March 10, 2005
Growing up, I always stood out as a Jew in my predominantly WASP community.
With my hair made "surfer-girl" straight by "sleeping" on orange juice cans -- and glowing with lemon juice-induced blonde highlights -- I attempted to emulate the smiling girls on suntan lotion ads or in family-themed TV shows. That meant celebrating holidays like Christmas with a giant ham or Easter with colorful eggs; there wasn't room, in my "normal" world, for such Jewish cuisine as gefilte fish -- a food that, in my mind, had the color and taste of cardboard covered with gray Jell-O.
But my lack of Jewish pride was not surprising given the mixed feelings toward religion in my home.
My mother was raised in Berlin in a huge home with servants. Her father was president of a bank but, while Jewish by descent, her family had no connections to this heritage, and even celebrated Christmas.
My father's family was Orthodox and quite poor. They fled a Polish pogrom when my father was a toddler and settled in Vienna where his parents ran a small grocery store -- over which they and their four children lived in cramped rooms. Their backyard held the outhouse. My father studied Talmud each morning before school, and was headed toward being a rabbi -- only he developed a taste for secular life, turned to studying law and played semipro soccer.
Then Hitler arrived.
The Nazis killed my father's sister as she attempted to escape. One of his brothers hid in Holland, and the British sank his parents' boat off the coast of Palestine -- his mother pulled his father to shore, since he couldn't swim. His second brother arrived there safely. My father made it to London and then to the United States, landing in California.
Meanwhile, someone alerted my mother's father about Kristallnacht, and he fled to Sweden. My mother arrived in England the day before the country closed its borders; there, she worked as governess until she could travel to America to rejoin her family in California.
My parents met at an L.A. party hosted by other European refugees. They courted and married when my father joined the Army and prepared to ship off for England to plan air raids on the Germans. When the war ended, my father joined my mother at Berkeley and continued his law studies. Soon, I came along -- and then my brother -- and we settled into suburban life near San Francisco.
At Christmas, all the trees and homes around us glowed with beautiful lights and decorations. We, too, had a small tree, as my mother held fond memories of such childhood celebrations; however, my father was not happy about the tree's presence, and his mother wouldn't come into our house while it was up. For me, the tree was never big enough as I saw it as a symbol of all things fun and American.
At Chanukah, my father brought out the menorah and lit the candles. My mother stood silent while he, my brother and I sang lackluster songs.
The only breaks in my split world were visits to my father's brother and his family in Los Angeles. Solidly identified with their Jewish roots, my uncle and aunt (also from Vienna) had two boys. Chanukah at their house was a joyous celebratory affair with spirited dreidel playing, raucous singing of songs and hearty devouring of latkes. Here, being Jewish was embraced.
When I moved to Los Angeles after college, I entered a world where being Jewish was normal, even hip. I worked in the entertainment industry with many Jewish colleagues, Yiddish words dotted the language and there were myriad delicatessens where people actually paid to eat gefilte fish.
Emboldened by my new surroundings, I embraced Judaism. So when I moved back to the San Francisco area of my childhood I again found myself living amid mostly WASP neighbors. Only now, instead of wanting to be one of them, I wanted to more fully be my self -- a Jew -- and I signed up for a class at my local temple to prepare for my bat mitzvah.
When I started my Judaic studies, my father went into the hospital and we learned he had only a little time left to live. While he lay dying, I struggled with the Hebrew alphabet. When I visited his bedside, we talked about the weekly Torah portion together -- he had recently returned to reading it as he had in his youth. Before he died, I proudly wrote the word Shabbat for him in Hebrew.
A few months after he died, the day of my bat mitzvah dawned sunny and beautiful. My L.A. relatives arrived along with local family and friends. Seated by the pulpit, looking out at them, I noticed how everything seemed to glow. I saw my relatives bob their heads along to the prayers, while my High German mother abstractly looked around. I was a bridge between them. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face.
Listening to the Hebrew chanting, I felt my father reach out from wherever he was residing and pass along to me his Jewish heritage. I received it with a welcoming heart, knowing that being Jewish would take continuing effort -- it would never be a passive resting place that, once reached, required no further action.
I will always be challenged to make Jewish choices that conflict with America's cultural norms. The difference for me with these challenges is that now, unlike my past, I look forward to being so tested as each time I stand up for being Jewish, my deep connection with my heritage and my sense of self will deepen.
And who knows -- maybe someday I'll even like gefilte fish. Now, that will be a challenge.
Toni Weingarten is a free-lance writer from Marin County. Her essays have been published in The Chicago Tribune, and The Atlanta Journal Constitution.