Monthly Archives: March 2015

Jew-ish.

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My journey from borderline atheist to teaching first grade Hebrew School classes was a much shorter trip than one might expect.  But, rather than dwelling on the notion that I could radically change my thinking about my own religiosity, I invite you to ponder how easy it can be to alter one’s perspective and allow what might be considered mutually exclusive philosophies to co-exist within one’s brain.

I have always been what I would refer to as a ‘cultural New York Jew’. Much more ‘Woody Allen’ than ‘Fiddler On the Roof’. Growing up, I enjoyed eating bagels with a schmear and matzah ball soup.   I liked to say ‘oy vey’ and explain the rules of playing Driedel to gentiles each Hanukkah. (Or Chanukah, if you prefer.)  I had older relatives who used Yiddish words that have made their way into more mainstream vernacular; ‘kvetching’ about someone’s  sense of ‘chutzpah’ and occasionally helped me wipe ‘schmutz’ off my face, by licking their thumb and dragging it across my cheek.

My family would occasionally and half-heartedly observe major Jewish holidays, with less of a sense of tradition than a need to remind ourselves we were indeed Hebrews. Once every few years, my father’s family would host a Passover Seder which I looked forward to only in anticipation of the copious glasses of grape juice I would be allowed to drink during the numerous wine toasts that occurred throughout the evening. We celebrated Hanukkah, when we remembered exactly what date it was due to start, but typically ran out of candles, and shrugged off the rest of the holiday after we had exchanged socks or books, always saving the more exciting gifts for Christmas. (“We’re celebrating the Santa Claus part, not the Jesus part,” my mother would insist when queried.)

What I definitely did not have is a traditional religious Jewish upbringing. I did not have a a Bat Mitzvah, the rite of passage for girls aged 12-13 as they pass into adulthood. I did not learn Hebrew or the Torah.  In fact, I had barely been inside a synagogue by the age of 30, and ironically, any Bible stories I learned were smuggled into my house by my mother’s parents, both of whom had converted to become Jehovah’s Witnesses later in life.

The only official Jewish education I received was several years of attendance at the Workman’s Circle Yiddish School, a socialist organization more focused on culture than religion, which translated locally to weekly Sunday classes that took place in the basement of a Baptist church and featured age-inappropriate and nightmare-inducing lectures about the Holocaust, which we were forced to endure while munching on cheese doodles, a decidedly non-kosher snack.

Despite a sense of informality, I was content with my level of ‘Jewishness’. I enjoyed the notion that I was part of a minority group known for great New York delis, Catskill comedy legends and gesticulating wildly with their hands. Where I grew up in Westchester, outside of New York City, Jews were much more common, but even after I moved into neighborhoods where I became more of a novelty, I didn’t mind. I was different, unique, an underdog; a dark, swarthy ethnic ‘yang’ to the many blond goyim ‘yins’ I worked and played with.

My dating pool wasn’t limited either. After a brief, unsuccessful stint in a Jewish Youth Group during high school (“There are, like, a TON of super-cute Jewish guys there,” I’m sure someone promised me), I vowed not to let religion stand in the way of potential happiness. Who was I to discriminate against anyone based on their beliefs? ‘I’m O.K., you’re O.K.’, was my relationship mantra, as I took up with a myriad of Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Quakers. In fact, as time went on, I began to downplay certain cultural mannerisms in order to better suit whoever happened to be wearing the suit.

“What I really like about you is that you don’t act Jewish,” a friend from my past once told me. “I mean I wouldn’t have even known if you hadn’t told me.”

Many people, like my mildly bigoted friend, believe that Jews are their own race, and in fact the Supreme Court would agree, ruling in such a manner for purposes of anti-discrimination laws in this country during the 1980’s. This would mean that I couldn’t separate myself from my Jewishness even if I wanted to. And, although my brushes with real anti-Semitism have been few and far between, I began to wonder whether it was because I didn’t advertise who I was as blatantly as I might have.

By the time I was 30, I was married to a non-Jew, living in the South celebrating Easter, which was as far off the map from eating knishes on the Upper East Side as I could be. I dutifully hauled out a few Hannukah candles once a year, corrected my husband’s pronunciation of Challah bread (“You have to feel the ‘cchhh’ in the back of your throat”), and made sure my son was circumcised (albeit in the back room of the hospital somewhere), but my sense of Jewish pride had taken a back seat.  I didn’t miss it per se, but what I did miss was the connection it had to my family, who I had left back north with the knishes.

There were many reasons why my first husband and I divorced, and not a single one of those reasons included religious differences. Yet, I would argue that our cultural dissimilarities made a significance impact on our relationship. I am a conversationalist, a debater, a ‘let’s sit here and hash this out until it’s been talked to death and we can move on from it’-er. I grew up in a family of shouters and yellers. My husband would happily let months go by without dipping below the superficial surface of small talk. He and his parents hailed from the land of ‘if we don’t acknowledge the problem, it doesn’t exist,’ a place where my passport had never been stamped. I thought of all my beloved yentas back home and I began to wonder whether my personality WAS more suited to someone who grew up in a similar atmosphere. Did I miss that slightly more nasal tone my voice took on when I talked to my grandparents on the phone? Would I be happier with someone who did that too?

When I reconnected with an old friend who grew up down the street from me, the fact that he was a Jew from New York was on my mental checklist of pros.  And, I had to admit as we began dating, there was a certain sense of familiar about the way we conversed, reminisced, and even argued. Perhaps embracing my roots instead of refusing to acknowledge them was indeed a key to relationship success. As I soon discovered, however, it’s one thing to embrace your roots, it’s another to have to grow new ones.

It was no secret to me that my new boyfriend was a bit more ‘Jewish-y’ than I had ever been. He had received a Bar Mitzvah in a fairly religious Congregation. He regularly attended services. He was keeping Kosher when we met and had even considered becoming a rabbi at some point. He didn’t celebrate Christmas – not even the Santa Claus part.

But, I honestly enjoyed the idea of being with someone Jewish. Celebrating holidays, starting traditions, eating more lox, and…..er, doing other Jewish stuff.   I even looked forward to hosting my son’s Bar Mitzvah – an occasion I had always secretly felt denied. And, like every other person since the dawn of time enjoying the first blissful months of a romance that felt right in so many more ways than it felt wrong, I was eager to compromise. When he proposed, I said ‘yes’ and his parents said ‘Mazal Tov.’

As much as I would like to end this story with “Dear Reader, I blew the shofar with him,” it soon became clear to me I had bitten off more matzah than I could chew. My new husband’s idea of Jewish family traditions included weekly Shabbat, holidays I had never heard of, Friday night services I didn’t want to attend with Hebrew prayers I didn’t understand. I sat in the new member section of the Reformed Temple during Rosh Hashanah, trying to follow along through the words and motions and felt as much like a phony as I had during any Mass I had attended on the arm of a former Catholic paramour.

My husband reasoned that I would become more comfortable with religious aspects of Judaism, as I became familiar with them. I did not want to become familiar with them, I reasoned, rather loudly, back, but eventually acquiesced by signing up for a new parent orientation at the Hebrew School in which we were enrolling my son. During the course of the discussion amongst the parents assembled there, some with more religious backgrounds, some not, some not even Jewish, one thing became clear – no one was there for the prayers. After several older men in the back admitted that they probably didn’t even believe in God, and I moved my chair forward to avoid any resulting lightning bolts – just in case – the notion that there were as many definitions of being Jewish as there were Jews settled over me like a thick comforting cloud of matzah brei. Many of these people were there for the same reason as I was – to hold onto that piece of themselves that they identify as Jewish and figure out how to help their children do the same.  Whatever that might mean to them.

Over the past few years, some of my ideas on what it means to be Jewish have reverted back to the way I was raised, with the understanding that many of my fellow parishioners might feel similarly. My husband’s ideals on the Jewish family he always wanted have relaxed a bit as well.  I attend certain religious services, because I know it’s important to him, but I will probably take more pleasure in planning the party at my son’s Bar Mitzvah than pride in seeing him called to the bimah. Two years ago I had a serious discussion with my husband about my desire to celebrate Christmas with my children, something I had not done since we were married. If his sense of Judaism was so strongly tied to the idea of traditions, why are my own traditions any less important? He agreed to indulge me, proving we’d both moved beyond our old definitions of what it means to be a Jew.

I still take tremendous pride in being a Jewish person and to that end, whether or not I was technically qualified for the job, I took on teaching First Grade on Sunday mornings. I enjoy reading and explaining Torah stories, but have been known to use the phrase ‘Well, that’s what some people think,’ when posed with a slightly more complicated religious question. Ironically, I’ve had less of a problem dealing with God in my classroom than with glitter-glue. Glitter-glue is pretty powerful stuff.

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Not My Department

Businessman holding up hand

I have long been of the opinion that domestic partnerships should be run like organizations, with clear divisions of labor and mutually-agreed upon but separate departments of responsibility. Any job that falls outside those departments should be debated and assigned, perhaps outsourced, or eventually pink-slipped. For example, I make school lunches for our children. My husband mows the lawn.  Cleaning the floors gets outsourced, though probably not often enough. And, after a couple of re-orgs, we pink-slipped washing windows.

Although it’s the hallmark of poor customer service, the phrase ‘Not my department’ is increasingly used as a valid explanation in our house, while our domestic corporation has evolved into an ever more sharply-defined conglomerate of varied available amenities.

“Mom, can you play a video game with me?”

“Sorry, that’s not my department.”

“Dad, can you help me find matching socks?”

“That black hole of a dresser drawer is not my department – ask your mother.”

Recently, a corporate cog has been thrown into the works of the finely-tuned machine that has perpetuated a stable level of relative domestic bliss, or at least kept us from a hostile takeover: my husband has taken a position overseas for a year.

Thus, temporarily, I am now managing ALL departments, and never have I been so keenly aware of the need for division of labor to maintain efficiency. Now, instead of passing the buck on tasks that do not fall within my area of expertise, I must add them to my project roster, investing my time and energy, with only a faint hope of being reimbursed at some future date.

Shoveling snow? Not my department…. until now.

Burying family pets? Definitely not my department, but not the sort of task that can be put on hold.

Dealing with frozen pipes? This is actually a new department – that apparently now belongs to me.

Catching rodents in the house? Looks like I’ve just been promoted.

In fact, these new pest control skills were put to the test over the past week; a project that launched less than auspiciously with the damning words uttered by my nine-year-old son, “I think I just saw something crawl under that door.”  I fought my initial urge to actually scream ‘Eeek’, like some comic book character and instead presented a facade of calm. After all, this was now my department. 

We determined it must be a mouse, although my son insisted he had not seen a long tail. Ironically, until their recent passing, we had been the proud pet owners of two large male rats; one would have thought my sons and I would have possessed softer hearts toward a tiny trespasser looking to take shelter from the cold. 

However, one would have been wrong.  “Kill it! Kill it!” my nine-year-old chanted, perched precariously on top of the dining room table so as not to cross paths with whatever was in our utility closet.

I immediately piled everyone into the car to drive to Home Depot (a destination that could not be further outside my jurisdiction) to procure the necessary tools for success – a two-pack of Tomcat-branded ‘snap traps’, guaranteed ‘effective, reusable and easy to set’. Sadly, none of these marketing promises were to be delivered on.

Although I was not previously aware that a dollop of poorly placed peanut butter can render a mouse trap ineffective, I tucked away this helpful tidbit of information for future use, or perhaps to include in my summary report when I transferred this position to somebody else, which I hoped would be as soon as possible. Several days, two traps and no mouse later, I began to wonder whether our guest had moved on to better accommodations down the street.

It wasn’t until that weekend during a visit from my mother, her husband and my sister, did the mouse make itself known again. Hearing a faint rustling from within a cabinet beneath the sink in my kitchen, I opened the door to reveal several small piles of rodent droppings….all over the fine china and silverware we keep for special occasions; occasions quite different than this one was turning out to be.  As I made a mental note to burn everything in this now obviously contaminated cabinet, I noticed a slight movement within my field of vision. A half empty box of k-cup coffees was shaking. There was definitely something inside it besides coffee.

Had I been alone in my house, I would have had no choice but to find a way to remove the mouse-in-the-box, likely by donning my rubber oven mitts over my husband’s heavy snow gloves over my own gloves and carefully placing the box into several layers of shopping bags and holding the resulting bundle as far away from my body as possible to be disposed of over the fence on my unsuspecting neighbor’s lawn.  Either that or permanently move. But, with other adults in the house, it dawned on me that I had another option.

I decided to outsource.

After my sister disposed of the box in the dark of my backyard – in a much more regal and sophisticated manner than I could have mustered – I was certain we had seen the last of the tiny trespasser. So, it was all the more frustrating when my sister informed me the next afternoon that she just saw ‘something slip under the closet door’.  “No tail,” she added. Could it be the same creature? Or a similarly handicapped friend?

Although I feared multiple trips to Home Depot within the same week might damage my reputation, we had no choice but to return for more ammunition. I was quickly becoming an experienced purveyor of pest control contraptions – something I did not plan on including in my resume. Along with the additional snap traps and high frequency sonar rodent repellers, I grabbed two humane traps, mostly to prove to my mother’s vegetarian, PETA card-carrying husband that I’m not a cold-blooded killer. 

My sister and I arrived back at my house to a scene that would have been comical were it not so rife with panic: my mother’s husband and my older son yelling at my bookcase. “We caught it!” my son squealed, and I realized they had trapped the mouse behind it.  Each time the mouse poked its quivering nose out beyond the shadows, my son barked it back. “Hey! Hey! Heeeyy!”

“Quick, get one of the traps out!”

The project had become an outsourced team effort. A team made up of my mother’s husband, my sister and my son. A team that did not require my full participation. I baited the trap, handed it over and took a step back. Any guilt I felt at not taking a bigger role in the capture of a small mammal in my own living room was superseded by the tremendous relief of not having to handle this alone. After months of overseeing all the departments, I was grateful to transition something to someone else in the room and take the equivalent of an emotional coffee break.

As if purporting some evil (but tiny) plans of domestic espionage, our mouse turned out to be a mole, despite the insistence of numerous Google searches that moles do not like to be above ground, scurrying about living rooms and nibbling on peanut butter. We reasoned he was confused, or perhaps was having an identity crisis. (“Maybe he hangs out with mice,” I suggested, “Or covets the life of cockroaches.”)

My sister and I took no more chances and drove several miles away from my house before freeing the tiny mole into the snow. Thankfully, we haven’t seen him (or any co-patriots) since. Unfortunately, without other visiting family members, I’ll be forced to take on the position of pest control alone should additional mice, moles, ferrets or small Chihuahuas invade.  But, only on a temporary basis.  Because it’s definitely not my department.

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Filed under Essays, humor, Writing