Friday, March 11, 2011

Guest Post: On Heritage

By Alana of Truth and Shoes

When I was younger, people would ask me what I was, as if I was some type of poodle they wanted to learn the breed of.

“Californian.” I’d say.

“Caucasian,” I’d say.

Those didn’t seem to be the answers they were looking for. They seemed to be hinting at my heritage and those were the only answers I could give them, until I thought of one other.

“Jewish?” I’d say it like a question.

Yes, that was it, that was the answer they were waiting for. Then I would feel obliged to clarify that I wasn’t really Jewish, even though I could say the wine prayer in Hebrew and I sometimes celebrated both Christmas and Hanukkah. Even though we never got a Christmas tree, we did after all, own a menorah. And I’d been to two Passover celebrations. That seemed to be too much information for my various askers, which usually consisted of elementary school teachers, people checking books out from the library I worked at, and nosy co- shoppers at Target.

I attended a private Christian high school in Orange County, California. One day, in study hall, the smartest girl at our school, Lauren Carell (*name changed for her protection, though she should want the world to know she is brilliant), interrupted me as I spoke some nonsense on the state of the Middle East.

“You’re Jewish, aren’t you? She asked as she flipped through her AP Calculus notes.

I didn’t know how to answer. At my high school, I always felt safest hiding this little tidbit. My school and its founding church loved Israel, adored Israel, but Jews were kind of an enigma to them—I felt like an announcement of my heritage would mean stirring the proverbial pot. And I was no pot stirrer.

“No,” I answered. “I mean my mom grew up Jewish and my dad did too, but we’re not.”

“Mmmm,” she nodded, humoring me.

And life continued and I continued to be asked this little question. I settled on a safe answer, Eastern European, and kept it in my pocket along with my Mac lipglass and an extra stick of gum. Eastern European could mean a number of things and most seemed somewhat satisfied with this answer. Some looked at me like they knew it was a bum answer, grow a set, their expressions said.

When I was 21, I learned I had a genetic disease that only ran in Jewish bloodlines, and even more rarely in some Dutch ones as well. I saw a Dr. at Cedar Sinai and began getting infusions every 2 weeks to replace what my body was lacking. While there one day, I was asked my plans for the high holidays.

“Thanksgiving,?” I asked, “I will be visiting my family. When I learned my error, my cheeks flushed red and my hands grew wet with sweat. Here everyone was Jewish, except, maybe me.

It was after I decided to move to New York City, that I began to grow more comfortable with the idea that I didn’t always have to define myself perfectly. That some things were better left as they were, uncluttered with words and definitions.

And once I made that realization, I realized that I was, in fact, Jewish. I still gaze longingly when I drive by local temples— I’m still scared to go inside. Maybe one day I will have the guts to. Until then, I remember that growing a set sometimes takes a lifetime and mine are getting rounder every day.

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