The other night I had dinner with a colleague whose dad is from the Middle East and used to warn him as a child, “You are going to hear bad things about the Jews. They are all lies.” We talked a lot about the current moment after October 7 and the response that followed the massacre in Israel, both of us shocked by the emboldening of antisemitism in American and European cities and especially on university campuses, including where we work. I told him about the high school history book my sister brought home when I was a kid, with graphic images from the Holocaust of emaciated prisoners and mass graves, and how I never fully grasped that this could have been my own family had they lived in a different time and place.
He told me about his experience when he went into a store with his mom and saw an old man with numbers tattooed on his forearm, and naively asked, “Why do you have those?” The man gently explained it to him. I remember seeing those forearms. It wasn’t that rare.
Growing up, I was always aware of my Jewish heritage, but never thought much about it. Never really had to think about it. My mom’s side, who we mostly spent time with, was vaguely Christian, so we celebrated Christmas and Easter, which was really just presents and chocolate bunnies. My dad, though he never said it, was probably an atheist, like a lot of Jews. His god was Carl Sagan.
In our house, we didn’t observe anything Jewish – unless you counted Barbra Streisand, who both my parents were obsessed with, and even dragged a 9-year-old me to the movies one insufferable New Year’s Eve to watch Yentl, which might have been the most Jewish thing we ever did as a family.
The first time I even seriously thought about being part-Jewish was at my great aunt Louise’s funeral in 2008 when her son gave a eulogy and told the story of my great grandparents, Betty and Samuel Jacobs, who fled persecution in Eastern Europe during the late 19th century.
A month later, my dad died of cancer. It had been an unexpected diagnosis and a quick end. In the hospital, the nurse asked him what religion he was. He said, “Well, my father was Christian, my mother was Jewish. I think I’d rather be Jewish.”
I remember visiting Grandma Nette’s house during the holidays. Though I don’t recall any specific Jewish traditions, I do remember the crystal bowl of hard lemon candy which she kept by the couch and that I liked to stuff in my mouth. The same antique Louis XIV couch sits in my living room now, passed down like DNA. But I’ve dug through its cushions and haven’t found any more clues as to who I am.
The second time I really thought about it happened after Charlottesville. I was visiting my friend in Chicago when we saw on the news the men with tiki torches shouting, “Jews Will Not Replace Us.”
I felt the need to say something. But what was I allowed to say? This was a strange new feeling for someone who had never asked permission to say anything before. Part of me wanted to scream out, I’m a Jew too, in solidarity with my tribe. Except was it really my “tribe”? I had so few cultural references. I’d never experienced antisemitism. Maybe my grandmother or my father had, but nobody talked about it, just like they didn’t talk about being Jewish, which in itself probably meant they had.
I felt lost.
“Why don’t you claim your heritage,” my friend said. He was half-Korean and after his mother’s death had leaned into it.
“Because I feel like an imposter,” I said.
Not to mention, I disliked identity politics. There were already too many people who exploited their identity to gain some kind of victim status.
“Besides,” I joked, “nobody cares about the Jews.”
Except maybe those men with tiki torches. What in their lives had made them blame everything on Jews? Weren’t they also playing a version of identity politics, the white kind, to cultivate a sense of victimhood based on fictional antisemitic conspiracy theories?
As lost as I felt, I wrote a Facebook post a few days later. I tried to choose my words carefully so that I could express solidarity without appearing to exploit my status as a member of a historically oppressed group, but in the end, I just told the truth:
…I’m not considered Jewish since it only comes from my father’s side. I also wasn’t raised Jewish, don’t know the cultural customs nor the religious ones (except intellectually). And in this age when everyone’s trying to claim membership to one group or another, I think, despite my ancestry, it’d be dishonest… Still, after watching those Nazis chant, “Jews will not replace us,” I couldn’t help but think of my great-grandmother, Betty Jacobs, who spoke Yiddish and fled persecution in Romania to come to the United States during the late 19th century. I couldn’t help but think of her daughter, my grandma Nette. And most of all, I couldn’t help but think of my father…I couldn’t help but feel the urge to lay claim for all of them – with every strand of my DNA. #solidarity #charlottesville
In his essay, “The Anti-Semite and the Jew,” Jean-Paul Sartre argues that oppression can make a person desire to assert his identity. I was two generations removed from any kind of oppression. I was not a victim. I’d never felt fear. Not even remotely. If anything, what made me want to assert my identity at that moment was rage.
Now, in the wake of the October 7 attacks, I am feeling lost again. I am feeling rage again at the reactions I am seeing by co-workers, friends, members of the literary community. Mostly, I am feeling sadness as I watch students march at my college chanting, “From the River to the Sea,” and my colleagues defending not their right to speech, but the speech itself; or when I see clips of protestors fighting Jews outside the Museum of Tolerance over a screening of the Hamas massacres (which they claim is “propaganda”) or find myself in heated arguments with strangers on social media.
I’ve always rejected the notion of “the personal is political” as any kind of argument. I still do. I have always agreed with Christopher Hitchens, who said upon first hearing the phrase, “I knew in my bones that a truly Bad Idea had entered the discourse.” I’d like to believe I’d never use my identity as a legitimate argument about war or foreign policy, or in support of or as an excuse for the actions taken (or not) by any government. I also recognize that some of the responses by others, no matter how much I might disagree or think badly expressed, or hopelessly misguided, are political and not bigoted in nature. But I’d be lying if I said that none of it feels personal.
Am I a Jew? And if I say that I am, does it make me an imposter? It’s a question I still don’t know how to answer. A question I don’t even know how to ask. A question I don’t know if it’s up to me to decide. What percentage of DNA makes somebody something? What percentage of family history? What percentage of anger or sadness or pride?
“Doesn’t it only count if it comes from your mother’s side?” I’d asked a Jewish friend after I’d gotten my 23andMe test results, which confirmed I was 22.5 percent Ashkenazi on my paternal side. She said it can still hold weight, but she didn’t seem to think it was that important. I don’t know if it is or isn’t. Though it did leave me to wonder if the next Hitler would care about such distinctions.
A few days after the attack, I saw a report that the 23andMe database had been hacked and somebody had stolen the information exclusively of anyone with Ashkenazi ancestry. The investigation is ongoing, but whether real or not, it doesn’t seem impossible that if any genocidal maniacs wanted to, they could easily breach a database like 23andMe to target a specific ethnic group. A couple of days later, I received an email warning me that my account may have been compromised, recommending I change my password. I haven’t bothered yet. You don’t need to hack my genetic code to figure out whether or not you want to kill me. I may only be a small percent Jewish, but it’s there, and it’s not going anywhere. I won’t try to hide it.