Ambivalent Jew. That was me through childhood. I knew very few Jews. For the latter half of my childhood, we were among just a handful of Jews in our small Ohio town. Sunday school was a drag. It was decidedly not hip to be anything but Christian where I lived. I had no desire to switch religions, but I was very unsure about my faith and what it meant to be Jewish. I hunted for answers by burying myself in books about Jews. Through reading, I often found what I lacked – a community of Jews.
Now, I am confident with my Jewish self. I celebrated my adult bat mitzvah in 2006 at age 41 and still can feel the shivers that traveled down my spine as I chanted from the Torah. I have found my rhythm and place as a Jew. I still can immerse myself in a Jewish-themed book and experience an invaluable treasure.
In my teen years, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar, and Golda Meir’s My Life provided very different pictures of Jews. Marjorie Morningstar, a teenager in the 1930s, is a part of an American family of Eastern European immigrants living free of persecution in an area where it is normal – and largely – accepted to be Jewish. They do what I never experienced in childhood: have Sabbath dinners every Friday with chicken soup, and pot roast, with the blessings over the wine and the Challah. They are steeped in tradition, even as Marjorie seems intent on assimilation and only attends temple, her father bemoans, for dances. Marjorie, who uses Marjorie Morningstar rather than Morganstern as her stage name, is a glamorous substitute for the Jewish girls I rarely encountered during my teens. She is beautiful and mostly graceful, though at times she seems shallow as she flits about New York City with friends and beaus. She matures as the world becomes darker, and the Nazis come to power in Germany. She volunteers with a Jewish refugee-aid committee. She marries and returns to the traditions of her faith. I was mesmerized by her, a person unlike any I had ever known.
Golda Meir, Israeli’s prime minister from 1969 to 1974, was born in Russia, and the pogroms drove her family away to America when Golda was very young. She could have been one of my great-grandparents, fleeing as a young child to America. The first page of her autobiography shook me to the core as she recalled how she felt as she watched her father and a neighbor barricade their home with wooden boards to thwart an expected pogrom.
Wrote Meir, “And, above all, I remember being aware that this was happening to me because I was Jewish, which made me different from most of the other children in the yard. It was a feeling that I was to know again many times during my life – the fear, the frustration, the consciousness of being different and the profound instinctive belief that if one wanted to survive, one had to take effective action personally.” She described exactly how I felt at times when I was tired of being one of the only Jews in my public school and neighborhood. Reading her story also gave me a Jewish female hero to admire.
The past week, once again hungry for Jewish literature, I read The Tenth Song, the newest novel by Israeli author Naomi Ragen. The story is a more modern tale than most of her other novels. It chronicles a present-day American Jewish family whose leader, an accountant, is accused of a horrible crime – helping to funnel money to terrorists. The novel at times resembles a high-class soap opera as Ragen shows us the ripple effect of the father’s supposed misdeed on his wife, daughter, and even his shul. For three evenings, I stayed up late turning page after page, drawn to this community of eclectic characters, some likeable and some despicable for their apparent love of material wealth. The story has several twists as the man’s wife and daughter evolve into more soulful human beings.
Like the books I found in my youth, The Tenth Song put me in the middle of a Jewish community. It showed me once again just how diverse Jews are. Unlike during childhood, I did not struggle to understand some of the Jewish religious and cultural references. I realized I was no longer looking for answers about Judaism. Now, I was enjoying the warmth of a familiar blanket.
Originally appeared on the Jewish Muse blog.
Note: Photo of author Naomi Ragen is by Alex Ragen.