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Opinion | Anne Bernays

Born Jewish, still Jewish, always Jewish

Susan Biddle/Washington Post/File/The Washington Post

I’m Jewish.

Until well into my 30s, I didn’t know what that meant, since I didn’t believe in God and was skeptical of all religions.

When I was about eight, I picked up the idea — the way children know things without having been explicitly told — that I wasn’t like the other girls at school. So I went to my father and said, “What am I? What religion are we?” He said, “You’re nothing; you can choose what to be when you grow up.”

Any way you look at it, this is a terrible answer. Not only is it factually wrong, but it’s also morally questionable. In his defense, I can attest that my father was both aggressively secular and the bearer of the emotional scars of anti-Semitism. This was the 1930s, an era when a lot of Jews changed their names and were both excluded from many top drawer professions and either rejected by colleges or allowed in only once a tiny quota was met.

My parents — and especially my father — were secular Jews. Although my father’s grandmother had shaved her head and wore a wig — an orthodox practice — her offspring were upper-middle-class citizens who saw themselves as more German than Jewish. They sent their daughter Anna to be educated in a convent.


Anna’s brother, Sigmund Freud, no mincer of ideas, was convinced that God was a construct dreamed up by folks who needed a powerful father figure and that religion itself was more like an opioid than virtual reality glasses. He had an extensive collection of small Etruscan — pagan — figures.

It gives me no satisfaction or pleasure to report that when I told my parents that I was going to marry a man named Justin Kaplan — who had been brought up in an orthodox household — they were appalled. My mother said, “You don’t mean it!” The German Jews of this era were more snobbish toward their Eastern European cousins than Jane Austen’s Emma, who couldn’t swallow the notion that her best friend might be in love with a farmer.


So we Jews are just as capable of mindless bias as anyone else. To hammer home the point: Soon after I married this man of low status, I was told by one of his aunts, “Justin’s mother would never have entered your kitchen.” Oy.

I was a clean slate as a child and young adult. I married, and we had three children. We decorated a Christmas tree every December and hung stockings full of the kind of small thingies loved by children and discarded the following week.

This was the ’60s and early ’70s, when the civil rights movement and a growing awareness of the largely menial roles consigned to most married women were stirring up troubling feelings for many. At about the time I told Justin that I wasn’t going to pick up his clothes from where he had dropped them the night before, I started to feel more “Jewish.” Was this just coincidence? I doubt it. Roots, identity, self-realization. Some of this is New Age nonsense. The rest of it makes a good deal of sense.

Without having consulted anyone, I found that my identity as a minority and as a descendent of a people vilified, harassed, brutalized, and slaughtered for centuries had taken hold — and it felt comfortable. We stopped the Christmas-tree-and-stocking charade and started to light a candle on Friday nights, a Judaic custom signifying the start of the Sabbath, a day of rest.


This flame we lit was only a gesture, but it created a powerful connection between me and my forbears, both those who followed strict Judaic regulations and those who chose the secular path. Like Uncle Sigmund. A sidebar fact: Freud himself changed his professional name from Sigismund to Sigmund, the dropped syllable signifying a Jewishness he felt would only hold him back.

As my father explained so many years ago, since being Jewish refers only to one’s religious beliefs, you can’t be a Jew if you’re an atheist or even an agnostic. Wrong. I’m a Jew whether I like it or not. Fortunately — though it took a while — it’s a good fit.

Our president has slightly different ideas from my father’s — though just as whacky — about being an American Jew. He maintains that any Jew who votes for a Democrat for president is “disloyal.” I find this bit of nastiness and stupidity baffling. Does he mean disloyalty to Israel? I’m glad it’s there, but I have as much psychic connection to Israel as I do to Northern Ireland. I’m a US citizen. One of my grandsons was a Marine who fought in Afghanistan. I’ve voted in every election since I turned 21. I don’t have to go on; I don’t have to prove anything. But Jewishness is as much my identity as my thumb print or my tendency to commit satire.


The other day, thinking about all this, I had a stroke of memory buried for almost 30 years. Shortly before he died, at 103, my father invited the Harvard Hillel rabbi for lunch. Not once but several times. Now what was that all about?

Anne Bernays is a novelist, essayist, and teacher.