My 93-year-old father recently died at home in his sleep. He was Jewish, but he was buried by a reverend in a nondenominational cemetery in Connecticut. A few years earlier, he had told me he had mixed feelings about being buried by a rabbi who’d speak in “that language you don’t understand.”
“You mean Hebrew, Daddy?” I asked.
The funeral was done according to my father’s specifications and those of his fourth wife, a WASP.
After my Jewish mother left him when I was 17, my father went on to marry a Christian and subsequently a Mayflower WASP, finally getting into all the country clubs that wouldn’t accept him and my mother as a Jewish couple.
Although they never converted, my parents’ denial of Judaism was extreme. When I asked my father if anyone spoke Yiddish in his family while he was growing up, he said, “What’s that?” Typical New York story, I then learned my first Yiddish words from my Irish Catholic boyfriend. He taught me the word meshuggener. That seemed to describe each member of my family. I soon learned shlemiel shtup, shlep. Just the way the words sounded gave me a sense of what it could mean to be Jewish: articulate, funny, literate and sexy.
But I was confused, deprived. I felt alienated at church. I felt alienated at synagogue when I eventually went. I was dismayed by my parents’ Jewish self-hatred.
My mother’s heroines weren’t Jewish like say, the actress Lauren Bacall from the Bronx. Her heroines were WASPs like Katharine Hepburn from Connecticut and the aviatrix Amelia Earhart. My father, born and raised in Manhattan, admired whoever was successful, like his uncle who’d turned a small textile company into a large international one and then started a foundation, over which my father eventually presided.
When I asked my mother if there was anything to be proud of about being Jewish, she said, “Well, Jews were supposed to be smart.” She added that we were German Jews, “the crème de la crème” of the Jews because they were the most assimilated, the most cultured. They didn’t stand out like the poorer, less assimilated Eastern European Jews. This did not — as I learned in school, not at home — prevent the Jews in Nazi Germany from being herded up with the rest of the European Jews and sent to the gas chambers.
As a philanthropist, my father favored medical research and education. When a friend of mine was doing documentary interviews with Holocaust survivors to educate the public, my father didn’t want to contribute. As far as the Holocaust was concerned, he thought, “We shouldn’t dwell on it.” More to the point, he thought Jews shouldn’t draw attention to themselves as Jews.
My father went to Princeton University, and although he was a second-generation Jewish philanthropist, he didn’t teach us that philanthropy had anything to do with being Jewish. We knew we were Jewish because our mother told us we were, but we celebrated Christmas instead of Hanukkah “because I didn’t want you to feel left out,” she explained. That was also my mother’s reasoning for why we didn’t attend synagogue. She didn’t believe in God or practice any religion. So at home, Christmas was celebrated as a pagan holiday, complete with tree, tinsel, ornaments on the tree and presents.
In fact, the first time I ever stepped foot in a synagogue I was 16 and on a tour of Russia. The synagogue was a big stone building filled with elderly people. I wondered if this meant that Judaism was just a religion for the old. This led to my own exploration of Judaism and, eventually, to a life change.
In a slow process as an adult, learning to embrace and explore Judaism, I went to different synagogues and joined B’Nai Jeshuren on the Upper West Sid. I began going to Friday night services, sang in a choir at the high holidays and took a six week immersion course in Judaism — twice. I got a job in the arts and culture department at the JCC of Manhattan, running their literary café of Jewish writers.
Eventually, I married a Jewish man, who rather than being a self-hating Jew, liked going to Hebrew school. We got married in a Jewish ceremony, under a chupah and moved upstate part-time because of his work. Now I’m studying Hebrew at the local Hevreh, in preparation for an adult bat mitzvah in February.
My father would no doubt disapprove of my choice to dig into roots that some German Jews, like my parents, worked hard to forget. But it is his affluence and perhaps his sorrow that lets me afford to explore culturally and emotionally what it means to me to be Jewish, and to abandon my WASPy Jewish roots.
Kim Bendheim is a freelance writer living in New York. Her work has appeared in The Nation, The L.A. Times, The New York Times and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.