Jason Bortnick is a 34-year-old filmmaker who lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Does Half Count?
A photograph bordered by white. Kodachrome. The date on the border says April 1972. The photograph is of my mother sitting in a rocking chair with a rapturous expression as she holds her newborn son. It's me. Beside her is a white antique crib and a changing table covered with cotton balls, Vaseline, baby powder, Q-tips, and a big black hardcover copy of Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
When I was three I asked my baby sitter who the statue of the man in her room was. She said it was God. I was fascinated. I had no idea anyone knew what God looked like. I told my father about how I'd seen what God looked like and that he had a brown beard and long hair. He said, "Oh. That's just Jesus."
When my father married my mother, my zayda and nana were told my mother was Jewish. This bothered my mother, but my father had asked his mother if he had the choice of marrying a gentile girl and being happy, or marrying a Jewish girl and being unhappy for the rest of his life, what would she want him to do. She said she'd rather see him unhappy with a Jewish girl. My mother never converted and my father became an angry atheist. By the time I could converse with my father about God, he'd given Him up. My father had an intense grudge about the Holocaust where most of his family had perished.
My Christmases were secular, so I had no idea who this Jesus Christ was until I was at least eight years old, when other children I knew took to spouting Sunday school phrases. "I am the Alpha and the Omega." Jesus sounded like a super hero to me.
We never had Hanukkah. We passed by Passover and ate bacon and eggs on Yom Kippur. My father would eventually teach me what those days represented, yet he never took me to temple, despite a longing I had to be Jewish.
For Christmas one year I asked for a Star of David and a yarmulke (head covering). Santa brought me a Star. I also got my cousin's old yarmulke. It was kind of garish with white and gold. I wanted a simple black one but I took what I could get. My father would remind me that I wasn't Jewish when I insisted I was.
Dad did educate me about the Holocaust extensively though. It was kind of his hobby.
By the ninth grade I had had my share of fights with anti-Semites. I had also had three years of Kung-Fu training that my father knew I'd need in the white collar neighborhood of Winnipeg where I grew up.
In ninth grade one day my history teacher, Mr. Blandow, wrote, "Hitler was a great man." on the board. I was enraged at the sight of this inflammatory statement. I was also itching to get back at the anti-Semites of the school. My father had been wise to tell me about a teacher in Alberta who ended up pumping gas for denying the Holocaust in school.
I spent days arguing in class with the man. He stood by the notion that the Holocaust was overstated. "Maybe only six died instead of six million," he chided. I would explode at each of his arguments and hurl swears and curses at him throughout class, but I never turned him in. I simply enjoyed watching him dig himself deeper in the hole that would soon destroy him.
I was phoned by the principal after school one day. He asked what the rumors were about. My principal, Mr. Triedler, was not a Jew but had lived in Europe during the war. He called me and a couple of my gentile friends in to see him and a member of the school board. We told the story. We knew we were ruining Blandow's career as we spoke, but we were so enthusiastic to spill the beans about every little thing.
Blandow stood in front of the class two days after the meeting with the school board, reading a written apology and retraction of all he had taught. But the damage had already been done. He had converted some students. Triedler stood at the door, arms folded, frowning. I beamed when I saw Blandow start to cry. Whether they were tears of genuine guilt or just embarrassment, I didn't know. None of that mattered to me. I had beaten the devil.
The next year would be the hardest I would ever face in terms of anti-Semitism, but at that moment I believed that justice would always prevail and I would always have a Triedler to back me up when I was facing ignorance.
My father was very proud of me. He patted my back warmly and then said flatly. "And you're not even Jewish."
Last month I was helping a friend move. She introduced me to her roommate's gentile brother. He immediately identified me as Jewish even though no one had mentioned the topic. He started asking me if I knew "so and so" who lives in Winnipeg and is also Jewish. I replied, "I don't think I know him, but let me check." "Check what?" he asked "Why, The Big Book of Jews." I replied and smiled. He knew I was kidding and saw how silly his question was. He was flustered and annoyed. But it made me once again pose a question to myself: Am I a Jew?
Despite my father's ever-ready reminder that I'm not Jewish, I have at least not felt gentile. I used to think of myself as a Jew. I know that by definition I am not a Jew: I wasn't raised Jewish by my father; my mother isn't Jewish; so by definition I am not Jewish.
My mother never once said the name Jesus as I was growing up. Most Jews and all gentiles seem to identify me as Jewish whether I like it or not and I still find myself experiencing anti-Semitism. I have always felt that if I was going to be picked on for being Jewish, then I must be Jewish, at least by association.
Because I wasn't raised Jewish, having a Jewish wife isn't as important to me as it would have been had my father raised me Jewish. I wouldn't know how to raise my children in a religious sense with a gentile wife. I'm not up for telling the kids about Jesus. I have no objection to marrying Jewish. In fact it would be a comfort. I would love to raise children and have them go to Hebrew school and get the spiritual guidance I was denied. As it is, I don't know how to identify myself anymore. Now, at this age, I'm really beginning to question what's what, and I'm realizing that I want to seek God but not Jesus.
Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE.