As some of you know, I’m the Catholic son of Catholic parents. I went to catechism and received all the sacraments that were available. If I got married in the Church, then my wife died and I became a priest, then I luckily received Last Rites on my deathbed, I’d be the proud recipient of all 7 available sacraments! It’s like making Eagle Scout, but you’re dead and you don’t get any patches.
My paternal grandfather was Jewish, so I have a Jewish last name. I like my last name; it’s kinda cool. Rosen. “Keeper of the roses”. It was probably Rosenzweig or Rosenkrantz or some other awful central European appellation prior to my ancestors moving to the US. It may have been sourced from Rozen or Roosen from Polish Silesia. I dunno. But Rosen is alright. I don’t mind having a “Jewish-sounding” last name.
Yet I know almost nothing of Jewish culture and tradition. When I was a little kid, I attended my great-aunt’s Jewish funeral, and I also attended my buddy Mike’s bar mitzvah. That’s the extent of my experience with Judaism. I know it involves yarmulkes, bad singing and a level of boredom that easily rivals Roman Catholicism.
Despite my ignorance of Jewish life, I am vividly aware of the history of the Jewish people: Roman occupation, the diaspora, the awkward integration throughout Europe, the discrimination, the Holocaust, the founding of the new Israeli state, etc etc. But when it comes down to Jewishness itself, I have no fucking clue.
And this is where it gets weird.
You see, lots of people think I’m Jewish. I have a receding hairline, a big nose, gapped teeth and a general look of unathletic nerdiness. You can dump the “zwieg”, but you can’t jettison the DNA. If I was standing in line in Nazi Germany to get a government job, my rosary beads wouldn’t count for shit and I’d be laughed out of the building.
According to the Nuremberg Laws of 1936-1938, one’s Jewiness was very carefully measured. Even if you were a blond-haired, swastika-waving party member, if you were found to have three or more Jewish grandparents, you were a Jew – even if your parents were observant Lutherans. If you had two Jewish grandparents, you were considered a “Mischling”, which sort of means “half-breed”. If you had one Jewish grandparent (like me), you were considered a “Mischling of the second degree”. Whether or not this “second degree” of Jewiness affected you came down to the fickleness of the Nazi bureaucrat making the decision. Sometimes, you’d get a full pass – especially if you looked Aryan enough. Otherwise, you’d be deemed a “Geltungsjude”, or “considered to be a Jew”.
If you were a Mischling or a Geltungsjude, you were typically stripped of citizenship and the right to vote. However, if you avoided marrying a Jew, Mischling, Geltungsjude or quarter-Jew, you were usually not deported to a concentration camp. The Nazis figured your latent Jewiness would be pretty much diluted if you married a fully Aryan person, thus ending the despicable lineage of Jewy Jewiness. This would have been good news for me had I grown up in Nazi Germany, but it may not have lasted because I think Jewish chicks are pretty hot.
Nazi eugenics laws aside, this subtle streak of inherent Jewiness has followed me my entire life. When I lived in New Jersey, it wasn’t a big deal. The place was crawling with Jews. My friends knew I was Catholic, and everyone else just didn’t care if I was Jewish or not. Well, there were some neighbor kids whose parents told them that my family were “dirty Jews”, but these people were Irish; they didn’t have much of a perch from which to judge. Fuck ’em.
Everything was hunky-jewy until I was about 16. My friends had gotten jobs at the Route 9 Car Wash and I wanted in. This job was a glorious vocation. You could siphon change out of people’s ashtrays, find hidden treasures beneath car mats and get stoned on lunch break. I really wanted this job.
The owner was Mr. Goldstein. He wore gold rings and puffed cigars and didn’t take shit from anybody. But he was Jewish, and rumor was he had a soft spot for Jewish kids. Few ever applied to work for him, though. Jewish kids in New Jersey don’t wash cars. They prep for Princeton.
So my pals told me to play up the Jew thing. This was no easy feat; I didn’t know the name of my local synagogue and I couldn’t distinguish the Torah from British wallpaper. I went to the car wash and shook Mr. Goldstein’s hand. “Hi, I’m Thaddeus,” I told him.
“What kinda name is that, kid?”
Oh my God! I blew it already! My full name – Thaddeus – is about as goyim as it gets. I was named after the apostle Jude Thaddeus, a follower of Christ, a writer of the most polemic chapter of the New Testament and a bona-fide denier of the Jewish faith. I continued: “My last name’s Rosen!”
Goldstein’s face beamed. “Oh, you don’t say! You’re hired, kid. Here. Take a rag and a punch card and go talk to that fat kid in the back.”
I was in! I had Jewed my way into a peachy minimum wage job! And I didn’t have to quote Exodus or anything! I was free to frolic with my burnout buddies, scam stuff from cars and earn a princely paycheck. The whole global Jewish conspiracy thing was really working out for me.
Unfortunately, scrubbing 500 cars a day throughout the brutal New Jersey winter isn’t a particularly joyful experience. One warm spring day I had had enough. I handed in my rag and punch card to Mr. Goldstein, thanked him for his generosity and walked home, whistling a happy tune.
Years went by, and my depressing life in New Jersey was taking its toll. My family had moved to Bakersfield (my mother’s home town – she met my father there after the war and they moved to NJ to find work). My parents wanted me to join them in California, and New Jersey had me hating life, so I moved West.
After a few years of cushy work, I was laid off and took a job at a pro audio shop in a dusty, barren tumbleweed town out in the county, Pumpkin Center. There were two other techs there, very smart and capable guys. They warned me about the boss, who was a classic right-wing Republican shit-kicker. I didn’t like him either, but he had hired me and gave me run of the entire back half of the Quonset hut where I could conduct my electronic experiments and feats of troubleshooting genius. It was a good gig, I thought.
After a few months, things were going well. I was working faster and making them some money. Then, without warning, I was fired. No reason was given. I was bummed, but I still qualified for unemployment insurance. I took my pink slip without complaint and left.
The next day, one of my fellow techs called me up. He had overhead the shitkicker boss talking with his wife in the office the day I was fired. She informed the shitkicker that I was almost surely Jewish, and this made the shitkicker boss enraged. I guess if I was Rosenzweig or Solomonkraussteinowitz, he’d have sniffed me out more easily and never hired me. Instead, his raging anti-Semitism had to be applied post-facto. That’s why I was fired.
My buddy asked me to consider suing the bastard for what amounted to workplace discrimination. But I just couldn’t be bothered. I didn’t want to win my job back – the guy was a fucking asshole. Why would I want to go back? And yes, maybe I could have won some money and made him look like the racist jackass he was. But that would entail a lengthy civil trial, a lawyer I couldn’t afford and months of scrutiny and headlines. Fuck that.
The only thing that bugged me about it was that I WASN’T JEWISH.
So, it seems my inferred Jewishness had scored me a plum job and cost me a plum job. Karma was satisfied; the universe was once again at rest.Nowadays, some acquaintances still think I’m Jewish. When I eventually correct their mistake, they take it with carefully hidden surprise. Their blank expression says “Oh, so he’s not Jewish. NOT THAT THERE’S ANYTHING WRONG WITH THAT.”
I actually find this more disturbing than blatant bigots who slap me on the back and say “Hot damn! I thought you was a Jew Boy! Well, Catholic ain’t much better, but we can’t all be perfect! Hyuk hyuk!”
I never bother to tell either of them I’m actually an atheist.