By Diana Whitney
Some children grow up with religion; others get a secular muddle of post-60s consciousness. I don’t pretend to be Jewish, any more than I pretend to be Protestant, or Hindu for that matter, even though I’m a yoga teacher. When people ask about my ancestry, I give them a typical East Coast melting-pot breakdown: 50% Russian Jew, 25% Swiss, 25% Irish. That 50% carries some legitimate weight, but it won’t ever let me claim I’m a Jew. Jewish identity passes through the mother, and it was my father’s parents who immigrated from Kiev.
By the time I knew them, these grandparents had retired to a snug, immaculate home in Mamaroneck, NY, crammed full of cherished possessions–a baby grand piano, an ivory-inlaid chess set. We ate Thanksgiving dinner around a polished cherry table; aunts and uncles laughed and shared jokes during the meal. No one prayed or mentioned God.
Nanny and Poppy were already old then, and spoke with thick Russian accents. I was wary of them, although they were gentle and kind. Once Poppy scolded me for picking his yellow tea roses, climbing in a perfumed tangle over the fence, and I always felt shamefaced around him.
After they were dead, my father rarely spoke about his parents. He never mentioned his Jewish upbringing. Eventually I gathered that he’d gone to Hebrew school and received his Bar Mitzvah, only to have a falling-out with his narrow-minded rabbi. “A crisis of faith,” he called it. At age 14 he walked out of temple and never went back again.
You can be a Jew without being a practicing Jew, of course, and my father liked to lay claim to his Jewish roots in certain situations–when justifying his hatred of the Germans, for example. He often told us he’d experienced anti-Semitism at Oxford, though not exactly what had happened. It was my mother who revived Judaism for us (albeit in American holiday style) by starting a family Hannukah tradition. We used Poppy’s tarnished brass menorah, with two ornate lions holding up the candles. My father led the Hebrew prayers in his booming baritone. I loved to hear his voice, so fluent in this strange language I stumbled over, hard consonants twisting in my mouth like nails.
I came to cherish the candle-lighting and the ritual Hebrew, the only prayers ever spoken in our house. But we passed over it quickly, eager to play dreidl for gelt and eat potato latkes with applesauce. I was proud to tell my friends we celebrated Hannukah as well as Christmas. I wanted to be half-Jewish, to be initiated into that special club of religious knowledge. I devoured the all-of-a-kind-family series, books about an immigrant family growing up on New York’s Upper East Side at the turn of the century. Through the lives of these five sisters, I learned about other Jewish holidays– Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, Purim. But it wasn’t till I took Religion I in college that I realized Hannukah was but a minor part of the Jewish calendar.
My father once brought me to a seder, at the home of one of his Economics colleagues. I sat next to him in confused silence for what felt like hours, embarrassed by my ignorance. Why had I never been to Temple? Why did I not know a single word of Hebrew, only the Yiddish passed down from my grandmother Nanny into our jokey family culture: shmatteh, shmuck, shmuts, toches?
But the most shocking part of being not-Jewish came when I was 24, and my younger brother wrote a research paper for a college history class. Reading it, I discovered that my grandfather’s name was not Arnold Sabot, as I’d known him, but Abraham Sabsowitz. Abe (as he was called) grew up in the Ukraine on the eve of the Russian Revolution. His father was a Talmudic scholar, and the family often went hungry– his sister Rose died from malnutrition. “I could smell potatoes growing under the ground,” my grandfather remembered decades later.
At age 17, Abe joined the Green Army, a Ukrainian nationalist movement gathered to protect Jewish communities during the Bolshevik rise to power. One night, he witnessed his father shot and murdered by the Kossacks in front of the temple. My heart raced as I read the paper. How could this brutality have been inflicted on my Poppy when he was so young? How could my father have kept this secret from us? Maybe it seemed too removed from his own four children, growing up in our white-bread college town in Massachusetts. Maybe it was a tragedy my father wanted to bury forever.
The night of my great-grandfather’s murder, Abe was arrested in Kiev and his three cell-mates were executed one by one. But the jailer took pity on the 17-year-old boy, allowing him to escape. Eventually he left Russia, travelled the trans-Siberian railroad to China, then back-tracked to Kiev to rescue his mother. They made it to Poland, where Abe (a dashing fellow) worked as a traveling actor before immigrating to America. There, he got into the fur trade in Pennsylvania and became a millionaire by the age of 24. He drove a fancy Stutz Bearcat loaded down with furs and carried a pistol to protect his cargo. Then he lost his entire fortune in the Great Depression.
Despite this blow, Abe’s steady faith lay in American democracy and capitalism. He believed in America with “the fervor of a convert,” according to my father. Perhaps this is where the family channeled its religious impulses, for my father inherited Abe’s capitalist ardor, as well as his ingenious knack of making money out of good ideas. But his Jewishness? Not so much.
As for my great-grandfather, the Talmudic scholar, murdered for his faith, no one knows his name. His grandchildren never knew it, and there are no written records. Sometimes I dream of going to the Ukraine on a romantic quest to trace my long-dead relatives. Now that my father has died as well, they seem like characters out of an epic historical novel. I also dream of going to temple here in my small Vermont town. It’s not curiosity, but a deeper longing for an ancient religion that must have been transmitted to me by my ancestors. But I stay away, afraid of being branded an imposter. After all, I’m not really Jewish.
Diana Whitney is a yoga teacher and a parenting columnist syndicated in Vermont. Her work has appeared in The Boston Globe and Pilates Style magazine, and she’s a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio.