Wes was two years my senior, the resident advisor of my first-year university dorm. He wore thick glasses, and once burned me a CD mix with songs by The Elastics, Pavement and Silver Jews.
One day during my second year, we met for lunch in the campus cafeteria, and he informed me, confidently and with a dopey smile, that I wasn’t “really Jewish.” You see, he explained, my mother had only converted to Judaism when she married my dad. When I balked, he insisted on my lack of authentic Jewishness, laughing, “But the religion is matrilineal! You’re not really Jewish!” Too emotional and uncomfortable to argue, I blushed, and finally, laughed along with him.
I have some idea, now, about where Wes’s sense of authority came from: He was a white dude, and, while not Jewish himself, had likely sailed through World Religions 101 and figured he could school me on the subject.
Ever since, our conversation comes back to me periodically, its sting no less sharp for its recurrence. Wes may have thought we were on a date, and had hoped to offend me into liking him. Or maybe he’d thought he could impress me with his deep knowledge of Judaism.
As with other secrets of youth, eventually I realized I could talk about this incident – Wes mansplaining to me my “questionable Jewishness” – without shame. I’ve thought often about what I would’ve said to him then, had I been more confident. You don’t know what you’re talking about! My mum gave up CHRISTMAS, dummy! She studied Hebrew and learned how to sing Shabbat prayers! Why would conversion even be a thing if people didn’t take it seriously? This exclusionary rhetoric is wrongheaded, damaging, and totally antiquated! The Judaism you’re talking about isn’t the Judaism I know!
And it’s true, for the most part: the Judaism I’ve known has made many of the right gestures towards inclusivity. My siblings and I went to a Conservative Jewish elementary school, but the students there came from a range of Jewish backgrounds. Vegetarian lunches were the rule, but no one could stop us from having salami and cheese sandwiches at home on the weekends. Most of our teachers were Jewish but some weren’t, and that was fine. This division amongst the staff introduced me to the difference between Jewish and non-Jewish surnames: Moore vs. Epstein, McDonald vs. Rosenthal, Arnold vs. Schachter.
My mum held fast to Arnold, the last name she was born with. Raised on a ranch in Alberta, she’d ridden horses and taken care of five younger siblings before going away to boarding school to escape an abusive and mentally ill father. She determinedly kept his name, perhaps as a defiant act of survival. Arnold was her professional name when she became a lawyer; it was the name that saw her through adventures to Mill’s College in California in 1969 and travelling in South America in the ‘70s.
Perhaps my mother having a different last name from my dad, and from us kids, contributed to the subtle apartness I felt at school. Ironically, it was my Mum’s idea to send us to Jewish day school; she wanted us to grow up with a sense of distinct tradition, even though it wouldn’t be her tradition, exactly.
As a child, though, I couldn’t verbalize this vague worry I had about being not Jewish enough. It was an origin-less feeling, possibly stemming from a lesson I don’t remember receiving. The Judaism that catered to this fear was subtly exclusionary, in some ways not unlike the cliques that sprung up in my Grade 5 class. Those preadolescent hierarchies, at once innocent and malicious, mundane and totalizing, were perhaps tacitly based on a person’s Jewishness as well as on factors like wealth, class and personality.
The synagogue my family went to was Reform, and progressive in all the ways Reform congregations can be. On the High Holidays, the shul made space for the congregants who, like us, didn’t appear to exist any other day of the year. There were plenty of songs sung in English; the foremothers were included in prayers and liturgy and on Yom Kippur, a cellist and pianist played music that awed me to a place deeper than bone or my own memory.
My mum had a real affection for this synagogue, the place where she’d converted. Nevertheless, after she and my dad separated (the event perfectly timed to my bat mitzvah year), she stopped going, as though her access pass had expired. In the way that kids intuit things, I understood. I felt sad about the fact she’d stopped attending shul, but knew I couldn’t fix it – just like I couldn’t fix the divorce itself. But I also felt a sense of relief, of which I was ashamed: Without her with us at synagogue, my dad and my siblings and I could pretend at a perfect and uncomplicated Jewishness.
The years went on and my siblings and I learned Hebrew rapidly, soon surpassing even our dad’s skills. He’d grown up Jewish in Winnipeg, the son of a dry goods business owner and the youngest of three children. As a young man with a red Jew-fro on the Vancouver hippie scene of the late ‘60s and ‘70s, he drifted away from the Jewish community. He returned to it again though, once we, his kids, were enrolled in Jewish day school.
Although he’d forgotten much of his Hebrew, he needed only to reach out for his roots, and they were there. Not so for my mum; she lacked the cultural credibility of a Jewish past, name or extended family. For some hardliners, like Wes, it would never be enough that she’d converted to Judaism, had bought Jewish cookbooks and actually used them, despite working full time as a lawyer and later as a judge.
Gaps in her knowledge of Jewish traditions or a stumble over words while singing a Hebrew song seemed, I anxiously thought, to be met by Jewish friends and family less with good-humoured understanding and more with awkwardness and judgment. We, her children, soon knew enough about Judaism to silently critique her, to feel simultaneously embarrassed by, and protective of, her.
Nowadays, my mum celebrates Christmas again. Not because she let her Jewishness lapse, but because she remarried a man of the secular Christian persuasion. I suspect there is comfort and sustenance for her in the lights, the nostalgic songs and the unabashed baking of Christmas cakes. (She’d baked them when I was a kid, but it’s no longer something she feels she has to downplay.)
Seeing her flexible embrace and interweaving of religious traditions, her eclecticism and self-assuredness, I feel I finally have a response to offer my younger self, the teenager who felt left out and ashamed of having such a complicated household. Of course you belong, I tell her, and this belonging can be complex, your identity elastic, and multiple.
My sense that origins can evolve was recently solidified when I attended a service at a large Reform synagogue in Chicago, the city’s oldest shul. I listened, rapt, to the head rabbi talk about his own conversion to Judaism in his early twenties, and felt a knot of tension deep within me begin to loosen.
Lauren Schachter is pursuing a PhD in English Literature in Chicago, where she lives with her once-a-Catholic, now just plain spiritual, girlfriend. Together, they are trying to celebrate everything.