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Nov 20 2012

My Family’s Secret Jewish History

By at 3:36 pm

I remember a conversation I had with my grandmother not long before she died. She was in a hospital bed that had been set up in the dining room; she hadn’t been able to climb the stairs to the second floor of her house for years. I pulled a chair close, and asked her if she used to light candles on Friday night back when she was a little girl in Northern Italy.

The question had been chosen carefully, and with great intention. I knew that if I asked her if she was Jewish, if we were Jewish, she would vehemently deny it. But when I asked her about the candles, my grandmother smiled and told me about cleaning the house every Friday, about cooking all afternoon, and yes, she told me, of course they lit candles. 

I was thrilled. This was the answer I had been waiting to hear. “You know what this means,” I told her in a burst of naïve excitement. “This means we’re Jewish, you and Mama and me.” I went on to list my siblings’ names as well. Without missing a breath, my grandmother leaned forward and in the clearest, strongest voice I had heard in years, she instructed me to, “Never tell anyone.”

Her response shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. I knew she had lived in Mussolini’s Italy. I knew she had seen her father harassed and tortured by Mussolini’s Blackshirts; I knew she had seen her own mother jailed for days after cursing the dictator’s name in a bread line. I had heard the stories about the soldiers entering Jewish homes and taking their jewelry, right down to the wedding rings on their fingers. I knew my grandmother had nearly died while working as a translator for an underground resistance group.

And I knew what she had endured in her journey to, and through, America. I knew she suffered a difficult pregnancy which started in Italy, ended in the United States, and survived a traumatic trip across the ocean, aboard a boat for the wives of American GIs. I knew that my grandmother was rejected by new husband’s family; fortunately, an Italian man owned one of the few hotels in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and he took her in until she and her new husband could leave town. My grandmother never talked about being Jewish, she barely acknowledged her Italian heritage (although her accent betrayed her with every word), and she even had the requisite nose job.

Like virtually every generation of Jews before her, my grandmother grew up in fear. Although she spent the second half of her life in the relatively welcoming community of the San Francisco Bay Area, her view of the world, her interpretation of interactions and events, would forever be colored by the traumas she experienced as a child and young woman. And when she admonished me to keep my newly found Jewish status a secret, she was trying to protect me.

I knew all this. But I didn’t really know it.

My generation of American Jews is, for the most part, one of the fortunate few to grow up in relative safety. While I have felt scared many times, I have never truly feared for my life, and I have never felt deeply unsafe because I am Jewish. I hear about acts of anti-Semitism, and I am saddened, and my world feels diminished as a result. But they don’t keep me up at night, they don’t make me want to put away my Star of David or anglicize my last name (as previous generations in my family have done), and they certainly don’t make me want to stop writing about my experiences as a Jewish woman and mother.

I am well aware that by writing for Kveller and other websites, by openly embracing and exploring my Jewish identity, I am directly contradicting my grandmother’s instructions. I would like to tell you that I write because if I don’t, the anti-Semites win. But such a statement would suggest some amount of bravery on my part, and the reality is, I’ve never truly felt scared enough to be brave. I write because of the bravery of my grandmother and those who came before her.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I am constantly mindful of those living in Israel—my friends, family, and so many I will never meet, and never know. As the rockets fall around them, I have to imagine they are scared, as are their children. I know it is a mere accident of history that I don’t know what their fear feels like; there is no logic to explain why I was born in this generation, in this country. As I move through each day, fortunate to be consumed by the mundane details of a fairly blessed life, I am saddened and worried by the violence in the Middle East. And in each moment, I am immensely grateful for everything I have been given, and everything my fellow Jews, those that came before me, those that walk alongside me, and those that are yet to come, will give.

This Thursday, I will sit down to a bountiful meal. I will not be wondering if air raid sirens will interrupt our conversation, if rockets will fall in my country. I will not fear strange soldiers entering my home, threatening my family or taking my treasured heirlooms. I will not feel a need to hide my Jewish faith and identity that is so important to me, and I will joyfully raise my daughters in the tradition and community that has survived for thousands of years.

For all of that, I am truly, deeply, grateful.


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