When I was 9 years old, I attended the bat mitzvah of one of my older friends. In terms of the Jewish liturgy, I had no idea what was going on, but I distinctly remember loving the songs in the ceremony itself and the kick-ass party that was thrown after the fact. But, really, what struck me most were the songs. I didn't understand the words in Hebrew, and yet I still sang along. At the end of the day, I came home and told my mother that I officially wanted to be Jewish. My mother's response?
"Honey, if you want to be Jewish, that's fine. But why don't you wait until you know more about Judaism and the Jewish people to really decide."
My mother--the athiest, and my father--the agnostic, were the self-proclaimed "bohemian" types who deflected all religious conversation while insisting that I decipher my own spiritual path in life...
My mother did her characteristic shrug and said, "Jewish people are People of the Book. You like to study, so go and study some more about it and let me know what you find..."
But also, in her characteristic, school-teacher fashion, my mother went on to educate me in the vast number of impracticalities of being Jewish in a world full of anti-semitism. You see in "The World" according to My Mother--the athiest, there was nothing interesting or worthwhile about being Jewish. While, in all fairness to her, she wasn't a biggest fan of The Jesus either, she considered Religion the root of all Evil and Racism in The World, and therefore every approach to the Great Question Above was holistically indictable upon principle alone. Maybe I haven't figured that out yet, she warned me, but eventually I will. More than anything, she explained to me, choosing to be Jewish was tantamount to choosing to be ostratized by all of my friends. At 9 years old, I found her argument somewhat convincing. After all, who didn't want to be popular in the 5th grade?? Whether it was parental protectionism or her own latent hostility towards "others", my mother felt it necessary to intelligently, yet very prohibitively, steer me into an abysmally empty spiritual direction.
Ironically, Moms gave me a book. (This is what she used to do when I asked big questions.) The book she gave me was the diary of some Jewish girl named Anne Frank. In reading of Anne's captivity with her family in Holland, Moms thought that I would quickly realize that being Jewish meant that I wouldn't be able to go outside for years at a time. Of course, little did Moms expect that I would actually emphathize with Anne Frank, and utterly lose my mind when I realized what happened to her and 6 million other people like her. In turn, Moms freaked out when I came to her a week later demanding to know about the distant European relatives in our family who were Jewish, and specifically what Mussolini did to Italian Jews in the late 1930's and of all things...why??? Why? Why!
These questions were, of course, fueled by the unit we eventually did in my after school history class on World War II and the Holocaust. Ever the precocious little researcher, I gave a full report on Anne Frank and the ways that innocent people died in the Nazi concentration camps. As you can imagine, my teacher was a wee bit uncomfortable with the content of my report, but there was little she could do. You see, the class was being visited by my classmate's two grandparents, who were both Holocaust survivers.
As I sit here writing this, I can still clearly remember the afternoon that my friend's grandparent's spoke in our class in their thick, strange accents. At one point, the grandfather, a dapper old gentleman with dark features, who reminded me of my own beloved grandfather, undid the button at his wrist, and rolled up his shirt sleeve and to show the identification tattoo that the Nazi people put on his arm. Then, the grandmother did the same. I let out a shriek, and vividly realized that this was the same thing that happened to my precious Anne Frank. I can't say that I've ever been the same.
In fact 8 years later, relatively speaking, long after my Anne Frank phase had passed, I somehow managed to find myself on a high school trip to Amsterdam during the dead of winter. Like most kids spending a few days in this city, let's just say that I wasn't personally there for the exquisite architecture and history. One afternoon, I was more or less "following" behind my small group, through the streets when I realized that we were on the Prinsengracht, the street where Anne Frank lived. Looking back, I'm not sure which came first: The surpirsed feeling that I couldn't bring myself to walk down that street without bawling, or the actual process of stopping in my tracks, turning around, and bawling all of the way back to the hotel.
To be continued.