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On Being an Imaginary Jew

Published in Seven Seas Magazine; December, 2002

We came from completely different backgrounds, but somehow, our relationship worked. Chuck was from a working class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago; I grew up the child of educated, professional parents in a bedroom community of Los Angeles. Perhaps it was a shared culture of the sixties that brought us together–when Motown music, sex and politics combined to create a special identity for us baby boomers. Perhaps it was our common affinities for art and philosophy. Perhaps we recognized and appreciated in each other qualities we hadn’t found in anyone else. Perhaps it was a combination of all these things, but one thing is for certain: it had little to do with religion.

Because I’ve always felt like a resident alien among Christians — especially the active proselytizers — marrying Chuck, who was Jewish, did not require any particular “leap of faith” for me. In fact, I’ve always been more comfortable with Jews as a group than any other culture–not so much for their religious position as for their cultural orientation. My late husband Chuck Greenberg, an accomplished recording and performing artist with the Grammy-winning band Shadowfax, was an embodiment of all those traits I find so attractive in my Jewish friends: artistic, intelligent, compassionate, and funny (he once completely cracked up our very serious childbirth class by yelling “group grope” during a practice exercise).

Ironically, when we met, Chuck was losing interest in Judaism just as I was gaining it. Along with the musical transformation that was taking place in his external world during the late sixties, Chuck was experiencing an internal transformation. Against the wishes of his parents, he dropped out of college and began focusing entirely on music while growing his curly red hair into a long, unruly mass. Causing further consternation within his family, Chuck began smoking pot and–although he had been raised in a Conservative household and been bar mitzvahed — he stopped going to temple and celebrating Jewish holidays.

Meanwhile, two thousand miles away in California, I was discovering Judaism while distancing myself from the birth religion of my parents: Christianity. I’m not sure why, but I never “got” Jesus. Perhaps it was my laissez-faire upbringing by a father who, forced to attend the local Methodist church every Sunday as a kid, revolted as an adult and announced that he would never return to church himself. He did, however, offer to take me if I wished to attend. Well, what kid would choose Sunday School over Sunday sleep-in? And if regular church-going hadn’t made him a True Believer, what could I hope to gain from it?

There were few Jews in my sheltered suburban locality when I was growing up. An important exception was my father’s best friend Gary Gould, a fellow aerospace engineer who had fled Germany during World War II, lived in Brooklyn where he learned English (with a Brooklyn accent) and met and married another Jewish émigré who had hidden in a French convent during the war. Daisy Gould was a fabulous cook and the only person I’ve ever known who could create such culinary exotica as escargot with her own home-cultivated snails. She also made a killer lasagna.

In having the Goulds as family friends, my father managed to renounce the anti-Semitic beliefs of his mother, who regaled us with stories about renting her house in Atlantic City during the summers to “rich Philadelphia Jews” who would invariably trash it. Because my grandfather had died before my father was born–leaving Gram strapped financially — these summer rentals provided much-needed income. And because she made it her home during the rest of the year, Gram took the carelessness of her renters very personally. Nonetheless, my father was not influenced by her anti-Semitic diatribes, and consequently neither was I. After all, even a naif can understand that few renters take as good care of a home as its owner.

How do children know when their elders are so off-base with their biases that they should be ignored? Perhaps it is part of the ubiquitous rite of passage for teens who reject everything their parents say. Perhaps this is why Chuck was rejecting his Jewish past while I began embracing it. Whatever the reason, my father and I never took Gram’s denunciations seriously. Her stereotyped descriptions and our own reality were totally at odds. After all, the Goulds were far more cultivated than the slovenly renters depicted by my grandmother. Furthermore, the Gould home was immaculate.

As much as I loved the Goulds, it was Anne Frank who really piqued my curiosity about Jewish culture. I fell in love with reading following my pre-teen discovery of Diary of a Young Girl . I fell in love with Jews, too. In my callowness, there was something tragically romantic about them that appealed to my own adolescent, unexpressed yearnings, something so “je ne sais quoi.” Inspired, I began keeping a diary myself. Never mind that my diary, unlike Anne’s, was filled with sophomoric sexual references and drawings illustrating concerns that were rather different from Anne’s loftier philosophical reveries. The most prurient passage I can remember from the book was a description of getting her period for the first time. Perhaps the salacious references were edited out at the time. Whatever, Anne’s journal fired a desire for knowledge about Jews more realistic than what my Gram offered. And I knew this quest would not be satisfied in my WASP-filled suburban L.A. hometown.

Subsequently, it was my philo-Semitic father who encouraged me to attend Barnard College in New York City, despite the reactions of some who said things like, “why would you want to go to a place where there are so many Jews?” Little did they know, nor did I tell them, that this was precisely why I wanted to go there. And like Nathan Englander’s “Gilgul of Park Avenue,” whose improbable epiphany in the backseat of a taxi convinced him that he was Jewish, I felt an immediate bond with my new friends. Indeed, I welcomed their esoteric contributions to my heretofore sheltered life upon arriving at Barnard in 1967, a move which proved especially fortuitous in that it was through my induction into the famed “Jewish Geography” network that I ultimately met Chuck.

Chuck’s loss of religious faith had to do partially with coming of age in the sixties. Did the loss of faith in our government because of the Vietnam War render those of us who were young then permanently challenged to believe in anything? People now speak of a “loss of innocence” following the events of September 11, 2001. But Chuck and I–as with many others like us–lost our innocence in 1968 with the realization that a government elected to protect us was, in fact, lying to us, tear-gassing us, chasing us down the street with their mounted police, and even shooting at us with its National Guard.

And so it was that Chuck–always interested in political science and even majoring in it for the brief time he attended college–lost faith in all institutions: religious, social and political. Our backgrounds may have been very different but about these concepts we were in complete agreement. We understood that our “revered” institutions had created an insane and unjust world and it was our responsibility to come up with something that worked better. I believe that the mutual experience of this chaotic time period, more than any other factor, is what bonded us. We married in 1981, a year after we met.

Of course, I had to convince Chuck that the family institution was not as dispensable as religion and politics. When I first met him, he made a point of letting me know he was “never getting married and never having children. Little musician-killers” he called them. On the other hand, I–having lost both parents by the time I met Chuck–had decided I needed a family. And, armed with the belief that children of unwed parents are unfairly–and unnecessarily–stigmatized, I wanted to be married before having children. Needless to say, Chuck eventually changed his mind, albeit not without the proverbial kicking and screaming.

It did help to have the support of his family. In Chuck’s mother Janice I could not have found a more ideal mother-in-law. My not being Jewish was never a problem for her. In fact, she has told me that I am more Jewish “in spirit” than many “real” Jews she knows. The fact that I reinstated Passover and Hanukkah into Chuck’s lapsed-Jew life was not lost on her. I suspect that she was relieved that Chuck–her first-born but last-wed–finally had gotten hitched. Whatever her reasoning, Janice welcomed me into her family. Her three other, younger children had already wed goyim–how could she complain about another one?

I suppose that in some ways I am like John Berryman: an “Imaginary Jew,” forced to take positions on issues like Zionism and civil rights that stereotypically concern Jews. Fortunately, these days when I am asked if I am Jewish, it is not usually with the same apparent contempt and disdain as during Berryman’s 1940s wartime America. Of course, anti-Semitism still persists, but I would like to think that in some small way I am helping to dispel the myths and prejudices about Jews which continue to prevail, particularly in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack which has stirred up anti-Israel sentiment.

These anti-Jewish attitudes become particularly noticeable in the unsophisticated cultural wasteland of my present Central California community where it is not uncommon to hear discussions like the one Chuck and I overheard years ago while having breakfast in a restaurant favored by the local working class. Next to us were three cowboys, and though we ordinarily didn’t make it a practice to eavesdrop on other conversations, we couldn’t help but hear them arguing noisily about whether Jews were “a race or a religion.”

“Just look at them big noses,” one was saying. “Gotta be a race with them big noses!”

Although Chuck’s reaction was to cover his rather small nose with a hand, showing, as usual, his indomitable humor, I was steamed.

“That does it! Before our sons have to hear this stuff at school, they’re gonna find out what it means to be Jewish!”

Thus began our Torah School stint. As luck would have it, we found a Reform temple in San Luis Obispo that catered to “bicultural” families such as ours. However, not all congregations and rabbis were as accepting as Congregation Beth David.

When I had lived in Manhattan in 1976 and the possibility of marriage to my pre-Chuck Jewish boyfriend raised itself, I toyed with the idea of converting to Judaism, but the commitment part always hung me up: I’ve never felt so sure about something that I could totally embrace it in the manner that “conversion” has always implied to me. For one thing, I’m a confirmed agnostic. For another, hearing some Jews snicker about converted shiksas “trying to out-Jew the Jews” has not further enamored me of the conversion concept.

My usual defense for taking Chuck’s surname when we married, as opposed to following the feminist fashion of retaining one’s maiden name, is that–in an eerie foreshadowing of his death–a paralegal had advised me once that having the same name as my husband would make it easier to collect his Social Security survivor benefits. However, in hindsight, I think the real reason I changed it was to become Jewish without “officially” converting. The simplest way to achieve this was to acquire a Jewish name.

Of course, where I now live, this nuance is lost on most. There are so few Greenbergs here that the locals think we must all be related. Little do they know that in some New York phone books there are hundreds, if not thousands of Greenbergs. I have assumed the unenviable task of setting these rubes straight, but it is not easy when my next-door-neighbor is a Jehovah’s Witness and has taken me on as her little conversion “project” and when the high school-sanctioned Christian club posts a “hit-list” on their meeting room wall of all “infidels”–read “Jews”–whom they want to convert.

Lately, it’s the ill-informed local bigots who blame the fundamentalist Islamic hatred of the U.S. on American support of Israel whom I’m attempting to set straight. Recently I was asked how to criticize Israel without being labeled anti-Semitic. In my replies, I use my un-Jewish maiden name when I sign my letters-to-the-editor since I don’t particularly desire having crosses burned on my lawn, hate mail sent to my home, or my sons accosted at school. For the same reason I have refrained from reporting the Christian club to the A.C.L.U., even though its sanctioning by a public school clearly violates the separation of church and state. It saddens me that despite everything we may have learned from the Holocaust, anti-Semitism thrives.

Now, it’s just my sons who seem concerned that I am or am not Jewish and enjoy reminding me of this fact often, to which I invariably counter, “Well, neither are you,” to which they reply, “Yes, but more than you are.” They seem to derive some sort of superiority out of being at least one-half Jewish. I suppose that is a good thing, for it means I’ve done my job: I’ve contributed to society three men who are proud of their heritage while at the same time being more tolerant than most of cultural differences.

My eldest son has lost no time immersing himself in Jewish culture since moving away from home to attend college in Southern California. He has begun hanging out with the local Hillel group whose members have asked him to be the campus Israel Advocacy Representative. He also has decided to minor in Jewish Studies and to visit Israel during his Winter Break. He says you can get bar-mitzvahed there. “What, like a quickie divorce in Vegas?” I ask. He rolls his eyes in reply. I shall be giving him a bullet-proof vest for Hanukkah.


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