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18 December 2022

Am I a bad Jew? A Chanukah reflection

I was raised in a Jewish household, but broke all my grandmother’s rules.

By Emily Tamkin

My father was born in 1959. He grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, right by the city of Boston. His mother – my nana – was, to use my father’s words, “all about” Jewishness. “The temple community was important,” he told me. “That was everything to her… making sure we went to synagogue every Saturday, come hell or high water, blizzard or not. It was huge.”

I was interviewing him for my book, Bad Jews, a roughly 100-year history of American Jewish identities. The title was a phrase I had often heard Jews throw at one another and, at least as often, apply to themselves.

Already I had written many pieces about American Jewish politics, about anti-Semitism, and about US policy towards Israel. But was I Jewish enough to write this book? I did not attend Jewish day school or Hebrew school, and my religious education ended in kindergarten; I did not grow up regularly attending synagogue. But perhaps I was asking myself the wrong question: the more I researched, the more I resisted the idea that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to be Jewish.

My nana was not unique in centering her life around shul; for many American Jews, synagogue membership was a defining feature of mid-century life. In the late 1950s 60 per cent belonged to a temple, making it – as the religious studies professor Rachel Kranson wrote in her 2017 book Ambivalent Embrace – the first time since the colonial period that more than half of America’s Jews chose to affiliate.

And there was another way in which my nana resembled many of her co-religionists: she was staunchly opposed to intermarriage, viewed as both wrong under Jewish law and tradition, and a threat to the continued existence of Jewish homes. “It was beaten into us from day one,” my father told me. “That we had to marry a Jewish girl.”

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He did not.

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In 1981, in the final year of his undergraduate studies at Columbia University, my father met my mother, Cindy Cardinal, a young Catholic woman from Long Island; they lived in the same dorm building. They started dating and, five years and one ultimatum from my mother later, got engaged.

My father told his parents. They had, at my nana’s behest, not long before boycotted her nieces’ weddings. On hearing this news, “they didn’t cry”, he told me. “There was no big fight. And I know that my father had a discussion with my mother, and he said, ‘I’m not losing Danny’.”

And so my parents got married with my father’s parents in attendance. A few years later my mother decided to convert to Judaism. It was, my father said, one of the happiest moments of my nana’s life. “I know that it made her happy, I’m sure because the kids, the grandkids… you’d be Jewish.” (In fact, according to the Central Conference of American Rabbis, patrilineal Reform Jews who were raised Jewish have been considered Jewish since 1983.)

When I was born I had a naming ceremony. When my sister was born so did she. But when my brother was born my father called the mohel that everyone – “everyone” – recommended to perform the circumcision ceremony. The mohel asked for my mother’s last name. It’s Cardinal, my father said, assuring him that she was Jewish. She had converted. The mohel asked for the name of the rabbi who oversaw the conversion. Deborah Hirsch, my father said.

The mohel refused. If the rabbi was a woman, it wasn’t a real conversion.

My father yelled at the mohel and hung up the phone. He found someone else for the ceremony. We were raised Jewish. But we were raised Jewish knowing that there were people who looked at my mother, and at my siblings and me, and said that no, we weren’t. Not really.

“I was raised Jewish.” What does this mean? I went to a Jewish preschool, but not to Jewish schools after that. I didn’t have a Bat Mitzvah.

Around this time of year, when my siblings and I were little, my mother would make latkes for our classmates, most of whom were not Jewish. We would teach them about our holiday tradition and they, in turn, would eat potato pancakes. This was in a town where there was once a community-wide uproar after a Jewish public official insisted that an official Christmas tree lighting be made non-denominational, and where people drove cars with bumper stickers that read “Keep Christ in Christmas”. My mother was once invited to a holiday party only to learn on arrival that television cameras had been invited, as the women were going to sing songs to protest the secularisation of Christmas (my mother scurried out of the room). In this town, and in our home, we were Jews.

But we also had a Christmas tree in our living room. This had been the one thing my maternal grandma wanted to know when she learned that her only daughter would be converting: would her future grandchildren still have Santa Claus? And so we did.

[See also: The woke brigade isn’t cancelling Christmas]

The Christmas tree is, in some corners, seen as a symbol of assimilation. If you do an internet search for “Jewish families Christmas tree”, you will get some sense of the scale of the debate. You lose something, a Jewish adult once told me when I was a child, when you put up a Christmas tree in your home: how do you even know you’re Jewish?

But I did know I was Jewish – that was the confusing thing. I knew I was Jewish when I handed out latkes, and I knew I was Jewish when kids made jokes about counting coins or being cheap, and I knew I was Jewish when I didn’t go to the Catholic education programme after school. The Christmas tree didn’t confuse me. It was the power that people warned the Christmas tree had that was upsetting.

Last year I interviewed a young woman who told me that she was worried about her sister’s children, since they were going to have a Christmas tree. I grew up with a Christmas tree, I told her, and the result is I’m writing a book on Jewish identities.

My husband is Indian American. There are, of course, Indian Americans who are Jewish, but he is not one of them. When we moved in together, I started to think more seriously about what it means to be Jewish. To live a Jewish life. To have a Jewish home. If we had children I wanted to raise them Jewish, because for all my hand wringing I’ve always loved that this – Jewishness – is a part of me. But what does it mean to consciously raise another person this way?

We joined a synagogue that is welcoming to families like ours, with Jewish and not Jewish members, and now attend and stream services together. We light candles on Shabbat. On our honeymoon he walked through Savannah, Georgia, with me to find the old Jewish cemetery. I have been taking online Yiddish classes since the beginning of the pandemic; last month, he came with me to New York to see Fiddler on the Roof, in Yiddish.

I don’t think any of that makes me more or less Jewish than I was before I started doing these things. But I do think that I am exploring my identity in a way that is more meaningful. And that, in turn, means that when people say that I’m not really Jewish, or suggest, as some do, that intermarried Jews – which is to say, 60 per cent of Jews who got married in the United States between 2010 and 2020 – don’t take Jewishness seriously, I know that they’re saying something about themselves, not about me.

In my class picture from my junior year of high school I am wearing a necklace with a Star of David. I stopped wearing it at some point in university. It felt fake: I wasn’t really Jewish enough for that.

If I am being honest, back then I wore it because being Jewish mostly meant standing up to anti-Semites in my high school. It meant looking at people who you knew did not like you and saying, “Too bad.”

My father had a version of this when he was growing up. “Get back in your Cadillac, Jew,” he recalled hearing as a teenager. He has never been surprised by anti-Semitism. What I think has shocked him is how much of it has now entered our political discourse. Earlier this month the former president Donald Trump hosted Kanye West and Nick Fuentes, a white supremacist, for dinner at Mar-a-Lago. When criticised by prominent American Jews, Trump responded that they should be “ashamed” for lecturing him after all he had done for Israel.

But countering anti-Semitism isn’t what being Jewish means to me, now. It is so much more than being the target of someone else’s ire, or the subject of a stranger’s conspiracy theory. There is so much history I have learned (and still want to learn), so many more texts to read, so much culture to celebrate; these are the things I want to engage with, to hold and carry forward.

I started wearing a necklace with a Star of David again this year. I just wanted to see what it felt like, and was surprised at how comfortably it fit.

My mother converted because Judaism made sense to her. Hillel, a Jewish religious leader from the first century BC, is said to have told a would-be convert: “What is hateful to you, do not do unto your neighbour: that is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary; go and learn it.” And I think that is what being Jewish means to my mother: whatever else you do, you must try to treat people with the same dignity with which you try to live your life.

“I think religion is something you think about and internalise,” my mother has said. “That’s the whole point of it.” And I agree with her: you think about what Judaism means, you try to make it a part of you, and then you go out and do your best to live your Jewish life.

This week my husband and I will decorate our miniature tree (I recently purchased an ornament in the shape of a beagle doing yoga; I have not come up with a Jewish justification for this, but I am sure that I could) and put Christmas lights on our porch. We will also put out our three menorahs. I grant that three is perhaps overkill but the third, shaped like an elephant, was a wedding gift.

We will eat latkes and light our candles and sit down to watch a Christmas movie. We will celebrate Chanukah. And I will wonder if, despite everything, my nana might be proud of the life I have built for myself. In my own way I am, like her, deeply committed to Jewishness. To use my father’s parlance, I’m all about it.

Bad Jews: A History of American Jewish Politics and Identities“, by Emily Tamkin, is published by Hurst

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