It was a big word for a small kid. I just wanted to know why I was the only Jewish kid in my class who did not go to Sunday school. Later I wanted to know why we didn’t celebrate Jewish holidays. Nor did we ever attend temple. There was always the same answer, “We’re assimilated Jews.” The problem was, I didn’t ask, and no adult explained what “assimilated” meant. My father had grown up in Berlin and moved to America because of World War II.
On sleepovers at Ellen’s or Amy’s house, I would sometimes tag along to Sunday school, a totally foreign world, where my friends were learning stories, how to read and write in Hebrew, songs, and more. It was still school, and I was glad I didn’t have to go.
In seventh grade, I petitioned my mother for Hebrew lessons. We found a teacher on Central Park West, an easy walk across the park. It was exotic, hypnotic, and noisy during my first visit to a temple just a few blocks from my teacher’s home. Walking in among the rattles shaking, noises ricocheting through costumed, loud, and colorfully made-up congregants celebrating Purim. The lessons lasted one school year, but did not really change anything for me or my family.
A year later my mother remarried, and I attended my first Passover Seder, and being the only one looking for the afikomen, a piece of matzah hidden, of course not only did I find it, but I was able to make a wish, and managed to get a new bike and graduate from one I’d outgrown years earlier.
When I visited my stepfather at his office, there were photos of him receiving honorary degrees. I asked about each photo and where the degree came from. When he got to Brandeis, I asked what that was, and Joe explained it was the first Jewish university, created when Jews were not accepted at most Ivy league or other colleges. I started college at 16 and transferred to Brandeis as a sophomore, hoping I would come to better understand my Jewishness. Yes, there was every kind of Jew, from kids who spoke mostly Yiddish and Hebrew to Orthoodx and Reform, besides nonpracticing Jews. Did I change or learn more about my own Jewish identity? Not really. But at a time when Brandeis was mostly kids going to law or medical school, the art department was a sanctuary for me.
When my sons were little, I took a different Chanukah book out from the library each year, and followed someone else’s family recipe to make latkes. We even went to our local clay studio and painted menorahs. After 9/11 I joined a local Nyack, N.Y., havurah to expose my kids to Jewish traditions outside of a temple. The family potlucks engaged in sharing Shabbat, stories, songs, and lighting braided candles were welcome during uncertain times. Neither of my sons remembers these evenings.
I am branded a Jew who grew up attending Roman Catholic Church on Sundays, wanted to be a nun, dressed in my finest bonnet for Easter, and celebrated Christmas with a decorated metal tree, sat on Santa’s lap at Macy’s annually and participated in every school holiday assembly for Christmas and Easter. It seems assimilation is a mixing pot where over time our rituals and practices were sacrificed so we could be accepted by society. It is important to learn to fit in, but I hope others, as they are forced to migrate, can hold onto traditions that have grounded their families for centuries.
Valerie Sonnenthal is the Chilmark columnist for The Times.