It has been little more than six months since my husband discovered he is a Jew. It wasn’t a big deal, and it shouldn’t have made any difference to me as my identity was technically the same as before. But I was wrong.
There is something ineluctable about being Jewish, and it comes from without, from the bigotry and Jew-hatred that exists in society. You see, in the eyes of most Jews, my children and I are not Jewish even though my husband is halakhically Jewish. While I know I have Jewish blood, I can’t even name my maternal grandmother, and the fact that I wear a large crucifix tends to betray the fact that I’m of the Catholic faith. So is my husband for that matter, but try telling this to someone who hates Jews or defines people by their ‘blood’. To such a person, I am a Jew, my husband and children even more so.
This reality slapped me in the face a few weeks ago when a member of the local community recognised my children from a photo in the newspaper in which they were dressed up for a Purim party. It was a perfectly friendly observation, to my relief, but it made me realise that my children have already been branded as Jews.
I could, of course, dissociate myself and avoid the local Jewish community. There are so few Jews where I live that gathering a minyan requires considerable effort and coordination, and in the wider community people express surprise that there are any Jews at all on our island.
However, I find I cannot. Perhaps it is a case of me not wanting to be the lady who ‘doth protest too much’, but to deny my family’s Jewishness seems altogether wrong. I don’t want to bleat that I’m Catholic or that I have a German great-grandmother, because the effort to set myself apart would suggest that there’s something wrong or distasteful about being Jewish when there isn’t. It would suggest I am ashamed of my husband and his heritage when I most certainly am not. The story of Israel and the Jews is a story of survival, and we are part of that story. If we disown our Jewish identity, we take the first step in legitimising bigotry.
I sometimes wonder if I have the right to call myself Jewish, and I don’t as a rule, but denying I am Jewish is something I cannot do. I cannot bring myself to buy into the prejudice or deny something that is true (even if it isn’t the full story). The irony is that while my husband is recognised as a Jew I am the one who might never have existed had my grandfather lived in Nazi-occupied Europe instead of the Orient. This hypothetical situation sheds a completely different light on the birth of my mother in 1940.
Some might ask what does it matter if I am a Jew or not? What difference does it make? Sadly, it does make a difference. In an almost magical fashion my views on international affairs have become tainted. It doesn’t matter that I have spent years studying history and educating myself about Israel. The moment I admit that my husband or I have Jewish blood, my opinion becomes immaterial and chauvinist. Apparently, I only hold these views because I’m Jewish.
So, at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether I am Jewish or not, and it doesn’t matter just because a bunch of bigots have made it matter. It matters because I don’t want to collude in Jew-hatred. I don’t want to live in fear of being found out – of someone discovering that my husband is a Jew or that I have Jewish blood. I don’t want to be quiet about my admiration for Israel. I don’t want to hide the Chanukah candles in our window or the challah I bake each Friday. I don’t want to disown people with whom I have always felt an affinity.
It matters because I don’t want to live in a world where being a Jew is a handicap or a danger. And, while I can’t change the fact that it is a risky thing being a Jew in many places, I can have a positive impact on my community. In that tiny community at ‘the end of the world’ I refuse to be ashamed of my Jewish husband, my Jewish blood, or my Jewish connections.
As a child I was teased and taunted, called names I hardly understood and that were not only unkind but patently false, so the first time I was called a ‘dirty Jewess’ I took it in my stride. I considered it a compliment to be counted among the descendants of Abraham, and I still do. If some people can only make sense of who I am by labelling me a Jew, then I embrace it. But I make no claims, because in an ideal world it would not matter. To quote Bl. Cardinal Stepinac, I believe there is only one race, the human race… but there are some days when it seems the only way to be human is to be a Jew.