Jew Kid on the BlockFrom Aspirational to Political—Becoming the Feminist Jewish Mother I Want to See in the World

This article appears in our 2017 Spring issue, Family Values. Subscribe today!

I’m not sure when the evening went off the rails. I had been looking forward to this Seder with a mix of nostalgia and exhaustion; all of our Jewish friends in Nashville would be there (about five of them), and even more exciting, it would be my three-month-old daughter’s first Passover. I envisioned the songs we’d sing, the horseradish I’d mainline to stay awake. And best of all, if I’m being honest: the small but gratifying gesture of deviation that our gathering would represent, a tiny Jewish star glinting in the buckle of the Bible Belt.  

Maybe decorum deteriorated when the host, a normally subversive and antiestablishment-minded person, read a piece defending Israeli settlements. Or perhaps it was the gender roles playing out like fundamentalist cosplay. My revulsion peaked during a conversation about “freedom,” in which the men talked leisurely around the table as the women balanced dirty dishes on their arms, shuttling back and forth to the kitchen. In a sudden out-of-body flare-up that I often experience when encountering misogyny, I saw the dinner for what it was—an exercise in irony while defending the patriarchy. Luckily my daughter took a loud, joyous shit, and I was saved from making a scene, happily excusing myself to change her diaper in the living room.

There is a long tradition in my family of getting kicked out of Jewish celebrations, or at the very least, permanently disinvited. Before I went away to college, our last Passover ended when my father got so zonked on blessing wine that he played air banjo over the host’s reading from the Haggadah, singing “Dayenu” in a passive-aggressive twang. Needless to say, we weren’t invited back, and we haven’t celebrated together as a family since. As much as part of me admires this brazen display of misplaced hostility, I have to believe that this wasn’t just a symptom of my family being difficult to get along with, or my father’s inability to pace himself at a holiday gathering. Rather, it represents an internal conflict that has defined my relationship to Jewish identity—we want to be accepted, but we don’t necessarily want to belong. One might call this “Aspirational Judaism”—we love the idea of coming together for occasions centered around surpluses of food, alcohol, and semi-like-minded people. But we don’t particularly want to be constrained by expectations, or the mix of politics and practice that comes with the territory.  

That night while cleaning my daughter’s perfect tush under a painting worth more than her future college tuition, I realized that I could never go back—not just to the host’s modern art museum masquerading as a home, but to the easygoing, nondiscerning participant I’d been. Jewish rituals were something I’d embraced out of a longing for the familiar. At certain times in my life, weekly Shabbat dinners have been as affirming as Al-Anon meetings—a way to feel understood without having to speak. There are many things I’ll miss about these rituals, especially at Passover—the washing of hands, the afikomen hunt, the inevitable Fat Joe reference when we are asked to “lean back”—I’ve loved it all. But I can no longer take part in dinners that even remotely undermine women’s intellectual contributions; I can no longer sit passively with my daughter in my arms while a man interrupts me for the third time in a row. Aspiration is no longer enough to anchor me—I must now become an active curator of my religious/secular undertakings. But what will this new identity look like?

My relationship to Jewishness has always been fraught. I am what some memes might describe as Pizza Bagel: half Jewish and half Italian. This might not sound like a noteworthy combination, but in the Jewish suburb of Boston where my sister and I grew up, we often felt compelled to prove our Jewishness, hindered by our mixed-faith (i.e. secular) upbringing. I remember overhearing a friend’s mother say she suspected I was pretending to be Jewish to fit in (oh, the suburban mom shade). I realize now that it was a tender mercy to be spared from sharing a social circle with this woman. But it is strange to look back and see how my identity was shaped by the perceptions of those around me, articulated across a hazy scale of practice and genetics—and I was firmly placed on the end of “not enough.”

In her essay “Scarcity and Abundance,” Autumn Brown writes: “Scarcity thinking says that there will never be enough of anything—love, food, energy, or power—so we must hoard, or conditionally offer and withdraw, what we have.” Paradoxically, this happens often within a culture of abundance, such as the suburb where I grew up, causing people to act like complete assholes: parents competing to send their offspring to the most exclusive prep courses and extracurriculars by any petty or cruel means necessary. In terms of identity, it played out in declarations that a person is “not fill-in-the-blank enough” to be part of the group. As a result, my understanding of Jewishness became so narrow that I never felt qualified to define or question my identity—I just wanted to belong.

Underneath this mindset of competition and scarcity is obviously a complicated history of cultural preservation as well as the politics of passing and privilege. I understand why someone might have questioned me for not “paying my dues” (going to Hebrew school or having a more obviously Jewish name). But I wonder what my experience would have been if there had been other options for performing Jewish identity outside of synagogue membership and bat mitzvahs—if I’d had access to a feminist, queer, socialist Jewish collective. In her essay, Brown continues: “Abundance thinking says that together, we have enough of what we need, that there is enough for all of us if we recognize our essential interdependence.” Later, I would have the pleasure of experiencing this, thanks to my college roommate who brought me home for Pesach one year, hosted by her amazing feminist, queer, socialist mother who was also a rabbi.

***

As opposed to the scarcity-defined Jewishness of my childhood, at the Pesach at my friend’s home there were lesbians and scruffy hometown hippies at the table and oranges nestled against the lamb shank (a symbol of inclusion). I don’t remember the scripture or the gefilte fish, but I do remember that at one point we whipped each other with asparagus spears. (Is it possible that there’s such a thing as kink-friendly reformism?) It was thrilling, and I can still feel the tender lash marks on my forearm like the first love-bites of spring. But more than the light crudité bdsm, I loved this dinner because it affirmed what I have always hoped is true: that there isn’t one right way to be Jewish.

Broad City, the unapologetically secular and hilarious buddy comedy starring Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson, has continued to open up my idea of what a joyful nonobservant Jewish woman can look like. More specifically, it gave me an archetype that I didn’t realize I’d been longing for: the Carefree Jewish Girl. Ilana Glazer’s character is contrary to most every single representation of Jewish femininity that you’ll see on television, a refreshing and necessary antidote to Girls’ neurotic Hannah Horvath and 90210’s token Andrea Zuckerman. (Yes, I took it way back.) Ilana is joyful, obscene, and unfettered by the weight of cultural memory. She cheers Abbi on as she embarks on her first pegging experience; she is defiantly unambitious, indirectly undermining her boss and uptight coworkers at every step. If she does have any neurosis, it’s subdued by weed and sex. Her identity is fluid, and most subversively, she doesn’t flat-iron her hair. She represents abundance at every level.

What is most striking about the show to me is how every action is temporal, completely in the moment. The show is associative by nature: The scenes spur spontaneous whims and decisions. There are few repercussions beyond awkward encounters, and there is rarely any gravitas behind a joke or gesture; rather, the comedy is rooted in the art of clowning and vaudeville, using exaggerated and physical humor to poke fun at society while maintaining a buoyant spirit. In the finale of season 2, Ilana and Abbi navigate St. Mark’s, buying wigs and ridiculous t-shirts after spilling wine on themselves to avoid insufferable acquaintances. The episode ends with them chasing down the trust-fund street rat who steals Abbi’s purse—one of the moments that comes closest to real drama. The women are scrappy and fierce and defiant, but their actions never cease to be based out of autonomy, self-deprecation, and pleasure. This, to me, is the most inspiring and what I would like to give to my daughter: a sense of freedom and possibility while disrupting oppressive systems.

Of course rituals and structures are necessary for creating a platform upon which to rebel and define one’s own relationship to faith and culture. I’m not fooling myself into thinking I can be the cool Jewish mom who hands her daughter a worn copy of: Our Talmud, Ourselves (not yet in existence) and says, “Do what feels right!” For now, there are practical concerns: Will we get a Christmas tree? Will she go to Hebrew school? (Probably, and most likely not). And then the more complicated questions: How do we raise our daughter to understand her history without feeling weighed down with guilt and grief? How do we teach her to feel connected to her roots but also to fit in with her community as she will likely be one of the few Jewish kids at her school?

These questions are more fraught given that my own connection to my Jewish identity is tenuous—but until recently, I had faith that we would figure it out as we went along, stumbling into epiphanies and embracing the difficult moments, like a Jewish version of Full House, sitting down to have meaningful discussions on a paisley bedspread. I assumed my partner and I would approach it like we do everything else; binge-watching a few Netflix shows before putting together a plan. My approach would be casual and one of abundance, not scarcity.

Since the election, this sense of abundance and leisure has fizzled out along with my libido and faith in humanity. The aftermath, which emboldened the worst scum to come out of their doomsday-prepper basements, affected us on a personal level. A few weeks after the country made its choice, a repairman came to fix our dryer while my partner was at work. After he explained the problem, he concluded, “If anything else goes wrong, for instance, if a swastika appears in your control panel….” Stunned by his remark, I did a quick “do I look Jewish?” scan and saw what he must have seen: a menorah gleaming on our bookshelf, a mezuzah at our front door, and my partner’s Jewish name on the work order. I also did a “is there a white supremacist piece of shit in my house?” double take and saw what I should have seen all along had I not been thrown off the scent by his overt misogyny: a bigot with white-power tattoos and the audacity to threaten me in my own home as I held my nine-month old daughter in my arms. This is when my identity truly ceased to be neutral.

I want to say that this became the defining moment where I stopped pussyfooting around and claimed my voice as a powerful Jewish mama. The truth is that after this experience I went into hiding. I stopped taking my daughter to museums and parent meet-ups, avoiding any place with unknown elements. I wanted to be around safe people in controlled environments. Luckily, my therapist noticed this behavior before it snowballed into full-blown social anxiety and pointed out what might have been obvious if had I been able to access reason or self-reflection. The trauma I experienced goes deeper than the shock of the encounter. Rather, it triggered a history of trauma that lives in my blood. Epigenetics, the theory that trauma is passed down through our dna, helps explain why the mention of swastikas or an image of white supremacists sends actual shivers down my spine. I am related to people who have fled persecution for centuries; my great-grandparents escaped the pogroms of Russia and Italy that are now referenced by the “alt-right.” It is a trigger that might be there to warn, to help us survive. But it also presents itself in other ways.

***

My partner and I used to make fun of a poem that we found in a medieval Spanish-Hebrew anthology at my grandmother’s house called, “Two Bouts of Woe.” To paraphrase, the poem argues, almost shouts, that it’s shameful to celebrate when life is full of suffering. We joked that it was the most Jewish poem ever written, echoing the pessimism and tragedy-hoarding of our parents. However, now I see the poem as a stealthy piece of social criticism and self-effacement. There is something refreshing about a poem that refuses to rejoice or count blessings. A poem that is so fully itself, so ensconced in sadness, that it becomes light. Jewish history is full of unspeakable suffering that I will one day have to explain to my daughter. This trauma isn’t just in stories or textbooks, but living in our bodies. But as in other cultures that carry collective traumas, we have created coping mechanisms that not only allow us to survive, but to thrive. Humor that revels in the absurd and hyperbolic is one of these ways that we make our load lighter. It is why one day I will tell the story of the white supremacist in my house and we will find a way to laugh—not to make what happened okay, but to affirm that it was terrible, yet also no match for our capacity for joy.

Now that it’s socially acceptable to be a bigot and there are open racists and anti-Semites in powerful government positions as well as in our own backyards (I see you, neighbor who suddenly put out your confederate flag) our old concerns look like the musings of country club golfers, and my partner and I have found ourselves grappling with different questions. How do we keep ourselves and our daughter safe? What will we tell her if and when she sees an act of anti-Semitism? Do we want to continue living in a place where you can’t find matzo at the local grocery store?   

I know that we will stumble to find the answers, and I will be lucky if I do so with the dignity of a sitcom mother. But as we go forward into this unsettling and uncertain time, I hope to keep other questions at heart: What does abundance in this new landscape look like? What will my daughter’s cultural inheritance be? What does it look like to celebrate that we are here—gleaming proof of our ancestors’ dreams? How will we embrace the pain of our history, remembering that on the other side there is joy? Like my favorite poet, Terrance Hayes writes, “Yes, I have a pretty good idea what beauty is. It survives alright. It aches like an open book. It makes it difficult to live.”  

This article was published in Family Values Issue #74 | Spring 2017
by Kendra DeColo
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Kendra DeColo is the author of My Dinner with Ron Jeremy, published by Third Man Books in August 2016, and Thieves in the Afterlife (Saturnalia Books, 2014), selected by Yusef Komunyakaa for the 2013 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize and named “Favorite Nashville Poetry Book of 2014” by the Nashville Scene. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, Copper Nickel, Verse Daily, Third Man Books’ Language Lessons Vol. I, and elsewhere. She has received awards and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the Millay Colony, and the Tennessee Arts Commission. She is book editor at Muzzle Magazine and guest teaches poetry at Sarah Lawrence College. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

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