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A Jew by Osmosis

by Dr. Ilsa J. Bick


Library » Jewish Identity » Who/What is a Jew? | Subscribe | What is RSS?


My family lived in a small, largely Christian town in the South, and I was the only Jew in my school. I was different, obviously, and every Christmas I was forcibly reminded of that because I was trotted out before a holiday assembly of parents and teachers to sing one or two Chanukah songs before returning to my seat in the chorus. I, the token Jew, always lit a token Menorah and recited a token blessing in a language neither I nor anyone else in the audience understood.

But I wasn’t “just” a Jew. I was a child of a Holocaust survivor, and my identity hinged upon a single historical event. The tension between hiding difference and extolling that difference formed our family’s ethos. The emphasis in our family was to achieve, to be better than those around us, to value learning. This wasn’t arrogance so much as a more sophisticated version of a survivalist mentality.

For most of the year, however, we were “just like” anyone else. We blended. We rarely went to synagogue. We didn’t keep Kosher. My mother knew no Hebrew. But I was Jewish because I stood alongside a culture; Jewishness leaked into the semi-permeable membrane cocooning my consciousness by osmosis, by virtue of who I was, or more to the point, what my father had been. It never occurred to me that anything more like effort or systematized learning might be involved, or even desirable. To me, Jewishness was synonymous with the Holocaust, my very existence a victory over Nazism, my life a curious rebuttal of the most inexplicable sort of death. It would be easy to imagine that the responsibility for this conundrum lay at my father’s door; he was, after all, the survivor. But he didn’t regale me with tales of Nazi atrocities. What I had instead was silence. Absence. I had no grandparents or real family on his side, no stories within which my place in an historical chain could be linked, for my father never spoke about his own past and was later resistant to my clumsy adolescent attempts to get at some version of a truth.

To me, Jewishness was synonymous with the Holocaust, my very existence a victory over Nazism, my life a curious rebuttal of the most inexplicable sort of death
It was not until my own children began asking questions for which I had no answers that I realized I had to go back to school and decide what there was to this thing called Judaism. This was not an easy task, nor one I approached without a fair degree of ambivalence and skepticism. Most Jews I knew ceased their formal Jewish education at age 13, forever limited with an adolescent’s knowledge. For most, Jewishness was detachable, something into which one could shrug, like a tight coat. And I was saddled with not enough knowledge and just enough accumulated arrogance to believe that because I had excelled in my profession and my secular studies, I could easily master an arcane, antiquated religion simply by virtue of osmosis.


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Well said...

Posted by: Kevin Smith, Lawrenceville, NJ on Mar 27, 2006

Found this while searching on line for varous things. Reads well. Althouhg I grew up in a catholic house - mother, father was agnostic, only recently (birthday, 2005) was my nascent Jewishness finally revealed when I was converted to the covenant. ALL my life, I believe, in one way or another, I was drawn to it and finally acknowlwedged it and embraced it.

Anyway, l'chaim.

Dr. Bick was my psychoanalyst in 1991 and 1992. Mazal tov, Dr. Bick.

Jew by Osmosis

Posted by: Debbie, Cincinati, OH, USA on Aug 24, 2006

The article/sharing piece, could have nearly been written by me. I found myself nodding as I related to the author.

Some times, when we are children, there are things that happen to us that seep into our minds and hearts our Jewishness and entangle it in chains. It is up to us if we will fight to free it. It is one of the most difficult battles because our Jewishness is not just somthing that identifies us-- like my hair is brown and curly and long, my eyes are brown, I have an older brother and a younger sister, etc.... But at least in my life, my Jewishness is truly ME-- it is my SOUL, it is my BEING. THAT is why I cry when I think about this... that is why I am physically in pain in my heart over what has happened in my life and how others have effected my Jewishness...and I guess how I let them.... the saddest part- they were Jews from my own Congregation who judged people by the car they drove, the house they lived in, the side of town and neighborhood the lived in....

Literally means "fit." Commonly used to describe foods which are permitted by Jewish dietary laws, but is also used to describe religious articles (such as a Torah scroll or Sukkah) which meet the requirements of Jewish law.
An eight day mid-winter holiday marking: 1) The miraculous defeat of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies by the undermanned Maccabis in the year 140 BCE. 2) Upon their victory, the oil in the Menorah, sufficient fuel for one night only, burned for eight days and nights.
Laws of Kosher (Jewish dietary laws).
Candelabra. Usually a reference to the nine-branched candelabra kindled on the holiday of Chanukah.