Charlotte Gordon is a writer who lives on Cape Ann, Mass. Her book, Mistress Bradstreet, won the Massachusetts Book Award for non-fiction. Her latest book, The Woman Who Named God (Little, Brown) retells the famous Biblical story of Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar. She is currently an assistant professor at Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. She can be reached at charlottegordonbooks.com.
My Father, A Self-Hating Jew
I come from a long line of Jews who fled their Judaism as quickly as they were able. My grandparents changed their Jewish sounding names. My father did them one better, converting to Christianity and marrying my Episcopalian mother. Neither he nor my mother ever mentioned his Jewish heritage and so I was raised as a Christian with no knowledge of my Jewish ancestry. Instead, I went to church each Sunday and was confirmed as an Episcopalian, even though, secretly, I was not sure I really believed in Jesus.
One day, when I was 12, my older sister told me that our father was born Jewish and I was surprised. But at the time his heritage did not seem particularly important to me. Our life centered on the church. My father was on the vestry. My mom was on the altar guild. I did not notice any conflict over our religious identity, perhaps because there were so many other problems in my family.
On the surface, my father seemed to be an extraordinary man. He was funny and warm and had a mop of black curly hair and a jowly face. A gifted research scientist, he devoted himself to finding a cure for cancer, and at one point seemed so close to discovery that our house was flooded by reporters, anxious to know his secrets. He made friends with everyone he met, from the janitor at church to the butcher at the supermarket, and whatever he did, he did with an eccentric kind of extravagance. For my mother's 40th birthday, he invited members of the St. Louis symphony to come perform in our front hall at dawn as a surprise. After the first few measures, my sleepy mother emerged to tell my father to turn down the music and discovered a crowd of people all there to celebrate her birthday.
But he was a troubled man. It was a family joke that you could never believe a word Dad said. Did he see active duty in World War II? No, despite the many war stories he enjoyed telling. Had he ever practiced with the Boston Celtics, a professional basketball team? No, although he liked to say he did. He lost his job when I was 13 because of shady fiscal practices. Whether the fault lay with my father or one of his employees was unclear as he never told us what really happened. By the time I was in high school, my family rarely saw him. He was on the road trying to make money as an independent consultant and had a mistress in each of the cities he visited. My mother almost divorced him, but he swore to change his ways. And, mostly, he did, although in the years before he died, strange women still called the house, hoping to talk to him.
Given this legacy, Judaism was the last thing on my mind, when, in my 20s, I began to try to sort through the fallout from my troubled adolescence. I had caught myself beginning to lie, telling people I had more accomplishments than I actually did, or covering up things I was ashamed of. And with the help of friends and a good therapist, I soon recognized I was following in my father's footsteps. But when I tried to stop, I never felt like being me was enough. I wanted to be more brilliant, more famous, and more beautiful. Then one day, my writing professor, a wise Jewish man who had survived the Holocaust, talked to us about how many Jews of his generation had internalized the world's anti-Semitism.
"Inside every Jew," he said, "there exists a self-hating Jew."
"But I'm not Jewish," I said.
My teacher looked me in the eye. "Your father was and he tried to cover it up. You, Charlotte, are on a journey of teshuva."
"Teshuva?" I asked.
"Yes, return. You are trying to reverse your father's lies. His hatred of himself."
Suddenly, I saw my father, my larger than life father, shrink before my eyes. He was a man who had disowned a powerful legacy and there was a cost to this that I was still paying. No wonder I wanted to be something I was not. Something more. Something better. So had my father.
And so I began to study the history of American Judaism. Why did my father and his family cover up their Judaism? The answers were clear once I started my research. Anti-Semitism was rife in the 1920s and 1930s. In this environment Jews either clung together, or like my grandparents, left their past behind. Why pay the price of being Jewish? Why not blend in and reap the benefits of assimilation?
I do not blame my family for making these choices, as I do not know what I would have done when faced with these challenges. But soon my studies became more than an intellectual pursuit. I began to visit the local synagogue. I went to Kol Nidre, the solemn service held the night before Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. I began to read about Jewish law and steeped myself in Jewish novelists. Soon, my project became more than an attempt to uncover the secrets my father had tried to hide. I fell in love with the ritual life of Judaism, and before long, I was intent on living a Jewish life, not to right my father's wrongs, but for myself. Nothing made me happier than lighting the candles on Friday night and studying the Torah with my rabbi.
As for Jesus and my Christian upbringing, I was relieved to leave those traditions behind. When I converted, I no longer had to force myself to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. Instead, I felt free to explore different ideas about God. After all, inside Judaism, there is room to go on searching, since Judaism is not based on dogma, but on practice and study.
Today, I can proudly say, "I am Jewish." My grandparents and father would be horrified, but I have learned not to lie about anything to do with my family's conflicted legacy, and so although sometimes I want to tell my son that I have always been Jewish, I make sure I tell him the whole story, including my Christian upbringing and the reasons for my conversion. I do not want him to be another self-hating Jew. Instead, I want him to know why I love our traditions.