It’s Hanukkah right now. Or Chanuka.
When I was in sixth grade, a Christian classmate asked me why Jewish people can’t make up their minds.
“We know how to spell Christmas,” he boasted. “And we always have it on the same day. So what’s your deal?”
I told him it wasn’t “my” deal at all. I told him about ancient Hebrew translations and ancient lunar calendars. But like most gentiles, he got confused. Christians, after all, are raised on very simple tenets: “Jesus died for your sins,” “turn the other cheek,” and “ban all Muslims.” (Kidding, I think.)
Still, even in the sixth grade, it bugged me that my fellow Jews couldn’t choose one spelling of Hanukkah and stick with it. This was my first copyediting experience.
(Delve into the psychology of copyeditors and you’ll find most gravitated to the profession out of irritation at other people’s casual acceptance of disorder.)
Since Hanukkah has eight days, here are eight personal stories about how growing up Jewish nudged me into journalism.
Several involve being labeled a “bad Jew,” which is what more pious Jews call those of us who ask too many questions. It’s similar to what most Americans (of any religion) call journalists: bad citizens.
In fourth grade, I was the first Jew to attend Mater Christi, a Catholic school run by the Sisters of Mercy in Burlington, Vermont. My parents sent me there for two stereotypically Jewish reasons…
1. Jews value education, and in the 1970s, Burlington’s public schools sucked.
2. The only secular private school in the city charged outrageous tuition. Mater Christi was cheaper because most of the teachers were nuns. (The Sisters of Mercy don’t often strike for higher wages or unionize for better working conditions.)
I was treated well at Mater Christi – better than I was treated in Hebrew School. Every Saturday, my parents dropped me off for Hebrew lessons and children’s services at a local synagogue. My teacher would frequently ask, in front of other students, “So how’s Catholic school going?” Even at 9 years old, I recognized a sneer when I heard one.
My fellow Hebrew School students weren’t as judgmental, but they were confused. “Why do you go there?” was a common question. Thing is, I really enjoyed Mater Christi.
So on many Saturday mornings in the car, I devised clever explanations in my head that would change and expand their minds. I never succeeded – I was 9, after all – but I think that’s when I first got interested in writing.
Meanwhile, back at Catholic school…
My fourth-grade teacher, Sister Marianne, went out of her way to ensure I wouldn’t get hassled. She told the class that Christians and Jews share just as many beliefs (the Old Testament) as they don’t (the New Testament).
On Passover, she asked me to talk to the class about how Jews celebrate. I brought in a box of matzo – or matzah, another spelling issue – and was shocked how quickly my classmates ate it up. Matzo is basically large unsalted Saltines. It tastes like nothing.
I asked my mother for all the matzo we had in the house, and I traded each tasteless sheet for Matchbox cars, magnets, and other items of value to a fourth-grade boy. I really cleaned up.
My mother wasn’t pleased. “Stop messing with the goyem,” she admonished. But I had stumbled upon something important: What you learn in school isn’t enough to keep you from getting ripped off. Years later, I realized that’s what journalism is for.
In the middle of fifth grade, my family moved to Florida. I attended Hebrew school classes at Temple Beth El in sunny Boca Raton. It’s now one of the largest synagogues in the state, with 4,500 members and a sprawling complex on some prime real estate. But back in 1976, it could only afford to rent classrooms at a local elementary school.
In our Hebrew school, there was a charity fund called karan ami (literally, “fund of the people”). Every Saturday, my fellow students and I would bring nickels, dimes, and quarters from our weekly allowances and drop them in a bowl. At the end of the school year, that loose change would go toward buying trees for reclaiming the Israeli desert or helping oppressed Jews emigrate out of the Soviet Union.
But the following year, we discovered our donations were quietly deposited into Temple Beth El’s building fund. Some needy cause.
I protested to the makeshift Student Council, and with my parents’ help, the Beth El board – in a Solomon-like ruling – decided only half the karan ami money would go toward the building fund. They called it a compromise. I called it a bum deal.
Being so young, I had this weird expectation my local newspaper would investigate. Every day, I scanned The Boca Raton News and saw nothing.
To a middle-class white kid in a stable two-parent family in suburban Boca Raton, this seemed like breaking news. Of course, I later learned reporters only cover stories they know about, and no one told them about this. Even if someone had, so what? Twitter outrage wouldn’t be invented for another three decades.
I was never one of the cool kids at Beth El, but after this low-level donation drama, I was labeled a troublemaker. Jews, like crooked cops and drunken surgeons, are supposed to stick together. Even the students who agreed with me said so only in whispers, lest they also be harshly judged.
I was crushed. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but even my “friends” wouldn’t publicly defend me. For the first time in my young and sheltered life, I realized you pay a price for speaking out.
My indignation eventually strangled my insecurity, and I decided: Fuck this, I’m not gonna stop.
Sometimes, when I’m in Boca Raton on business, I drive by Temple Beth El and wonder how many bricks in that huge synagogue were bought with the pocket change of intimidated children.
Soon after, my family quit the “reform” Temple Beth El and joined the “conservative” B’Nai Torah. The latter is more strict than the former. (“Orthodox” is the strictest of all).
Although I had few warm memories about my years at Beth El, I was surprised to hear my new Jewish friends mocking my old Jewish friends.
Most of Beth El’s congregation doesn’t keep kosher or light candles on Friday night, and the B’Nai Torah kids were apparently taught this meant, “They aren’t really Jewish.”
Even in seventh grade, I knew enough to suggest: There aren’t enough Jews in the world for us to get picky about who’s “Jewish enough.” My new B’Nai Torah pals hinted I should probably go back to Beth El. Like, now.
The following year, I met orthodox Jews who didn’t think conservative Jews were “real,” either. These experiences soured me on joining highly defined groups, so by the time I got to high school, Student Council was an unappealing concept. But the student newspaper was not.
Student Council pressured its members to think and dress the same. Those who objected to a decision quietly leaked details to the student newspaper – off the record, of course, lest they be harshly judged.
Meanwhile, the student newspaper was an anarchistic mess that couldn’t pressure its staff to even meet deadline. But I preferred chaos to coercion.
Before I turned 13, my parents gave me a choice: Host my Bar Mitzvah in town and get lots of presents – kids rake ’em in at Bar Mitzvahs – or hold the service in Israel and get nothing but fond memories.
I chose Israel. But wow, what a depressing place.
My Hebrew school textbooks declared, “Israel is the Mideast’s only democracy.” But this wasn’t the democracy I expected.
My mother, father, and I went to the Mea Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem so I could buy a yarmulke and tallis – or, as my Mater Christi classmates innocently called them, “the beanie” and “the shawl.”
But my mother had to be careful. Women can’t venture into Mea Shearim in sleeveless blouses or skirts above the knee. They must “dress modestly,” as the sign on the neighborhood gate says. If they don’t, they can have water thrown on them from the balconies. I suppose by men.
Women also couldn’t – and still can’t – pray at the Wailing Wall, one of Judiasm’s most holy places. That’s where I originally wanted to be Bar Mitzvahed.
“I would have had to stand behind a barrier further down the wall,” my mother recalled to me last week. “I’m not gonna go all the way to Israel to stand behind a wall because I’m an inferior woman.”
Instead, we went to Masada, the desert fortress where less than 1,000 Jews fought off nearly 10,000 Roman soldiers only 73 years after Jesus was (theoretically) born. While the Jews lost – a common theme in our droll religion – they fought well, and Israeli soldiers still take an oath that includes, “Masada shall not fall again.”
It was moving and memorable. But I couldn’t shake this feeling Israel wasn’t a “real” democracy – just like I wasn’t a “real” Jew. In America, women don’t have to stand behind barriers at national monuments or dress modestly on public streets.
Before this, it never occurred to me that school textbooks could be biased. Afterward, I was skeptical of everything I read. Which made me a better journalist.
In eighth-grade summer school, I met my first girlfriend. Her name was Kris. The first time I went over to her house, I was shocked to see the kitchen and living room covered with a half-dozen crucifixes, a tapestry of the Last Supper, a portrait of Jesus, and even Christian refrigerator magnets. I remember one vividly: In Coca-Cola script, it said, “Everything goes better with…Jesus!”
This was jarring, because Jews are much less decorative about their religion. We don’t hang portraits of Moses or have kitchen magnets that say, “Everything goes better with…Ezekial!”
When Kris’s mom first met me, she kept staring at the Jewish star I wore around my neck, a present from my parents. Kris and I went outside and sat on the front steps to talk. Her 5-year-old sister came out and asked me, “What church do you go to?”
“I don’t go to church. I go to temple,” I said. “Why?”
“Oh, my mom wants to know.”
Right then, Kris’s mom darted out, scooped up the kid, smiled weakly at me, and rushed back in the house.
Kris dumped me a week or two later. For years, I thought it was because I was Jewish. But in my junior year, a mutual acquaintance assured me it had less to do with anti-Semitism and more to do with the fact that I was a “lousy kisser.”
(In my defense, I had zero kissing experience up till then.)
“Great,” I said. “Now Kris probably thinks all Jews are lousy kissers.”
While it stung to hear such personal criticism, I knew I was better for it. I toiled diligently over the next few years to correct this intimate defect. Then it dawned on me: The truth hurts in the moment, but not hearing the truth can hurt you for much longer. That stuck with me as a young journalist.
When I was hired as a reporter at the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1990, my first day on the job was Dec. 24. My first assignment was to visit Christmas tree sellers and interview the losers who buy trees the day before the big gentile holiday. I drove around Palm Beach County with a Jewish photographer.
I pulled the same assignment the following year, with another Jewish photographer. In both cases, two memories stand out:
1. Working at the Sun Sentinel over the holidays meant working with every other Jew at the newspaper. It’s the one time of year when bigots can honestly say Jews control the media.
2. I interviewed a handful of Jews buying Christmas trees on Dec. 24. Their explanation was always the same: What the hell, let’s see how the other half lives. (These were, of course, reform Jews.) Both years, I included quotes like this: “Besides, dahling, this late in the season, the trees are a real bahgain!” Both years, the Jewish editors cut these quotes from my stories.
This was just one of many instances where I realized daily newspapers censor themselves, lest they offend advertisers and be harshly judged. I eventually created my own publication to write what I wanted.
In 1999, I married a shiksa. That’s a non-Jewish woman.
My parents didn’t care, but some other Jews did. An acquaintance, who sometimes volunteered at the Jewish Community Center in West Palm Beach, cared a whole lot.
I can’t recall his exact words, but he accused me of depleting the stock of Jews worldwide. That’s because, unlike in Christianity, Judaism passes through the mother, not the father. If my wife bore our children, they wouldn’t automatically be Jewish.
The JCC, like most Jewish organizations, is concerned about young Jews leaving the faith. It’s an old fear, and it’s still controversial. Just this past summer, The Atlantic reported…
A small, vocal group of Conservative rabbis is pushing the movement to accept marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The fight is really about the future of the religion.
At the time, I understood why my JCC pal was worried. I still do. I even share the concern, and I’m glad there are Jews like him that’ll literally keep the faith and keep churning out Jewish babies. But I love my shiksa wife, and we’re not having kids at all.
I refuse to feel guilty about that – or much of anything. Maybe that’s what really makes me a bad Jew. And a decent journalist.