The first time I am told I am not actually Jewish, I am eight-years old and I am sitting on the bus. My hair is uncomfortably large, a dark brown waterfall cascading down my back ending in a sort of beaver’s tail. Presumably, I am wearing dark washed Lee’s bootcut jeans and some sort of Columbia quarter-zip, which is probably bright pink. If you look to my left, you will see two boys. The boys are always obnoxious, taking pennies out of their pockets, loose change—the things they will not notice missing.
The bus drops me off around the corner from my house near a local restaurant. The bus creeps towards the parking lot for the restaurant and I gather my belongings. Jacket, check. Backpack, check. Headphones, check. The bus comes to a stop and I sling my bag over my shoulder when I feel something hit my back. Unknowing, I turn around and everyone is laughing at the boys emptying their pockets of spare change and throwing them at the Jewish girl.
I run off the bus.
My great grandfather’s name was Morris Bazarsky. Born in Russia in 1909, it was illegal to practice any other religion than Orthodox Christianity per Article 62 of the 1906 Fundamental Laws. In 1920, Morris came to the United States through the passageway of Ellis Island. He ended up settling in Providence, where he owned what formerly was United States Beef Co.
I was too young to remember, but I am told that as a child I went to visit Ellis Island. Somewhere in a musty box in my mother’s basement lies a half-developed Polaroid photograph of my siblings and my handprints around Morris’ on the Island. I have never seen this photo and I hope one day I will.
When I was a child, occasionally, a great flood would invade the basement and we would have to throw boxes away. I pray to a God I do not believe in that we find the photograph one day. I can imagine four-year-old Kate running her tiny fingertips over the casket of my great grandfathers’ concrete handprint—trying to remember all of the emptiness his body left imprinted into the wall.
Morris Bazarsky. Some say his name was Maschech and was changed to Morris when he came to the States; changing his name to make it fall off the tongue easier to the ‘Americans’ that did not want his body on their land.
My ancestors came from Russia and not Poland—I am told this makes me less Jewish.
“It doesn’t count,” says my best friend Riley at the time.
I am thirteen-years-old when my best friend negates my ‘Jewishness’. I think she was under the impression I could wear my Jewish like a cheap mood ring you buy at the mall for 2.99; when it starts to get ugly, you take it off.
Does it not count because my family made it over to the States before our entire ethnicity was incinerated? Or does it not count because my family, in specific, does not have traces to such a horrific time? You know what, it must be because we aren’t practicing. Yes, that’s it. Because I do not attend Temple, I must not be Jewish.
As a child, people would always be surprised when I told them I was Jewish. Somehow it was always brought up in a conversation.
“Do you believe in God?”
As a child, I would answer this question, yes. It is the same God as the Christian God—the Hebrew Bible is the same as the Old Testament.
“Do you believe in God?”
And now, all I say is something to the effect of: not the kind that you believe in—not the one that created the Earth in 7 days, the one who snapped his fingers to create light, the one who makes you feel guilty for being human, for making mistakes—what a sin.
All I say is: I believe in the universe, I believe we are here for a moment in time, a snapshot; and then we all disappear. It will happen again; we are not the first, not the last.
“Do you celebrate Hanukah?”
As a child, I would answer this question, no. We did not celebrate any Jewish holidays until my grandfather passed away in my adult years.
And now look at us, we all sit around and light the menorah as my father coughs up words we do not understand in a language none of us speak. But we feel it—feel the presence of my grandfather, Marshall; of my great grandfather, Morris—of those that came before. We remember the feeling, so when we go, someone will light the candles for our souls.
My ultimate favorite:
“You can’t be ethnically Jewish, being Jewish is a religion.”
As a child, I would nod my head—I was not proud of my culture and I knew nothing about it. Imagine the audacity of another person, to tell me I am not my ancestors that came before me—telling me whose land I belong to and whose land I do not.
I did not know better, so I nodded my head in agreement as a child. It was not until my later years that I realized I had the right to tell them they were wrong. As a teenager, cusses started to creep their way off my tongue. It was my shield. Now, I chuckle and educate them on all of the Jewish things they never knew about.
Ignorance is bliss.
At 16-years-old I fall in love with a boy named Nick who is an 18-year-old senior wrestler. 16-year-old Kate was no sight to see—uncomfortable in my own body, I walk with my head down and my hands contorting in my sweatshirt pockets. It is still fall when Nick asks me to hang out after school; the air is crisp and there is sunshine trying to escape through the foggy clouds. I tell my mother I am studying for a biology test with a teacher I loathe—a terrible lie.
The bell rings at 2:05 and I go to meet him in the hallway, but he is not there.
I text him and he texts me back, “Wait until more people leave school, I don’t want to be seen with you.”
What a kind boy, no?
When I ask why, he replies, “Because you’re weird and no one wants to date the nerdy Jewish girl.”
Presumably, this was when I should have stopped seeing Nick.
I wait 15 more minutes in the hallway and then I see his messy blonde hair stroll my way—there is something about him. He has mysterious green eyes that change with the lighting; but, for some reason they never look at me the same way twice.
He comes to give me a hug and all I can do is ask what his text meant, in which he stared at my nose and said ever so matter-of-factly, “Don’t worry. At least you don’t look Jewish.”
I did not know we were playing hide and seek with my ethnicity—maybe if you peek around the corner, you will find it hidden in an empty box. There may be some tape left on the outside, just peel it back. Inside the box lies somebody’s old menorah. There is rainbow candle wax dripping down the sides and it is hardened now—reminding me of all the years it had to stay hidden away. My ethnicity, like hardened wax for the world to see—he always tried to chip away at it for me; he thought he was doing me a favor.
I stayed with him for three more months; my mother thought he was a nice boy—I did not know how to tell her otherwise.
He was not a nice boy.
People seem to think it makes me feel better if I hide my Jewishness—something about my culture holds so much shame.
“Do not try to carry the weight of all your ancestors on your shoulders when you can escape instead—leave them behind,” I can hear it ringing in my head.
It was everything they wanted to say, but nothing they would dare let slip from their lips.
There is something beautiful about the Jewish culture and language. I listen to my father speak Hebrew during Hanukkah and at funeral services—the words do not slide out of his mouth—they crunch and creep and claw their way off the tongue with every syllable. There is nothing gentle about being Jewish, and I think that is the beautiful part.
There is nothing gentle about any of this.
At my grandpa’s funeral, friends look away; do not want to see us piling dirt on the casket of our loved one—we want to bury him. 3 scoops: 1, 2, 3—does not seem difficult. The ritual reminds us to grab the shovel upside down, scooping the dirt with the back of the shovel to show initial reluctance of the final goodbye. All you can hear is shovels hitting the ground—the clank of rocks and dirt; the low sobs of people at back of the canopy; and the rabbi standing at the front, sunlight shining down, bouncing off the black of his kippah—throat full of phlegm, ready to read the next prayer.
Finally, it is my turn. Under my sunglasses, the tears have created a stream of black that is slowly freezing with the New England winter. My feet crunch along the frosted over red carpet that leads to a pile of dirt with the shovels stuck into the top. I do not remember scooping the dirt; I do not remember saying goodbye and I do not remember walking away. But, I remember the freezing air that I inhaled sharply; I remember the sun in my eyes as I squint away from the tent when the service is over; I remember going to the car to get a 12 pack of blackberry brandy shots. My grandfather’s favorite. We all take it back and slightly gag it down. It burns.
עד שנפגש שוב
In Hebrew, you read right to left. Backwards from the American ways of left to right, maybe this difference is just another reason we were not welcomed here.
I am twenty-one years old when I wake up and roll over to look at my cell-phone. Groggily feeling the side table, eyes half-closed—I am looking for my glasses. I have an Instagram notification from Jake—the boy on the bus. We grew up together, went all through high-school and he never said a word about the pennies; I thought he had forgotten or never remembered in the first place.
I open the message and it reads, “Hey, sorry about making fun of you for being Jewish and shit as kids. That wasn’t cool.”
It really wasn’t cool. It is 8 in the morning, another breezy fall day with birds singing and leaves changing colors; I wake up to the cool autumn breeze, I listen to birds sing cool music, I watch leaves change cool colors; but while I do classify throwing pennies at Jewish people as very un-cool, I feel like it deserved a more profound apology.
I understand what he is trying to do; he is handing me an olive branch; an acknowledgement that he was trying to classify me and that he regrets it.
I do not accept his apology. I do not accept this apology at all and yet I tell him I do, “I mean, thanks for apologizing but it’s ok you were a kid”.
How do you tell the person who broke your soul so young that you do not want the words they ever so graciously handed you—a half-assed apology.
I did not want to accept your fucking apology. I wanted to take the words handed to me and twist their branches into thorns.
I will not use the pennies you worthlessly hand back to me as currency.
I look over at the boy sitting next to me. We are sitting on his couch. He lives alone and his house is dark—all of the curtains are drawn to hide the moonlight. He is wearing some sort of college sweatpants and a t-shirt with a floral backwards hat. His name is Matt, and this is a first tinder date. He seems nice. We sat on his couch all night talking for hours about music and dumplings and books and anything we could possibly think of.
I look over at him; in one hand he is holding a bottle of Sam Adams Jack’O and a blue lighter in the other. As his hands fumble toward his baby bong, he tells me he likes my hair but notices it is different from the pictures he saw.
His thumb slides down the lighter and he takes a sharp inhale while pulling out the bowl—as he exhales I mention I change my hair a lot because I have to straighten or curl my hair every day anyway, “I have that Jewish-afro”.
I believe those were the exact words I used, which I covered it up nervously with, “Well, I’m not actually Jewish”.
I felt a pit of regret in my stomach when I disown my own ancestors.
I no longer pity who I am.
Photo by Bonnie Kittle on Unsplash