Monday, April 2, 2007

From Marginally Jewish Daughter to Mother

People always assume I am Jewish. Normally I wouldn't be offended by this, but it always comes after a just-a-few-seconds-too-long study of my face, which makes me feel as though I am being scanned for stereotypical descriptors. I am, to be fair, dark-haired, pale-skinned, and New York-born (not a visible feature, granted, but a factor). My nose -- don't get mad, you were thinking it! -- is not big, but also not terribly small. Verdict? Jewish, every time.

The truth is that I am roughly 1/4 to 1/8 Jewish. My calculations are not really based in any real genetic data, just rudimentary fraction multiplication. My mother's father was Jewish, which makes me not "really" Jewish in terms of the bloodline, however my mother makes a mean gefilte fish and can kvetch with the best of them (Mom: that's a compliment!). My father was raised Catholic -- like, really Catholic, with nuns and everything! -- but he stopped going to Mass sometime in the 1970s. Not that my mother goes to temple, mind you; I was brought up an equal-opportunity agnostic, spiritual but not religious. Since I look like an Eastern European but have a French surname, I can pretty much stake claim to any tribe of my choosing. Generally both Russians and Italians claim me as one of their own, asking for directions in their native tongues. If I'm really tan I get mistaken for a very pale Latina. Really, though, I'm a quarter-Jewish, quarter-ish Catholic, quarter-Russian, quarter-ish-German, quarter-French-Canadian, quarter-Muppet who revels in being a mutt on the streets of New York.

It's funny, that even with enough quarters that I make up one and a half people, the Jewish quarter is the most salient. I self-identify as part Jewish, never as any of my other ethnic parts. The reasons for this are both simple and deep, and since I am not a religious scholar or a particularly religious person, I will not go into them here, for fear of offending any Jewish readers with my incredible lack of knowledge and/or connection to the faith. Rather, I mention my Jewish identity today because ... it's Pesach, people! While it's true that neither I nor my family are religious Jews, my mother started a wonderful Passover tradition about ten years ago. She realized that in our close-knit Park Slope community most of the families were comprised of one parent with some Jewish heritage but no religious practice, like herself. She felt badly that her daughters had no real sense of Jewish traditions, and so she devised the Annual Seder for the Marginally Jewish. Over the years it has grown to include many friends of many faiths, and is one of the most anticipated events of the year, second only to Christmas in our household. Each year my mother makes Passover food like gefilte fish, haroseth, horseradish, and hard boiled eggs, while other guests provide matzoh ball soup, roast chicken, kugel, and various desserts. The dining room table gets extended about twelve feet with the help of an old wooden door and some donated chairs, and twenty-plus people gather around, taking turns reading passages from the Womanist Haggadah, drinking wine, singing, laughing, and, mostly, skipping over the Hebrew since nobody speaks it. Not a traditional seder, but probably one of the rockin'est in New York.

Yesterday I helped, for the first time, to prepare the seder meal. I'm close with my mother and have cooked with her in the past, but this felt different. Something about making foods that have been made and shared for centuries resonated with me, and the passage of knowledge from mother to daughter -- the cracking of hard-boiled eggs against the sink's edge, the dropping of fish into simmering broth, the grating of real horseradish root (granted, in a food processor) -- made me feel that I was a part of something larger than the small Brooklyn kitchen I stood in.

So, thanks, Mom, for giving me this tradition and for making me proud of the quarter that tends to define me more than any of the others. We are so totally doing the Hora at the wedding.

Love,
Una
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1 comment :

  1. This post gives me the warm-fuzzies! In fact, there are tears in my eyes. Wow. I'll stop kvelling now--I'm getting faklempt.

    But wait--I learned a Yiddish word recently that describes what it is that your mother has passed down to you, albeit in a slightly "racialized" way: yikhes (pronounced yich-ahs). It means bloodline, lineage, ancestry, heritage--in other words, the roots of your family tree. Marginal Jewishness notwithstanding, enjoy your yikhes!

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