Neither Jew Nor Gentile

31 Jan

I grew up in Eastern Queens in New York City, in a largely suburban Catholic neighborhood. Pretty much everyone I went to grade school with was Catholic, except for the Greeks who were Greek Orthodox. Every Wednesday, kids studying for their confirmations could get out of school a little early, leaving only myself and some Indian kid to run out the clock. How I envied them.

My father was raised a Conservative Jew and gave me a surname to reflect his legacy. My mom was raised Episcopalian but never made a big deal about it. I wasn’t raised Jewish or Christian, I was raised a Unitarian Universalist, which is more of a tolerant ideology than it is a firm religion. This fact was completely lost on my schoolyard chums, with good reason. Who has ever heard of Unitarian Universalism? And besides, I have a Jewish last name, so I was derided as the token Jew.

Early on, I would attempt to correct my peers. “I am not Jewish,” I’d explain, “I am a Unitarian Universalist. I believe in religious tolerance.” This was meaningless to my eight year-old friends who would blink with surprise and continue chanting “kike!” I am also of German heritage, which was enough for the brain trust at my elementary school to determine I was a Nazi Jew. I was more confused than hurt by these poorly-aimed digs. I’m not now and never was Jewish, so calling me a Jew is simply erroneous. At the same time, I had very little interaction with Jews so I didn’t get why it was such a bad thing to be one.


It’s tough being neither Jew nor Gentile in a world where you are either, or, or “other.” No actual Jew would ever consider me a “real” Jew because my mother is a shiksa. No Christian has ever considered that I might not be Jewish. Even today, my neighbor will say hi and ask me if I enjoyed my holiday. It’s often some time later that I realize a Jewish holiday had passed and she was trying to recognize it. I do understand that she is being sweet and pleasant, and I appreciate it, but sometimes I want to say, “I celebrate the same or fewer of the stupid holidays you celebrate. I don’t know Yom Kippur from Hannukah.” But then I think I’d probably hurt her feelings. There she is, in her twilight years, trying to be conciliatory to her Jewish neighbor. And I go and fuck it all up by not even being Jewish! Oy vey izmir.

One Response to “Neither Jew Nor Gentile”

  1. Miriam Sagan January 31, 2011 at 3:38 pm #

    I loved this! So NY in its way. I just wrote about fleeing the Nazis in Riverdale (imaginatively). Thank you!

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