Believe it or not, I get asked that a lot.
Yesterday, the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a pair of Lubavitchers approached me on the street, shofar in hand, and mumbled under their breath (as they do):
“Why do you want to know?”
The young man, adorned with a scraggly beard and side locks said nothing, but a tiny smile raised from the corners of his mouth. He waved over a third Lubavitcher, an older gent, from across the street as if to say: “We got one!”
Our mini-minyan was in place.
Black Hat #1 opened his siddur and pointed me where I should begin to read the blessing.
With an apologetic smile, I said, “I’m sorry. I can’t read Hebrew.”
“Then you can repeat after me.”
So I did.
“Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu leshoma kol shofar. Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Ha’Olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyimanu v’higianu la’zman ha’zeh.”
Then Black Hat #2 began to blow.
A few minutes and 100 varied blasts later, we all wished each other L’shanah tova and I went on my way to the Red Hook IKEA.
* * * * *
“But are you Jewish?”
My great-grandparents were married in Northern Poland, near the ever-changing Lithuanian border, in 1915.
A few years later, Walter and Sophia Wayner were America’s newest Polish Catholic immigrants. They settled in Connecticut and soon after, my first-generation American grandmother, Edith Stephanie, (aka “Georgie”) came along.
She converted from Catholic to Anglican to marry my grandfather, Ralph, and they had six kids, one of whom is my father, who converted from Anglican to Catholic after marrying my devoutly Catholic mother.
Every year, Dad and I shop for my mom’s Christmas presents together. It’s our annual “Daddy-Daughter Day”; a tradition we’ve had for as long as I can remember.
My mother gives us a list that usually looks like this:
- Clinique perfume
- New nightgown
- Latest Danielle Steele novel
- L’eggs (Suntan)
- Peanut M&Ms
A few years ago, I thought I would mix it up and break my mother out of that darn Danielle Steele rut. I thought she might get a kick out of Carl Hiassen. So my dad and I were in the Barnes and Noble parking lot and just about to get out of the car when, for whatever reason, I asked him:
“What was Grandma’s last name? I mean, before they Americanized it?”
“I don’t know, Waynerowski, Waynerowitch. Something like that.”
And then under his breath he snarkily muttered,
“Polish Catholic my ass…”
I nearly gave myself whiplash.
I had just moved across the street from a hip Upper West Side Reform synagogue and Friday night people-(read: Hebraic Hottie)-watching was my new favorite pastime.
“Are you kidding me? You mean we could be Jewish? Do you know how that opens up my dating pool in New York? I can finally join JDate! That’s awesome!”
My mind began to spin with scenarios of Sephardic spooning with tantalizing ‘Tribe’smen. I had been attracted to Jewish men, culture, men, food, men, humor, men, tradition, men and men for as long as I could remember. I was ecstatic! I could finally legitimately pepper my language with exotic words like Nu! And Oy! And Mishpocha! I would get into a schmozzle with a yenta who talked about my zaftig tuchas and how I would end up with a pisher if I didn’t cut back on the number of hamentashen I was noshing.
I would be a shiksa goddess no more.
My father looked at me with a sharp and uncharacteristically violent glare. He seethed through a clenched jaw:
“We. Are. Not. Jewish.”
It was said with such a note of finality, that I knew that I daren’t push the issue.
But boy did it get me thinking.
* * * * *
“So you’re not Jewish?”
Walter and Sophia were married during what was then, The War to End All Wars. As we all know from innumerable World History classes, just as that war ended, tens of thousands of people began to flee Eastern Europe because a small group of disgruntled German soldiers, led by a young punk named Adolf, decided the world would be a better place if it was Judenfrei.
The Jewish tradition to change one’s name after a change in nature dates back to the Biblical times when Abram became Abraham and Jacob became Israel. It’s also an old Jewish superstition to change the name of a sick man in order to “change his luck.”
So it comes as no surprise when Lev Davidovitch Bronstein became Leon Trotsky, Israel Isidore Baline became Irving Berlin and “Wojnerowicz” became “Wayner.”
They were so easily assimilated.
Does it prove that Walter and Sophia were Jewish, though? No. Of course not.
It was highly suppositional at best.
However, my father’s knee-jerk reaction did inspire me to write a film (fictional) about it.
* * * * *
When I gave an early draft of the screenplay I had written to my mother, she called me the moment she finished reading it. She was in tears. She loved it. She asked me:
“Would you like your grandmother’s menorah?”
Turns out, Walter and Sophia Wojnerowicz-turned-Wayner had brought their “Polish candelabra” with them to America…
…and a pair of candlesticks.
My mother had salvaged them from the discard pile when they packed Georgie up and sent her to a nursing home, riddled with Alzheimer’s.
* * * * *
(Pause for me to reel once again from how weird that was…)
* * * * *
“So you are Jewish?”
I’m never sure how to answer that question anymore.
“Yes. Well, no. Actually, I don’t know. Maybe?”
When word got out that I was researching the subject, my father’s side of the family closed up tighter than a Kosher deli at three o-clock on Friday. This is a group of people who commonly refute things written by ‘those’ idiots at the ‘Jew’ York Times.
I have been forbidden to write about any other family nuggets that have leaked from my grandmother’s loosening lips as long-repressed memories are finally being released. I’m also not allowed to talk about it to my Dad or his side of the family, except as a total piece of fiction, and under no circumstances am I allowed to mention it to my grandmother.
It bothers me, though. I want to know. I’m dying to know.
Regardless of the answer, though, I don’t think it will change much for me. I’m not Religious. God knows I’ve tried all sorts of Religions (note the capital “R”) and nothing really fits. I’ve basically settled on the wagon wheel theory of God – so many different spokes bound together and all of those spokes leading to, essentially, the same place.
On the one hand, it would feel amazing to have been a part of the crowds of well-dressed Jews on the banks of the Hudson on Tuesday night, as they performed the Tashlikh. It would be fun to hang with mychallah-back girls in the ‘chood. It would be a mitzvah to go down to my bubbe’s retirement home and convince the residents to vote for Obama – and to do so as part of a project so hilariously named “The Great Schlep.” (Be sure to click that link. You owe it to yourself to watch Sarah Silverman’s video plea. I just couldn’t make it embed itself on this page.)
But on the other hand, I don’t want to be like Seinfeld’s dentist who converts just for the jokes.
As a person who grew up extremely white and culturally devoid, I find my xenophilic tendencies overpowering at times. Maybe this is just the latest phase of my ongoing passion for the “other” and once I become a part of it, I will throw it away like so many other things before it.
And yet, I still can’t help feel that this might be something bigger than that.
* * * * *
When the Lubavitchers have asked me that question in the past, outside of their Mitzvah tanks on Union Square where you can lay tefillin and pray in the park, I’ve always shaken my head and gone on my way.
I don’t know why I stopped yesterday.
Maybe it’s because I’ve been inventorying my life lately. I feel like it’s time to slow down a little, reflect on all the major changes that have happened over the past several months and start anew.
Come to think about it, it’s about this time every year that I tend to look back on things and reassess. I’ve always associated it with a new school year, I guess. Instead of stocking up on No. 2 Dixon-Ticonderogas and pristine spiral-bounds, I prefer to take stock and wipe the slate clean.
Reinvent. Rinse. Repeat.
I don’t know, maybe it is a Jewish thing.
Maybe I’m meshuggenah.
Or maybe it’s just because that Sephardic sidewalk studmeister was totally and completely
 Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has blessed us in his commandments and commanded us to hear the sound of the shofar. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.