People often try to be nice and welcoming by wishing me a happy Hanukkah or asking what I did for Rosh Hashanah. Every time, I explain that “I’m not that kind of a Jewish person” and that I have a very vague idea of what Hanukkah and Rosh Hashanah are. I even had to Google them to see the correct spelling for this post. And for generations, my Jewish ancestors have had no idea what these words even mean. This is in no way unique to me and my family. There are millions of post-Soviet Jews whose way of being Jewish has nothing to do with practicing a religion. We have our very different rituals and traditions that are in no way less valid and meaningful to us than lighting menorahs and eating kosher.
“Then what makes you Jewish?” people sometimes ask.
The basis of Jewishness, in my opinion, is the experience of anti-Semitism. Jew-haters don’t care two straws which traditions you uphold, what religion you practice, or whether you know what Purim is. If there was a moment in your life when you discovered that you are different in a way that you don’t control and that this difference will force you to confront hatred and persecution, then that experience is at least just as valuable as keeping Sabbath or placing a mezuzah in your doorway.
My father tells me that when he was a very little boy, he felt ashamed of his very Jewish last name. He had no idea at the age of 5 what was wrong with that last name. He only knew that he had to conceal it. Instead, he invented a Russian-sounding last name of Orlov and pretended it was his.
I also discovered at about the same age that I had reasons to feel fear and inexplicable shame when somebody mentioned the word “Jew.” I also found out that the seemingly unfinished question of, “So. . . are you?” could only have a single meaning. It was also the only question that my mother-in-law asked her son when he told her he met a woman he cared about. “Is she?” And when he answered “Yes, she is,” in his mother’s eyes, that equaled confessing to a big personal failure.
Of course, there are also positive ways of being Jewish that we practice. Our dedication to learning, the burning need to be the absolute best at everything, the obsessive desire to succeed – these are all elements of our Jewishness. They, too, however, arise from the millennial experience of anti-Semitism. One had to do so much better than everybody else just to get a chance that others possessed by virtue of not carrying the taint of Jewishness.
Holidays, synagogues and menorahs represent a valid and effective way of feeling togetherness as a people, especially in the face of the experience of the Diaspora. But not having access to them doesn’t really change anything. As the old saying by Soviet anti-Semites goes, “We don’t care what’s in your passport [where people’s ethnicity was stated]. We won’t hit you in your papers. We will hit you in your face.”