Grandma Shiksa
Painting by Cynthia Yatchman

 

I never set out to remove Steven from the Jewish gene pool. The first time I met him, I thought he was Italian. Where I grew up, in coal mining country, the sexiest boys were all second-generation southern Italian. When my father was a boy, he was best friends with a family of Italian kids, but he told me not to marry someone Italian. He said he’d even prefer I married someone Jewish, which was probably because he only knew one Jewish person, an elderly shoemaker who taught him to play chess.

 

My parents were both teachers, the first in their families to be college-educated. They had the casual prejudices of their time and place, but my father didn’t judge people by their heritage, so I assumed when he told me not to marry an Italian that it had to do with locker room talk when he was a high school football player. For my mother, on the other hand, it was all about theology. Catholics, she told me, can be very good people, but they worship statues of the Virgin Mary.

When I met Steven, I was drawn to the dark good looks, and when I discovered he was Jewish, that was even more exotic. In vacation church school, we had studied the Old Testament, and once we made little construction paper tubes called mezuzahs with Bible verses inside. The Bible verses we used, of course, were sayings of Jesus.

Then, when I was thirteen, I read The Diary of Anne Frank. I was stunned that she had not survived. I saw photos in LIFE magazine of bodies from the death camps. Might one of them have been Anne?  Had this happened to my book friend Anne Frank? Just because she was Jewish? My heart soared with moral outrage. The Jews, like the slaves, had suffered beyond measure. I wanted to stand up and make a speech, to fight for them even if I could never be them. I read Leon Uris’s big novels and cheered for the founding of Israel, especially after I saw Paul Newman in the film version of Exodus.

So when I met Steven in college, I was always asking him questions about the Holocaust and the founding of Israel and the Bible. He was knowledgeable about history, but didn’t know much Bible. He had learned just enough Hebrew for a bar mitzvah in a Reform congregation, he told me, but then he stopped attending services. Even more intriguing, Steven not only didn’t believe in Jesus, he didn’t believe in God. And neither did his parents.

He and I were in an honors program at college that got us invited to a brunch at the college president’s residence. There was a speaker on some academic subject. Coffee was served from silver-plated pots, and there were linen napkins and bowls of strawberries. They gave us plates of toast, cheese omelets, orange slices, and thick-cut strips of fragrant bacon.

I saw an opportunity to stand up against oppression. I waited until Steven turned away then slipped the bacon strips from his plate to mine.

He turned back and looked at his plate. “I thought I got bacon,” he said.

I whispered, “I put it on my plate.”

He stared at me.

“Bacon,” I said. “You don’t eat bacon.”

He blinked. “Yes I do.”

I whispered, “But you’re Jewish.”

Understanding finally dawned on him, and he choked. Actually it was an aborted laugh that ended up as a coughing fit. When it was over, he wiped his mouth and took back his bacon. This story became extremely popular with his family. Oh my God! they cried. Steven’s Linda – such a beautiful, brilliant girl – and she thought we kept kosher!

At the honors brunch, Steven told me, “My family used to have a Christmas tree that my mother called the Hanukkah bush.”

I didn’t know what Hanukkah was. I learned fast, though. I learned that Steven’s family considered themselves thoroughly Jewish, albeit secular, and highly ethical in their personal lives and politics. Steven’s parents had been raised in observant homes, although his grandfathers, Steven told me, who were both in the garment industry, wouldn’t turn up their noses at a lobster at a business dinner.

“But they kept kosher at home?” I said. “So the women had to keep kosher but not the men?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. My grandmother used to shop at Lord & Taylor and get the shrimp salad.” I adored Steven’s family, and they loved teaching me. They talked about how Jews were always for the underdog because they had always been the underdog. Steven’s father hated the Germans so much that he wouldn’t sit in a Volkswagen, let alone a Mercedes Benz. He was a labor lawyer, a Bobby Kennedy Democrat, and his mother was somewhat to the left of that. She had learned folk singing from Communists. She read The Nation and assumed that anyone she liked, which included me, was at the very least a Democrat.

I had a huge crush on her and her politics. She wore big hoop earrings and deep-cut blouses, smoked cigarettes, and drank cocktails. She put out dinners for crowds and never broke a sweat. She taught folk music and worked for liberal school board candidates. She explained that they valued Judaism but not the nonsense, like shaving your head and covering it with a shmata.

I began to pick up more words of Yiddish.

Steven’s dad took me aside and asked me a couple of questions about my family, and seemed surprised that my parents had college degrees.

“You know Einstein was Jewish, don’t you?” he said. “Also Freud and Marx. And Jesus. Did you know Jesus was Jewish?”

I didn’t know about Einstein, and I was a little vague about Freud and Marx, but I knew all about Jesus. “Yes,” I said. “Jesus was Jewish. Did you know that the Last Supper was a Passover dinner?”

I think maybe Steven’s father did not know that, because as smart as that whole family was, they were extremely ignorant of Christianity. They knew about pogroms, but they used “Catholic” and “Christian” as synonyms. Steven’s father covered nicely, just as I had managed to conceal my ignorance about the great nineteenth- and twentieth-century thinkers. He nodded approval, and we moved on to another subject.

I assumed all Jews were like Steven’s family except the ones in Brooklyn that Steven called the Black Hats. Early on, when they were still teasing me about the bacon, I said something enthusiastic about the movie Exodus. Steven’s mother said, “You should know, Linda, we are not Zionists. The movie was important because it marked the end of the Hollywood black list, but it was propaganda for the Jewish nation-state. You have to be very wary of theocracies.”

Steven became a lawyer like his father, a public defender and later a lawyer for progressive nonprofits. I became a high school teacher, like my parents, but in other ways, I wandered far from their world with the church at its center. When Steven and I got married, a judge did the ceremony. We already lived together, in Brooklyn, and many of our friends were in mixed marriages too.

After our son Josh was born, we lit Hanukkah candles and had a small Christmas tree. We tried to explain Kwanzaa. We went to Passover at Steven’s parents’ house but didn’t celebrate Easter because it had too much sugar and too much religion. We were raising our little Josh, we thought, to be like us.

So imagine our shock when, the summer after he graduated college, just before he started law school, our Josh took one of the free trips to Israel funded in part by the radical-right billionaire Sheldon Adelson. Josh assured us that his political views weren’t changing, he just wanted a free trip to Israel.

It was on the trip to Israel that he learned the phrase “wrong-side halvsie,” which means your father is Jewish, but not your mother. Paul Newman, the Exodus star of the perfect blue eyes, was a wrong-side halvsie.

When Josh was little, I used to try to imagine what he could do to shock us the way I had shocked my parents by telling them that Steven and I were living together. I used to imagine him coming out as gay to us, and I flattered myself that we would be supportive and loving. Or maybe he’d go to work for a big corporation. But he stayed progressive. He was always very clear about things like gender equality and the rights of all people. He and his beautiful, brilliant law student girlfriend Rebecca both agreed that Israel was not always right, and they corrected us when we used “gypsy” instead of “Roma.”

Rebecca didn’t ask him to convert. Her family, active members of the biggest Conservative congregation in their city and staunch supporters of the Jewish state, liked him the way he was. Josh was the one who insisted on converting before the wedding. He took a course, he met with a rabbi, he studied Hebrew on the Internet. He did the symbolic re-circumcision, administered by himself with a tiny sterile prick, followed by immersion in the ritual bath, the mikvah, witnessed by three Jewish men.

I said, “But you were circumcised right after you were born!”

“By a Jamaican doctor,” he said.

“She was the best obstetrician in Brooklyn!”

“You’re missing the point, Mom,” he said. “I want to be Jewish.”

Of course, Rebecca and Josh’s children would be Jewish anyhow because Rebecca was Jewish. It was Josh who wanted to be a real Jew. It turned out he had always assumed he was Jewish. We always spent much more time with Steven’s family than mine: there were more cousins, more fun. His Christian friends came to him with questions about Jewish things. He had always assumed that if you were even a little bit Jewish, you were Jewish, which I assumed too. People call it the Hitler test. Would Hitler have considered you Jewish?

Josh said he needed a ground for his beliefs, reasons for ethical behavior. He wanted answers to the big questions. He also really wanted to be part of the Jews.

I was hurt. Wasn’t life itself, with its sprawl and complexity, enough to build on? What about the best parts of Christianity? The emphasis on forgiveness, that there is hope until the final breath? Mainly, was Josh going to separate himself from me?

He insisted he wasn’t rejecting anything. He was adding depth and history and richness to his life. He had always loved rituals and traditions. He liked mastering systems and rules, the details of copyright law, the rules of kashrut. He told me he loved being part of a people who had been wrestling with G-d’s plan for five millennia. After the conversion and the marriage, he continued to study Hebrew and he also engaged in conversations with a chabad rabbi. Rebecca had zero interest in becoming orthodox. She was satisfied with the Conservative practice she had been brought up in. She was interested in causing change in the world in other ways.

We met her parents for dinner when they were in New York. They were both physicians who loved to travel and were generous and witty. As we sipped wine and chatted about the kids, I kept perversely thinking of Israeli settlers bulldozing Palestinian olive groves. I said something about the Israeli prime minister.

Steven banged my knee with his under the table. Rebecca’s parents started talking about the beach at Tel Aviv. The most controversy I managed to stir up was to say I’d always been a mountain person, not a beach person. We liked each other, but there would clearly always be things off-limits for discussion.

Then Josh and Rebecca took jobs on the West Coast, and I learned another new Yiddish word: mishpocheh, the whole, extended family. Rebecca had an enormous mishpocheh. Josh loved it. He claimed to have hated being an only child. He loved meeting new people, he loved baby cousins a couple of times removed and the tumult of holiday meals. He wanted Steven and me to move to the West Coast and be part of it.

Even at the wedding I had felt like an outsider. I suppose I had felt like an outsider with Steven’s family, too, but they had taken me in hand and taught me about everything from politics to folk music. I am more than willing to entertain the idea that my sense of being an outsider was on me rather than on them. Everyone was kind, but I felt like a knot in the smooth running thread. I was the reason Josh had to convert to be a Jew. I was the shiksa.

I gave myself little talks. What right did I have to feel rejected? I had always been safely part of the majority. The Jews were the ones who were the Other. Of course, neither Steven’s family nor Rebecca’s family ever seemed oppressed. They were active and productive in the world, and they lived well. You couldn’t feel sorry for them. I was the problem.

Especially at our grandson’s bris.

I considered not attending, but Josh said, “Mom, please. No one would understand.” Meaning himself.

Where had my baby gone? Who was this person making decisions that had nothing to do with what we’d taught him? My baby Josh was the father of his own baby boy. And he was having a bris. And we were going across the country to attend it.

The event took place at Rebecca’s parents’ home. One of my favorite things about Judaism has always been how much religious observance takes place at home. The shul is for study. The religion’s heart is the Sabbath meal, and even Passover centers on a meal at home.

The bris would be in the living room with a buffet brunch afterward. The whole mishpocheh was coming, at least those who could get off work on a weekday morning.

Josh was especially excited about the mohel they had found to do the circumcision. “Wait till you see this guy, Mom!” he gushed. “He is totally old-school. The black hat, the gray beard, the corny jokes! – the works!” This mohel had supposedly done 30,000 of the procedures, multiple generations of the same families. He was the circumciser of choice for local Muslims as well as Jews. He had a fully functional though strictly text website, which I read carefully. He seemed to be one of those blessed people who gets deep satisfaction out of what he is called to do in life.

Josh and Rebecca had worked out a way for everyone to be included in the ceremony.

“Don’t mind me,” I said. “I’ll just stand by the punch bowl.”

“Don’t joke, Mom,” Josh said.

He and Rebecca had studied the ceremony. Steven was no problem. There were any number of places to include a Jewish male grandparent, even one who doesn’t practice. The role they had found for me was to carry the baby into the room and pass him on to Rebecca’s mother, who would pass him on to Steven who would pass him on to Rebecca’s father, who would hold the baby for the mohel. He had already been through this with another grandson, and since he was a physician, theoretically he didn’t mind a little blood.

The morning of the ceremony, they came up with another job for me. They needed to keep the baby upstairs and away from Rebecca while the guests were arriving. He wasn’t supposed to have anything on his stomach. No nursing for a minimum of half an hour. I would babysit, and if he decided to wake up and scream, I was on my own.

I was pleased to get to do this. It meant I didn’t have to mill around smiling and shaking hands and wondering if everyone knew I wasn’t Jewish.

While the baby was getting his final nursing, just before the full press of guests, Rebecca’s uncle came in carrying a cake box, already wearing his prayer shawl. He was the youngest and tallest of her uncles, always referred to as Such a Sweetheart. I had met him a couple of times, and he seemed shy, like a stork that tucks its beak under a wing if you come too close.

When he saw me, a huge smile spread over his face. He put down the cake box and came to me, his smile getting bigger and bigger. He started to speak, checked himself, then leaned toward me and said in a booming voice with each syllable enunciated, “Congratulations!”

I thanked him.

Then he turned to Steven and said in a normal voice, “Mazel tov!

Mazel tovs for Steven, Josh, Rebecca and her parents. Congratulations for me. He thought he was being polite, of course, but it felt like a reminder that I was not part of this.

I got the baby safely upstairs, to the master bedroom. He was asleep, so little and scrunch-faced, exactly eight days old, smelling powdery and milky. The silence closed in. I was in charge of this last half hour when he was uncut, could still be anyone. I sat, and his weight melted into my chest. I almost nodded off, then jerked awake: I didn’t want to drift off and have him slip off my lap. I got up and circled the room.

More sounds downstairs. Doorbell, laughs. Mazel tovs. I held his little swaddled body in my left arm, keeping my right hand free to straighten the knit cap that slipped over his fuzzy eyebrows. More and more guests. We circled the dim green bedroom with its vast comforter on the king-sized bed, long ranks of family photos on the bureau.

It occurred to me that I could take him into the en suite bathroom and drop a sprinkle of water on his head from the sink. I had read that Catholics allowed anyone to do an emergency baptism. It might maybe have made this an edgier story, but I had been raised a Baptist, and we don’t baptize babies anyhow, only adults. And we don’t sprinkle, we use total immersion, symbol of spiritual cleansing, like a mikvah.

So I preached my grandson a sermon. I started softly: “Human beings do many things to our bodies,” I told him. “We wear shoes that twist our toes, and we reshape our breasts to make them look perky even when we’re old. We etch ink messages into our skin, and we pierce everything pierceable. Jews don’t tattoo and pierce,” I told him, “but they do circumcise.

“Not that they’re the only ones. Your great-grandfather, my father,” I told him, “was a Christian country boy, and his family thought circumcision was the latest in hygiene, so he was circumcised.”

I raised my voice a little. “You’ll learn soon about your great tradition. I’m happy that you have something to be part of. But you must never forget you are also part of the rest of us. I want you to grow up to identify not only with the Jews, but with everyone who is ever treated as Other, in important ways and small ones. The once enslaved, the sneered at and spat upon, the underdogs, the homeless, the refugees, the immigrants, the eccentric, the weary, the heavy-laden, the ones turned away at the door –”

They knocked and interrupted my peroration. They called us down from the peaceful place to a crowd of smiles and damp family warmth. The crowd made a path for us. I handed the baby off to his other grandmother and said – for better or for worse, appropriately, inappropriately, or appropriating – “Mazel tov.”

Bio

Meredith Sue Willis is the author of novels, short stories, children's books and more, most recently a novella called Saving Tyler Hake. "Grandma Shiksa" is part of a growing collection of grandmother stories, one of which,  "Little Red," was published in Persimmon Tree in 2013. http://www.meredithsuewillis.com

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