Lifshitz is a decidedly, very Jewish last name.
Growing up in a mostly Catholic town, people assumed my “Jewishness” without really questioning me about my background unless it was to ask some token Jewish question.
“What’s the story of Passover?”
“What do those Dreidel symbols mean actually?”
Most of the times, I mumbled a general answer partially because as kids, they weren’t too invested in my answer and partially because sometimes, I didn’t know the answer to their Jewquiries.
And it was awkward.
How could I own this Jewish name and identity, yet not understand enough of what this association means? As a child and teenager, I brushed these things aside but as an adult it bothered me.
Who am I? Who was my family? What am I?
There are so many questions, and now as an adult with a young daughter, the weight of my mumbled responses (or now clear responses with the honesty that “I think I’m right but I am not positive”) is a lot heavier.
I started to Google the unknown answers to my questions. Some of which, were confusing to me and others were simple. I started to wonder if perhaps it was time to take a class, maybe “Judaism for Dummies” to understand the importance and history around my Jewish identity.
It’s not only my half-correct responses that bother me, but the feeling as if I am in a foreign country when someone Jewish or someone obsessed with all things Jewish speaks to me, assuming I understand what he or she is saying.
Gallivanting around the Garment District one day with my father (Dad is the Jewish half of my family equation; Mom is a convert), we ran into a friend of his who started sprouting Hebrew. I had no clue what the man was saying yet somehow, even my own father (proud owner of a Jewish education) forgot that his daughter knew zilch Hebrew.
At best, I know a smattering of Yiddish phrases, all passed down to my mother from my paternal grandparents. Speak Yiddish and I’m more apt to understand.
The most offensive however of these Jewquiries are the ones involving my appearance.
“You don’t look Jewish.”
“You’re very pretty for a Jewish girl.”
I asked myself, ‘What do these statements mean? Are Jews not pretty? Are all Jews dark-haired? Do I need to look Jewish to be Jewish and what exactly does Jewish look like?”
I know full well my flaxen hair and pale skin are borrowed from my mother’s definitively non-Jewish side of the family, but the connotations around beauty and “Jewishness” were so offensive.
Worse still, I grew up on the East Coast. It’s not like no one had ever not met a Jewish person before, but these statements were thrown at me repeatedly through my young adult years into womanhood.
What was my response when they said I was pretty for a Jewish girl?
I stuttered a thank you and when pushed further about my religious identity I revealed my mother and father’s heritage. This was always met by a knowing “of course your Mom is Irish and Scottish” kind of look. I almost felt as if I was committing a crime by responding, but I didn’t know what to say.
Besides, do I belong to Judaism or do I half-belong? Is there a way to quantify this? I don’t know, but there’s a part of me that doesn’t feel complete and as if I am somewhere I don’t quite belong. Yet the first time I did stand-up comedy in a club amongst many other Jewish people, I felt at home. I wish I had the words to explain why I felt that way, or what it was exactly that made me feel like a “tribe member,” but the feeling of familiarity was there amongst these strangers I had just met, and it wasn’t because we all have the deep desire to go on stage with the hopes of making a crowd of people laugh at us.
Maybe one day I will sit down in a room of adults and learn about what Judaism today and then means. Until then, I still travel “between countries” metaphorically of Jews and Non-Jews seeing parts of me everywhere and in-between, owning my own version of Jewishness with pride.