My name is Sarah Ruth Cohen. I am a 2nd Generation Jew(ish) American.
My Papa Moishe was a Sephardic Jew. He came from Greece. Well not really Greece—more like the disputed territory between Greece and Turkey, a city called Thessaloniki. I’ve been there; it’s nice except that the Nazi’s destroyed most anything to connect me to that part of my heritage. Fun fact: Thessaloniki was one of the few places in the world where Jews, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully together. But I guess when you live on a thriving ocean port; the fun has to end somewhere. The city is Greek now.
I’ve been told my Papa was called Morris the Turk and he spoke Ladino. This means that my family is a product of the Spanish Inquisition, in which Ferdinand and Isabella converted/kicked out/murdered the Jews in Spain.
Fun Fact: Queen Isabella (A queen in her own right) and Ferdinand were the parents of Catherine of Aragon, who was the first wife of Henry the VIII, and the grandparents of Mary I, also called Bloody Mary. They also funded that old scamp, none other than Christopher Columbus, and we all know about his good deeds.
Three cheers for Isabella and Ferdi. They were real stand up monarchs.
I recently found out that my grandmother Sarah and her family, who was an Ashkenazi Jew, walked from Russia to Germany to get on a boat and come to America.
Where do I fit into all of this? I’m not really sure. My mother is not Jewish, so I’ve confused for a long time. I grew up in a rural area—-sans Jews. So here’s a timeline of Sarah’s Judaism to maybe help me clear things up.
I’m three years old. I am at Passover at the Orthodox Rabbi’s home. My parents are somewhere; I am playing with about 15 other children who are speaking some mixture of Yiddish, English and possibly Russian. The applesauce has lumps in it.
Four years old: Chanukah is a fun holiday. A Menorah is not a birthday cake. You cannot blow the candles out or you will probably get yelled at. Yarmulkes are fun hats that don’t cover your whole head. I have books about Chanukah Goblins and Latkes. My mom brings Latkes to my Christian preschool.
Six or seven years old: Mom tells me about Hitler. She says that Hitler would take your Dad away because he is Jewish, take your Mom away because she married a Jew and take the children away too. I find myself very afraid of the door.
I think this was the year we got a Super Nintendo for Chanukah.
When asked about who put up their Christmas trees, my brother eagerly tells his preschool class that ours is up, only to be called “Jew-Boy” by the teacher .
Eight, Nine, Ten…intermittent Chanukahs filled with gelt and Beanie Babies.
In third grade we visit my Aunt in Virginia. We have the first Passover I can remember since the applesauce. Turns out, picky eaters do not like unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
In forth grade I bring my Menorah to school for show and tell. Instead of factor Christmas trees during math, my teacher has me do factor Menorahs. This does not make sense and I don’t bother to put my name on my paper. In stereotypical Jewish fashion, I am put in counseling.
Around the age of ten, my nose starts getting bigger and I get teased about that. I start reading books about the Holocaust. I become the most depressing child on earth.
A friendly librarian tells my mom that I look just like Anne Frank. That’s a comforting thought. Later, I am pretty sure that I am Anne Frank incarnate and began writing prolifically, watching movies about her and crying a lot.
Middle school. I am somewhere between feeling proud of being Jewish and being embarrassed because I’m different. I don’t look like (what I feel) were shiny- little-blonde-Dutch-small schnozzled-farm kids, with normal Christmases. I’m Dutch too, but being a swarthy, vaguely ethnic bookworm doesn’t help anything.
In seventh grade I ask if I could have a bat mitzvah. Denied. Our town is a bit too far away from the nearest temple.
In eighth grade I realize that people are using the word “Jew” to mean stupid. I’m pretty sure that no one actually knew what Jew is, but when I tell my teachers, they hard-core back me up. When some asshole has the nerve to call me a Jewish bitch, one of my teachers chases him down the hall.
My “boyfriend” has a brother who talks about killing Jews. I spend some time breaking a wooden baseball bat against the cement in our driveway.
I stop riding the bus in tenth grade because some Neo-Nazi is making very loud speeches about killing Jews. Again, I don’t think this kid knows anything about Jews, but who wants to ride the bus in tenth grade, Nazis or not?
I am told by several people that I’m not actually Jewish because my Mom isn’t. Well shoot.
I’m also told that’s it’s my fault that Jesus died. I soon learn to counter with the fact that the “Destined-to-die-to-save-humanity-from-having-to-kill-goats-to-atone-for-your sins-Jewish-Savior”, was not in fact killed by me. I realize that there is some weird paradox going on when someone is feeling vindicated and righteous enough to tell me that I personally killed the man, who, if he had not died (again: destined to die from the moment of conception) would not have expanded the cult of women and lepers that is now Christianity, therefore not giving you the opportunity to tell me that I killed him 2,000 years ago. So you’re welcome.
It’s possible that my speech is not as forthright, assertive and sardonic as the previous paragraph, I may have only said something like “Uhh, nooo, that wasn’t me…I’m pretty sure it was the Romans?”
I attend shul with my Dad and have no idea what is going on. I learn that my family (not just my family, but all Cohens (at least males)) are kind of rock stars in the Jewish world. I use my cell phone in the lobby and get really, really dirty looks. I try gefilte fish. No thanks.
My senior year I get to go to the Holocaust Museum in DC. I actually don’t remember most of it, even though at the time it seemed like that’s what my life was worth living for. I do remember that I bought an Anne Frank poster. I continued my saga of being a very depressing person. I also took a Holocaust class during this time, and became the resident expert on being Jewish.
I also wrote this satire about being Jewish. I don’t think I have a copy of it anymore, but I did talk a lot about Adam Sandler teaming up with my Grandmother to kill Jesus. My teacher said it was the best paper she had ever read by student. She read it to the class.
What’s the conclusion to all of this? I wasn’t raised around other Jewish people. Not cousins, Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Grandparents, neighbors or friends. I spent a lot of my life feeling different. I feel disconnected from other Jewish people because I only really know about what I’ve read and what comedians tell me. I have become vicariously Jewish. I claim that I’m Hispanic, but not a Latina. I’ve had to spend some time defending my Judaism as an ethnicity because it’s not my religion. My favorite thing about it is the humor. I think the funniest people in the world are those who have a history wrought with pain.
At the risk of making an incredible understatement; my encounters are only snippets of what my older family members/ancestors/ethnic community has experienced. I try not to use my experience to deny or minimize the tragedy of the other immigrant experiences in this country. It is minimal in the face of the micro and macro aggressions that people of color put up with all too often. I only hope that it makes me more sensitive to the racism and jingoism that runs rampant in our world today.