Most people that I know in California — where I have lived since 2001 — think that I am from Florida. It is understandable. I moved to Oakland from Tampa, where I had gone to college and then begun my professional writing career. I have been known to go to bat for that much-maligned foreleg of a territory: I chose it, after all, and though I did so haphazardly at first (it’s warm, my sister was there, and my grades were shitty so I went to a university that wanted me) I did come of age there, and I chose to stay for nearly 12 years. Yes, it is a sweaty petrie dish for weird behavior but, having grown up in a conformist locale that considered itself the center of the universe, the swampy, humble eccentricity of central Florida was downright exotic to me. Plus: thrift stores.
I am from New York. The south shore of Long Island in particular. Nassau County, the part that’s close enough to beaches and The City for people to stay there forever. (Suffolk County is bigger and, when I was growing up, still rural in large swaths and definitely the kind of place one grows up in and then leaves. Most people you meet who grew up on LI but left are from Suffolk.) I have written a lot about the conformist environs that raised me up — one of the O.G. the bridge-and-tunnel towns, where NYC businessmen could escape to white picket fences and green lawns and protection for the families from the urban reality and terrifying culture of the five boroughs. But I have not written much about my religious upbringing.
I was raised in a conservative Jewish household. That’s the middle ground between the various kinds of very restrictive Orthodoxy (separate rooms for men and women at synagogue and celebrations, yarmulkes or more elaborate gear on the men’s heads at all times, modest clothing and head coverings for women) and reform Judaism (driving instead of walking to shul, interpreting the Torah so you can get tattoos, female rabbis who, in the Northern California version, often know a lot about Zen Buddhism).
Being raised conservative means that we kept kosher in the house: two sets of dishes, cutlery, and pots for everyday use (only the meat ones could be washed in the dishwasher); another set for the week of Passover, when we would gather up all the bread products and give them to the poor (or put them in a cabinet for later) and change out the regular milchig and fleishig stuff for the Passover versions; and the occasional dining out on shrimp (lo mein for me, fra diavalo for my mother) and Burger King, eating any leftovers we brought home on paper plates. It means that I was not allowed shrinky-dinks because they had non-Kosher ingredients not allowed in our oven.
It means that I went to a private Jewish school for third through fifth grade (my older brother and sister for much longer) and then, once post-divorce finances necessitated a move to public, Hebrew School several times a week in the late afternoons until my Bat Mitzvah at age 12. It means that we walked to shul on the High Holidays but didn’t go on shabbas. It means that my brother would point at the reform temple on our way to Beth Shalom and joke that they were closed for the holidays. It means that I have first cousins who are rabbis and first cousins who are married to torah scribes. I have first cousins who are Orthodox. I have first cousins who are Zionists. And — thanks to my mother’s older sister who moved her brood of eight (soon nine) there by boat in the early ’70s — I have many, many cousins who live in Israel.
Part of my rejection of the conformity of my youth was a rejection of Judaism. When I say that, I mean the spiritual practice as well as the rules and restrictions. Shortly after entering public school, a rabbinical sermon during one the High Holidays spoke of the Jews’ preferred treatment in the eyes of the lord. We are the Chosen People, after all, but the doctrine I learned growing up was no Buffy-shaped “chosen” designation, no super-powered distinction gifted upon my people with the edict to defend those less fortunate. Nah. That rabbi straight-up told little tween me that we were better than everyone else. And, despite being bullied from the jump, in public school I found new friends of all kinds. My mother’s business partner and best friend was an Italian-American lady with a bitchin’ white pompadour. So this sermon created an immediate schism between my family’s faith and me.
I am much older now. I live in Oakland, California, in a part of the country boasting the kind of radically inclusive Jewry that would have been much more up my pre-teen alley. But as someone who, by some mysterious happenstance and for better or worse, is built for inclusivity and always has been (even when my unconscious bias has made me a real asshole) the exclusive religion of my youth insured that I would not follow the path of Judaism. Culturally, sure, I am NY Jew through and through — I will tell you when your bagel is really bread with a hole in it, I got my nose done as a sweet sixteen gift, and my parents retired to Florida. I have hidden from skinheads in punk clubs and argued with them on suburban streets.
And I have been to Israel. Once when I was a baby and again in 2000, when I was 28.
I have been in Tel Aviv and Haifa and Jerusalem and the beach town of Netanya and, for a weekend, in the West Bank city of Ofra. My eldest cousin is a settler there. He has 15 children and, now, many of them have children. He took me on a tour of the city. He took me to the top of a hill and, pointing at another hill where houses were being built, said, “We got to the top of this hill and saw that the Arabs could see into our houses. So we are building on that hill.” Days before that, my youngest cousin — the one a year younger than me who was my pen pal in our adolescence, the then-El Al flight attendant and Chinese Medicine student whose wedding I was there for — angrily upbraided me on the streets of Tel Aviv for bumming a cigarette from a handsome young man. “Don’t talk to them,” she said. “Don’t talk to Arabs.”
When I got back from that trip and people asked me about it, I would often answer “There’s too much god in that country.”
It is 2021. I have a more nuanced relationship with faith, religion, spirituality. I have a dear friend who writes about radical Catholicism. I have loved ones in recovery who rely on a higher power. And I am now resolutely agnostic — anything is possible, I think, in the realm of the supernatural, and if you show me I will believe it. In the meantime I am a humanist, endeavoring to treat others with respect, helping where I can. And I am therefore totally down with any religious texts that prescribe the same.
And I no longer think there is too much god in Israel. Now I think there is not nearly enough.
What passes for divine right in that country is hateful prejudice. The current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a step beyond what has come before. Civilians on both sides are being beaten in the streets of major cities. But one thing has not changed: Israel has the power, the numbers; there are casualties on both sides but the Israeli ones are a fraction of the Palestinian.
Here’s the thing: I recently told my Persian friend — who joins me in jokes about her people and mine — that I wish that Americans who get hung up on the Palestinian cause would look to our own country. I wish that every white college freshman holding a pro-Palestine sign while wearing a kafffiyeh would have to visit a Native American reservation. What Israel has done, is doing to Palestine, the United States did to the native population here centuries ago, and the effects are still being felt. We are on their land and they are still suffering. I think it is hypocritical for Americans to turn a blind eye to our own occupation while raging against that which occurs elsewhere.
But I also think that the Israeli government is a colonizing bully and every nation that feeds its coffers and uplifts its status is complicit. For every Israeli citizen who lives and works peacefully alongside their Palestinian neighbor or fights for peace between the nations, there are those who sneer or spit at “Arabs” or worse; and for every radical American Jew who compares the treatment of Palestinians to those of Holocaust victims, there are scores more, including my friends from high school and summer camp in NY, who are using “I stand with Israel” profile frames on Facebook, forcing me to write this on my blog rather than declaring my feelings there.
I purged my FB rolls after the 2016 election. I purged it of that cousin whose wedding I attended in 2000, who was anti-Hillary and proclaimed tr*mp to be pro-Israel and therefore A-OK. I purged it of high school friends who voted for him because they thought it was funny and, later, of anti-maskers and COVID deniers and bluelivesmatter types. But I have since softened. Once that asshat was out of office, I wanted to be able to reach across, to educate. I unhid people whose beliefs I didn’t hold in common. And the elder generation of my family — my mother’s cousins — are getting old and dying. I have created a life out West with a robust, delightful chosen family. But divorcing yourself from your upbringing can leave a hole in your foundation, a hole in your identity that the wind whistles through. So I friended some cousins. I brought their reality back into mine online.
And yet here I am. Writing on my blog page instead of on Facebook. I am being exclusive myself, writing a meandering screed instead of sharing links to help beleaguered Palestinians being displaced, injured, and killed at the hands of militarized, institutionalized prejudice. I will probably link to this blog on social media. I will hope that people read to the end. Because I am writing here rather than there not just because I am a coward, but also because I want room for nuance. I want room to plead my case.
And because I know not everyone will read to the end.
Where to donate and learn:
- Human Concern International – Palestine Relief
- Jewish Voice for Peace
- Medical Aid for Palestine – Emergency Appeal
- The Carter Center – Supporting Peace in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory
- Taawan – Emergency Support to the Jerusalem Hospitals and First Aid Responders