"We have a lot of diversity in our class," my high school history teacher once said to my class. "Kate is Jewish!" That attitude pretty much summed up how most people in my small, nearly all white suburban hometown thought of Judaism - as something rare and exotic. That is when they thought of it at all, and I am pretty sure most of the time they didn't. My younger brother and I used to complain to each other how around Christmas, all the teachers and other kids would happily be wishing us a Merry Christmas, but not a single person would ever say Happy Hanukkah. Other than my brothers, I think I was aware of maybe one other Jewish person in my grade. This was life growing up in Cumberland, Maine in the 1990s.
Despite the fact that other Jewish people pretty much didn't exist in my life growing up, I never felt that left out. My family didn't really observe Jewish customs very much, so I wasn't really aware of what I was missing most of the time. When I did learn about what other Jewish families were doing, such as bar mitzvahs and fasting for the high holidays, I mostly felt a sense of relief that my family didn't have to go through that. It seemed like so much work. Still, as an adult, I sometimes wish I had a stronger sense of Jewish identity. My family lit the candles on the menorah for Hanukkah, and we did seders for Passover. That was the extent of our participation in Jewish life. That, and the lox. My dad always made sure our refrigerator was stocked with lox, and I grew to share his love of the salty, melt in your mouth delicacy. I remember being a kid, sitting on the floor by the open refrigerator, discovering it in the crisper and guiltily stuffing it in my mouth. I was in awe of the taste and feeling of it as it hit my tongue, and I couldn't get enough of it. My dad, being the foodie he was, would often order lox from Balducci's or Zabar's in New York City mail order. Most of the time, we had Ducktrap though, a brand of Maine smoked salmon.
When we visited my grandparents in western Massachussets, I would always be shocked by how much more evident Jewish life was there. There was matzo and macaroons being sold at the grocery store! There were Hanukkah candles and dreidels at the gift shop! There was a Jewish community center and reminders of Jewish holidays in the newspaper. I enjoyed these little reminders that I existed, somewhere. As an adult, whenever I would run into another Jewish person, I would get extremely excited. They would be looking at me like "Why is she so excited? You'd think she'd never seen a Jewish person before." Well.. outside of my family, not really.
When I started volunteering at the Maine Jewish Museum three months ago, I did not do it out of a sense of wanting to connect with my roots or understand my heritage. I did it because I needed to get out of the house, I had a family connection there, and it was something to do. I have enjoyed it, but not because of any religious reasons. I have enjoyed it because all the people who come into that building remind myself of me or my family. They make me feel safe, and part of a community. There are services on Monday evenings that usually attract a handful of older men. I am often still there, finishing up on some work on the computer. Some of the men come over to greet me, and playfully tease me or use some of their well-worn jokes on me. It never failes to make me smile. These men remind me so much of my grandfathers, both of them. They even tell the same jokes my grandfathers do. It has made me realize there is something about Jewish culture that is transmitted through behavior, not religion. Being around them is evocative of the Passover seders my family used to have when I was a kid. Passover was the only time in my life where Judaism was front and center, where the religion or culture had any chance to seep into my brain. Apparently, it worked. When I hear Hebrew, even though I had no instruction in it and never attended a single service at a synagogue in my life that I can remember, it feels familiar and makes me feel, to some degree, safe. It's fascinating to me try to figure out why.
From the ages of probably around 7 to 15, my family would go to my great-aunt Rosalie's house in Longmeadow, Massachussets for the Passover seder. We were taken out of school and it was a very big deal. My mom would even make me wear a dress - probably the only pictures of my life that I have in formal attire. My grandparents lived in the same town, and we would stay with them for several days. There were about twenty people at this seder, all relatives that I only saw once a year at this time. My mom's cousins, many of whom lived in other parts of Massachussets but some of whom traveled further, were all there. I had younger cousins and distant family who, although I only saw them once a year, always greeted me enthusiastically and were very warm and friendly to me. Then there was my great-grandmother, who died when I was 13. She lived to the ripe old age of 99 and nine months before she passed away. She was always at the head of the table, and my great uncle Kenny was at the other end.
These seders would last about three hours, two nights in a row. We would go around the table, taking turns reading paragraphs from the Haggaddah. The few people at the table who knew Hebrew (not my brothers or I, that's for sure) would read the Hebrew parts, and the rest would read in English. We'd break midway through to eat. I was a picky eater, so I didn't eat a lot of foods there, but I remember loving the hard boiled eggs. I think I ate eight of them one year. My great-uncle would read a lot of the Hebrew, and we kids would wait inpatiently to hear something we knew again.
My favorite part of the seder was when we got to the songs. I loved singing the songs! The whole table of around twenty people would burst out in song. It was such a joyful, beautiful shared experience. For some reason, we added the words "Bumming bumming bumming bum" onto one of the choruses of a traditional song, so everyone would have fun with that. My great-uncle would call out "Girls only!" or "Guys only" and then we'd do just the kids, or just people over 90... which would be my great-grandmother, who we called Grammie, singing alone. Everyone would laugh. We'd sing Had Gadya and other songs that I can't recall now. Elijah would come for his cup of wine in the middle, and then everyone would eat chicken soup and mill around chatting after. I remember how many books there were in my great-uncle's library, and how many people were in the crowded hallway of the house. I remember being uncomfortable in my dress, and wandering into the kitchen and shyly talking to the women my great-aunt had hired to help her cook.
When I was a small child, I hated these seders. I hated sitting still for that long. What we were reading didn't have any meaning for me. But as the years passed, I started to like them. I started to enjoy the routine. I loved how genuinely everyone greeted me, and how happy they seemed to see me. They would ask me how I was doing and really seem to care about the answer. The passages in the Haggaddah began to seem familiar, and I would participate with enthusiasm. Unfortunately, just as I was really starting to enjoy them, my great-grandmother passed away and my family stopped doing seders a few years after that.
I accidentally went to a very Jewish college (I say accidentally because I had no idea of its Jewish population until I attended, as I chose it for other reasons) so ended up hanging out in the Kosher Dining Hall a lot. I liked chicken soup, so I'd go there on Friday nights for that. I didn't have much ease with people my own age, so the other kids would mostly be intimidating to me. The director of the Hillel there invited me to her house for Passover two years in a row, though, and it felt just like my family seders had. Since college, I have not gotten to go to a single seder, and would like to change that. The routines just make me feel connected.
Talking about Jewish Culture
The men at the Monday evening services remind me of my family. One of the artists who exhibited there was the splitting image of my uncle, and even had a similar personality. The level of passion seems higher. Everyone I have interacted with seems somehow more prone to the kind of conversation I am used to, or interacts on a level that feels more familiar to me. I struggle, however, to put words to this experience. Since I am a writer, I like to be able to put words to everything. Socrates once famously said, "The unexamined life is not worth living," and I seem to have without consciously realizing it modeled my life after this. Blaise Pascal said, "I'm only making this letter long because I lack the time to make it short," which is another quote I can relate to quite a bit.
I have asked a few assorted people what they think defines Jewish culture, but have never really gotten much of a response. I would love to figure out why being around these people makes me feel so good when I was raised in a very non-religious, non-observant house in one of the least Jewish states in the country. The answer seems to lie in discovering what makes up Jewish culture.
The friend I talked today had the best response yet when she said it was something about the cadence and rhythm of voice being familiar. That may be part of it, but I imagine it also has to do with the values we have (education, studying, analysis, being more prone to think deeply about certain things), shared history and background (our ancestors had to overcome a lot of obstacles and so the values of persistence and triumph over obstacles may be embedded more deeply into our psyche than the average person), our sense of humor, our cultural traditions, our choice of food, our sense of communal responsibility, and so on. Our background of having been perpetual outsiders probably creates an atmosphere of self-deprecating humor and resilience that is familiar to everyone who is Jewish, whether or not they are religious. While exploring Jewish culture online last night, I found a statistic that said 0.2% of the world's population is Jewish, but 22% of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish. Clearly, there is something in the Jewish culture that makes those of this heritage more likely to think outside the box or to prize learning and academics at a higher rate than those who are not Jewish. What is it? Why do Jews seem so familiar to each other even when you take God completely out of the equation? These are questions I would very much like to explore more.