This week’s blogger is Dana Sacks, whose piece features insights from a Jew By Choice.
Where I Come From
by Dana Sacks
When my family and I were getting ready to make the trip to Washington, D.C. to see Barack Obama’s inauguration, we couldn’t believe our luck in being able to see our first African American President take the official oath of office (we ended up getting stuck in the “Purple Tunnel of Doom,” but that’s another story). The inauguration allowed us to have difficult conversations with our children about differences in skin color, religion, and cultures.
Obama has much to admire about him, especially his interesting cultural background. Born to a white mother and African father, Obama was raised by his white grandparents. He has lived in Indonesia and went to school in Hawaii. Imagine how proud his family is; their son, brother, grandchild is the President of the United States. This really is a country where you can become anything.
Recently, hip hop artist Wyclef Jean was on “60 Minutes” and said that his father had never seen him perform until 2001 when he attended his concert at Carnegie Hall. When Wyclef asked his father “What did you think?” His father said, “You’ve made it. Those people here—whites, blacks, brown, tall, thin, short, fat–weren’t seeing the color of your skin but were appreciating the man.” To me, this response is the most eloquent outcome of multiculturalism—taking pride in your own culture while appreciating others around you.
American Jews are proud of their culture. “Jewish geography” is a popular game, as is “Are they Jewish or not?” This one you play with your spouse or other Jewish friend as you try to figure out if the clerk, waiter, new friend…whoever…is Jewish. You start by asking them their last name. If that fails to give you your answer, you ask where they grew up. (C’mon, it’s fun!)
As a Jew by Choice, I feel as if my “other” culture stands out. I am a sixth-generation Californian. My family came to California from Indiana in a covered wagon in 1862 with several other families and settled in Anderson Valley. We have the journal to prove it. It’s a part of my family’s history that we are really proud of.
My upbringing could at best be considered mainstream. I grew up in a largely nonreligious house, but celebrated Christmas and Easter. One Passover, my husband and I were invited to our friend’s parents’ house for the first seder, the annual ritual meal that distinguishes Passover from “all other nights.” As the dinner wound down, the guests started sharing their family stories—how they got out of Europe, when they got out of Russia…you know, the same stories most Jews have, with slight variations in family lore. The guests each took turns until it came time for me. All eyes looked at me expectantly as I blurted out the words, “I don’t want to tell you.” In fact, my family came from the “other side” of the story, and were most likely those that had harmed Jews in the first place. Everyone kind of laughed, but it was obvious then how different I was. It made me a little uncomfortable.
There are (often stereotypical) differences in food, as well. Jews are very proud of their food—and the fact that mayonnaise is considered “goyish.” I grew up putting mayo on everything: broccoli, asparagus, salads, turkey, you name it. I remember asking for mayo for my pastrami sandwich during my first visit to New York City and having the waitress give me a very strange look and stern “no.” My husband cringed and tried to slide under his chair. How I was supposed to know that we weren’t allowed to mix mayonaise and meat?
We always ate Ambrosia salad—a mix of fruit cocktail, marshmallows, and sour cream. It was our special salad, only for holidays. Whenever I tell any of my Jewish friends about it, they screw their faces up in disgust. They can’t imagine eating such a salad! (I have to admit, it kind of grosses me out now, too.)
Two of my siblings have become born-again Christians, adding a depth of discomfort to family gatherings when we are all together. Suddenly, in my own family, I am a different culture. I don’t celebrate Christmas or Easter any more and don’t travel down for those holidays as I used to. I had to make this difficult decision after I realized that my sister’s children felt the same way about Christmas (“Let’s get a birthday cake for Jesus,” they suggested) that I felt about Yom Kippur. To half-heartedly participate in a day they consider holy feels as wrong to me as it is having them schedule reunions during my High Holidays–which they have done.
That’s not to say that the Jewish community isn’t welcoming of other cultures. They just want you to preserve theirs, too. While I want my kids to appreciate the Jewish classes, Hebrew schools, and camps, the last thing I want is for either of my kids to not appreciate where I came from. They’ll also get the questions at the Seder table and will need to be prepared. They are a wonderful mix of two interesting cultures. Thinking about Barack Obama and Wyclef Jean, I know the more multicultural we are, the more beautiful our culture will be. Our country, our culture, our people–we all were united in our pride on January 20th.
–Thanks to ModernJewishMom.com for introducing us to Dana. This piece originally appeared at MJM in a slightly different form.