Wikipedia says this about the definition of a Jew: "according to the simplest definition used by Jews for self-identification, a person is a Jew by birth, or becomes one through religious conversion." To me, that sounds about right. I'm a Jew; I was born a Jew, I will always be a Jew, but.... that's as far as my Judaism committment goes. (Sorry fellow Jews, especially my relatives who might be reading this...it's just the way it is). I did my time in Hebrew School: three days a week, two hours a day for about, oh, six years. I did not, however, enter into womanhood at age thirteen through the ritual of a Bat Mitzvah. Since I was given the choice of reading/singing from the Torah in front of friends, family, and those who just popped into the synagogue for lack of anything else better to do, I opted to become a woman at sixteen instead by having a splashy Sweet Sixteen party at Mirage in Baldwin, New York. Thinking back, though, I wonder if the Bat Mitzvah would have been less embarrassing. My ridiculous older boyfriend at the time got drunk, jumped on a low-hanging lighting fixture, and swung himself from one end of the disco to the other in front of my father, who, by the way, was also drunk. Totally not good.
So, by Hebrew school graduation, I felt that even though I didn't get Bat Mitzvahed, I was just as good a Jew as any. I mean, come on now... my catholic friends had to go to religion a mere one day a week for an hour. That was nothing compared with building a sukkah on Sukkot or participating in the annual Purim Charoset Bowl and remembering to boo everytime Haman was mentioned. I think booing at the Charoset Bowl was probably the most vocal and particapatory I had ever been in my Hebrew school career.
Okay, I am so not patting myself on the back or anything; I know I am not super-duper-uber-Jew, but I did have a lot of Jewish education. After all, my parents forced me. Unfortunately, not much of their forced schooling stuck with me. When you're a kid, you can't wait to get home from regular school, but then having to go to Hebrew school right after, you know... blows. You get home, relieved to finally toss off your backpack that weighs forty-seven pounds only to remember that you have Hebrew school in a few minutes that requires a completely different yet just as heavy backpack. I remember one time I was so fed up with the idea of coming home from a tough day at school only to have to go to Hebrew that I simply refused. I yelled at my mom and fought with her until she screamed at me to just get back in the house. My huge, maroon backpack (why I had a maroon backpack, I still can't figure out) hanging off of one shoulder, I stormed away from the car to go back in the house, turned around and flipped my own mother the finger. What crazy kid does that? I still can't believe that I not only did that, but that my mom doesn't remember it. That's how much I really didn't like going. I hated it, actually, but I did what was required of someone younger than the age of eighteen and still living under her parents' roof. I had no choice but to just get through all those years. My parents only wanted me to understand my religion and to know what it meant to be Jewish. Thinking back, and as a parent myself who offers her kids, Seven and Eleven, absolutely no religious instruction whatsoever, it was commendable on their part. My kids just want to light a candle on the Menorah because fire is cool. Listen, I might not have gotten any gold stars next to my name on the Synogogue Attendance Chart, but I can still sing the shit out of Israel's National anthem, the Hatikvah, and I know the Four Questions. That alone makes me a Jew in decent standing.
Whatever Judaism I did have got lost in the misery that was my father's death. But nevertheless, whether I'm a practicing Jew or just a "light-the-Menorah-once-a-year-so-my-kids-can-play-with-fire" Jew, I am still one. Not a great one, or even a mediocre one, but still. I often wonder why I sometimes feel the need to be defensive when I think "my people" are being disparaged, or why I have to make it known during December that not everyone is Catholic, (a "Happy Hannnukah"would be much appreciated sometimes, thank you very much. We're not all, "Merry Christmas," folks. Okay, well, um, actually... I do celebrate Christmas since Forty-Three is catholic. But that's not the point!) Besides all that, I really do wonder, what good is calling myself a Jew for anyway? I don't actually do anything Jewish except maybe make a kick-ass briskett, but so what?
I got my answer the other day. Having almost no spare cash these days, I went to the flea market to sell my old gold. Not even thinking, I went up to one booth and asked the man what he could give me for all my gold. He took my baggie full of old bracelets, most of them gifts from my Sweet Sixteen, by the way, and weighed them.
Jewelry Guy: "How much were you looking to get?"
Thirty-Eight: "As much as possible. Those guys," I motioned around the flea market, "offered me in the fours and fives."
Jewelry Guy: "I'll give you $600. You want to buy something from me?"
How did he not know that was a stupid question? I had to let him know, so:
Thirty-Eight: "Now if I could buy something, I wouldn't need to sell anything, right? (I noted in his face a visable trace of concession to my reasoning) "Hannukah is coming and my spoiled child wants a Playstation 3."
"Jewelry Guy: "Hannukah? You're Jewish?"
Thirty-Eight: "Yes, yes I am."
I already knew he was a fellow Jew since, you know, we all look alike. A new, brilliant spark lit up his eyes.
Jewelry Guy: "What is your name?"
I told him my maiden name is Mizrahi and he turned right around and re-weighed my gold.
Jewelry Guy: "$645."
Jewelry Guy, re-weighing: "$650. Best price." He repeated my name over and over again, like a mantra: Mizrahi, Mizrahi, Mizrahi...
By the time I left, I had no more gold, but $660 burning a Playstation 3 sized hole in my pocketbook and my thoughts about the scene that had just occured. Why did I still call myself a Jew, twenty-five years after completing Hebrew School and only coming out memorizing the Four Questions? What good reason did I have? Well, I had six hundred and sixty of them rolled into a wad in my bag, that's why.
Hey, maybe it's not really a good reason on an everyday basis, but for that day it was golden.