The scene: suburban Connecticut, circa 1996. The situation: hanging out at a pool hall with high school classmates on a weekend night. The guy: a blond all-American type with a Southern accent, on a night out from the local military base. He angles his cue toward the ball and tilts his head toward us girls, and asks, “So, what church y’all go to?” One by one, my friends name their churches. Then comes my turn. “Temple Emanuel,” I say defiantly. Pause. In case he doesn’t get it: “I’m not Christian.”
This was by no means my only awkward religious moment growing up the
only Jew in town. The Christmas season triggered all kinds of mixed emotions. As Alexis Kort summarily states in her story in this issue about raising a Jewish child in an eggnog-soaked world, “December is a doozy.”
December is a doozy for American Jews left, right, center, up, and down. But it’s also a time, as Alexis notes, that Jewish identity is piqued. As this issue came together, a theme emerged: the conflicted, mixed-and-matched, liberated Jewish American identity. It’s a theme easily accessed this time of year, when Santa plummets down our chimneys and stokes the coals of Jewish angst. In Joan Leegant’s graceful swoop across the North American literary landscape, she homes in on the essence of the Jewish American experience: the fluidity of Jewishness, steeped in history, percolating in the crucible of culture and politics. Naomi Tomky reports on the history of “Jewish Christmas” and its unlikely adoption by Christians themselves. And I won’t even tell you what happens on the back page. You just have to read it.
To be Jewish in America is to constantly have fists up, ready either to right-hook or hug. Regarding our ongoing literary tradition, Joan notes, “For Jews in America, questions about identity, culture, nationality, and religion abound: Where do we belong?” Thankfully, my awkward religious-identity moments are mostly shelved in a closet in my parents’ house. I am equally thankful, however, that they exist, because they’re a cornerstone of my identity today. What on earth would I be writing about if a high school friend hadn’t implored me to accept Jesus as my savior? I can’t begin to imagine my life without these precious tests.
No shortage of challenges lies in the road ahead as I bring up children in this pine-scented Northwest wonderland. My kids, I suspect, will continue the tradition of questions, laying down yet another stratum of civilization. So many variables exist, but about one thing I am confident, event optimistic: we won’t run out of stories.
Emily K. Alhadeff