People are often surprised to learn about my Jewish identity. I’ve got blonde hair, blue eyes, and fair skin. The irony is obvious. I look more like one of Hitler’s acolytes than a relative of those persecuted at his internment camps. I was a multi-sport athlete and played NCAA Div. I volleyball in California. My mother is a WASP (or Shiksa, according to some of my family members). Though my complexion and mother’s non-Jewish genetics seem to undermine my claims to Jewishness, I was raised a Jew and proudly identify as such.
It occurred to me only recently, after a comment from my childhood friend, Liam, that my connection to Judaism might be tenuous. I mentioned to him that I was proud of living in New York, a place where I can connect with many of my spiritual relatives. “You’re not really Jewish though,” said Liam, rather incredulously.
I took the comment in stride. I’ve conditioned myself to confront threats to my pride with a self-deprecating smile, which is probably just a defense mechanism I adopted as a writer, in order to negotiate the constant disappointment associated with the trade. Liam’s barb, though, did inspire some self-reflection.
Despite my father’s Jewish sperm; the Hebrew etymology of my given name; the Xeroxed conversion certificate; my skinless phallus; those piss-drenched bed sheets at Camp B’nai Brith; dreadful Sunday mornings with Rabbi Howard at the synagogue; the pitch-perfect rendition of my haftarah, the arcade party that followed; and two appearances at the Maccabi Games in Israel – maybe Liam is right? Maybe I’m not really Jewish. Perhaps my life has been a pastiche of Jewish events, lacking the connective tissue to form a real identity.
Though I currently live in New York, I’m originally from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a land of very few Jews. Around the time I graduated high school, there were less than 8,340 Jews in Calgary. Compared to Toronto and Montreal, places with a richer Jewish heritage, where you can purchase real challah and bagels, the city of Calgary hardly qualifies as a locus of Jewish life. Even Vancouver has a stronger Jewish population. (Vancouver!)
When I represented Canada at the Maccabi Games, in 2009 (basketball) and 2013 (volleyball), I felt strangely alienated from my teammates. The Jews from Toronto and Montreal just seemed more authentic. They had dark hair, and olive skin, and spittle at the side of their mouths when they spoke. Even Amar’e Stoudemire, the former NBA player, whose orbit I briefly entered when he helped coach the Canadian Men’s basketball team at the 2013 Games, aroused in me a bout of Jewish imposter syndrome. Amar’e Stoudemire, who is nearly 7’0 feet tall! To be fair, he lived in Israel, claimed a spiritual connection to the land, converted, and even had a small Star of David tattoo.
If Amar’e qualifies, then appearance isn’t a clear mark of Judaism, which is probably good in my case. I inherited the aqua rings around my pupils from my father, Howard Sheldon Silver, a successful business owner, hacky golfer, and unconscientious eater. He probably contributed to my male pattern baldness, too, but the prairie-gold coloring of my hair can be attributed to my mother, Mary Anne Rodgers, a talented event coordinator, private club member, and interior design maven. There’s an ongoing debate about who contributed to my athletic ability.
Maybe my instinct is good and I’m just a faux Jew? After all, being Jewish comes with cultural capital. These days, it’s cool to be Jewish. We’ve somehow gained prominence in business, science, entertainment and the arts, though it might be a while before we make headway in the sporting world. We’ve got a penchant for snatching Nobel Prizes, but we’ve shed the image of the money-grubbing, horn-spouting, ornery Jews of the past, for the most part. Perhaps I’m just playing up my Judaism to trade off the social cache that comes with being a member of The Tribe.
The identity is particularly helpful as a young writer trying to “make it” in New York. I feel a particular kinship to Philip Roth and E.L. Doctorow and Larry David. I seek out other Jews in the city, play Jewish geography at every turn, assure them of our kinship. This is what I tried to communicate to Liam, the non-believer. But would I do the same if I lived in a period of history that was less auspicious for our people, say, the 1950s? If I was one of the Jews tasked with climbing the social strata in North America, not one reveling in the progress of my ancestors. Probably not.
When I hear about shootings in Pittsburgh, I’m no more politically charged than when I hear about similar incidents in El Paso, TX. I’m pro-Israel but I’m not well-versed in the conflict. Sometimes, when I wander past the Hasidim in South Williamsburg, and marvel at their devotion to Judaism, everything from their traditional clothing to their preservation of language, I wonder how I can even pretend to participate in the same culture. All these things make me feel ashamed. If I was truly Jewish, wouldn’t I have a deeper, more visceral connection to my brethren around the world?
But my love of other Jewish things is sincere. I love the cuisine, particularly matzah brie, which I’ll plop atop an everything bagel at Barney Greengrass on the Upper West Side, despite the fact that the deli is way out of my recent-college-grad price range. It seems, too, that my relationship with Judaism is thoroughly modern. Like me, many self-identifying Jews don’t observe holidays, eat kosher, or wear a kipput. Somehow, my amateurism makes me more authentic, more progressive, more in step with the times.
And I do observe some Jewish doctrine. I won’t get a tattoo, since I’d like my body to rot in the comfort of a Jewish cemetery (take that Amar’e!). I’d like to marry a Jewish woman, and raise my children Jewish, and let them skip Saturday school at their leisure (take that Rabbi Howard!), and watch their little faces light up behind the menorah as they stumble, along with me, through the Hanukkah blessing.
Identity, it seems, involves a two-way negotiation. I must identify as Jewish, and those around me must acknowledge that identification. If I say I’m a circus performer, yet those around me don’t see the foundation of evidence to view me in the same way, then I’m probably not a circus performer. What’s important for me, then, is to carry out my responsibility, take ownership of my Jewish identity. Others will ultimately believe what they want.