protect my children: it doesn’t matter whether I identify as Jewish or not. It doesn’t even matter that in the state of Israel, although I am eligible for citizenship by the fact of my grandmother having been Jewish, I would not actually qualify as Jewish because my mother isn’t. The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs explains the acquisition of nationality according to the Law of Return: “Since 1970, the right to immigrate under this law has been extended to the child and grandchild of a Jew, the spouse of a child of a Jew and the spouse of the grandchild of a Jew.” And with regards to claim to Jewishness for the purpose of marrying in Israel:
[T]he Israeli Chief Rabbinate controls the marriage process for Jews in Israel, and their definition of Jewishness accords with traditional halakhah. Thus, it is common to find people who are granted citizenship as Jews under the Law of Return, but are unable to legally marry as Jews (or marry Jews) in Israel. …In addition, while the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that a person who has undergone a Reform or Conservative conversion abroad must be considered Jewish vis-à-vis the Law of Return, liberal conversions are not recognized by the Orthodox rabbinate.
After finishing the index for A Convenient Hatred, I read through the book again, this time for myself, hoping to find some clue as to why this particular identity is more universally capable of provoking hate than any other. I found no answers. Most point to the old accusation of deicide — the charge that Jews murdered Jesus Christ and therefore the entire race is to blame, but that doesn’t go far enough to explain why both a race and a religion can consistently prompt massacres and pogroms over at least 25 centuries. The Nazi Holocaust wasn’t, after all, the only time in history when a society thought it would be better off without Jews. Nearly every European country has expelled its entire Jewish population at one point or another. Anti-Semitism runs through human history like a steel cable, unbreakable and barely confined, whipping out uncontrollably at whomever it deems the lesser humans.
In his 2013 book The Devil That Never Dies, social scientist and former Harvard professor Daniel Jonah Goldhagen says that anti-Semitism “long predates… genuine democracy as an animating ideology and political system. … Among intergroup prejudices, anti-Semitism’s longevity is unparalleled.” And, he says, in the ten years preceding the publication of his book, it had gotten worse.
If a freakish anti-Semitic wave overtook this country or another country or a town or the state I live in, that identity would be pressed into my skin and underneath, and would seep straight into my children. The “why” doesn’t matter any more than the question of whether or not I choose to identify as Jewish. “Anti-Semitism,” points out Goldhagen, “is practically an article of faith.”
Vienna, Austria, 1998
hat we need,” said Christopher, “is to look through the church records again.”
“It’s just a plaque. We know what it’s for.”
“I’d really like to find out at least Mr. Richter’s first name.” Christopher Wentworth-Stanley was a great deal like what I imagined Lord Peter Wimsey would have been like if he’d been able to step out of a Dorothy Sayers novel. Christopher wore his trilby hat and narrow leather shoes with the ease of an American in athletic shorts and tennis shoes at a tailgate party. His suits and shoes, my English husband told me, were almost certainly made to order. My husband coveted the kind of income that made such shoes a habit rather than a luxury. Or maybe he just coveted the shoes.
I wrapped a sweater more closely around myself and continued typing up notes. Christopher was talking with Jeremy, the Anglican priest ministering to the church attached to the British Embassy in Vienna. In my capacity as Jeremy’s secretary, I spent two afternoons a week in a freezing vestry typing up notes from church meetings and letters Jeremy dictated.
I’d moved to Vienna two weeks after graduating college. I walked off the plane with a bag of clothes and all my Jane Austen novels, straight into the arms of my fiancé, the tall Englishman I’d met the previous year when studying abroad at St. Andrews in Scotland.
Within two weeks, the $700 I’d saved up from waitressing the previous semester got eaten by an emergency root canal. We ended up marrying in a hurry so I could enroll in the national health system, and relied on friends and ex-pats to help me find a job so I could supplement my husband’s stipend as a post-doc at the university’s astronomy department. Being employed as the church secretary (the only work I could get besides working part-time at the English-language newspaper in exchange for German lessons) was as much of an immersion as living in Vienna itself, as I adapted to both church customs and British cultural expectations.
The plaque they were discussing, which Christopher was designing, was to commemorate the actions of a long-dead priest who had quietly started converting Jews to Christianity in 1938 in hopes that they would then be able to leave the country. The Mr. Richter in question was the priest’s verger, an Austrian who had been instrumental in helping in the baptism of many Jews over the space of a few months. He later died in Auschweitz.
Christopher and I finally dug out several oversized baptismal record books; they’d been languishing with the rest of the retired church records in the back of the cupboard used to store Jeremy’s vestments. I boiled water in the electric kettle and made tea, which would go stone cold within ten minutes in the chilly vestry, and we began skimming through the 1938 entries. Between each name and date of baptism was listed the individual’s profession. “Shopkeeper,” one of us would murmur to the other. “Butcher,” or “housewife,” said the other. “Seamstress,” Christopher translated for me. As we read we began to slow, growing silent. I started looking at ages: most of the people were adults. Married couples, families, streaming through the same massive wooden doors that my husband now entered every Sunday to sing up in the loft with the choir, shedding their faith in the hope of saving their lives.
Approximately 1,800 people were baptized from May to September before the Church of England summoned the priest back home. I tried to imagine the physical organization and the rush necessary to baptize that many people in such a short time. On a single day, 229 people were baptized in a church that seated only 125.
I’d studied the Holocaust in grade school, at an early enough age to horrify me, and later in enough depth to leave my faith in humanity forever scarred, but it wasn’t until that afternoon that the reality of its metastatic growth, the sense of fear in the erosion of what had recently been a normal life, crept up through my fingers and stored itself in my understanding. I could almost smell it from the pages — the urgency to get baptized quickly, one after another; the desperate, frightened people; the priest acting quietly, as fast as possible, before the church shipped him home.
Christopher and I were shaken, gripping our cups of cold tea. We knew what they couldn’t have at the time, although their better awareness of history might have helped them guess: abandoning their faith wouldn’t save them. Long before Hitler came to power, purity-of-blood laws that declared Jews unequal simply by their descent had overcome communities and countries like raging tides since at least the 1400s. It was only a matter of time before a person’s religious affiliation wouldn’t make a difference.
We never did find Mr. Richter’s first name, only a hopeless march of people trying to save themselves. But that afternoon we slowed down and read the names, one at a time, our own homage to their existence.
A short while later came Fasching, the beginning of the ball season. Vienna’s adoration of waltzes, ornate white dresses, and the mores and customs of long-gone eras begins on November 11. That is, the day after Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, the 1938 pogrom that resulted in the destruction of over 1,000 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses throughout Germany and Austria, and 30,000 Jews pushed into concentration camps.
The year I lived in Vienna, newly married and trying to find my place in that fairy tale-like but famously reserved culture, Kristallnacht and Fasching were welcomed publicly in eerie, equal honor, one with waltz lessons and dress sales and the sounds of Strauss, the other with a different kind of music.
A massive aural memorial was set up in front of the Hapsburg palace — giant, car-sized speakers placed in the sprawled corners of the lawn. I strolled over to them one day after sneaking out of a press conference at the president’s palace offices. I was waiting for a journalist friend to finish interviewing a public official so I could take her out for coffee. She’d spent the morning interpreting for me at the extremely un-accommodating fremdenpolizei, or foreigners’ police, where as a non-EU citizen I was required to file paperwork for my residency visa. (The foreigners’ police, in deadpan satire worthy of Kafka, didn’t speak any language but German and kept no translators on staff).
I wasn’t thinking of Kristallnacht or the Holocaust at all; I was only curious what the speakers were saying.
A voice was reciting a list of names. Names of Jews who had died in concentration camps. The voice went on long into the afternoon, probably into the night, for who knew how many days, accompanied only by the sound of breaking glass in the background, echoing what Kristallnacht must have sounded like if you took away the shouts of mobs and the screams of victims. The enormity of the recitation — imagining where that list had been stored, how it had been compiled, who’d recorded the identities of each person pressed into cattle cars or siphoned off into gas chambers before their existence flared out — sent a chill to the roots of my hair.
I found myself listening for the name of my father’s family, my own name.
Blooming Grove, Hudson Valley, New York, 2014
hat was the name of your father’s village in the Ukraine?” I emailed my father the question, the sounds of those speakers still lingering in my ears 15 years later. He sent back an answer, and when I couldn’t find it on a modern map he then told me it had been changed to Gorodkovka at some point over the last century. I found three villages by that name in the Ukraine. I emailed him again. Which one might it be? What year did your father leave? Could he have any relatives left there? What I was really asking was, In the larger drama of the Holocaust, what story did your family have? He didn’t know any of the answers, just the outdated name of the village.
I puttered around websites looking for more information and stumbled upon Yad Vashem, an Israeli organization dedicated to preserving documentation and memories related to the Holocaust, what in Hebrew is called the Shoah, “the catastrophe.” Yad Vashem includes a searchable database of victims’ names and their fates. So I searched for “Malchik.” Four pages of various spellings of my name, many of them in Poland and Romania, only one that I could see in the Ukraine. Their fates: “murdered, murdered, murdered, murdered, murdered, murdered, murdered, murdered.” More murdered. Several in the Soviet Union, at least two not murdered but evacuated during the Siege of Leningrad to the village in the Ural Mountains where my father had been born.
I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. I felt like I was learning for the first time about the Holocaust all over again, in that fifth-grade Montana classroom with darkened windows, watching slides of mass graves, gas chambers, skeletal people whose humanity was being sucked dry before they died. This is what people do, I remember thinking. How? Nobody had any answers for me then, either. Be kind, we were told in kindergarten, share, don’t hit, clean up after yourself.
Nobody tells you that behind closed doors, people still practice freedom of hate alongside freedom of religion, freedom to hurt, to judge, to kill.
And here it was, the fact I couldn’t shake off: the entirety of Jewish history affected me one way or another. The Holocaust and all the rest of it was part of my life, even if my most immediate family had been spared.
What they don’t tell you in school, not ever, not once: you might think you are a free person, a self-defined individual, but you will inherit many things that you don’t want but can’t refuse. Some of those things will carry shame. Others will force you to fight for your life.
When I was 19, I thought my mother’s “protection” of me and my sisters silly. But later I remembered heated arguments with kids in high school classes about things like gay rights and abortion, trucking along with the odd knowledge that some of their fathers were members of the Montana Militia or Aryan Nation. If little slips of fate had caused job losses or shaken marriages, how much anger would it have taken for them to go looking for someone to blame? Their favorite punching bag was the government, but what if they knew they had an actual Jewish-by-blood person in their midst? Would they have turned on my sisters, on my father, on me, instead?
In America we like to think that these things only happen elsewhere. Like when my father was growing up in Leningrad and Stalin accused Jewish doctors of trying to poison him. He started rounding up and murdering Jews in the tiresome repetition of a history that can’t seem to evolve. A detailed plan to transport all Jews to Birobidzhan, a created Jewish Autonomous Republic near the border with China, was on the verge of being enacted when Stalin died. “We’re sorry you have to go,” the other kids playing with my father said. “You seem nice enough, but you’re Jewish.”
The way we teach the Holocaust in school — similar to the way we teach our history of slavery and the creaking evolution of women’s rights — lays on the subtle message that we’ve grown beyond all this. We’ve dissected the past and admitted the wrongs and by giving the subject a special unit in a textbook have ensured it won’t happen again. As if there is no bedrock of history behind every eruption. As if the attitudes that lead to these horrors aren’t lying latent in all of us. As if we never have to look under the rocks to see what’s crawling beneath.
The upstate New York village where I lived until a few months ago borders Kiryas Joel, a town almost entirely composed of members of the strictly religious Satmar Hasidic sect of Judaism. Due to the high birth rate of its residents, the population of nearly 30,000 is growing rapidly. (The average number of children is six, but ten or more is not uncommon.) According to the 2008 Census, it also has the highest poverty rate in the U.S.
The Hasidic women and I would run into each other at the pediatrician’s office, the playground, the farmers market, the YMCA’s child watch room, at the massive outlet mall while they were waiting for a ride from male relatives or the village-run bus service. Our children chased each other, hyperventilating with giggles, but I discouraged mine from offering to share food because it wasn’t kosher. The other mothers and I sometimes exchanged brief smiles but rarely talked, as many of them spoke only Yiddish.
I sometimes envied their sisterly camaraderie, their clear-cut goals in life, their classy sense of style with tailored shin-length skirts and fifties-era hats, the knowledge that they have a community to lean on for every need. Yet I’m aware I could never accept restrictions on my personal choices, from how I wear my hair to how many children I have to whether or not I believe in a god.
I tried to accommodate their practices and wishes, gently guiding the non-kosher food away from the Hasidic kids and being careful never to touch the Hasidic men when I stood behind them in line at Target, even if I can’t bring myself to care about the modesty of my dress when traipsing about in my own culture and community. I was raised to be respectful of others, no matter what their beliefs, lessons I am trying to instill in my own children.
One day, after my husband had driven the kids from their sports classes at the YMCA to our favorite coffee shop, my six-year-old said, “Mommy, we drove through a place where everyone was wearing top hats!” I imagined that they’d stumbled upon a street fair, or taken a detour through the nearby museum village.
The next week we all went together to the Y and then the coffee shop again, and our son requested the same route. “I want Mommy to see all the top hats!”
My husband drove through an intersection that I knew led to Kiryas Joel. Just before we entered one of the main streets, we passed the village entrance sign that implored visitors to dress modestly, respect the community’s sensibilities, and to keep genders segregated in public. (I assumed that meant my husband and I shouldn’t hold hands or kiss, which we tend to do without thinking about it, habits that I’m sure will disgust our kids before too long.)
“Oh,” I said, “honey, they’re not top hats exactly…”
“Yes they are, Mommy, look!” It was hard to argue with his logic. “See? They’re all wearing the same uniform!” I have no idea why he found this as enthralling as a new Angry Birds game, but figured I could seize on the learning opportunity. Partly due to my over-exposure to textbooks, partly to my son’s early diagnosis of a minor speech delay, and partly to New York’s standardized testing-on-steroids approach to education, I had chosen to homeschool the kids. New York State kept me honest by requiring that homeschoolers file a curriculum and quarterly reports, which meant I added fun things like “concept of religion” and “respect for religious practices” alongside “citizenship” and “arithmetic” and a list of sight words, like throwing Muggle Studies into the Hogwarts curriculum. The topic of religion had come up before when explaining why our beloved Jehovah’s Witness babysitter couldn’t partake of the kids’ birthday cake or say “Merry Christmas.”
“See, honey, wearing these clothes is part of their religion. Remember? Like how Krystal doesn’t celebrate birthdays or Halloween because of her religion? It’s very important to them to wear these clothes.”
“But why?” My son was at the age where this particular question could go down a neverending rabbit hole.
“Because they believe in a god, and they believe that their god wants them to dress this way, to show respect for their god’s laws.” Syntax can get dicey when you’re an atheist who wants to teach respect for religion instead of contempt for it. Referring to “God” is habitual, but also reinforces the Judeo-Christian deity as a fact of life. Yet the phrasing “their god’s laws” makes me feel like I’m condescendingly describing a newly-discovered tribe in the middle of the jungle, as if believers’ faith and ways of life are lesser than mine. It’s a tangle.
It gets particularly difficult as my kids get old enough to comprehend the heated political debates that might pop up in the coffee shop or over the dinner table, when they might be witness to people who feel they have taken their own respect far enough and would like to short-circuit the tolerance.
The towns I spent my time in, places where my children attended preschool or gymnastics classes or went to the library, care deeply about the integrity of their communities. They want safe places to raise families, space and privacy, and share values over environmental issues like open space and protected watersheds and forests where wildlife roam.
These desires clash against Kiryas Joel’s cut-and-dried need for more space, more water, more sewage capacity, as their population keeps exploding. I lived in that area for eleven years. Over that time, the tension between Kiryas Joel and the surrounding communities became both more widely publicized and a little more sinister, centered around ongoing fights regarding water and sewage usage and extending into frustration over the community’s repeated violations of building codes and sometimes of property lines. Legal battles over land annexation and Kiryas Joel’s desire to tap into one of the county’s main aqueducts came up in the local papers about once a week, and continued after we moved away. What’s painfully noticeable is that community leaders for both Kiryas Joel and surrounding towns are regularly interviewed and represented, but only for the non-Hasidic communities are regular residents’ voices heard in the local media.
As a former journalist, I know how hard it is to permeate a closed religious community, to wiggle past the voices of the elders and leaders and get honest responses from regular residents. But in this case it doesn’t look like anybody is even trying. A 2014 Times Herald-Record story, reporting on a neighboring village’s heated town board meeting related to Kiryas Joel’s annexation proposal, featured a large photo of a Hasidic man holding a sign with the blunt declaration that “Extending the boundaries of KJ corruption is an act of terrorism.” The caption stated the man’s name and that he was a resident of Kiyras Joel, but the article contained no interview with him, nothing delving into his opinions, nothing indicating whether or not he stood alone or if others in his community might support him. The impression was that he was not an individual, as if his only right to a voice was as part of the Satmar Hasidic community, or “them.”
Less than two weeks later, a different paper ran a story about a controversial map that Kiryas Joel’s leaders had provided to the county and neighboring towns affected by proposed annexation. They had colored in yellow all property outside of Kiryas Joel owned by Satmar Hasidic people. Property owners were horrified, comparing the map to ones Hitler had drawn up, and it was removed from the county’s website. Nobody pointed out that, like the media and communities surrounding them, Kiryas Joel’s leaders had erased local Satmar Hasidic Jews’ claim to individuality. They were all painted with the same brush, or “us.”
When I went to the coffee shop, the library, the playground, I noticed a growing number of people in my community — people who wanted to get along, who wanted to work out problems in a democratic and civilized manner — had started to lower their voices and grit their teeth at what they saw as disregard for their own way of life and their own values. They were losing patience with the religious imperative that is a central tenet for this Hasidic community: be fruitful and multiply.
The question of my own Jewishness is personal and existential. This other is very real, a fact of life where I lived until recently, an ongoing problem that needs continual resolution if it is not to turn into conflict. But I don’t know the answer to the latter any more than I do to the former. All I know is that the simmering resentment I felt around me has the potential to erupt, and I know exactly which outlet it will choose. It’s age-old and well-worn and, among many people, acceptable. It doesn’t matter that having as many children as humanly possible, and accepting the need for water usage and sewer capacity that go along with that imperative, is neither universal nor exclusive to Jews. Nor does it matter that solving these cultural fissures requires deep, painful, time-consuming dialogue no matter what ethnic groups are involved. What does matter is that I have heard a few people (and a few is more than enough), people I know are otherwise decent, hard-working, family-loving, and community-minded but at this point extremely frustrated, let their language slip into “the Hasids,” “the Jews,” “them.”
I once went to a massage therapist in Moscow who beats muscles so severely she made me cry. My father says that Tania gets flown out to resorts to treat old Soviet generals who will bite their lips until they bleed as she hammers away on their calves and backs.
She was dealing mostly with my shoulders and neck, which had frozen into discomfort and pain after my years spent hunched up on the phone doing interviews for newspapers and magazines and typing up articles, and more years stuck in front of textbook manuscripts on my laptop screen. Tania dug away at trapezius muscles while I whimpered. “It’s like she’s breaking it all apart,” I said to my father.
“That’s exactly what she does.” He translated between us; Tania spoke too vigorously for me to always follow her Russian. “Your shoulder and neck, they have learned this pattern. When you have stress, this is where it will go. Your body has learned to send it there.”
“Is there anything I can do to change it?” Tania showed me some stretches and exercises, admonished my habit of switching immediately from computer work to flailing in the garden with pickaxes or shovels to build drainage trenches. “Do some yoga for a few minutes in between,” she said.
“It will always come back without complete lifestyle change,” my father said, shrugging. “You have to keep getting massages to keep those muscles from freezing up again.”
Years later, reading the newspaper detailing Kiryas Joel’s stoic adherence to the necessity of their village’s growth, and the growing anger of the surrounding communities, I noticed again my frozen trapezius and neck muscles, which I couldn’t afford the massage therapy to maintain. All the stresses of my life and the strains of daily habits slid in their direction, a handy place to store the frustrations and pains and heartaches and fears because the path had already been dug, the ground already prepared.
Whether it’s our own bodies or the way our societies function, we will always turn to habits formed in the past. To avoid doing so requires constant work, the breaking down and rerouting of our own expectations and desires. Most communities don’t have the energy for that kind of psychic labor, taking instead the easier route of old arguments and accusations. “The most effective and disturbing argument in this new book,” notes the New York Times review of Goldhagen’s The Devil That Never Dies, “is that the resurgence of rhetorically and sometimes physically violent anti-Semitism over the past dozen years or so is shocking in part because it does not seem to shock.” An apt description of anti-Semitism, it turns out, might be “convenient.”
Kalispell, Montana, 2014
ave you ever been attracted to Judaism?” I asked my older sister.
“Not even part of it? Like Talmudic scholarship?” Sasha paused before answering, picking at a bowl of popcorn.
We were sitting in the tasting room of a new beer brewery in Kalispell, the Montana town where my father and his second wife had finally bought a house together. My father told me years ago that he couldn’t imagine permanently moving back to Russia, although he and his wife lived in Moscow most of the time, running the coffee roasting business. The years he’d spent fishing and hiking and swimming among Montana’s warrens of wildernesses and national parks had infected him with an attachment to the place that might not be as deep as my mother’s, but was just as persuasive. He and his wife had already planted roots in their community and looked forward to leaving the heave and screech and corruption of Moscow behind when they retired. I’d recently migrated back to the Kalispell area, too, driving over three thousand miles with our two kids in the back seat while my husband took care of our house and four cats. Craving the company of my sisters, and longing for both the community and Rocky Mountains I’d left behind when I moved to Vienna, I finally decided it was time to come back to Montana. Back home.
Sasha sipped her pilsner from one of the four two-ounce glasses on the tray in front of her. I loved that this town, where Main Street shops had struggled and failed over many years, now had a lively brewery next door to a new coffee roaster and across the street from the local ice cream maker. On a third corner a busy bakery made muffins and enormous caramel rolls with flour grown and milled on family farms just a few hours away. It was like a nano-sized Brooklyn.
Sasha was visiting with her husband and three kids from their home in California, and the hours of family laughter, old jokes, and long conversations slaked our thirst for the connections we’d all missed. We saw one another far too rarely, another reason I wanted to move back West.
I’d brought up Talmudic scholarship for a specific reason. Our father’s grandfather had been a Talmudic scholar and a world-renowned chess player. Since he refused to leave his village and his studies, chess players from all over the globe came to play against him. And then he would go back to his synagogue and his studies while his wife ran the shop that kept their family housed and fed.
Sasha and I, and our younger sister, had always had a strong aptitude for the kind of debate and close analysis that characterized my scant understanding of Talmudic scholarship. All the questions that had been collecting in my head and in my writing — Am I Jewish? Can I choose? What does it mean to be born with Jewish blood but to have no faith in God? — begged for input from the people who had always most rigorously clarified my thinking.
“Not as a personal identity,” Sasha said now. “Much. But do you remember a conversation we had a long time ago, about math and physics? How we both thought of them as almost spiritual pursuits? We talked about how we both wound up feeling, without this ever being articulated in our family, that you weren’t fully human if you didn’t have a deep understanding of mathematics.”
I did remember — vividly, especially as we’d rehashed the conversations at spare moments over the years. While our father’s family were engineers and deeply immersed in mathematics, they had always lived in Leningrad and we’d had almost no contact with them growing up. Our father was an unenthusiastic engineer, and our mother’s narrative for her daughters arced toward poetry, painting, and stories. When I left for college one of the few bits of advice she’d given me was, “I hope I’ve shown you that math and science aren’t the only things in life worth pursuing.”
She had. I was fully cognizant of the privileges (and limitations) of an artist’s freedom by the time I was a teenager. Yet I yearned for the deep connection to truth and understanding that math and science gave me but art couldn’t fulfill.
I don’t know where this comes from, unless it is truly genetic. Sasha was an astrophysics major when she went to university. I started as a physics major in college but switched early on to mathematics, and to this day ache for the deeper comprehension of subjects like group algebra and real analysis that my ho-hum native intelligence and slapdash secondary school math classes hadn’t prepared me for.
“[T]he sensation of mathematical understanding — of suddenly knowing what’s going on, with total certainty, all the way to the bottom — is a special thing,” says mathematician Jordan Ellenberg in his book How Not to Be Wrong (emphasis in original). “You feel you’ve reached into the universe’s guts and put your hand on the wire… To do mathematics is to be, at once, touched by fire and bound by reason.” I longed to touch that fire.
In the generation before my grandparents, in those cold Ukrainian ghettoes where Jewish sons were subject to conscription in the Russian army at the age of eleven, even eight or nine depending on the tsar at the time, a pogrom might crackle like lightning over villages, out of the blue but always expected because the centuries had not changed humanity. In those times before electricity and connection with the outside world and even the slightest breath of belief that society could be different than it was, would deep, intense Talmudic study have offered the same kind of prize? To touch what feels to be true, not at a shallow level defined by our baser instincts, but at a quiet, hidden, thrilling depth where quantum physics or the face of God might be awaiting discovery?
The call of Talmudic scholarship makes me curious, insofar as it taps into this yearning for the sublime, yet I cannot pursue Judaism for my own individual satisfaction. I have never believed in God. I cannot believe in a god. And atheism is a position that excludes me not only from the comforts of faith but from a connection and community that society has no real replacement for.
When I was in my second semester of college, one of my professors — the chair of the mathematics department and my adviser throughout my time there — taught a class on Newton’s Principia and scientific revolutions. It was one of those rare classes that changed the way I think about both existence and history.
Towards the end of the semester he held class outside on the lawn, and spoke to us about his adherence to church attendance. I can’t remember why or how the subject came up, only the knowledge that I walked away with a message he had for all of us: church, in whatever religion you believe in or don’t, will be the strongest cornerstone you ever find anywhere you live. It will give you a place to meet friends, to build connections, to participate at a meaningful level in the communities that will become essential to your survival as you become adults and parents and grow old.
Those weren’t his exact words. But I took his message to heart. For many years I continued to attend services and take communion at the Episcopal and Anglican churches that mirrored my childhood experiences of worship.
Several years ago, though, I stopped. Not because I was beginning to discover a Jewish identity, but because I came to believe that attending church for my own comfort smacked of mockery and disrespect for those who attended to worship their god. I’ve never been back since, and have felt acutely not just the loss of community but the loss of an ability to position my individual self in the social order. Being an atheist severs a person from one of the society’s oldest foundations. Listening to the church bells on Sunday, I still feel a yearning for the comfort of ritual and the knowledge that the world is defined and created and I have a place in it, if only I would trust in a higher power to direct me.
But I can’t. Faith and worship are shared experiences, ones I’ve excluded myself from. Doing so lands me in a world where personal identity is uncomfortably amorphous.
And raising my children without religion feels like a tenuous, risky act, stripping them of one of humanity’s most essential comforts — that somewhere out there is a being who knows what the hell is going on and why — and raises a barrier between them and the rest of their culture.
During the hour spent in that local brewery with my sister, where we were later joined by my father, I learned that this exclusion from community was the true reason behind my mother’s insistence that our Jewishness be hidden from us.
“I don’t think it was being Jewish,” said my father as he sipped on a Coke. He had stoically accepted a diagnosis of gluten allergy five years ago and could no longer drink beer.
“No,” said Sasha. “I don’t think that was an issue for her.”
“Wait, you knew?” I said.
“I think so,” she said. “Not a big deal, but yeah. I think I knew. And it was just never — ”
“Why didn’t…” I couldn’t finish the question because it was the same one I had asked my father when I was 19 and he’d first told me of his parents’ ancestry; I knew the answer. Why didn’t anyone say anything? For the same reason I didn’t make my Jewishness a thread in the book on Russia I never finished writing: nobody felt that it mattered.
“No, it wasn’t being Jewish,” my father said. “That’s what I thought. I just came from Soviet Union, you know, all this anti-Semitism, and she said to not talk about it and I just assumed it was for same reason.”
“But it wasn’t,” I said.
“Was it just not being Christian?” said Sasha.
“That’s it. In this time, you know, this town, Montana, not being Christian — ”
“It would be really hard,” Sasha said. I remembered growing up in that town. Belgrade, where I’d spent my early childhood before we moved up near Kalispell. A spread-out grid cut by the railroad tracks and dominated by the ConAgra grain silos. These days, Belgrade also has a microbrewery, and the locally milled flour used by the bakery across the street was produced by farms less than twenty miles from where I’d grown up. When I was a child the only place we ever ate out, on the rare occasions we ate out, was at the McDonald’s nine miles away. Perkin’s for Mother’s Day if my grandmother was visiting. I remembered the ice skating rink, a small empty lot in the center of town where the town found the money to pour water and occasionally re-smooth the ice when my friends and I and all the other kids had spent so long on it our toes had gone numb and we’d scored and scratched the ice to the point that it tripped us up every few feet.
And I remembered the church bells on Sunday mornings. How I dressed myself for Sunday School and pulled on my baggy tights and took a nickel for collection and walked down the streets and across the railroad tracks to sit in a cheerful room and learn lessons about Jesus that I never understood, but which somehow comforted me.
I was raised Christian. Not devout Christian. Not even in a household where God or Jesus or the Holy Ghost were ever mentioned. But I went to Sunday School and attended church with my sisters and parents and we looked like every other family in that tiny little town even though, with my father’s accent and my mother’s multi-lingualism and vast knowledge of literature, we didn’t sound like every other family.
My mother had grown up in a small Montana town, too, and knew instinctively the importance of fitting in, especially when it came to religion. My sisters and I were linked to generations of her ancestors, quiet, mild-mannered Northern European Episcopalians and Anglicans who valued church for the note it played in the rhythm of their lives. I learned to do the same. If I’d been raised Jewish, I would respond to different rhythms, different rituals, different bells.
But I would not be left with questions any more settled. Because Jewishness is not just a faith; it’s not just a matter of birth; it’s both, or neither, or a matter of degree, depending on whom you’re talking to. I would be left with the same worries, same fears, same concerns about how I am raising my children and what they inherit from me that will determine their place in the world.
All of this casts a sharper shadow now that I’ve moved back to Montana from New York. There is no Kiryas Joel near the town I now live in. Instead it is home to the leader of one of the country’s most active and vocal white supremacist organizations, a man who moved here because Montana, he felt, was a natural center for what he calls a Euro-centric culture, one populated only by white non-Jews and dominated by men. The disconcerting part is that he’s not necessarily wrong. I grew up here and I worry about the influence of people like him. How much of his brand of clean-cut, pseudo-intellectual anti-Semitism did the Jews of Vienna endure before more violent forms of suppression took hold and they sought refuge in the baptisms of a British church, leaving names and occupations for others to mourn decades later?
Transporting Jewish blood under my skin feels like being forced straight into a permanent George W. Bush world of “with us or against us.” Anti-Semites might call my blood dirty; devout Jews might call me self-hating; still others would say I can’t claim the heritage at all because Jewish blood is passed only through the mother. I would like to ignore its existence because I am me and no one else and I am messy and jumbled and generally a little screwy and trying to figure things out, like most people in the world. I don’t understand, and will probably never understand, what it is about this particular racial identity that has such a universal ability to force hard lines on populations, on cultures, on individuals.
I do fear that rejecting it is a very different thing from failing to connect with my mother’s French and Danish and Scotch-Irish ancestors, or differing in my patriotism from the style that my former Tea Party neighbors see as the only acceptable one, or easily dropping my family’s attendance at the Lutheran or Episcopal church, like a T-shirt I’d grown out of. As if the act of rejecting my Jewishness adds weight to those who would see the race destroyed or banished or just permanently downtrodden. As if there is no choice. Humanity has decreed: you are Jewish or not Jewish. Us or them, them or us. The long history of anti-Semitism, stretched out beyond two thousand years of memory, has self-perpetuated its own disturbing resilience.
My parents have kept many secrets from me, and probably have more I know nothing about. Most of those were about protecting themselves, their own stories and identities. Because I’m a writer, I’m constantly digging away at them, nagging them for more details, dragging my father on long walks by the Moskva, or rambling over the bridges and canals of the Neva in his home city, pressing him and his siblings for stories: What did you eat when you were evacuated during the Siege of Leningrad? How old were you when your parents caught you smoking papirossi and begging with the local Gypsies? Describe again the weekly visit to the public baths. From my mother, more about her childhood on the Eastern Montana wheat ranch, the warmth of the kitchen when her pioneer grandmother baked cinnamon rolls on the woodstove, the native wildflowers that grew on the prairie, the trepidation as her father taught her to pilot a plane. I am unquenchable in my desire to know what has made them, what filtered down to me, what stories, what struggles I carry in every strand of my DNA.
I sometimes wonder if we should have left this one secret buried. The knowledge of my Jewishness swirls around all my other concerns, pulling me into a world that feels too real, too frightening, too precarious. Too close, far too close, to the millennia of convenient hatred lashing against those — us? — ghettoized people who dressed differently or worshipped differently or were too successful or, if nothing else fit, simply because they — we? — were Jewish. Because given an even more conservative, slightly racist town than the upstate New York one I was living in, or one where white supremacy and Aryan groups have a stronger hold than where I now live, and shakier social mores, would I lie about my children, too, to protect them? None of their other claims to heritage seem to matter when backed against the one fact of their quarter-Jewish blood.
To spare my children the risk of ever feeling the lash of that anti-Semitic whip, would I cast this identity aside, throw it away into the wash of humanity the way the Muscovites blithely chuck plastic water bottles into their languid river? I don’t know.
My father’s parents were firm humanists, bound to their belief in honesty as others are to their religious faiths. My grandfather was once almost sent to the gulag because he refused to falsely denounce a fellow Party member during one of Stalin’s purges (he was reprieved only because the person who was denouncing him in turn was executed first). My grandmother provoked the astonishment of her boss when, after he’d given her a bottle of alcohol because she’d needed a bit for medicine, she returned the unused portion to him at a time when she could have traded it for clothing or tools, or meat for her children, alcohol being at that time far more precious than gold.
Much of my life has been tempered by the desire to live up to them, to be a person I hope they would have been proud to call granddaughter. More than anything I wish to have their courage, and to be as unfailingly honest as they were.
How, then, can I honestly answer this question: Am I Jewish?
I can’t. What I wish I could ask is, why do you care, why does it matter? Yet those are moot questions because it’s mattered for far too long to be cast aside now. Even my grandparents couldn’t, being turned down for jobs or university positions and threatened with death long after they’d walked away from their ghettoes and embraced both communism and atheism.
In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League’s global anti-Semitism survey found that 26 percent of adults surveyed, representing an estimated 1.09 billion people, responded that the six out of ten negative stereotypes of Jews are “probably true.” Furthermore, 32 percent believe that “the Holocaust is a myth or has been greatly exaggerated,” and that “people hate Jews because of the way Jews behave.”
Just a year ago I had to catch a cab in Manhattan and at the end of the ride, after complaining about the economy and the governor and the traffic, the driver said, “It’s the damn Jews. They run everything.” And when comment sections online devolve into blame and hatred toward Jews, it’s something even less than deranged vitriol, no longer an opinion or a thought, but a reflex thousands of years old and honed throughout history.
In all my readings and Internet searches and queries to my father, there was one thing I’d never done. I had never spoken to a rabbi. Unfortunately, this was pointed out to me as a natural direction for my questions shortly after I’d left New York for good.
The move to Montana was the right choice for us, but not one likely to bring me in touch with a rabbi. I found exactly two. One in a town six hours away and another who’d retired to a town near Kalispell but wasn’t responding to my messages.
By complete chance I mentioned my dilemma to another local writer whose eyes widened as she said, “I know one!” She introduced me to a female rabbi who was signed up for one of my friend’s writing retreats and who had, of all things, moved here from the East Coast the same month I did.
We met over lattes in a small local coffee shop and I felt awkward at first. What questions did I really have for a rabbi? As an atheist, I wouldn’t be pursuing religious studies with her, and I didn’t want to come off as rude with some inane version of Do I have to be Jewish if I don’t want to?
As it turned out, that’s essentially what I asked. We talked about what had drawn her to the town, about my love of Montana, about our kids and the local schools. And then we turned to my questions.
I told her about my father and his parents, leading into the controversies surrounding Kiryas Joel. Having come straight from a county less than an hour’s drive from mine, she knew the town and its problems with the other local communities. It was a relief to discuss the strange tensions of my recent home with someone who knew what I was talking about.
“The whole thing really boils down to one question,” I said. “Am I Jewish?”
“It’s really a choice,” she said, echoing words and phrases I’d read on websites and forums. “If you want to be Jewish, you can explore that part of your heritage.” At that moment I realized the gift of having met a rabbi in the most unexpected place, a small Montana town that we both loved, instead of the overpopulated gentle hills of upstate New York. Seeing a future as possible friends, I wanted to press her with the same questions I’d been struggling with.
“But can you really? I mean, here, now, yes, but if you look at all that history, thousands of years of prejudice against Jews.” I’d told her about scouring A Convenient Hatred for a detailed index, and how the persistence of anti-Semitic violence and prejudice had taken on overwhelming weight. “Take what’s happening in, say, France right now…” The summer had spiked with news headlines out of Israel and France and the UK. A familiar read: Jewish shops smashed, anti-Semitic slogans shouted aloud.
She said, “I guess… in America, in the twenty-first century, yes, you can choose.”
This was the smartest person I’d met in a long time, thoughtful and introspective and intelligent. And she’d given me the same answer I’d come up with myself. When it’s safe, when it’s allowed, when society is feeling liberal enough, you can decide whether or not to be Jewish. Until we turn the rock over and find what’s lurking underneath, or the tensions of physical co-existence become too tight and our muscle memories snap back to the easiest of solutions.
Is this the best humanity can hope for?
“A Jew can never be a goy,” says the narrator’s grandmother in Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox, about growing up in a Brooklyn Hasidic community similar to Kiryas Joel and of the same Satmar sect. (Feldman, in fact, married a man from Kiryas Joel.) “They may dress like one, speak like one, live like one, but Jewishness is something that can never be erased. Even Hitler knew that.”
Feldman’s grandmother would not consider me Jewish, which in her belief system is an identity passed only through the mother. Fine with me. But Hitler would have. And when I was pregnant with my first child, I gave blood to test for the genetic marker of Tay-Sachs disease, a vicious, untreatable illness that strikes in infancy and usually kills before the age of five. Not everyone needs to get the test. I did, though, because Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe have the highest risk of harboring the Tay-Sachs gene and half of my blood is Ashkenazi, passed down from my father’s parents. For the strictly Orthodox, I am not Jewish; for the medical community, I am. For nearly any other race, these facts could be reconciled or ignored.
The members of my travel writing workshop reading that essay about Russia over a decade ago wanted the revelation of my Jewishness to be momentous, to be the defining thread of the book I was writing, the point at which my life changed. I, on the other hand, didn’t want that to be my story. I have other stories, more interesting ones. But do I have a choice?
If you ask what color my hair is (brown), where I’m from (Montana), if I identify as an environmentalist (absolutely), whether or not I believe in a higher power (absolutely not), what I turn to for spiritual renewal (wilderness), I can answer, even if I might ask you to dig deeper and think about what those descriptions mean to each of us. But if you ask me if I’m Jewish, I can only ask in return, “By whose definition?” And keep asking it, over and over across the centuries as anti-Semitism rages or smolders or lies dormant but never dies.
“My parents negated their Jewish identity,” my father told me recently. “But it haunted them.”
The lightning flash of dehumanization, the resilience of hate, the ease of finding an “other” to blame when life jangles a difficult chord — it should haunt all of us.