By now op-ed’s on the Pew Research Center study on Jews in the USA is old hat. Almost eight months ago even. We have raged and ranted and moved on to other subjects. Still, on this special day the Pew study is very relevant to me. Today, if some one would ask what makes me Jewish I would reply “not what, but who”. I would say: “My mother made me Jewish.”
As a rule, for most of us that is our connection. Your mother is Jewish then so are you. If Scarlet Johansson is pregnant and expecting to give birth (and a hearty “mazal tov” to her!), we all know that her child will be a Jewish one, at least by birth. So why is my mother special? (you dare ask?). My mother may have been born Jewish but it is totally unexpected that her children would have been raised as Jews too.
Born in Denver during the Depression my mother, then listed as a Frydene Silverstein, spent the first few years of her life with her grandparents, Casel and Ida Gullinson, both observant Jews. By the age of 4 her both grandparents were dead and she drifted off with her family to a small town called Idaho Springs (Co). In Idaho Springs life wasn’t easy for my mother: the family lived in poverty in a run down miners shack. They were also the only Jews in a “one street” town. During the week my mother went to the local school and on Sundays my mother went to church and sang in the choir with her classmates. Upon graduation she enrolled at the Lorreto Heights College to study nursing.
Loretto Heights, then, as it is now, is a Jesuit school, meaning many of the teachers were devout Catholics, nuns and priests. Part of my mother’s training was to learn to administer the last rites to dying patients, but it was also a good school to learn to be a nurse. With the name Silverstein, it was fairly clear that my mother was not a typical student, and of course she attracted a certain amount of attention. Some teachers tried to convert my mother to Catholicism but my mother would have none of it. She graduated at the top of her class and then moved to San Francisco to where she had aunts and uncles.
Through all of her early life my mother had ample opportunities to put her Judaism aside and be like every one else. Her mother wasn’t too concerned with Jewish education, so my mother didn’t receive any. In high school there were no Jewish boys so she dated non Jews. In college she could have become Catholic, but instead embraced Judaism. Once in San Francisco, as a head nurse in a hospital, she was a free agent to do as she pleased. So why did she choose to marry Jewish?
I’ll never really know. My mother claims that she knew she was Jewish, read up on the subject and decided that that was what she was going to be. That all her siblings decided to abandon their Judaism didn’t affect her. So she met my father through a cousin (both of them were studying law at UC Berkeley), married him and moved… to Cucamonga (CA).
Jack Benny aside, Cucamonga does really exist (except now it is called Rancho Cucamonga) and my father went there to practice law and to eventually become the Judge of Cucamonga. Being Southern California, if something wasn’t close by, you could always find a freeway to take you there. So my mother drove us to Temple Beth Israel of Pomona and later to Temple Shalom of Ontario where we went to Sunday school and Hebrew school. At my mother’s insistence, we had real Friday night dinners with challah, chicken soup, candle lighting and kiddush. After dinner we would get in the car and head off for Friday night prayers at our Temple. Friday became the focus of the week and I, for the most part, loved it.
So my brothers and I grew up being Jewish even in Cucamonga. We were always Jews and always proud to be Jewish. In elementary school, for Hanukkah, we brought sugar cookies shaped like dreidels with pennies embedded in them to distribute to our classmates and on Purim, hamantaschen. In high school we wandered the halls with shirts from Young Judea summer camp with Hebrew writing blazed across our chests. Where ever we were in school, anyone who knew us, knew we were Jewish.
Beyond the home, my mother’s energies never failed. President of the Sisterhood at the synagogue, active in the PTA and a member of Hadassah. She insisted that we all go to a Jewish summer camp and from the age of 9 all of us (and we are 5 boys) went to a Young Judea camp. No Jewish youth group for the rest of the year? No problem, my mother organized a Young Judea group and we met every other Sunday. Beyond her activism, she never neglected her continuing education about Judaism and Israel. Her enthusiasm was contagious.
Today three of my mother’s five children are in Israel. My mother has 14 Jewish grandchildren and 6 Jewish great grand children, most of them in Israel. I have no Jewish first cousins, only a few dear yet distant cousins in Jerusalem (the daughter of my mother’s cousin who studied with my father). Of my mother and father’s families we are the only Jews left almost. Now we have registered our mother with Nefesh v’Nefesh and we are planning her aliyah. The only problem: we have to prove that our mother is Jewish.
So why this story today? Today is my mother’s birthday. She is 83. What do you give a mother who gave you not only the gift of life, but a millennium old heritage of your identity, and did so not as a burden , but as a true gift to cherish? A gift given in such a way, that with all the Jewish nature that the State of Israel has to offer, I doubt I can give to my children what I received from my mother? Flowers, a phone call, a blog entry and a one way ticket to Israel.
Emanuel Shahaf in OCJ – Obsessive Compulsive Jewishness
writes satirically that in Israel we have taken our Judaism to the wrong place. For me, if there is an “o” to describe my Judaism, it would stand for “our” or “ownership” and the “c” would stand for “commitment”. My brothers and myself own our Jewish identity and are committed to passing it on and on so that the Jewish People will continue too. Nothing obsessive and nothing compulsive, rather a confirmation of the continuity of observance and a love for the gift that our mothers and their mothers (and fathers too) have cherished from generation to generation.
Why are we in the end Jewish? In the bottom line we are Jews because we choose to be Jews and each generation has to make its choice. There are those who convert and there are those renew their covenant. All are equal. Yes, mothers do make you Jewish, but they only start you on your way and the journey doesn’t end, not even in Israel. It is our journey, a journey of love and commitment.