Out of the Desert

By Sara Davies

July 15, 2009

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Nesting dolls

I sensed my mother hid her Jewishness for the sake of upward mobility. She wanted to assimilate her way out of terror. Her parents, immigrants from Russia and Poland, died before I got to know them. Neither my mother nor her siblings married Jews, but they never stopped identifying as Jews. Where I lived as a child, Jews were not yet considered “White.”

My paternal grandparents began as Methodists and became Unitarians. They were not fond of my mother’s “Commie Pinko Jew” relatives. Dad drank excessively and was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. My parents divorced when I was 4. Mom kept his name, my name. I saw him occasionally. Once while inspecting me he asked, “Are you a Jew?”

In the ’60s, Unitarian Universalism attracted intermarried couples. My mother told WASPs she was Unitarian, but told Jews she was Jewish. On occasion, she dragged me to an activist UU congregation for Vietnam protests and labor marches. Christmas consisted of lox, bagels, knishes, blintzes, gold chocolate Channukah coins and her assessment of Jesus as “a nice Jewish boy.” She wandered the house muttering, “Oy vey. Vey iz mir.” I attended my cousin’s bat mitzvah. That was the extent of my religious education.

Why did Protestants need to know where I’d acquired my frizzy hair and inscrutable almond-shaped eyes? Nazis chased me in recurring nightmares. My mother whispered, “It’s OK to tell the Jewish children you’re Jewish, but don’t tell anyone else.” Unfortunately, the hostility meter shot from zero to 60 when Jewish kids learned we didn’t go to temple. One girl’s mother called mine “a self-hating Jew.” My best buddies were secular kids. I rode along on my mother’s voyage into New Age spirituality.

WASPs who didn’t know my history shared their bigotry. “How was copper wire invented? Two Jews found a penny.”–“The Jewish mafia runs Hollywood.”–“The Jews killed Jesus.” I felt like a strange mythical creature, a unicorn pursued by hunters. Nevertheless, I wanted to know what being Jewish meant. I asked a roommate about visiting her synagogue. “If you weren’t raised religiously, you wouldn’t be welcome there.”

I married a Christ-rejecting atheist, the most ethical person I’ve ever known. While I struggled with questions about the inherent meaning of life, he insisted I choose for myself. “What if there were a meaning to the universe, but you didn’t like that meaning?” He gave me a menorah for my 30th birthday. When our first son was born, my mother brooded that our son’s eyes and hair were brown like mine. “At least,” she relented, “there won’t be a Jewish name on his birth certificate.”

I befriended a woman who was half African-American, half Native-American. She’d been raised by a white family, but endured racist attitudes even from them. She understood how it felt to be both insider and outsider. She described the challenge of adapting culturally to a Black community that considered her Too White. I felt both Too Jewish and Not Jewish Enough. She pushed me to explore my heritage.

First I read Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Literacy. David Mamet’s book The Wicked Son, a collection of essays on internalized anti-Semitism, was cathartic. In those pages, I recognized my mother. I shuddered as I placed a hanukkiah in the window, afraid men in white sheets would burn a cross on my lawn. I began to read everything about Judaism I could get my hands on.

All my life I’d wished a voice would come from the clouds to explain why we’re here. I learned Jews believe that’s exactly what happened. I uncovered the well-kept secret, a treasure chest–or ark–of wisdom for living. What’s our purpose? To partner with God in healing the world. I wondered: Ma, what’s so terrible that you had to abandon this?

As I began to search for Jewish community, I met with resistance. Why are you here? Are you lost? Davies isn’t a Jewish name. Oh, so you’re not a convert. You’re not really Jewish, you know. Can we call someone to come get you? Please don’t touch that, it might get dirty. The experience reminded me of the chapter in Mamet’s book titled “You Can Just Be Nothing.” I’d grown up Nothing. Nothing sustained me. If I wasn’t Jewish, why did white supremacists want to kill me? Did halacha only bestow worthiness on those with two Jewish parents?

My hands shook as I dialed the number to a Reform synagogue. The rabbi allowed me to attend. I cried through services for the first three months. Even so, I felt like a foreigner. I didn’t understand the Hebrew. I didn’t have four Ph.D.s like the other congregants. I didn’t share their frame of reference on the culture. My issues were not their issues. My children came home from school with the story that other boys told them, “The Jews turned evil,” and “You’re a gay Jew.” When I went to services for the High Holy Days, police guarded the building to protect the worshippers.

I don’t feel I belong. I’ve read piles of books, perused reams of online articles, watched dozens of videos. I can sound out Hebrew words. I’ve realized it takes at least one lifetime to learn everything there is to know about Jewish history, culture and practice. On Friday nights, I light shabbat candles and imagine matroshkas, the nesting dolls with generations of women inside.