A Cultural Crossroads
A writer endeavors to learn exactly how ordinary people arrive at their systems of belief and disbelief
I live on a tiny, dead-end street in the Brigadoon-like nook of Brooklyn known as Windsor Terrace. Directly across the street from me are the Tarhans. In a wee enclave like ours, you get to know your neighbors more intimately than you usually do in New York City. For instance, I knew that Lance Tarhan had planned to be a serious art photographer before he met his wife and turned his attention to the bakery they ran together for many years. I knew, also, that in the process of selling that bakery Lance had been recruited by a mortgage company, giving up kitchen clogs and waking up at 3:00 a.m. for a suit and tie and a nine-to-five shift. I knew that their son, Ben, was bar mitzvahed about a year ago, and that both Lance and Ben are intensely involved with serious, touring youth baseball leagues. Once, in a conversation that might have been about real estate or mortgage rates, Lance happened to make a joke about having a Muslim father and Jewish mother—and I decided that I wanted to learn about how his unusual family informed his view of himself, the world, and religion.
Tell me about your parents.
My father was born in Turkey; he comes from a Muslim family that pretty much goes to the mosque on high holy days of the Muslim religion. My mother is an American-born Jew whose lineage seems to be Eastern European. Her family has been here for a very long time; my great-great grandfather was born here. So those were the two backgrounds that came together. I didn’t really understand until I was much older that there was conflict between the Muslims and the Jews. We did Hanukkah when I was a kid. When I was around thirteen years old my uncle, the rabbi, started sending me tons of Jewish books.
You lived in Turkey for a while as a kid. What was that like?
I had one uncle who was orthodox and who would pray five times a day. As a kid I was very much intrigued by that, and when I lived in Turkey I was exposed to a lot of that kind of worship. You have the mosques, the crying out five times a day, the devotion. I have memories of parades and feasts, family gatherings. Maybe weddings, for all I know.
Turkey had mandatory military service, which my father had to do since he was still a citizen. So we picked up and moved when I was four, then returned to the United States when I was about six-and-a-half. After we moved back here, I’d still go to Turkey every summer, from the end of June to the end of August. The Muslim religion is on the lunar calendar—it’s funny how similar it is in many ways to Judaism—so the holidays change. Sometimes when I was there it was Ramazan, sometimes it wasn’t.
When did you begin to realize that these two religious groups were often in conflict?
I had the education of a Flushing High School student so I didn’t really grasp what was going on in the world. But then, even when I did start to get it, I understood it from a Jewish standpoint: Muslims were not good. As I went through my teens I was very conflicted. I had my mother’s side of the family and my father’s side. But my father never really asserted his Muslim religion. Like I said, we celebrated Hanukkah. We went to Yom Kippur dinner with my grandmother. My father never introduced his Muslim—or Turkish—traditions into the household. I think the combination of circumstances—that he was the only member of his family here and the extremely secular Muslim life he’d led in Turkey—made it easy for him to let go.
Your father was an immigrant.
Yes. He came here in 1957, when he was 23 years old. He lived in a kind of underworld of Turkish students in New York. They hooked up with Turkish gas stations, Turkish laundromats, people who needed cheap labor—there were even houses where you could rent a room in the Turkish community. You could move here without speaking much English and stay within the Turkish enclave. But then he met my mother at Queens College.
What was your father studying?
Engineering. He’s a professional engineer. And my mother’s an anthropologist. She has a Ph.D. in anthropology. They were very different. I didn’t understand when I was a kid. I really didn’t know. You don’t really get to go around and check out everybody else’s family, you don’t really get to compare. I thought my life was pretty much normal.
You sound kind of wistful when you talk about how your father didn’t bring Muslim culture or practice into the family. Yet you’re raising your son, Ben, in a structured Jewish way. How did you decide to do that?
When I was nineteen I met and fell in love with—and eventually married—this woman of Jewish heritage, Faith. She’s twelve years older than me. If I hadn’t developed my relationship with her, I don’t know how much of a Jew I would be. When we decided to have a child, she pretty much said to me, I want to raise him Jewish, and I want him to be bar mitzvahed. I’d never been bar mitzvahed and she’d never been bat mitzvahed. We had long discussions about it. Before I signed on, I saw it as a big inconvenience: the huge expense, all the services you have to go to, the school, everything. I can’t say this was a problem for me. It just wasn’t really what I wanted. But as Ben got older, and I got more into it, I learned a lot about Judaism that I hadn’t known. I went to a lot of services. I read scripture. I was able to organize the hodgepodge of Jewish knowledge I accumulated during my childhood. And coincidentally I went to work for an Orthodox Jewish mortgage company. So I was kind of immersed in this Jewishness for a while, maintaining my identity but absorbing what was around me. Not that I picked up much religion from my Orthodox coworkers. What I did pick up from them is how they have integrated themselves into today’s business world in a unique way. They did business off of radio ads posted by the company—but mostly, Orthodox Jewish loan officers basically deal with the Orthodox. Their biggest referral sources were people within their synagogues and their Jewish communities.
Do you find yourself feeling religiously stirred when you go to synagogue? Or do you feel it’s more of a social habit?
I don’t think of it as a social thing. The fact that there’s other people there is often inconvenient. It’s more of a personal thing. A personal communion. Though I do find it really interesting that we have this entire planet of Jews all studying the same part of the Torah at the same time every year. That’s amazing enough for me to take notice. The basic message I get from the readings on the holidays is all good stuff. But it doesn’t translate into real life for most people.
What do you mean by that?
Doing the right thing. To me, Judaism clearly says “Do the right thing.” Be nice to your neighbor, give to the poor, etcetera, etcetera. Yet when you walk out the doors, the person who was sitting next to you in the pew will steal your parking space in a heartbeat.
When you were working at that mortgage company, how did you fit in?
I was there for five-and-a-half years, I had a very good relationship with them. I think I left on good terms, but I realized I couldn’t go further with them because I wasn’t an Orthodox Jew.
Were they aware that your father’s family was Muslim?
Yes, but it didn’t really matter to them, because in the Jewish religion, you’re Jewish if your mother is a Jew. I just wasn’t Jewish enough for other reasons.
Have there been any situations in which it seemed important to identify yourself as Muslim?
When I talk to people in Turkish, I sense that they assume I’m Muslim. Up until age 16, when I was in Turkey I claimed to be Muslim, even though I didn’t really know what it was. It was just that I sensed that not being it was bad. I remember very clearly one time when a man in Turkey, who knew I was American, started asking me questions about my mother, my father. And then he asked me if I was a Muslim.
And what did you say?
“I am what my father is.” That worked for everybody else. But he called me this derogatory term for stranger, it’s like uninvited stranger—as in, “you don’t want this person around.” Yavür. I told my grandfather and he got very upset.
But to me, going to Turkey was really about being with my grandparents, boating, fishing, and hanging out with my Turkish friends. Religion had very little to do with my life back then.
Do you think your background gives you extra insight into the problems that Jews and Muslims have with each other?
I don’t know about extra insight. But it gives me unique insight. I feel above it all in a way: I understand the conflict, I know it looks hopeless, I’m hoping that one day it can be worked out and be peaceful. Their dietary rules are the same, the way they worship their God is the same—some of the characters in their scriptures interchange with one another. I think they should coexist, and I guess that’s from the way that they coexist within me. I have never really felt conflicted since I am who I am from within me. I never felt that I needed an external force to define who I am.
Do you believe in God?
Well, I don’t believe in a supreme deity, but I believe that as humans we have to have a belief that governs our behavior, and I believe that we believe there’s a God.
Are you an atheist?
No. Because I think that part of the human condition is that you need to aspire to something like a God to justify good behavior. I believe that the goodness that I put out into the world is from me, it’s not from any God or my belief that there is a God. Does God wear a red suit or does God wear payes? Who is God? I know that the planet was created by nature and geology and forces that are way beyond our comprehension.
You won’t say that you’re not an atheist, but you won’t say that you believe in God because you can’t believe that there’s a deity. You say you believe that people need to believe in God, and yet you don’t seem to need to believe in God, and you don’t believe in God. I’m confused. What’s the line you’re drawing there?
What humans have done is take what’s naturally within themselves and transferred the goodness to God. They read what they believe are God’s words, and it’s as if it’s a voice coming from somewhere above them teaching them to be good.
So, the goodness within people: is that what you believe in?
I do believe in the goodness within people, and I do believe that we believe in God.
If you don’t believe in a deity then how do you deal with the fact that you’re going to die? What gives you strength in the face of your mortality?
The pursuit of happiness.
Do you think you’ll ever get it?
I’m happy now.
We thought getting Erez to learn his Torah portion would be the hard part. Then we started planning the party.