He sat in the sleek black leather chair, overwhelming it with his size and energy. He had piercing eyes and a long gray beard; he wore black. It was not unusual to see someone dressed in this traditional dress in my parents' home. Usually, they were there to collect charity for orphans in Israel, and my parents had their checkbook out. But those men were small in stature and humble. This man was large and angry.
"I want to ask you," he thundered. "What will become of your Yiddishe Neshama?"
It was a good question. I nodded as I sat down on the sofa.
"I don't know," I said.
He looked and me and I gazed back. He sighed. That was it. He had nothing else. He saw that I was facing an abyss, and I didn't care. I really did not know what would happen to my Jewish soul or if I even had one. But regardless, I was going to marry my fiance, Chris.
Events had followed their course: a difficult childhood; the loss of my uncle; estrangement from family; my brother's disappearance; my struggles with depression and anxiety. My friend from Crown Heights had married and moved to Israel. I had broken off my engagement to my Jewish boyfriend and soon afterwards met someone new, a black-eyed musician who sat up all night with me, drinking beer, smoking pot and discussing the universe and esoteric philosophy. He loved me and I finally felt loved. Nothing else compared to that.
And one guy in a black coat, shouting about my soul, wasn't going to change anything.
Eventually, he left and then I left. It was my last visit -- for many, many years -- to my parents' home. I married a non-Jew. They disowned me.
I did see my mother one more time though. While I was on my honeymoon, staying with my new husband in the Adirondacks, a call came through that my grandfather -- my mother's father -- had died. Chris and I drove the six hours to Brooklyn for the funeral. We found a room to stay in -- I don't remember where or how. While Chris waited for me, I went to hold my mother's hand. She cried on my shoulder as they lowered the casket into the ground. I put a rock on my Zeida's grave. Then I went to my uncle's home to sit for a while. And finally, I walked out of that Flatbush home and out of Jewish life for good.
"What will become of your Yiddishe Neshama?" the man in black had asked.
Indeed. Did I have a yiddishe neshama? Was that what made me bristle when the professor dismissed literary antisemitism as "irrelevant"? Or was that just my liberal sensibilities? But my husband was a liberal too, and he saw nothing wrong with the depiction of the evil Jewish money-lender in The House of Mirth while I, again, was offended. Some people would say I just offend easily.
My husband wanted us to have a chanukiah in the house, wanted us to celebrate some Jewish holidays, but I was adamant. I didn't want any halfway, washed-out Judaism. At least I had been brought up with the real thing. I knew what it was, warts and all. I didn't want some white-washed, liberalized, ecumenical version of Jewishness. No, I was out of the Jewish business. It was over; that's it!
"What will become of your Yiddishe Neshama?"
What did become of my Jewish soul? I think it retreated for a while. It watched, eyebrow raised, as I studied for my Ph.D. and then rejected as sheer nonsense what goes into an English literature Ph.D. It watched as I read various New Age books, gleaning some gems from among the dross. And then it came forward, beaming, as I walked into shul and heard "L'chu nirannina l'hashem."
It was there all along. I didn't kill it by marrying a non-Jew. That may sound shocking and terrible, but I believe it is true. I'm not encouraging intermarriage, but having done it once, I think it is time we stopped treating it like Jewish leprosy.
When my parents disowned me, I was relieved at getting closure on years of conflict. For me, it made my relationship to my parents something external to my life. They had abandoned me, it seemed, and so I would get by without them. When they later reconnected with me, after many years, it was not the same. They were my parents, but they were no longer essential to my life. Some rifts are never bridged completely.
Three weeks from now, I'll be in Israel. My mother is gathering up the cousins to see me -- cousins she forbade me from speaking to for many years. That pain, that rejection, is not forgotten. Does my mother think I'll automatically bond again with these cousins of mine? Maybe she doesn't hope for that, maybe she wants to just have some small acknowledgement of family, even if we cannot heal the wounds. We'll see. I'll let my yiddishe neshama guide me.