‘Us’ and ‘Them’
At a preschool Hanukkah celebration—held in a nice liberal church—an atheistic Jew wonders where he fits in, and what to tell his daughter
1. I stood at the back of the crowded room. Before me, like sunflowers ripened and swaying in the breeze, or like lighters at a rock concert when the slow song comes on, was a sea of raised hands, each holding a smart phone or camera aimed at the rabbi and the children assembled at her feet. She was telling the story of Hanukkah to a captive audience sitting cross legged on the floor in clumps, each representing a pre-K class at the Riverside Church Weekday School. Among them sat my daughter. She is 4 years old, but not for long. I stood in the back because I am very tall and can see over everyone, and I did not want to block anyone’s view. Also, because it affords me distance, which I need in order to observe, analyze, and to feel apart from the proceedings, across which now and then I allowed a flicker of emotion and feeling to leap. In alternating beats these emotions were kind, warm, and hostile, annoyed.
2. My daughter has taken to drawing a curious form, a kind of sign: It’s a U shape at the ends of which are arrows. As iconography it could be read as a smile, or instructions for a U-Turn.
“What does it mean?” I ask.
“It means you should get off the computer.”
3. Much of my conflicted feeling about Jewishness can be summed up in a single pronoun, and it is not “I” or “thou.” It is “us.” Also, the implied corollary, opposite in both meaning and mood: “them.”
I root for Jewishness like I root for the Knicks. In fact my fealty to the Knicks, inevitably mixed with disgust and contempt, seems expressly Jewish. The whole Patrick Ewing saga, in which Knicks fans heaped contempt and frustration on Ewing for years until they no longer had him, at which point they more or less fell in love with him or at least his memory and yearned for the Ewing years, which immediately seemed like golden years when judged by their aftermath, seemed an explicitly Jewish conundrum, which in turn makes me all the more happy to root for the Knicks.
To have been a Knicks fan in the Ewing era was akin to being a Jew who says, “Next year in Jerusalem.” As Rich Cohen pointed out in his book Israel Is Real, Jerusalem was there to be visited for thousands of years and yet it was always out of reach, as though a mirage that existed in another dimension.
4. A friend—Catholic if you are keeping score, and observant—writes:
I said “Happy holidays” to a woman in the laundry room yesterday and with pert self satisfaction and Irish piety (the absolutely most infuriating kind) she shot back, “Merry Christmas to you,” and walked out. I wanted to chase her down the hallway shouting “I’m a Jew, I’m a Jew goddamn it, not everyone has to believe what you fucking believe.” But I didn’t. Wouldn’t be fair to the Jews really.
5. My wife—not Jewish—recently discovered Curb Your Enthusiasm and tore through all the episodes over a period of a couple of months. Midway through this Curb-a-thon, I remarked that she seemed to have a thing for contentious Jews.
“Only on TV,” she said.
6. I come from an aristocracy of Jewish atheism. This may sound like a contradiction, but tell that to the members of the kibbutz where my mother grew up—a socialist and explicitly atheist commune dedicated to building a country that would serve as a homeland for Jews.
My mother was at the kibbutz because her mother had taken her there from Berlin when my mother was 1 year old. My grandmother grew up in Berlin and was 18 years old when she read an article by Martin Buber that made a great impression on her. She grew up not knowing that she was Jewish, but she found that out around that time, either by that article, or through other incidence—she never made it clear to my mother, who therefore never could make it clear to me.
A shopping trip to Borough Park on Dec. 25 reveals a lesson about pious passivity and dignity—and the value of human relations