The Incompatible Jew (A Personal Essay)

In the spirit of Hanukah, I’d thought I’d share the following giggle: My husband loves to poke fun at people’s instinct to respond with religious affiliations than geographic details. For some reason, this has become prevalent as more people are caught responding with the wrong answer. For example, one might ask:

“What nationality are you?”

“I’m Jewish.”

“Oh, alright then. Show me ‘Jew’ on a map.”

I take partial blame for this indiscretion. I can show you where a mass population of Jews reside, but I cannot locate an actual piece of land called “Jew.” Regardless of where or how the term originated, when you ask for geographic details and the person responds with a religious affiliation, it sounds weird.

The challenges of being Jewish doesn’t always come from the masses. Sometimes, it comes from the very inner circle of confidantes. In fact, there is an underlying, invisible sense of peer pressure that lie deep within the high structures of the Jew DNA. As far back as I can remember, when my stream of consciousness became nonstop, I was led to believe I was supposed to do something innovative and magnificent. My culture mandated a college education, or at least a partial one, then retreat to the world and make necessary, innovative changes. Jews are prominent in almost every sector of entertainment, including Zuckerberg, the leader of social media dominion.

This belief was a concoction of my own doing. I never felt these pressures from my parents. There were the uncles with successful business ventures that started when they were young adults, and their business still thrives today. My uncles didn’t have the luxury of an expensive college education, but they were business-smart. My mother’s brother became the honorary recipient of a lighting fixture company sometime in the 1950’s from my grandfather upon his retirement. My uncle didn’t start this company from the ground up, but he kept it thriving. Business-smart. That’s what most people think of when they hear “Jewish,” at least from my personal encounters.

My uncle was not shy expressing concern over a family member’s lack of planning, lack of concern, lack of innovation. My uncle was the king of narcissism, who frequently looked down on his son-in-law for not wanting to be a better provider for the family. My father, a humble and excruciatingly hard-working man, was a delivery man under my uncle’s employ. Every night he would come home frustrated and winded, as if the frustrations alone was enough to knock the air out of him. I didn’t understand it then, because I was briefly enamored with my uncle. Not only did he have a successful business endeavor, but he had the prettiest family with a luxurious condo in Water Tower Place. Of the few times I met my cousins, they were very gracious. That was all the relationship ever was. No mentoring, No hanging out. No hey let’s see a movie sometime and hang.  They treated me as if I was a charity case, all because I was the daughter of a man who was perceived as “lazy” because he didn’t have a college education, or smart enough to start a business of his own, at the very least. I didn’t realize it then because I enjoyed being treated with kindness. As I grew older, there was a part of me that wished it was something more. These are supposed members of my own family, so wishing for such things is not out of the question.

I have only been in contact with my cousins only a few times. They never had the desire for a close family bond, as they were under the oblige of my uncle, who mandated a solid college education. They shifted their focus away from the “riff raff” in order to gratify the perceived notions from the culture. I grew up with repetitive teachings of being a proper Jew: you’re either a doctor, lawyer, or CPA, and a successful one, at that. I didn’t take these teachings to heart, and I feel a sense of guilt as a result. Am I supposed to do something more with my life? I don’t drink or do drugs, and I have held a steady job for more than 20 years. I am a predictable constant. For Jews like my uncle, being a predictable constant is not good enough. You must satisfy the criteria of the ultimate Jew status quo if you want to be respected in Jew society.

It seems at every turn, there is a haunting of dishonor to the religion if you don’t succeed with every venture. Even Zuckerburg, who went out so far out of the spectrum of approved occupations, but proved stellar in capitalism, and can provide for his grandkids and on and on. Stephen King, Spielberg, et al., Jewish and successful, and rich. Meanwhile, I’m left feeling like I’m supposed to change the world, because that what’s expected of me by my own ancestry.

It is safe to assume that my uncle’s lack of nurture concocted some sort of damaged goods. The feelings of resentment are stored in the furthest depths of the Jew DNA hierarchy. Once in a great while they reemerge for cathartic purposes, albeit the desire to shame him for his use of segregation within own members of his family.

Contrary, my father raised me with nothing but the best wisdom. True, funding was not always there to pamper the youngest brood with the best of material things, so nicknames i.e. “Jewish American Princess” never took hold. He did, however, instill me with some fantastic philosophy. Wisdom such as “Stupid comes in all colors” when referring to race. This is the kind of stuff that lasts a lifetime. If my father would have bought me a car for my Sweet Sixteen, it would never reach the age of his words and teachings. The car would eventually break down and become scraps of metal in a junkyard. But his words — words are forever.

My father is not (physically) around to help erase the feeling sporadic disappointment to my culture. I hold no remorse for my mother’s brother, who was quick to point out every little flaw in the Jew DNA. He is long gone, buried in the flat terrain of a Jewish cemetery. His teachings went with him (at least I hope that none of it rubbed off on his brood). My uncle was a terrible man, who was terrible to even his own sister. In time, I will ask God’s pardon for having to type this: as far as my uncle’s demise, to that, I say…..good riddance.

Meanwhile, I consider myself to be an “incompatible Jew” that beams with pride. I don’t meet the preconceived notions of ultimate Jew-dom. I’m a Jew with a partial college education, and I’ve done nothing astronomical on a global scale. My father taught me that it’s okay to be awkward; it’s okay to be a Jew who is poor; and that folks will genuinely cling to you based on your level of weird. That is the wisdom I cling to, and my father has yet been proven otherwise.

To Harry.

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