What makes a value Jewish? How can Judaism claim what many of us value, Jewish or not? I shift in my chair. Face Lev. This is another moment in that Starbuck’s in Winchester when we met. In front of me, a display of red and white mugs, wrapped with red bows. Outside, the white lights of Christmas. Lev gives me a knowing smile. “So, Judaism gives us this, these values and it (Judaism) includes anybody who has these values.”
So because I am Jewish, exploring values such as my love of learning or my commitment caring for others, those less fortunate or those who are sick, in a Jewish context, those values become Jewish. Is that what Lev is saying?
“Yes,” he says.
And here I am—it seems—exploring a constant theme in my life and my work: Jewish identity. When I began my writing life as a fiction writer, none of my characters was Jewish, and many of my stories lacked an authenticity, something intangible that shone through certain characters. I, the writer, was wishy-washy, refusing to declare an essence. Was that character Jewish? I, the character and the reader needed to know. But in real life, I could pass, and I did, sometimes declaring I was Jewish, sometimes not. I hid behind a wreath on my door, a Christmas tree in my living room. The only Jews in our rural New Hampshire town where I was raising my family, I truly believed I could live inside the landscape of a Currier and Ives print. Walking into woods behind our house with my husband and my sons, we would choose a tree, chop it down, drag it home through snow.
Those romantic images of country life have an underside. When I began teaching language arts to fifth through eighth graders in my town, the two most hurled insults on the playground were the N word and Jew. I denounced both, told my class I was Jewish. A sixth grade boy brought me a book: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Published in 1902, The Protocols is a anti-Semitic rant, purporting to describe a Jewish plan for global domination. It is a forgery. That same sixth grader asked to see my horns. I’d thought such myths associating Jews with the devil had died out with the middle ages, but he year was 1972. I taught tolerance. At home, I told myself, I could do both, turn on the lights of my Christmas tree and light my Hanukkah menorah. My children were wiser. “Mom, it’s too confusing,” Richard my oldest son said. “Can’t we just celebrate Hanukkah.”
And we did.
As the years passed, I became more and more visibly Jewish which meant for me, studying Torah, especially the women of the Hebrew Bible. I read and I read, diving down into the wealth of Jewish learning. I brought what was deep inside of me to the surface, memories of cooking with my grandmother as she prepared shabbos dinner, then circled her thick fingers over the candle flames before blessing the shabbos candles. I learned the prayer, moved my own fingers in a circle, and gathering in goodness and light, I blessed the candles inside my grandmother’s brass candlesticks.
So, is Jewish identity a value I can pass on? Although I’d like to do just that, I can’t. Each of us has our own journey toward that philosophic search for self. What I can pass on is a desire to know and to learn. A wealth of Jewish learning trails behind us. Only by knowing where we came from will we learn who we are.
Judaism is a religion of dialogue. I invite your comments. Let’s talk.