I didn’t learn my birth father’s identity until I was in my mid-twenties, and it was a shocker on two counts.
First, while I’d never met him in person, I’d grown up knowing his name because he was a realtor whose “for sale” signs appeared around my hometown. Plus, one of his younger sisters had dated one of my mom’s brothers in high school, so the two families knew each other. But thanks to my mother’s lie, I didn’t have a clue that he was my father—nor did he know I was his daughter.
But what also knocked me for a loop was the realization that my father was Jewish. In the small Maine town where I grew up, Jews were relatively rare; in fact, I seldom interacted with anyone Jewish until I went away to college.
And in the family in which I was raised, Jews—if they were discussed at all—were relegated to a stereotype: they were smart and good with money, but cheap. The word “Jew” was used as a verb, as in “Try to Jew him down on the price.” And on the rare occasions when my maternal grandmother (with whom I lived until I was five) referred to my father—before she knew he was my father—she referred to him simply as “The Jew.”
So when I discovered that “The Jew” had shtupped my mother, creating me, I had to face a discomfiting awareness of my own prejudice.
By this time, at least I’d learned a little about Judaism and “Jewishness.” One of my college roommates was Jewish, as was a favorite instructor and mentor. From them I began to realize that Jews are simply people who are as likable, caring, funny and—lo and behold!—three-dimensional as anyone else.
Also while in college, I babysat for an orthodox Jewish family. From that experience I learned about keeping kosher—after I cleaned up after feeding their toddler and unknowingly intermingled the dishes and utensils for meat and dairy that were supposed to be kept separate.
My first boss after college—the head of her own small Boston PR agency—was Jewish, and she began to teach me about other Jewish traditions, including the holidays. From her I learned more about the history of the Jewish people in Boston and the world—including the pogroms and the Holocaust. And she taught me some Yiddish words.
Once again, however, I screwed up on the kosher thing. As part of a promotion for a restaurant client that was launching a seasonal menu of summer salads and drinks (dubbed “Chilly Concoctions”), I had to send out photos of the various items to the local newspapers. In my ignorance, I sent a photo of a lobster salad to the Jewish Monitor. And—an equal-opportunity offender—a picture of alcoholic drinks to the Christian Science Monitor. It was a teachable moment.
When my mother finally told me who my father was, the concept of “Jewishness” wasn’t as foreign or one-dimensional as what I’d been fed growing up. But I have to admit that my first thought upon realizing I possessed some Jewish DNA was, “Are people going to perceive—and treat—me differently when they find out? Are they going to make assumptions—judgments—about the kind of person I am? Am I going to be discriminated against and feel the sting of antisemitism?”
My trepidation began with my own family, especially my grandmother. This was a woman who, when I asked her if she was watching the blockbuster mini-series “Roots” back in 1977, replied, “Oh, no—too many black people.”
But when Nana learned “The Jew” was my father, her first reaction was, “Well, no wonder you’re so smart—you’re half-Jewish!” I was relieved by her attempt to accentuate the positive.
I eventually learned that, according to traditional Jewish law, a person’s Jewish status is passed down through the mother (matrilineal descent) for the often repeated—though not necessarily true—reason that “you always know who your mother is.”
On the other hand, during biblical times, there was a custom of patrilineal descent, when children got their Israelite and tribal affiliation through their fathers, and this continues to be the practice in certain communities (tribes) today.
Regardless, the bigger lesson for me was how this revelation of my ethnic/religious heritage was a slap upside the head about my own biases against others who are different from me. Sure, by this time I’d begun to realize that—eureka!—Jews were people, too. But I still had (and continue to have) work to do in order to divest myself of some ingrained prejudice—and recognizing and confronting it in others.
Like not laughing—or remaining silent—when someone tells ethnic jokes (Jewish or otherwise). Bristling when someone prefaces a statement with, “I don’t have anything against Jews, but…” and asking, “Then why do you feel the need to say that?” Calling people out when they say something that perpetuates stereotypes, or simply asking, “Why do you think that?” Proudly sharing the fact that my father is Jewish—and a mensch who welcomed me into his life when he discovered I was his daughter.
I’ve also learned that Judaism focuses more on actions than on beliefs. That Jewish tradition mostly emphasizes free will, and teaches that every person is responsible for his/her own actions. That most Jews are taught to question in order to learn more deeply, and to explore their own personal relationship with God.
To me, these are attributes of good, enlightened people, regardless of their faith or ethnicity. And that’s what I strive to be.
Experts say that children start understanding prejudice by the time they’re three years old. More important, though, you can start unlearning it at any age. And that’s not bupkes.
When you look in the
mirror and see prejudice
it isn’t pretty.
What do you think? Do you think you’re prejudiced against certain races or religions? If so, do you know why? Have you worked on changing that? Have you been on the receiving end of prejudice? Please share…