Before Rosh Hashanah, my neighbor stopped me on the street to tell me I should visit his Chabad House. But he wasn’t pitching the services he holds there. He was pitching honey cake—or more specifically, his six daughters of marrying age who make honey cake. He was looking for a son-in-law; I was looking for a way out of the conversation.
He is a real Jew. Being Jewish matters to him. Judaism is not just a part of his life, it is his life.
I am Jewish. By lineage, I am a bona fide tribesman. My mother is a Jew. Her grandfather was an Orthodox rabbi. That’s pretty legit. But maybe it’d be more accurate to say I am Jew-ish, emphasizing the second syllable in that way you do when you want people to understand you mean sort of, but not really.
I gave a noncommittal response, and we parted ways. My neighbor is a pleasant man, which is why I didn’t want to disappoint him by telling him that I am one of those cultural Jews, the kind who celebrates Christmas with Chinese food and hasn’t been in temple much since his bar mitzvah. I also didn’t mention that I already had a girlfriend named Christina.
“Is she Jewish?” my sister, Allison, asked me when I first told her about the woman I was getting serious with.
“Well, her name is Christ-ina.”
“Oh … so, not a Jew,” Allison said into the phone. “Well, I don’t really think mom and dad will care.”
They didn’t care.
Christina finds Jewish men attractive, a preference I find both baffling and delightful. But she also harbors dreams of converting, a notion I had mistaken for a misguided and unnecessary attempt to win the approval of my parents. When Christina told them that she was considering converting, they told her it wasn’t required. Allison told her there would be a lot of homework and worried that her future sister-in-law might become a Super Jew. Only Jews who are Jew-ish worry about Super Jews: converts who embrace Judaism whole hog, as a goy might say. If you marry a Super Jew, you pretty much know what you’re doing every Friday night for the rest of your life—eating dinner after you light the candles and say the prayers over the challah and the wine. It means the High Holidays are mandatory, but you’ll probably celebrate the minor holidays, too.
“What minor holidays?” Christina asked one day.
I recalled a time from Hebrew school when we celebrated Sukkot by building a flimsy lean-to out of straw. If we were ultra-observant, our teacher told us, we would eat and sleep there for all eight days. I also related a lesson about Purim to Christina, but all I could remember about that holiday is that a wicked man tried to kill the Jews; we won, and to commemorate our victory, we eat triangle cookies filled with jam. I told Christina to Google it. This is my common response to her Jewish questions, of which there are many.
My neighbor stepped up his game as Rosh Hashanah drew near. He made a point of crossing the street to talk to me. I made a point of avoiding him. I’d scan well ahead on my walks, often taking circuitous routes to and from the local commercial strip. Saturdays were the worst. Our neighbor walks everywhere on the Sabbath, so I made a point of driving miles out of my way. Leaving the apartment was like a low-stakes spy movie where a Lubavitch Mossad agent must bring in a wandering hipster Jew who has gotten in too deep while infiltrating gentile culture.
Then one day, my neighbor cornered me at the farmer’s market. I was asking the fish guy if he had any shrimp. My neighbor overlooked my transgression. Or maybe he didn’t.
“Why don’t you come over, Michael?” he asked. “Why don’t you have some honey cake and meet my daughters? Don’t you want to meet a nice Jewish girl?”
I didn’t want to meet a nice Jewish girl. That’s why I fell in love with a shiksa, as my zayde would say. But like a good shiksa, Christina didn’t understand why I dodged the neighbor. From the outside looking in, she saw a homogenous block of Jews. Sure, there were those who maybe weren’t so observant, but we’re all Jews, right?
I knew better. I knew there are as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews in the world. I also knew that to my neighbor’s kind of Jew, I was someone to worry about, maybe even pity. I was the worst kind of Jew. I was the child who asks, What does Passover mean to you? Or at least I would be if I still went to Seders. Predictably, the child who was not properly instructed in the ways of the Torah had grown up to become a man apart from his religion. I was fine with this, but in my neighbor’s eyes I was a lost soul, a member of the Chosen People who made the unthinkable choice. And from the looks of things, that choice was to sell my soul for shellfish.
So, I begged off his invitation again, saying something about not really being religious, which felt like it should be enough of an answer. My neighbor smiled and said that’s OK. He said shalom, and we parted ways.
Later, I explained what happened to Christina. She asked me what Chabad means. I didn’t really know because the last time I asked about it was when I was 12. My mother called Chabad meshugeneh, and my father simply shook his head. Evidently, we weren’t those kinds of Jews. So, I told Christina to Google it.
Christina continued to tiptoe toward conversion, but the probability that she would become Super Jew started to seem remote. Especially when she told me that she wanted us to get a Christmas tree.
“I think we’re going to be one of those couples that does both holidays,” I told my sister, who agreed that Super Jews don’t do Christmas trees.
The next weekend, we drove to a tree lot in Hollywood and bought a Christmas tree. It stood six feet tall and it smelled like a holiday I’d only seen on TV. Two men tied the tree to the roof of my car, and we headed for home, where, I was told, I could expect popcorn and hot chocolate while decorating. Already Christmas seemed better than the crappy milk chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil that marked most of my childhood Hanukkah celebrations. But as we turned onto our street I worried about my neighbor. What if he saw me with the Christmas tree? How could I explain it to him?
Thankfully, the coast was clear. I parked in front of our apartment, got out, and stood next to my car, not quite sure what came next.
“Now, we take the tree inside,” Christina said.
This seemed like a simple task, but just as Christina turned toward our apartment, I saw the neighbor’s door open. Instantly, my heart raced and I lunged at the tree. My hands pulled at the rope, which only drew tighter the harder I pulled. I was desperate and so I found a knot and began to pick at it with my fingers. I screamed out to Christina for help, but I didn’t see her anywhere. The knot was stubborn. I needed something sharp, a knife or scissors. I reached into my pocket and found my car keys. I used the jagged edge of my key to saw at the rope. My arm swung back and forth as I tried in vain to shred the rope’s fibers. But of course, my efforts were pointless—the rope that was strong enough to hold a tree to a car’s roof while driving wasn’t going to yield to my improvised saw. The jig was up.
My neighbor stood on his porch and stared at the tree. He is a short, squat man with a bushy beard and friendly eyes. But there on the porch, our neighbor was like a statue, the frozen embodiment of determination and disappointment. His smile was gone. His arms were folded across his chest. Our eyes met and I nearly said shalom. But I caught myself. I saw his gaze shift to Christina, walking toward the car holding a pair of scissors, oblivious to the internecine struggle for Jewish identity that had suddenly erupted on our block. I looked back just in time to see his back as he slammed the door closed.
As we cut the rope and carried the Christmas tree into our apartment, I knew that my neighbor would never invite me over again.