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Chillin' with My Faux Jew 'Fro

Reprinted with permission from The Georgetown Voice.

Feb. 8, 2007

I hate yarmulkes. They mess up my hair. And because they cover up the spot on your head where men typically begin balding, I used to think that they make you go bald.

That's why I dreaded attending bar mitzvahs at Conservative temples. (At Reform temples, nobody made me wear one). I'd take mine off during the service, and some old man draped in a traditional shawl would tell me to put it back on.

"But I'm not even Jewish," I'd protest.

He would tell me it's disrespectful not to wear it, so I would put it back on.

More than half of the families in my hometown of Chappaqua, N.Y., are Jewish. Most of my friends were Jewish--in seventh grade, I went to a bar mitzvah almost every weekend. But I never had a bar mitzvah. I didn't identify myself as a Jew--I didn't like when people would ask me if I was, and I hated the look of surprise on their faces when I told them I wasn't.

I wasn't lying. Religiously, I wasn't Jewish, or anything at all. My parents raised me and my siblings without church or temple. My dad is Jewish but doesn't follow its religious tenets--he's an atheist. My mom hasn't gone to church since I've been alive, and doesn't even belong to a particular sect. I wasn't bar mitzvahed. I've never opened the Torah. If God has been part of my life, it's only because I pray once in a while. Judaism has meant identity, not religious belief.

"Religion" has always played a non-religious role in my life. The question of my religion only comes up when people ask me if I'm Christian or Jewish.

I normally tell people I'm Christian. I used to justify my religion like this: my family celebrates Hannukah and Christmas, but Christmas is a bigger deal. I'm half-Jewish, but my mom is Christian, and you are what your mother is.

People assume I'm a Jew not only because of my last name, but also because I have curly hair that turns into a mini-fro if it gets too long. My nose isn't overwhelming--it fits my face--but it's got some presence. I like to talk about everything, analyzing it until it's dead. And I love bargains.

I used to wish that I were born with a different last name--say my mom's maiden name, Arciniaco. Nobody would think I'm Jewish and there would be nothing Jewish about me. This whole "what are you" question would be settled.

When I got to Georgetown--a place with far fewer Jews than New York--even more people assumed I was Jewish. "What are you?" became "Oh, come on, you're Jewish."

Freshman year at Leo's, I sat down with a few floor-mates at a long, rectangular table. We sat next to a couple of kids who I hadn't met before. One of them quickly said, "You're Jewish, aren't you?"

"Why?" I asked.

"I can tell by the way you speak, by the way you move your hands around," he said. "You have a Jewish way about you."

I'd never been in a place for an extended period of time where being Jewish was singular. Back home, often surrounded by real Jews, I was singled out for being the non-Jew. I never understood why some of my friends had to light candles every Friday night, why they couldn't drink milk with meat. Now, I was grouped with them, which I didn't like. But do I belong in that group? Is there anything Jewish about me?

Seeking a theological answer, I took Modern Jewish Thought last semester with Professor Ori Soltes. We barely studied the religious tenets of Judaism in the class. Soltes approached Judaism from a much broader perspective--being Jewish has ethnic, cultural, historical, and religious meanings for identity. Judaism is in my blood. Maybe that's why my closest friends at Georgetown are Jews and half-Jews.

During Passover, by eating the same foods as the Israelites, Jews are supposed to feel connected to the Israelites that fled Egypt. Jews are meant to feel a connection to past Jews, while always looking to the future. Whether I like it or not, I'm linked to other Jews, past and present. I haven't celebrated Passover in a few years, I'll probably never belong to a temple and I still hate yarmulkes, but I am Jewish.

Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Plural form of the Hebrew word "mitzvah" which means "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Keenan Steiner

Keenan Steiner is a senior at Georgetown University and the Editorial Board Chair of The Georgetown Voice.

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