I was 19-years-old and waitressing at a diner in Maryland when I got my first taste of anti-Semitism.
A large redneck named Jimmy sat at the counter, watched me pour coffee and demanded my last name. I turned to replace the pot and heard him hiss Jew, in the same hateful tone he used other mornings to describe black people.
This was in 1992. It was my first time out of New York and I was naively amused that I had walked headlong into a Faulkner novel. I also recognized, on a visceral level, how dangerous it suddenly was to be me.
I have never felt as Jewish as when I am persecuted for being Jewish. I have also never felt so preposterous. I don't often identify with Judaism. I am lucky if I know the holidays, don't speak the language and don't actively seek community. Still, when pressed, I won't deny my Jewish heritage. There are others in the same predicament.
I made for us, the confused Jews of America, a Hanukkah checklist.
11 Ways to check your Jewishness. You know you are still a Jew when...
1) You can recite the Hanukkah prayer.
Judaism returns to me in snippets. I remember my family standing in front of a Menorah in my Nana's kitchen, the men wearing Yarmulkes and singing prayers. Candles burned. Every syllable resonated. Borukh Ato Adoynoy....
I remember long, drawn out Seders; sharp horseradish on gefilte fish, peeling gold wrapping off melted chocolate gelt. My grandparents spoke intimately, using odd Yiddish phrases carried over from Russia.
2) You make goo-goo eyes at twinkle lights.
My mother grew up in the Bronx and was only allowed to date Jewish boys. I was raised in a Jewless neighborhood in Queens. Santa came to our house because he didn't want us to feel excluded, but we were denied a tree or lights.
3) On Christmas you are a shipwreck victim, a kid ditching school. You dine on Chinese, Ethiopian or Indian. You volunteer at soup kitchens.
I watch Christians walk the city streets in their Sunday best. I am spared the family drama, heavy food and loneliness others experience on this day. I participate in decadent, clandestine activities.
4) You have a stock answer when people ask you about your religion/background.
"I was raised Jewish. We stopped practicing when I was young. Religion is not my thing, but ancestrally, you know, I'm Jewish."
5) Your damned good reason for rejecting Judaism has lost power.
My family strayed from Judaism because we're reasonable.
We followed my aunt to a rich Jewish suburb just before I entered Jr High. We didn't attend Hebrew School. Elaborate parties accompanying Bar and Bat Mitzvahs were beyond our financial means. The snooty culture denying my brother the ceremony marking a boy's transition to manhood epitomizes one reason I rejected Judaism. This is still, somewhat true.
6) When relocating, other Jews flock to you.
I was an Alaskan newspaper reporter when the WTC was bombed. I wrote an article revealing my Jewish background. The Jews in town tried for months to initiate me. They needed another body to make a Minyan.
7) You've been to Israel.
The year I was in Israel, I went out of my way to stay neutral to the conflict -- dating an Armenian and doing fieldwork with Bedouins. Still, I studied Kabbalah with a scholar in the manner of Madonna -- bypassing the prerequisite testicles and years of training needed to study the mystical text.
I also learned that in Israel, like New York, you don't have to be religious to consider yourself Jewish, so much as to be loud and use raucous hand gestures. (My own family events are like Seinfeld on crack)
8) Death brings out your families Jewishness.
My family is never as Jewish as when somebody dies. Memorial candles burn 24 hours a day for a week. Rocks are put on graves. Sometimes we sit Shiva. We do not know exactly why we do these things.
My mother, like me, believes more in spirits and psychic realms than in formal religion. She was an observant child, but Judaism never resonated for her.
Still, after my Grandmother died, my Mom started inadvertently integrating as many Yiddish phrases into her speech as she could remember.
These vestiges are important. We honor those who have passed, resurrecting their traditions and to bring them closer to us.
9) You find yourself inadvertently drawn towards the Holocaust.
I have been dreaming, reading and writing about the Holocaust since childhood. I tend to equate this interest with past lives, ancestral trauma or mere curiosity. Projects have come my way that affect me deeply. I am currently ghostwriting a book about Etcia Goldberg, a Ukranian mother who survived the Holocaust living in a cave with three young children for 344 days. Please follow our campaign. http://bit.ly/etcia
10) You consider yourself more "spiritual" than religious but aspects of your Jewish childhood stick.
I have attended more sound healings, dream circles and shamanic drumming sessions than Jewish ceremonies. Still, I occasionally catch myself writing G-d instead of God, as I was taught in Jewish school one year. When I am meditating, the light I occasionally feel surrounding me, also feels a bit like that G_d.
11) You are Jewish, because you are and can be found out.
The anti-Semitic incident I experienced in Maryland has repeated itself a few times. Recently, a Moroccan client who considered herself about as Muslim as I considered myself Jewish cancelled a book project following the atrocities that took place in Syria because of my background. I am actually really grateful when these things happen because as absurd as they seem they remind me that being Jewish is part of my identity, a simple fact I could never deny.