On Being Jew-ish
People ask me what my religion is and I tell them that I’m Jewish, but honestly, I may as well be a goy. The only semi-Jewish things about me are my preference for boys and my fondness for bagels.
Mind you, those are all stereotypes. But isn’t the Jewish culture surrounded by them? If I had to make a list of things that make someone a good Jew, it would look something like this:
1) Good with money – frugality is a virtue.
2) Argumentative – there is an art to the emphatic hand gestures.
3) Loves food – anything of the matzoh variety, anything of the potato variety, and of course, all things Manischeiwitz.
4) Ties to mother – you call her every day.
5) Knowledge of Yiddish – you’ve called someone a schmuck.
6) Kosher – no married individuals going out without covering their heads. No girls with skirts above the knee. And for Adonai’s sake, children, no bacon cheeseburgers!
7) Semitophilic – must love other Jews.
Maybe I’m missing the point, and that there’s more than these satirical generalizations. Here you have a whole race of people who have just consistently been treated like complete, utter, shit. And all through it, they still kept their covenant with God, believing that if they acted the right way then he would treat them well. But I don’t get it…what God would let all of these tragedies happen?
Well of course I don’t get it. On the Jewry spectrum, I’m not even a true Jew.
Emphasis on the –ish.
A Brief History
I don’t actually know much about my family’s history, to be honest. I know that the Jew in me originated from Latvia. Most Latvian families settled in East Coast cities, but they were so few in numbers that they did not constitute any ethnic neighborhoods. The Lichtensteins were no exception, as they settled in Brighton Beach, which would evolve into a pretty Jewish neighborhood. I guess the immigrant Lichtensteins held pretty tightly to their traditional Jewish values, having Friday night Shabbats, dragging the children to shul, separating the meat plates from the dairy plates. But with each subsequent generation, the Lichtensteins seemed to have a looser and more liberal grasp on those traditions. They started eating pork, then bacon, then bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches for lunch on Saturdays, then bacon cheeseburgers on Friday nights…Shabbat shalom!
She Peed in the Mikveh!
The process of converting to Judaism is three-fold for women:
1) Face the religious court – Study your Torah. Get tested on what you have studied by a Rabbi.
2) Immerse yourself – Dunk yourself into a holy pool. Have aforementioned Rabbi say prayers. Come out of pool a Jew.
3) Choose a Jewish name – Self-explanatory.
Looking back on it, my conversion to Judaism was probably one of the most illegitimate things Rabbi Goldfarb had ever performed. Since I was so young, I was able to surpass step one, and since I was given the Hebrew name “Manya Yosefa” at birth, I was able to nix step three. So that boiled my conversion down to, essentially, treading water for ten minutes.
Rabbi Goldfarb, an alteh cocker with a bushy beard, explained to us that this wasn’t some ordinary pool, but that it was a mikveh, declared holy and thus suitable for conversion. Who declares a pool holy?, I thought to myself. I guess God made it a holy pool. But if it’s a holy pool, why does it look like the same pool I go swimming in at camp? Aren’t holy things supposed to be special? Like, sparkly or something?
Before the ceremony started, Rabbi Goldfarb invited my mother and I into a room to have cookies and lemonade with him and the two other Jews that would be performing the conversion. While the adults were kibitzing around, I amused myself by drinking cup after cup of sweet lemonade – it was so good, it must have been holy! In retrospect, however, downing six cups of holy lemonade before being turned into a Jew was probably not the best idea.
My mother and I entered the pool. For some reason, they had us on the six-feet-deep end, so we both had to tread water. After about six minutes of listening to the Rabbi hok a chainik and see Jew with Glasses and Jew with Red Tie rock back and forth in typical cantor fashion, I was already dying. Not only were my short arms and legs overworked, but I really had to go to the bathroom. I tried crossing my legs to keep it in, but then I realized that crossing your legs while attempting to tread water probably wasn’t the smartest idea. So I continued to tread with a full bladder, waiting for Rabbi Goldfarb to say…
“You may now immerse yourself in the water of the mikveh as I recite the following prayer, and when I have finished, you will emerge a Jew!”
I didn’t know much about conversion ceremonies, but I knew that those words meant we were almost done. I started vigorously dunking myself in and out of the water, propelling my body downward, touching my feet to the floor, and springing back up. But at some point during the fourth dunk, something inside of me convulsed and I shuddered. The next thing I knew, there was something warm and familiar running down the side of my leg. Oops.
Apparently, they put some kind of chemical in the water, so that if anyone urinated in the holy pool, the water would turn a dark shade of blue. This fact was unbeknownst to me, so when a cloud of navy surrounded my legs, I was mortified.
“She peed in the mikveh!” Jew with Red Tie said. “She urinated in the holy pool!”
“That’s despicable,” Jew with Glasses said. “What a klutz.”
“Poor bubbala was probably just nervous,” Rabbi Goldfarb said.
I bolted from the pool to the bathroom, far away from the laughing Jewish men, where I stayed for the next half hour. My mother came to fetch me after changing out of her bathing suit and collecting all of the necessary papers.
“You peed in the mikveh,” she said.
“I know!” I cried. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to! I can’t be a Jew now, mommy. I made the holy water un-holy with my pee.”
My mother looked at me for the longest time with her eyes squinted and lips pursed. She scrutinized me from head to toe, stopping at the one spot on my bathing suit that had yet to dry. Then we both cracked up laughing.
She Didn’t Kiss the Mezuzah!
I went to Hebrew school for five years, but I never had a Bat Mitzvah. It wasn’t that I didn’t do well there – I knew all the stories of the Bible, I could name every Jewish holiday that occurred during the year and state why they were important, I could read and write Hebrew well enough, and I was the resident preacher of the prayer “Yigdal” during services.
As gifted as I was as in Hebrew school, the other families didn’t seem to care. My family was usually excluded from Purim parties or Rosh Hashanah get-togethers or joint Seders, because we weren’t the typical Jewish family. I didn’t have many friends at Hebrew school, because I didn’t look like the rest of them: my hair was straight and jet black as opposed to curly and some shade of brown or dirty blonde, my nose was significantly smaller and less pointy than everyone else’s, my eyes were more slanted and exotic-looking, and my skin was not as pale. And so the Lichtensteins didn’t mesh much with the Roths, or the Weisbords, or the Prusaks, or the Kleinbergs at the Bellerose Jewish Community Center.
One day, however, the Cohens invited us over for Shabbos. My mother had me put on my nicest flower-patterned dress and tights, as well as my new black Mary Janes. She told me that I had to be respectable – don’t eat too much, don’t talk too loud, and for God’s sake, use a napkin, not the back of your hand.
When we arrived at the Cohen’s house, they had everyone sit in the backyard to socialize. All of the bubbas with doilies on their heads were schmoozing. “How is the family? Ah, look at Jenna, och what a shayner! You know, she and Gilad would be wonderful together. Smart, rich, a good Jewish boy, eh?”
Mama Cohen stepped out onto the terrace to announce that dinner was ready. The children were the first to enter the house, so I tagged along with the rest of them. As I walked past the doorframe, I heard in a shrill voice, “She didn’t kiss the mezuzah!”
“Ay gevalt, didn’t her parents raise her right? You always kiss the mezuzah!”
In that moment, I didn’t know what I had done wrong. It didn’t register in my head that whenever you enter a Jewish person’s home, you’re supposed to touch the mezuzah and then kiss the tips of your fingers. It’s just one of those customs to show respect and keep in touch with spirituality. The small box contains the fundamental beliefs of Judaism, and completely passing it by is kind of …offensive.
Needless to say, we were never invited to the Cohens’ house again.
Bagels, Bagels, Everywhere!
I am the Bagel Queen of Bayside.
I was given this title by my Uncle Barry and Aunt Fran when I was four years old, because every time I came over to their house while my parents were working, I would want a bagel…for dinner. It wouldn’t even matter what kind of bagel it was or where the bagel was from. It could be an onion bagel, or poppy seed, or pumpernickel, or salt, or egg, or what have you. Of course, I had a penchant for everything bagels from H&H, because there was just something about the way the distinct flavors of the seeds blended together coupled with the taste of the dough that reminded me of home that was so delicious.
Every Saturday morning since I was five years old and discovered my love of lox, I have had an everything bagel schmeared with cream cheese and topped with lox and (sometimes) red onions. Okay, maybe not every Saturday, but often enough that I can call it a Lichtenstein family tradition. (Traditiooooon! Tradition!)
I thought that my love of bagels and staple foods of the Jewish diet in general gave me some points on the Jewry spectrum. Apparently not.
Person: “What are you doing?”
Me: “I’m eating. What does it look like I’m doing?”
Person: “What are you eating?”
Me: “A pizza bagel. It’s a plain bagel with tomato sauce and cheese. It’s good.”
Person: “Why are you eating a plain bagel?”
Me: “Because I’m hungry.”
Person: “But it’s a plain bagel. Come on, at least put some seeds on it. Not even seeds, just anything. What kind of respectable Jew eats a plain bagel?”
Me: “I mean, at least I’m not having bacon, egg and cheese on a bagel? That would be a contradiction, to put something so unkosher on a bagel. A bagel! Ha.”
Me: “Yeah, never mind. I’m not a true Jew.”
The next day, said person brought in a brown bag with two bagels from Zucker’s in it and told me to pick one. I thought it was a test of my Jew-ness. It was a pretty difficult decision, but I ended up selecting the Everything bagel.
Me: “Did I pick the right one?”
I proceeded to eat the bagel, enjoying the rich flavor, the softness, and the feeling of the different textures of seeds against my tongue. But I couldn’t help feeling a little confused.
Adventures with Jewboy: Part I
I fell in love with a boychick at bandcamp this past summer.
Actually, at first I thought he was kind of a meshugeh creep and wasn’t sure if I liked him or not. But he was Jewboy, meaning that he was smart and persistent, so he didn’t back down when I sent him mixed signals. He cleverly made me want him, and I did after enough time. He was perfect – from the top of his Jewfro-haired head, to his pointed schnoz, to his funny-looking smile, to his awkward farmer’s tan, right on down to his toes. So when he asked me out, I said yes, and we dated for eight glorious days and nights.
On the car ride home from camp, I told my parents that I had met a boy druing summer: a boy that I really liked, a boy that lived close enough for me to actually continue dating.
“Well who is it?” my dad asked.
I said his name.
“Oh, I can’t stand that kid,” my dad exclaimed.
“He lives in Roslyn,” I said. “That’s not far from us.”
“So? I don’t like him. You’re not seeing him. That’s it.”
There was a long awkward pause, as I thought about how I could salvage my quasi-relationship.
“But daddy,” I said in a very small voice, “he’s Jewish…”
My dad stared at me for a long time. “Well then maybe I’ll give the kid a chance.”
Adventures with Jewboy: Part II
While he was away, I made up all these stories in my head, of how he would find some other girl to flirt with, and they’d date at camp, and then he’d bring her home to his family and they’d approve of her because she would obviously be a real Jewish girl, and then they would spend the high holidays with each other, them and the so-and-so’s gathered around the table for Seder with Jewboy and Jewgirl touching each others legs and playing footsie under the white tablecloth and sipping out of the same glass of grape juice.
But he didn’t. He came back home, and there we were.
Then I got to meet his family. His brother and stepfather liked me instantly, appreciating my dry sense of humor. My interaction with his mother, however, was probably the funniest.
After about half an hour of listening to my boyfriend’s mother berate him, I cleared my throat until she noticed I was there.
“So Emma, I know this might be a little rude to ask, but what are you exactly?”
“No, it’s okay, I get that a lot. I’m mixed, actually. I’m half White and half Asian.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, obviously not really seeing anything in particular. “So do you celebrate both holidays? Christmas and Hannukah? Rosh Hashanah and the Lunar New Year?”
“Mom! Stop interrogating her.”
“It’s fine, really. We kind of do. We celebrate both because we have two different sides of the family, and they include us in both. But technically, my mom and I converted to Judaism when I was very young, so I’m fully Jewish. I guess I’m a White-Asian Jew, you know?”
“Oh, that’s delightful!” her ears automatically perked up once I said the phrases “fully Jewish” and “White-Asian Jew.”
“Mom, can we stop with this please?”
“I think it’s interesting! She’s the most interesting girl you’ve ever been interested in.”
“Well the food is ready, so let’s ess!”
I had to stifle my laughter. The whole thing just struck me as hilarious – how over the top she was, how she had so many questions, how she was immediately relieved when she found out that I was a “nice, Jewish girl,” at least, somewhat.
Later that night, his mom walked in on him as we were video-chatting, and I could hear her on the other end.
“You know, I like Emma. She’s very sweet and seemed to be very well-spoken. And you know, they say Jewish boys are preferring Asian girls nowadays anyways,” his mother said.
“Mom, you need to stop. Seriously.”
“But she’s a nice Jewish girl. I like her.”
“I know mom, I like her too.”
“And every Jewish mother just wants to see her little boy with a good girl. A wholesome girl, that has substance to her, you know? So I approve of her.”
With the Jewish mother’s seal of approval, I could safely say that I was set for life.
There was this song I used to sing when I was younger, at the end of my summers and Jewish day camp.
“Shalom Chaverim, Shalom Chaverim, Shalom, Shalom,
Til we meet again, til we meet again,
It’s a simple song really – the words aren’t too difficult to pronounce, and the lyrics themselves are pretty repetitive. It’s the meaning that stumps me sometimes. I know the word “chaverim” means friends, and of course I understand the line that’s in English. But what about “Shalom”? It can mean hello, or goodbye, or peace, or what have you, and I’m not quite sure what it’s intended to mean here.
I like the word “Shalom.” I don’t think there’s a word in English that is so simple, but can mean so many different things.
It’s a universal phrase, you know? I don’t see why it can’t unite Arabs and Israelies, Hindus and Muslims, capitalists and communists, if it can bring together Jews and gentiles summer after summer. As un-Jewish or Jew-ish as I am, I’m proud to be a part of the culture who made a phrase so simple yet po