Five-minute memoir: Jon Bauer recalls growing up thinking he was Jewish
Saturday 09 June 2012
Your parents are supposed to lie to you and they're supposed to tell you the truth. The best parents get the balance and timing right. They enchant you with Father Christmas, fill your stocking, then drip feed you truth at a rate that won't make you fill your pants.
Mine told me we were Jewish. I kept it secret at school, probably because Jew was a shortcut for stingy. "Lend us a quid, ya Jew." But it was indiscriminate discrimination, given the school kids said it to everyone.
At home it was the opposite. According to my dad, Jews were a hard-done-by master race. If there was a Jewish haka, our family would have done it every morning. Yet we ate pork, never went to 'gog', and I wasn't offered a Bah Mitzvah nor any insight into its principles. All I knew was: Jews are amazing; we're Jewish (except mum, poor thing); all Jews are rich because they're Jewish; and even my penis had to have a discount. This last fact meant I had to guard my shame in the school changing rooms, lest someone notice my streamlined privates. Although my parents told me that my brother and I were necessarily circumcised, for "medical reasons".
My father was the spearhead of our Jewish fan club but he celebrated Christmas (usually by crying inconsolably at The Fiddler on the Roof) and hedged his bets with a Church of England God. As for the Sabbath, forget Friday nights, we weren't allowed to turn lights on or open the fridge on any day of the week.
Then, when I was about 13, I became ashamed of my shame and ignorance. I replaced my shame with pride, but my dad couldn't really answer my questions about the cultural or religious practices. He went through life with his own code of conduct, amassing a small fortune but taking us on frugal family road trips to France or Yorkshire, often pulling over and vanishing into cornfields and orchards. We'd sit in the car until he skulked back with armfuls of other people's livelihoods.
And he haggled everywhere. Even in restaurants. At family dinners we'd all squirm once he was handed the bill, which he would stare at as if it contained not the cost of the meal but the exact date and nature of his death.
After leaving home I still felt a quiet guilt about my Judaic ignorance but spent my energy worrying if I was Jewish in the first place. (I was only mildly reassured when a friend pointed out that worrying whether I was Jewish proved I was Jewish.) When I mentioned this to my dad he fired back, "You'd be Jewish enough for Hitler!".
Adulthood, if you've got too much time, is a periscope to your childhood. And the more I looked, the more something didn't seem right.
My mum's gone now, leaving dad in charge of propaganda, so over dinner with him, his new wife, and my close friend, I was able to tackle the burning question of my circumcision. I remember he put his wine down a little clumsily. "Well not quite medical reasons."
"So it was because we're Jewish. But how was mum about it, considering she wasn't?"
"It was actually my mother who was against it," he said.
"Granny? Surely a good Jewish woman would..."
"She was neither!"
I choked down a half-chewed mouthful. "Granny wasn't Jewish? But if your mum wasn't Jewish, that means..."
My dad's wife started clearing away our almost-full plates, my friend frantically searching for a dog under the table. There's never a dog when you need one.
"Why did you exaggerate our Jewishness, dad?"
"I like to be different."
I'd been ashamed of being Jewish, then ashamed of my ignorance, and penultimately, unsure I was Jewish at all. But I'd always been sure I wanted to be. How could I not, given the value my dad had placed on it?
Now I felt like an idiot for all that angst, and totally stunned by the Jewectomy he'd just performed on me. It all simply vanished. He had come along like a clumsy ticket inspector and punched a hole in my identity.
I've wondered whether it was his threadbare memory which spilt the truth that day. But actually I think he'd exerted himself so hard, he came to believe it. My father had behaved like an ardent Tottenham Hotspur fan who's never been to a game, doesn't know the rules or any of the songs, but nevertheless will boast about his team to anyone who'll listen.
Your parents are supposed to lie to you and they're supposed to tell you the truth. My dad may have lied about our heritage, but he taught me an important truth about identity, and taking responsibility for my own ignorance.
Jon Bauer's new novel 'Rocks in the Belly' (Serpent's Tail) is shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, announced on Wednesday
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