01/03/2014 10:36 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

How Rocky Made Me Feel OK About Being a Jew in America

I was 11-years-old, and I'll never forget how that moment felt. I was watching Rocky III. Mickey -- Rocky's trainer and mentor -- had just died after telling his protege: "I love ya, kid, I love ya." Heavy stuff for a child. I was even more unprepared for what happened next.

The scene embedded above is Mickey's funeral service. I heard Rocky's deep, unmistakable ("Yo, Adrian!") voice. It was somber, uttering words that for just a moment sounded like gibberish. Then I realized what he was saying. Rocky Balboa, the toughest, strongest, and -- most importantly to me -- all-American guy I could imagine, was speaking Hebrew. Hebrew? Yes. He was quietly reciting the Mourner"s Kaddish, a prayer spoken by those who mourn the loss of a loved one. I couldn't believe my ears.

The words of this prayer were quite familiar to me, as they are uttered at virtually every Jewish prayer gathering, including the weekly Sabbath/Shabbos services that I attended as a Hebrew School student.

Being a Jewish kid on Long Island in the early 1980s was a funny thing. There were plenty of Jews, although not as many in my town in Suffolk County as in other places. I'd guess my elementary school was about 10 percent Jewish, although my street had so many Jewish families it was known (how's this for presumably unintended irony) as "the Gaza Strip."

There was all but no racial diversity, however, in our town or our school. Our block had a black family, although they had no children. I remember there being one black child in my elementary school of about 500 kids. The sole sizable minority group were Jews. As for serious antisemitism or harsh discrimination, there was little if any that I could see. I remember that another kid once yanked off the Jewish star I wore around my neck. Not nothing, but not the end of the world.

What did being Jewish mean to me at that age? It meant (for our family) eating only certain kinds of foods, celebrating different holidays from the ones celebrated on TV, and that, according to at least some of my family members, antisemitism was potentially lurking around any corner. I had learned about the Holocaust, and how Jews in Germany thought they were just as German as anyone else until... Hitler. Even if these feelings weren't exactly reflective of the reality of my situation on Long Island in 1982, I definitely did not feel 100 percent secure about my status as a full member of the American national community. Not a great way for an 11-year-old to feel.

So I knew we were different, and not in a good way, from most of the people in town. At least people there knew who Jews were. I had already gotten the impression that, in most of the rest of America, we were even more foreign. I didn't know who Woody Allen was, but I did remember Rudi Stein from The Bad News Bears, the dorky, bespectacled, Jew-fro sporting pitcher who ultimately got shunted off the mound by Tatum O'Neal's character, and whom the bigoted shortstop Tanner Boyle included in his lament that the Bears consisted largely of members of a number of groups that stood, shall we say, outside the American mainstream (Tanner's lament wasn't anywhere near that polite).

I was desperate to fit in. My wish was to be like everyone else, although I didn't really believe it would be possible to shed my Jewishness even if I had wanted to. It would be another few years before multiculturalism really broke into the mainstream, at which point there would be real cultural weight (albeit still plenty of resistance as well, to be sure) behind the idea that you could be different from the majority and be just as American as anyone else. I was living in the early years of Ronald Reagan's America.

As far as I could gather, everyone in the U.S., and this included black Americans, was in one group -- Christian -- and my family and I were not. I had the feeling that the people around me, those with whom I shared the town and the country were divided into "us" and "them."

Back to Rocky. Now I'm listening to his low rumble. "Hu ya'aseh shalom, alaynu v'al kol yisroel v'imru: Amein." And then tears are rolling down my cheeks. And the hair on my arms in that ice-cold, summertime movie theater are standing as straight up as the quills on a porcupine. It's a cliche to say I felt shivers down my 11-year-old spine, but I did.

Looking back, I wonder if perhaps LGBT folks felt something similar when Barack Obama's second inaugural address mentioned Stonewall (along with Seneca Falls and Selma) as a seminal event in our country's history. On a related note, think about how an old-line WASP in 1920 (or a Klansman, to go one better) would react to the idea that less than a century later two of the most representative symbols of Americanness would be a Catholic son of Italy and a biracial son of a black, Kenyan immigrant.

But why exactly did I react this way to hearing Rocky recite the Mourner's Kaddish? I didn't fully comprehend it at the time, but I knew it was a big deal. You see, if Rocky could say those words without cringing or making fun of them, then that meant it was okay for anyone else to say them too. It was okay when my grandfather said them for his father, or when a stranger in the row in front of me at temple recited them along with the rabbi on Saturday mornings. It wasn't about religious belief, for me at least, but about my identity. If Rocky could say those words, it meant that it just might be okay to be a Jew in America after all.