I’ve never had any doubts about my jewish identity. I don’t wear it on my sleeve but neither do I shy away from it. But I often wonder what compells me to still feel that way even though I rarely practice even the most basic traditions. As I often joke, I’m a high holiday jew and even then you won’t catch me inside a synagogue.
My jewish training was not the classical herbrew school training. My jewish training came from sometimes having to fight to get out of a school yard. Why? Because I was a jew growing up in the former Soviet Union. Being a jew was not a popular thing then (nor is it now from what I hear). Anyway, there were not the huge brawls that some may imagine. These were simple fights with the occasional bloody nose or lip. The kind of fights boys get into around the age of 10. Usually I would fight because I had no choice. Sometimes I would fight to defend the only other fellow jewish friend in my grade who wasn’t much of a fighter and got picked on constantly by some of the other kids in class. In short, I learned about my ethnicity not in the yeshiva but in the school of hard knocks - literally. I got so tired of having to fight that one time, while signing up for a photography club, I marked my nationality as russian instead of jewish on the application form. I came home and told my parents what I’d done thinking they’d be proud of me for thinking on my feet and avoiding potential problems. They did not get angry at me or lecture me but I will never forget the disappointed looks on their faces. I never did that again.
Living in the former Soviet Union, we did not know much about classic jewish tradition. What we knew could be gathered in the palm of your hand with room to spare. Once a year, my grandfather managed to find five rounds of matzo for our Passover celebration. That was it. No pomp and circumstance, just a meal like most other large family meals with matzo being the central theme. No prayers, because no-one knew any. No history recitals, no-one knew much of that either. No mention of god because few but my grandparents illustrated any kind of belief in one. Essentially, I was born and raised an atheist and to this day, nothing else has ever made any sense.
We immigrated to Canada shortly before my 11th birthday. It was a long time before I had to fight again simply because someone decided to physically object to my being jewish. I was 18 or 19. Living in a predominantly jewish area (90% predominant) in Montreal. Walking home late one night from a bus stop, a friend and I were confronted by a four arab guys a few years older than we were. This was right after the massacre in southern Lebanon where the Christian Arab Militia entered two Muslim Arab towns and began shooting people indiscriminantly. The Israely army stood by on the outskirts and presumably did not attempt to stop the slaughter. I did not blame the Muslim community for being angry, I was angry too. But this was something else entirely. These four were on a mission to find and beat up a couple of jews in a country half way around the world simply because they were jews. I was not going to have that and I told my friend as events developed not to leave my side and to watch my back (as I would watch his) no matter what happened. The minute the first punch was thrown, I saw him sprinting like a rabbit in the oppisite direction through people’s lawns and back yards. One guy followed him while I was left with three. Things could not have looked worse. Fortunately, the conviction of these guys left them after they realized I was not going to back down and that I knew how to handle myself in a fight. I consider myself very lucky to this day because these guys turned out to be bigger cowards than my so called friend sprinting through the yards.
I realized then and there that my connection to judaism is quite different than that of a Canadian born jewish kid who knows how to read hebrew, knows all the right things to do and say during a service in synagogue, but who has never had to stand up or defend himself for who he is simply because someone happens to take a strong offense to that fact.
Later, in college, I inadvertantly hooked up with some more jewish guys who, also Canadians born and bread, were a little different as well. These guys were members of the JDL (Jewish Defense League). They were good guys for the most part but a little too militant for me in many ways. I did not share their company for long, although, it was nice to know that a group like that did exist and did, in their own misguided way, try to protect their own community.
Anyway, I guess the moral of this long boring story is that many (perhaps not all) roads lead to Rome. I arrived at my jewishness not simply by birth but equally importantly by certains rights of passage which had nothing to do with practiced rituals, religion, or belief in god.
Now only one question remains. How do I pass that on to my kids? I’m certainly not goint to send them to yeshivas to study things I don’t believe in myself. They are certainly not going to learn much about traditional jewish rituals from me. Unless it has something to do with cooking great chicken and matzo ball soup… oh, and cougle, I make a mean cougle. With raisins. My wife thinks that this, combined with the jewish holidays we spend with my parents will give them what they need to learn about their jewish roots. I’m not entirely sure if it will be enough. I suppose this is where I begin to hope that there is something to genetic memory theories after all.