This is my first Rosh Hashanah blogging as a Jew.
It’s not that I avoided the topic of Judaism when I blogged about dogs; I discussed it on several occasions. I was even considering having a Bark Mitzvah for my dog, Frankie, when he turned 13 earlier this year, but he objected to the yarmulke and having to learn the long arf-torah and I respected that. Generally, however, my Jewishness and Frankie’s — he is extremely circumcised, I should mention — were not central to the discussion there.
It’s different on this blog. It doesn’t matter whether I’m religious or whether my family was. Jewishness became the central issue of their life in Vienna — as it did for Sigmund Freud, avowed atheist. Other people are going to define you, no matter how you define yourself, whether you like it or not. Occasionally it works out to your benefit — for example, when people think you’re more sophisticated than you actually are because you grew up in New York City.
More often than not it doesn’t.
My parents weren’t especially observant, though they followed the outlines of the faith: no mixing milk and meat, no pork or shellfish in the house. We lit candles for Hanukkah and ate matzoh on Passover — except for my father, who ate it other times of the year but, during the holidays, claimed it gave him diarrhea. (Dr. Freud?)
Looking back, I don’t think either my mother or father found any joy or comfort in the rituals, though they probably tried to observe them for the sake of their two children and because it’s what they knew growing up.
After my father died, my mother became more vocal about her loss of faith, assuming she had faith to begin with. She didn’t think the Holocaust could have happened if there was a God. By the time she made these assertions, I had nothing to offer in rebuttal.
As an adolescent, I’d been very interested in Judaism. I had been sent to a Yeshivah junior high school because the neighborhood of the public school I was slated to attend had deteriorated. We studied Talmud, which I loved for its spirited parsing of rules and laws. I wanted to go on to read the Kabbalah, the central text of Jewish mysticism; that sounded like the really good stuff. I gathered it would require many years of studying the torah as preparation but I was willing. Then I learned that girls were not permitted to study Kabbalah — Madonna notwithstanding — no matter how much prep time they put in. That didn’t seem fair.
I like being able to say that I had a feminist loss of faith, though it probably would have happened for another reason eventually — such as not wanting to spend several years studying the torah. Instead I went to graduate school, where I spent several years studying non-Jewish texts.
But although I’m not keen on any organized religions, including the one I grew up with, there’s no question that I’m culturally Jewish. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing what’s traditional at this time of the Jewish calendar, looking back meditatively.
A friendly rebellion
I’ve alluded to the fact that I grew up not knowing anything about other relatives who were alive, except the ones who were overseas. I also grew up with parents who didn’t have any friends, though my sister remembers one couple, the Naumanns; the name is familiar to me but I don’t recall ever seeing my parents socialize with them or anyone else.
My form of rebellion, I think, was to become social with a vengeance. I don’t mean popular in the mean girl sense, or that I didn’t spend lots of time reading. But I also reveled in the company of others.
My early friends were almost all Jewish, because that’s who lived in my immediate Brooklyn neighborhood. I was friendly with some Italian kids in my grade school class, but mostly hung out with girls who were within walking distance. (This brings back a memory of shouting up from the sidewalk to get them to come downstairs from their apartments — literally calling for them. We lived on busy streets. Wouldn’t it have been too noisy to hear?)
Until I went to high school, I didn’t know there was another Christian religion besides Catholicism. Seriously. Protestants were not in the picture… and fuggedabout Protestantism’s different denominations.
This is what I mean about a New York City upbringing being no guarantee of sophistication, no matter what others think.
I had a fairly mixed group of friends in Madison High School and Brooklyn College, though primarily Jews and Catholics (I was still in Brooklyn after all). It wasn’t until graduate school at NYU in Manhattan that I had a close friend who was Protestant, and not until I went to San Diego to do dissertation research that almost all my friends were gentile.
Over the years, including those spent in London and now in Tucson, I made several friends who were Jewish. But by virtue of the demographics and my aforementioned avoidance of organized religion, more were not.
My new extended family
As I wrote in I See Live People, the research for this blog led to the discovery of a world full of Kornmehl family members I didn’t know I had. It’s very exciting; I hope I’ll get to know many of them better. One has already contributed a post to this blog, which has made her an immediate friend.
Does that mean there is no place here for non-Jews?
Of course not. This blog wouldn’t exist without them. My friend John was the one who googled “Freud’s butcher” and discovered the connection with the Freud Museum that spurred me to write Freud’s Butcher. Lydia found my cousin’s book on the Kornmehl family that led to us all knowing each other; she also helped me with genealogical research. By coincidence, a student of Lydia’s at NYU worked on a film called Auf Wiedersehen: ‘Til We Meet Again about Jews in Vienna during World War II. Through the filmmaker, Linda Mills, I’ve been corresponding with Lothar Hölbling, the non-Jewish archivist who helped process the vast reserve of Jewish files discovered in Vienna and detailed in the film. He has been immensely helpful to me. I’ll write more about the film and about Lothar soon.
And I’ve never discussed religion with my wonderful web designer, Laura E. Kelly, but I’m thinking Kelly is not so much a Jewish name.
Freud and meat, the other topics I’m covering, are nondenominational.
My Jewish friends and family members understand certain things about me that no one else can; they’re essential things, but they’re not everything. My dog-loving friends get why I can no longer travel as much as I used to — something Jews who don’t have pets would consider meshuggenah. Other friends know the writer me, the foodie me, my single-without-children side…. And some understand many of my personae.
We contain multitudes.
So happy new year and thank you to all who have enriched my life, Jewish, non-Jewish, real and virtual, those I know through my dog blog and social media but have never met. I’m looking forward to expanding my horizons even more.