By Jonah Brotman
“My mother’s Jewish. My father’s Jewish. I am Jewish.”
Daniel Pearl, prior to his execution in 2002
I can’t remember when I became Jewish.
It could have happened when God’s divine handiwork gave my parents their third child. It technically happened when my dear foreskin was stolen from me just eight days into my existence. It even might have occurred when I stepped up to become a man, albeit a barely pubescent man, at my Bar Mitzvah when I was 13.
It was a non-issue through my Hebrew day-school years, where I thought the whole world was Jewish, and it crept into my life in high school when I stepped outside the bubble and realized barely anyone is Jewish. It got questioned and answered, strengthened and weakened all in the pursuit of a more genuine and personal understanding. According to the hip-hop Hasid Matisyahu, I should “ask Hashem* for mercy and he’ll throw me a rope.” I’m not sure if I’ve done that but I was never good at climbing anyway.
For my university years, I ventured out of Toronto’s big-city multicultural atmosphere and experienced the nuances of small-town Canada: profuse alcohol consumption and a general ignorance of others. Being labeled a Jew, or “the Jew” as quite a few classmates had never met a real-life Jewish person before (my lack of horns and money was sometimes puzzling to them), I occupied the unfortunate role of being different. Back home, differences were celebrated but at my university, they were an often unwelcome sign of “otherness.” Even within my own social circle, Jewish jokes and derogatory comments were tossed around openly. Not on purpose of course, as they would always explain, just a simple slip of the tongue when someone got “jewed” out of some money. Shocked as I was at first, and while it may not have been the most politically-correct experience, I support equal-opportunity humour so I quickly realized one has to take a few jabs to give them.
Growing up in a pluralist community rich with family traditions rather than the strict orthodoxy of Judaism’s laws, I have cherished the freedom to explore my own beliefs. Some call it the anathema of atheism, I call it playing the religious field. I have studied all the major Western religions and recently encountered several Eastern traditions as well. So far, my theological journey has taught me that all religions are essentially the same; they just have different star characters. Morality and ethics, creation and destruction, the afterlife and the unknown are all covered in one way or another, its just the little details that people fight about.
Yet while I may be a religion-hopper at times, my roots stand firmly within Judaism. My Jewish education in private school taught me the Hebrew language and the five books of Torah, but more importantly, how to sound intelligent when you have no idea what you’re talking about (always claim it was a miracle from God I’m told.) My Jewish education in summer camp was not really Jewish per se but secular Israeli oriented. I attended Camp Shomria, a Socialist-Zionist youth movement (if those terms intimidate you, don’t worry, we’re not much of either) for too many years to count. Beginning as an impressionable kid turning into a know-it-all veteran camper and eventually becoming a savvy old-man as my last campers called me, my camp experience fostered a deep love for everything Israel could and should be.
In my final summer, I had the privilege to lead the counselor-in-training program to Israel for six weeks. After a year-long program teaching the teens how to become the leaders of tomorrow, or at least, how to deal with bratty eight-year-olds, the program was jeopardized by the Israel-Lebanon War of 2006. Through the course of the four-week camp portion, the situation worsened from random strikes to military escalation to sustained combative engagement and eventually to the dreaded ‘w’ word: war. Let’s just say CNN had great ratings from rural Ontario that summer. Sadly, ten of the potential participants were not allowed to come. I had difficulty understanding their parents’ reasoning as I would gladly toss myself into a war zone (call me an adrenaline junkie) and I know that my own parents couldn’t have stopped me even if they tried. But if I died, my worldly possessions would only boil down to some tacky posters that nobody would want anyway.
Having visited and lived in Israel several times before, I felt confident to lead these young adults through the beauty and the horror that is Israel. The breathtaking views of Jerusalem’s holy sites from Mount Herzl were poignantly juxtaposed with an unexpected funeral of combat-hardened Israelis my own age crying for yet another lost friend. Particularly difficult to watch was the entrance of a recently injured soldier who had clearly been shot numerous times, his leg amputated and bullet casings remained in his exposed left shoulder. This is war, I reminded myself as I fought back the tears.
Several days later, we found ourselves lost somewhere in the hills of Jerusalem in an attempt to simulate a camping experience. We traversed valleys of brown grass, sun-scorched trees and the occasional highway because unlike Canada’s huge swaths of uninhabited forests, Israel has no space to waste. After the first night, it became evident to myself and my three co-counselors that several of the campers needed some medical attention. Gladly volunteering myself as the best Hebrew speaker who wasn’t essential for the next day’s taxing uphill climb, I took the three sick girls into a nearby town. After a short bus ride past the historic Jerusalem skyline, we arrived in another world. The town was called Beit-Shemesh but easily could have been the filming location for “Fiddler on the Roof” if not for the modern cars and computers.
The black hats were everywhere. Finely manicured furs sat on perches of matted brown hair while sidecurls known as payot bounced with each step. Despite the sweltering Middle Eastern sun, the old men walked slowly through the cobblestone streets wearing heavy coats originally meant to combat the wretched Polish/Russian winters. In town, preparations for Shabbat were underway. Vendors hawked the last of their goods as wig-wearing women meandered through the market, carefully inspecting the vegetables, meat and wine that would soon be served in their homes. Every woman saddled herself with heavy bags and struggled to control the boisterous buzzing of five or so young ones.
Standing in the town square, we searched for some nourishment and shelter from the heat. Isolated like lost sheep, we hastily scampered for an open-air bakery. With dozens of sets of eyes glaring our way, we cared little about introducing ourselves as the smells were far too delectable: fried onions and roasted garlic, sweet cinnamon and honey, roasted apples and caramel all wafted into our noses while the fresh bread seemed to infiltrate our pores. After several days of canned goods, even a forbidden fruit would gladly have been accepted in this bakery of Eden.
The baker looked at us inquisitively. Seconds passed in awkward silence. Unsure of what to do, I looked for any form of support. Spinning around, I spotted something bewildering, something I had never seen before. It was a sign that stated:
“This is an Orthodox community. This establishment and all establishments in this town hereby reserve the right to refuse service to any individual. Inappropriate attire will not be accepted. Please obey the customs of our town or leave. Thank you.”
Exiting quietly in a state of utter confusion, we tried to avoid the last remnants of the sun’s heat and soon discovered a cool marble floor in the shade of an apartment building. Lounging rather uncomfortably, we soon dozed off from exhaustion. Minutes later, two young men rushing by stopped to gawk. Opening my eyes ever so slightly, I peered at the onlookers.
“Hello?” I said with a defensive tone. The men zipped away and shut a door.
Several minutes later, an irate old lady wobbled down the stairs. Approaching us, she smacked a broom on the hard marble floor as the two young men smiled sheepishly from behind her broad shoulders.
“Get out of here! Get out now,” she said angrily in Hebrew.
Startled out of sleep, I mumbled, “But, but why?”
“Look at yourselves,” she groaned. “You’re disgusting. Do you have no decency?”
“I’m sorry. I’m very sorry,” I said. “But we are just trying to rest here for a few hours before visiting a doctor.”
“I don’t care. Leave!”
“But we are causing no harm to anyone!”
“Excuse me?” she said, now perturbed. “You are insulting this town by simply being here. You ignore our rules and customs and you just walk in here like its yours!”
Standing up slowly, I helped my campers grab their belongings and we trudged away in silence.
“What is going on?” one of the girls said.
“I’m not exactly sure,” I said. “We can go see the doctor soon so let’s hope everything works out fine.”
But everything was not fine. The moment we reemerged into the town centre, a mass of people rushing home stopped all of a sudden. Little children peered out from behind their mothers’ long skirts at us. No words were exchanged, only cutting glances and jeers from a distance. Eventually, we proceeded to the doctor’s office. Unlike the rest of the community, the doctor was lighthearted and amicable. An older-looking South African emigre, she sensed our discomfort immediately.
“You all must not be from around here,” the doctor said jovially.
“No, we’re not. But thank you for seeing us anyway,” I said.
“Oh, no worries. So have you had any problems yet?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. Since the moment we got here.”
“Well, I’m not surprised. The same thing happened to me when I moved here five years ago with my husband. It seems the town wants to preserve every tradition so that nothing is lost in the future. With all the Western influences from the outside world, the young people are leaving in droves. I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.”
“Yeah, I’d say it is.”
“Not to these people though. They think your clothes are profane and your values sacrilegious.”
“That’s a little harsh.”
“Well the Jewish people haven’t been around for thousands of years because of Jews like you.”
I smiled. She was right and that hurt a little. While I value my Judaism, it is too often kept in check as I favour a more personal rather than public faith. For these people, Judaism permeates their entire existence. One doesn’t choose to be Jewish here, one simply is. No questions asked. And I kind of liked that.
After the girls were given clean bills of health, we graciously thanked the doctor before leaving. The impending dusk engulfed the valley in a fireball of orange and crimson red as the surrounding hills faded into twilight. Most of the hustle and bustle of the town square had receded as just a few stragglers remained. We found a nice place to sit and enjoyed a few minutes of relaxation as we waited for the bus.
Unwinding from the day’s strange experiences, we munched on the classic Israeli snack of Bamba and Shoko Be’sakit, Israel’s equivalent to a bag of chips and chocolate milk. Minding our own business, two little boys came racing by in an apparent game of tag. Wobbling just behind the boys was their father, an imposingly brutish man who oozed the stereotypical Orthodox vibe.
“Excuse me, please leave!” he said in an obviously American accent. His half-Italian, half-gangster drawl was undeniably Brooklyn, most likely Crown Heights.
“Sorry?” I said as politely as possible while hiding my fuming anger.
I had heard enough. We had tread ever so lightly on this community for just a few hours and had been gawked at and harassed the entire time. It was time to take a stand.
“Why? Why can’t we be here? Its a free country, right?”
“I don’t care if its a free country. We choose to live here to avoid people like you. You are hurting my boys by being here.”
“How are we doing that?” I asked with genuine curiosity.
“You are here, dressed like that, with such disregard for our community.
“I think we have respected this community to the utmost.”
“You don’t get it. Just by being here you are disrespecting us. We want our children to grow up in strong Jewish homes with fear and respect for God. If we have to protect them from the outside world, than so be it.”
“But that’s preaching segregation and close-mindedness. Shouldn’t you respect all of God’s children and do unto others?” (A definite point scored thanks to my Hebrew school days.)
“No. All people who live in this country might be Israeli but only some are Jews. Unless you are like us, you are not real Jews.”
He walked away slowly as his boys scampered up ahead. The stinging comment resonated deep within me. Was I not Jewish enough? Were my years of High Holiday synagogue attendance not worth anything? What about all those Passovers without bread, the fasts of Yom Kippur or the missed Friday night parties?
As the bus picked us up, we rejoined the rest of the group. Attempting to explain our day, my co-counselors seemed surprised but happy we were healthy and safe. I, on the other hand, was totally at a loss for words. Throughout the rest of the trip we visited Judaism’s holiest sites and at each one, I had too many questions and not enough answers.
And then it hit me. It doesn’t matter what other people think of me. My spirituality is private and I prefer to follow Martin Luther’s philosophy, “pray, and let God worry.” He may have been an anti-Semite but at least he understood that organized religion shouldn’t control your chances for eternal salvation. Yet whether its the off-hand jokes from non-Jews or the disapproval of other Jews, I’ve realized that I’m a Jew because I was born Jewish and I feel Jewish.
I follow the general guidelines of the Torah like everyone else: I (hopefully) live a moral life, I am a strong advocate of Tikkun Olam (fixing the world) through projects in the developing world and I speak Hebrew and have lived in Israel, desired notches on every North American Jew’s belt. I have come to realize that imitating the fashion sense of 18th-century Polish aristocracy is not for me, but neither is decorating evergreens with tinsel or daytime fasting for a month. That’s just not my style. But to each their own.
I’m not even sure I believe in God, I don’t really like how organized religion forces one to do things like wake up early on Saturday or pay money to get in God’s good books, and I think bacon cheeseburgers are divine. Call me unorthodox, call me a sinner but don’t ever call me a non-Jew.
My mother’s Jewish. My father’s Jewish. And yes, I am Jewish.
*Hashem: Hebrew word meaning “the name”; religious Jews consider the phrase to be the appropriate reference to God in the vernacular