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‘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

Thomas Beller
December 23, 2011
Riverside Church.(Collage: Tablet Magazine; parent and child: Andy Leppard/Flickr; Riverside Church: Anand Vivek Taneja/Flickr)
Riverside Church.(Collage: Tablet Magazine; parent and child: Andy Leppard/Flickr; Riverside Church: Anand Vivek Taneja/Flickr)

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.

My mother told me this story about her mother. It takes place in Germany in 1918, after she’d read that article by Martin Buber:

That summer she worked as a counselor at a children’s summer camp. One fine summer day, she told me, she was sent with a cart and a donkey and the children’s shoes to the cobbler for repair. On her way she passed a house and saw a plaque saying, “Martin Buber.” So she left the cart and the donkey and the children’s shoes and went into the house and declared (to Buber): “Here I am!” Her words. And she stayed. She apparently offered to work as a secretary, but my mother was no secretary. She was a gardener—I think she was being trained at the time as a gardener, which was a very serious profession at the time—so she worked as a gardener, first at the Bubers’, then later also at his friends’ houses, on his recommendation.

Later on they all found themselves in Israel. Prof. Martin Buber, Prof. Hugo
Bergman, and others, living next door to one another in Jerusalem and teaching at the Hebrew University. They were all my mother’s friends. So was my father’s cousin, who lived in the next house there in Jerusalem, and in whose house I spent many happy childhood days, away from the maddening, unbeloved kibbutz.

7. The rabbi was telling the story of Hanukkah in the Riverside Church Weekday School. I love the Riverside Church Weekday School, and not because some of my earliest memories are of the playground on the fourth floor when I attended the school, at age 4, or because Riverside Church features in a short story of mine as a romantic, if phallic, prop, or how when flying over Manhattan one can see the church standing alone and far away from all the other skyscrapers of midtown, a moral beacon, or even that the church’s theater has for decades been host to progressive performances of dance and theater including dance performances of my mother’s dance company way back when. I love it because, its name notwithstanding, it has a Hanukkah celebration and posters in the lobby announcing its support for Occupy Wall Street and is about as progressive and affirming of liberal values as it is possible to be while occupying an enormous limestone edifice built with Rockefeller money. It is located on a street named after Reinhold Niebuhr, who once credited Buber as being “the greatest living Jewish philosopher.”

8. The rabbi wore a kippah and spoke in an open, sing-song voice, not patronizing but not oblivious to the nature of her audience. I was tuned in, trying to glean facts. I have always been spectacularly obtuse about the facts of Jewish history as they are relayed by religious rituals. For example at Passover, which I grew up celebrating and still do, we used editions of a haggadah that my mother had annotated. I was highly tuned to the pencil markings, especially where they vociferously crossed out the words “The chosen people.” And yet I must have sat through 30 of these ceremonies before one day saying, “Wait a second. Avadim hiyenu. We were slaves. We were slaves? Slaves? We were actually slaves?”

The rabbi had brought a menorah that sat behind her on the windowsill, the marvelous view out of the church’s sixth floor unspooling before us. I feel confident in saying there is no pre-school anywhere whose classrooms have more romantic and glamorous views. The rabbi stood with a large picture book in her hands, turning the pages and telling the story of the ransacked temple, the desire to restore it. She used the word “clean.” She said the temple was “very dirty.” This opened, for me, a previously unexplored dimension to the unfailing oil lamp—it was the light by which the temple was restored. For the first time I had a notion of Hanukkah as a celebration of tidiness, cleanliness, and good housekeeping, something that could be sponsored by Clorox and Purell.

9. The word flew by but I caught it, excited, as though it were the prize I was waiting for. Shouldn’t I have been standing there with an open heart? I was! I was! I swear! But here was a religious observance and I am not religious. I can’t help but litigate, feel contrary. Let’s call it a form of engagement. When I heard it I responded like a lepidopterist leaping with his net, and brought back the prized species, the word “us.”

Among the kids present—and most assuredly untroubled by the word “us,” I should add—was my daughter. I looked at her and wondered what side of the word “us” she would fall on. My feeling was that at this moment her notion of the word was so encompassing it precluded a “them.” But sooner or later someone would alert her to these distinctions.

10. The email had begun, “Dear Parents, over the last few weeks the children have brought up questions and statements about the differences they are noticing between each other. Because of this we are encouraging everyone to join us in a discussion about how to talk about similarities, differences, and inclusion in a respectful way that your child will understand.”

It was that very morning that we met and cautiously circled the topic. It was a pretty diverse classroom, and the meeting had the air of a mystery because it was called on account of an unnamed crime. Eventually it became clear that the matter was not about race, or religion, but disability. The child with braces on her feet had become a kind of prize. One boy in particular wanted to play with her, he announced, because “she has things on her legs.”

All the kids thought these foot braces were some extra cool kind of sneaker and coveted them. This made the girl with the foot braces cry. That her race was also different was a detail that the conversation, sensitive as it was, could not assimilate, so to speak, while I was there.

There was a short break after which we all reassembled, with parents from other pre-K classes, for the Hanukkah celebration, during which the word “us” flew by. I caught it and made a note to discuss with the rabbi when she was finished.

“Us” in that context had a lot of meanings, not just Jewish ones. The room was filled with parents of little kids, a kind of cult that is always in need of its support group.

When it was over I thanked the rabbi, ask for her card.

11. The holidays are known to be a time of some unease among Jews. The dynamic is usually framed as concern for how to relate to the other, dominant holiday—the one on which a war has been declared, according to at least one cable news station. A recent example of this is a column by Katherine Rosman in the Wall Street Journal that outlines life outside the New York bubble, in some unnamed exurban small town where everyone is very nice and has Christmas wreaths on their door. Her kids want one, too. Suddenly she cannot take her Jewishness as a norm for granted.

But my anxieties on the subject are facing in the opposite direction. I’ve been living on the Upper West Side recently, which is filled with a curious new species of Jew, the modern Orthodox. I know their progenitors; I grew up in a building where a famous rabbi and his circle lived; I still see his exquisitely well-mannered wife, who asks after my mother and my children. They were always warm and cordial to us; there was what amounted to a recruitment push at some point, a few dinners, but when I did not prove responsive there was never any sense of judgment. My only feeling of antagonism toward this rabbi and his world regards the no-parking sign that went up in front of the synagogue across the street, though that is not exactly right; I am in some ways grateful for the sport of seeing car after car pause in front of that empty space. Strangers in a strange land, you can feel the wheels turning inside the mind of the driver—the excitement, the squinting at the sign, the incredulity melding into irritation or resignation, that one can infer from the manner in which the car pulls away. Lately that spot has been occupied—oddly loaded word these days—by a shiny new Range Rover which presumably has a dispensation to park in the no-parking zone. Parking is a kind of theology in New York, and a unifying one; all the believers and non-believers give thanks to the many days alternate side of the street regulations are suspended out of respect to the many religions practiced here.

So, one day I am in the building’s playroom with my daughter when a whole minyan of little kids with yarmulkes on comes barreling in. Mayhem ensues. Merriment too. The holidays are just around the corner. The one adult present wears a yarmulke. We have an amicable chat. When I tell him I am a writer he absorbs this for moment and then asks, “Do you ghost write?”

“No. Why?”

“It just seems like someone writing personal essays would naturally ghost write for other people.”

I find this depressing and inquire about his work; he’s a business guy in the new media space, working on an app for busy parents. I turn to the hordes of screaming youth, braced, against what I cannot even say.

12. It was during the Riverside Church Weekday School Christmas pageant that I remembered the business card in my wallet. My holiday ponderings about Judaism, belief, non-belief, my kid, had been swept up in a whirlwind of topicality connected to the death of Christopher Hitchens, the world’s most famous atheist. The Christmas pageant took place eight days after the Hanukkah celebration—I don’t know if it was just by chance or if the idea was to wait eight days. This was a much bigger production. It took place in the big assembly space downstairs and doubled as the farewell event of the semester for the whole school. My daughter’s class was dressed in headgear and robes. Later, when I asked her what she was dressed as, she thought about for a moment and said, “Savages.”

My talk with the rabbi—she was so nice, so accommodating—nevertheless reminded me of how difficult it is for me to focus on the conceptual aspects of theology. I perked up when she referred to the list of irreligious Jews, or should I say non-believing Jews, who have been such stellar contributors to modern thought and life. My own all-star team: Freud, Einstein, Marx!

My interest in science has always extended only to its richness as a metaphor; clinical data leaves me cold. But I do believe in magical realism—you take the empirical and make it a story, and it begins to levitate and in this you have a kind of mysticism. I don’t believe in God, but I do believe in the gods, the ones you don’t want to anger, to whom you must pay respect if only as a hedge against hubris.

The rabbi did share with me an impressive fact: The Reform movement in America recognizes patrilineal descent! And there are more members of the American Reform movement than all the other movements combined. If I wrote this on a fortune-cookie fortune and slid it into my daughter’s shoe, could she pull it out and wave it in the face of the first kid who tells her she is not Jewish?

13. At home, we sing our Hanukkah songs in Hebrew and I have only the faintest idea about the meaning of the words, which are printed phonetically on sheets of music handed out to guests at our party. These mimeographed pages with their funny-sounding words in English and accompanying text in Hebrew are homemade and have been touched by every iteration of myself once a year since I was 10. My mother plays the piano. I have outsourced all my Judaic identity to her, in a way. Perhaps this is one of the reasons I am always so happy to see my daughter nestled beside her or on her lap. The transmission not of facts but feeling.

Sometimes I look at my child and feel torn between the feeling that she is vulnerable and the feeling that she is invincible. She is about to turn 5 years old. In spite of this or maybe because of it, most of the time I feel she is invincible. I mention this because I feel like the subject of religion generally, and God in particular, is something she will have to withstand, as if it were a blow. I can almost hear the choir of well-meaning voices arguing that it should be the opposite, news of the afterlife, the Bible, God, should be a boon. But that is not how I feel. Because I don’t believe in God. But I am Jewish and want her to feel connected to her legacy. The question is whether to say it directly or to let the fact seep in by osmosis over the course of the passing Hanukkahs and Passovers.

I am not a believer but she is. As of last year she believed in Santa Claus. Even more powerfully felt is the Easter Bunny, whom my wife has imbued with a curious problem-solving authority, so that my daughter will sometimes say, at an uncertain moment, “Why don’t we call the Easter Bunny?”

She says a lot of interesting things. Recently she said, “Dad, I have a kooky hypothesis.”

Her phrases rush by like flowers on a river and in the time it takes to wade in and grab one, hold it, write it down, whole wreaths and bouquets have rushed by. I rescued kooky hypothesis but not what she said when I asked her what it was.

Thomas Beller teaches writing at Tulane University. His most recent books are The Sleep-Over Artist, a novel, and How To Be A Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood, an essay collection. He is working on a biography of J.D. Salinger.

Thomas Beller teaches writing at Tulane University. His most recent books are The Sleep-Over Artist, a novel, and How To Be A Man: Scenes From a Protracted Boyhood, an essay collection. He is working on a biography of J.D. Salinger.