Monday, May 9, 2011

Am I Jewish or Italian? Wait, Jewish isn't a nationality? Oh,s*#@!

"Well I think it's been made perfectly clear that Jewish Italians have to decide whether they are Italians first or Jews."
-"The Duce," Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres

This quote is out of context.  It's actually from a chapter in de Bernieres' Corelli's Mandolin "spoken" by Benito Mussolini to you, the reader.  It's entirely fictional.

But, he's right.

When I was thirteen, I was much more interested in being Italian than Jewish, especially as I began obsessively watching Goodfellas on VHS. There's not a scene nor a line that I don't know from that movie because, "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster." Two other Italian friends and I formed our gang. We never got into a fight, never went to the "mattresses," never whacked any of the other seventh-grade boys, but also never sat with our backs to the classroom door. 

That year, as I watched Henry Hill weep over Karen dumping the coke down the toilet, I also watched the four other Jewish kids in my town getting bar mitzvahed and questioned whether I should be doing the same.  As I well imagined, all the shiksas would want to dance with me and I liked the shiksas.  But, ultimately and emphatically, I refused and further concluded the only reason I enjoyed bar/bat mitzvahs was the game of Truth-or-Dare that ultimately ensued. At the last bat mitzvah I attended, in order to transport us sweaty, horny teens home from catering hall, the girl's parents rented a bus for us to make out on.

I got to second base.

She wasn't Jewish.

And, I still wasn't getting bar miztvahed.

Now, as an Italian and Jew -a non-practicing Jew- I am always in the position of deciding whether I'm one or the other.  Immediately after the last posting, my father reminded me that being Jewish does NOT mean I'm ethnically Jewish.  It's not a nationality.  It's not an ethnicity.  It's not a religion that I practice. What the !*&@ is it, then?

Maybe this would have been easier to answer if I had been bar mitzvahed.

Being Italian is simple... I'm 50% Napolitan.  There's a street named after my great-grandfather in Calitri, Italy.  My grandfather and his brothers immigrated from Calitri on the S.S. Colombo in 1927. Fuhgeddaboudit.  

But, ask every Jew you encounter and you'll immediately learn that, by heritage, he or she is undoubtedly Jewish.  I guess I'm following the rules:  in Judaism, you're the religion of your mother.  That said, I went on a Christian retreat in high school, was married by a priest, and am raising my daughters Episcopalian.  I haven't sat down to a Passover seder in years and lost my dreidel when I was five.  

Perhaps, I like being different.  There are, after all, only about 13.5 million of us in the world.  Perhaps, Jewish Adam is a little more pushy than Italian Adam.  Perhaps, Adolescent Adam still lingers so he can say, "No, Dad, I'm Jewish!  AND, I'm taking the car out tonight!"

Maybe I don't need to answer the question. 

Maybe it's simply enough to know that somewhere deep in my family's past, about seventy years ago in Romania, by order of the Conducãtor, my relatives' voices were silenced because they decided they were Jewish before Romanian.

1 comment:

  1. funny how we feel the need to put things (and ourselves) into categories. i suppose it's easier to then talk about/identify something once it has a nice label on it.

    take the meatball or the matzoh for instance. we know what they are by their name/label. but maybe like any daring cook we should allow ourselves to stray from the original recipe; make up new names to familiar dishes

    maybe you are neither the matzoh nor the meatball but some unpredictable combination of the two. some people put breadcrumbs in their meatballs. maybe you're a meatball with matzoh crumbs.