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