I’ve been wrestling with this for a long time, because while part of me has been wanting to do this since forever the other part was hesitant. Because, A. I don’t want this sidetracking into a political debate, and B. it is extremely personal. But on the other hand, if this blog is there to help others, to bring people together so we can all find our tribe (or at the very least see that we’re not alone), it wouldn’t be fair to leave this out. If Helsinki-Budapest is indeed a state of mind (and it is), then this is an equally huge aspect and should be accorded its due respect. What finally pushed me towards writing this was a conversation with my good friend Paula in one of our favorite places in this city. So, thank you again for the inspiration.
Sadly, I need to write this disclaimer. Because the world is so polarized these days, it has to be said. This is not intended as a political debate. We need an honestly introspective political debate that aims not to polarize but to unite. And for this reason precisely I want to keep politics at bay. The political background is too vast, and needs a separate analysis and discussion. To weave it in here would take away from that discussion in a major way because it could not be accorded its worth on terms of scope and depth. Instead, I want to focus on that feeling of (not quite) belonging, of being torn, between two cultures, two mindsets, religions, points of view. In doing so, I need to focus on my own background and experience, which happens to be Jewish-Catholic East-Meets-West. I’ve found like-minded people in various religious communities throughout the world, which is another reason I want to focus this subject on being torn between two worlds you grew up in, want to belong to, and which both have equal merit. It pains me to say this, but any comments deemed disrespectful or potentially derailing the intent, will be deleted. So far everyone here has been extremely respectful, and we’ve had great debates, so we’ll continue to keep it that way. My campground, my rules. Dem’s the breaks.
My family was never truly religious on either side, but connected enough for me to plant roots (flimsy as they might (have) be(en)) in both places, or at least consider doing so. When I was nine, in Chicago, I was as familiar with the Friday night service at temple as Sunday service at the church we attended. Sundays for the soul, and Fridays for some type of tangible Feng shui while we were treading upon this Earth (my parents home in a Jewish school for that time). At least that seemed to be the logic behind it, and why some relatives let me be in that respect. They saw my Jewish father as a doorway to a better life, which in combination with my face meant I’d be raking in money by the bucket load, at least according to them. Nobody ever said they were overly smart, or even tolerant, or (deeply) empathetic. Though I’m sure they would beg to differ. Can’t speak to what my father’s side of the family would have made of my Catholic mother, as the Nazis pretty much decimated them when they went on their race-elimination rampage.
Identity is what your parents gave you and what society dictates. Living within the fabric of German society as a child, my Otherness was quickly predetermined. Not just because of my name or my first languages, but mainly by my face. My mother tried to circumvent that by having me christened, but no one asks for a certificate when they can see what they determine as truth (their truth) in your face. Because that was made pretty clear early on – and make no mistake, children pick up on looks and whispers – you might speak the language, but you’ll never be completely one of us. If I had any doubts to the contrary, I only had to look at why I kept suddenly losing friends. A little girl who hated my guts would tell my new friends I was Jewish, and they would all – except three – stop talking to me. One of those three told me straight out she was on my side all the way, and the other found out what had been going on when I was in grad school and had long since moved away. They were both German, giving legitimacy to what I’d already felt as a child in that town. Though really, it shouldn’t have to be that way. People feel things, children especially, and teachers marking foreign kids down while bypassing any literature that put the Nazis in a bad light and choosing to teach obscure and meaningless writers from the 17th century who focused on Good Old German Village Life pretty much speak for themselves. Of the roughly 60-80 teachers the school had, maybe 5 were not antisemitic, bigoted, or racist, two tried to instill general values of acceptance, and only one actively went out of his way to have his students read age-appropriate novels about Jewish life under Nazi rule. Turns out he was born in Poland, gay, and his older partner had been through the atrocities and lived to tell the tale.
I played a lot with the Turkish kids on my block, because like me they were clearly foreign. Their German, like mine, was that of a native, but they were still Other. The ones I was instinctively drawn to, however, were those who like myself were half and half. Since as a small child your vicinity becomes the only world you know, the kids I was drawn to on my block were the offspring of ill-fated unions between black GIs and German women they’d met at the local biannual fair. Their mothers were about as well-equipped for the job of navigating two opposing worlds as my relatives. Though there was one marked difference, these children stood out far more clearly, whereas in my case there was merely a hint, although a very clear one. To the society we lived in, that didn’t matter. Different was different, whether by 1% or 100.
Between German society and my mother’s relatives, I was clearly the Jewish kid. Even if most Jewish congregations, and certainly the one where we lived, never accepted me, because my mother never converted. My face marked me as Other, non-white, and it’s interesting that to this day I don’t see myself as white, because that was the message being sent my way. I hate giving Germany that much power over me, but I’m also pretty sure that if Germany hadn’t gotten there first, the relatives from Hungary’s Favorite Country would have accomplished that job anyway. And in the end that’s why I navigated towards the US, embracing it with all its blemishes and faults; trying to right them with a view to making that particular world better, not Germany or where my mother hailed from. Because there, in the Reform Congregation in Chicago, I was fully accepted, valued, and given a chance.