Friday, January 25, 2008

Roots

My mom called me last night and told me the following two things: we’re Jewish and my great, great, great grandparents’ names were Mary and Joseph.

Being Jewish doesn’t come as a big surprise to me. For my entire life I’ve had strangers asking me if I’m Jewish. Now, I suppose, I can finally say “yes.” It is, however a bit odd that this little nugget of heritage that so many other people consider very important to them was lost completely not so long ago.

My grandmother has always told me stories of my great, great grandparents – the first generation to come to America. Her grandmother (my great, great) was German, living in Baltimore, and her grandfather was Irish – a stowaway. They met, got married, and opened the very first bar in Fells Point (now, The Horse They Rode In On). For those of you not from Baltimore, Fells Point is the bar district. It’s on the harbor, it’s where Poe got that last intoxicating drink that caused him to fall down and die in an alley on the way back to his house. I digress.

My grandmother has told me wonderful stories of her grandparents. Her German grandmother was over 6 feet tall, while her husband was barely 5 feet. When the drunks at the bar got too rowdy, it was her grandmother’s job to sling the men over her shoulder, deposit them on the back porch, and call the cops. They also had a parrot that sat on the edge of the bar that they taught to say, “Have another beer! Have another beer!”

It was my grandmother’s job to walk to the bar each night to meet her grandmother and walk her home, and, as I deduce, it was her grandmother that was the last one to consider herself Jewish. I can only assume her Irish Catholic husband insisted the kids be raised Catholic (they lived in a large Irish Catholic neighborhood), and that was the last anyone spoke of the Jewish heritage. Really, it’s no different than what happens today when people of two faiths get married and have kids.

For me, finding out I’m Jewish has only confused things. I was baptized Christian as a kid, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian family (against my own free will), and now more closely identify with Eastern religious ideas, but I surely don’t identify myself as anything. I got ordained over the internet to marry some friends of mine in a few months, and I selected “Buddhism,” because it seemed to be the best of the worst listed on the drop-down menu, and I had to select something. So now, I’m the Jewish Reverend Tara Gebhardt, ordained Buddhist Priestess, baptized by the Baptists. I can only take solace in the notion that my amalgamation of identities is indicative of the majority of the population of the rest of the world.

Really, we’re all just mutts. I may be American, German, and Jewish, but further back I was African, like we all were when we learned to walk upright. At which point is it “correct” to assume your identity? My situation is further complicated by the large respect Jewish people have for their Jewish heritage (although my great, great grandmother was apparently a bad Jew for renouncing this). Part of me thinks this is just “popular.” In BC times, were Jewish people saying or identifying themselves with some other heritage that came before them? Totally confusing.

I talked to my friend, Mike, last night who put me through the wringer of questions to determine if I really am Jewish or not. Ultimately, according to Mike, because I’m only part Jew, but because the Jewish was passed down on my mother’s side (and through the mothers leading back to the 100% German Jewish relatives), I am technically Jewish now. Well, I pretty much always was – I just never knew it.

Part of my wants to find out more about this part of me that was lost, but the other part of me isn’t too pressed to do so. As it is now, I only know what I’ve learned from my Jewish friends. I know I can never be buried in a Jewish cemetery because of my tattoos, which doesn’t bother me since I don’t want to be buried anyhow. Alas, there’s much more to know than that.

My friend, Mike, welcomed me to the club last night and told me the only requirement was to start feeling like everyone is out to get me. Check.

I’m sure you’ll see some more blogs about this in the near future, since I still can’t seem to wrap my head around the implications of what I’ve just found out. Perhaps I’m confusing myself for no good reason. Perhaps this is an opportunity to learn more about history. Perhaps it’s a time where my mind and sense of self is liberated from labels and things I’ve always been told I am. Just about the only thing I can deduce that means anything is that you are who you are based on who you are in your lifetime, not someone else’s.

3 comments:

megan said...

This is fascinating. We'll talk more about it later. I feel that I have always been in the same boat as far as knowing my 'roots' considering I don't really know the 'seed' i.e., so to speak, from which I came.

Betty Beatdown said...

Guilt, too. Don't forget the Jewish guilt. And the latkes!

Julia said...

I took a religion-o-rama quiz once online and, after tons of questions on the details of my personal belief system, it spat out that my beliefs most closely connect with reformed Judaism - a shock to me, what with my Christian tattoos and all, but interesting, nonetheless.