What Does it Mean to be a Jew? Part #1

“JEW” was a word I often heard from other kids, but rarely from my parents. 

Me with the girls next door. They were Catholic.

Me with the girls next door. They were Catholic.

For any of you reading this, I have to clarify the title since it only relates to me. That’s because it wasn’t until I reached the ripe old age of 52 that I discovered I was a Jew.

But then WHY, you ask, is this bit of self-evaluation and revelation even here?

It was the result of an exercise that my “What’s the Story” guru, Stacie Chaiken, asked me to write as a way of gaining insight into my then unnamed film project, that later became “For the Life of Me”.

That was back around the year 2000 when I was facing a massive undertaking that was still very much in it’s embryonic stage with no beginning middle or end.

But her exercise worked and went a long way to help me get a handle on my own life. So now I hope that by sharing it, some of you may also gain fresh insight into your lives as well, or at least provide you with a new perspective – whether you’re a Jew or not – or actually creating something about your own life…or not.

What does it mean to me to be a Jew? 

This is how I answered Stacie’s question:

“Jew” was a word I heard as a child, but seldom from my parents. It was mostly from other kids, usually as a cruel and disparaging remark. But I believe it was pure mimicry – doubtful that few, if any of them even knew what the word meant.

“Blue! Blue! You’re a Jew!” was an early taunt. Later, “dirty Jew”, or …”Jew’d down the price”, I often heard. And there were others, all meant to mock another child with a word that had little if any true meaning to them.

When I was 10, I heard the word, “Kike” for the first time. It came from a new kid on the block. About two years older than me, he was a loud and boisterous guy buy the name of Don. He’d just moved into the neighborhood with his hard drinking, single father, who I quickly learned was a devout anti-Semite and misanthrope, with little tolerance for any minority or anyone who wasn’t pure, all American “White Bread”. 

But it was his son, Don, who soon taught me other ugly words like “Sheeny”, “Spik” and “Wop”.

The word “Jew” always seemed to be used in a derogatory sense. As a 10 year old kid I certainly didn’t want to be accused of being one because I didn’t want to be different from any of the other kids,

Growing up during WWII, while having German parents who spoke with a decided accent made it difficult enough. But I always felt thankful when asked if I happened to be Jewish, that I felt safe to say that I wasn’t, since I really didn’t understand what the word, “Jew” meant anyway.

But by the time I reached college, my mother had dropped enough hints that I wasn’t so sure anymore. Yet, in spite of any minor misgivings I might have had, I joined one of the top white Anglo/Saxon fraternities on campus.

Linda and I at a Fraternity party.

Linda and me at a Fraternity party.

While I enjoyed the camaraderie and the parties, I soon found an uncomfortable level of anti-Semitism among many of the members – enough that it almost destroyed our chapter.

It happened when another one of the “Jocks” in the house entered the name of a very popular Jewish football player. He was a guy that all of us Jocks liked, and we wanted to invite him to be a member of our fraternity. But that completely split the house between the Semites and the anti-Semites.

Unfortunately the anti-Semites won on that time warn “slippery slope” canard: “If we let Jerry in, it will set a precedent and we’ll have to let other Jews in as well”.

That pretty well soured me on fraternity life.

While I still didn’t believe that I was a Jew, the idea of anti-Semitism always felt WRONG to me. And since my closest friend was both a “non-org” and Jewish, I began drifting away from my frat brothers. Plus other interests took me farther and farther away from campus life.

Sports Car races at Santa Barbara - me on the pre-grid in my MG.

Sports Car races at Santa Barbara – me on the pre-grid in my MG.

I was quite comfortable in my denial and never pressed my parents for a definitive answer as to whether there were any Jews in our family – the fact that my mother’s brother died in a concentration camp not withstanding.

Next came Stacie’s follow-up question, a zinger: 

Did I ever get any clues that our family was Jewish?

Yes, in retrospect: I wasn’t more than seven or eight years old when my mother dropped a very early clue. I’d been rummaging around in a hallway drawer when I found a napkin ring with the initials “KW”engraved on it. My immediate question was, “Who is KW?”. Mom’s hesitant reply was, “It was your father’s. Kurt Wanlaw was the German spelling of your father’s name” – Vanlaw with a “W” and Curtis with a “K???”

While I thought it sounded a bit hokey, I accepted her answer.

Me and Mom about the time I found the napkin ring.

Me and Mom about the time I found the napkin ring.

Later, when I was a 10th grader, I joined a high school social club. It was the era of the McCarthy Witch Hunts and the HUAC trials. As I remember, there was some kind of an informal application that required a parental signature. When I asked Mom to sign it, she had a less than encouraging frown. Did I think “THEY” would check into our background was her reply? It sounded a little absurd, but I assumed she was talking about my parents’ membership in the Unitarian Church. The minister had been accused of being a Communist, and my father was deathly afraid of being tainted.

Later there were a few more clues when I was in college: After I joined the Fraternity, my mother again raised the question whether or not someone would investigate our family’s history? But it seemed like a ridiculous question. Surely she was still paranoid from her emotional breakdown eight years earlier and her more recent radical surgery as a result of her bout with breast cancer.

Then over the next few years it appeared that her book collection expanded with new titles on a variety of Jewish subjects. And her taste in music also began to lean in a distinctly Jewish direction, with predominantly Jewish singers like Richard Tauber, Jan Pierce and Richard Tucker.

But in retrospect, maybe they’d been there all the time, and I just became aware of it.

However, it wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I began to think that maybe there was some connection between my mother’s brother having perished in a concentration camp, and her interest in various forms of Judaica. Yet I never questioned her, in part because I didn’t trust her mental state nor her ability to deal with anything personal. And partially because I really didn’t want to know, figuring, “what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me!” If there happened to be some Jewish connection on HER side of the family…fine. That was her business but it didn’t really affect me.

However, I do remember one incident that did alter my perspective. In the summer of 1956, after graduation, Earl G – my close friend and fellow grad – and I made a trip to the east coast, where we spent a couple of weeks. On our return trip we went by way of his former home in the Minneapolis, where we spent a few days with his relatives.

One night we were at a restaurant having dinner with his youngest sister and her husband. They were all Jewish.

I don’t remember how the subject came up, but at the time I was having some very mixed feelings during our dinner conversation. I began questioning in my mind whether I could possibly be Jewish? Or at least Jewish enough to mention it.

Suddenly I blurted out something like, “….there may be some Jews in MY family…!”

Best man at my wedding. 9 months after we had dinner with his sister and brother-in-law.

Best man at my wedding. 9 months after we had dinner with Earl’s sister and brother-in-law.

Why did I do this? I guess I needed to feel that I was a part of something warm, cozy and family-like. That I needed to belong. Or, maybe I was seriously beginning to question my true identity.

But then just a few weeks after our trip east, I reverted by verifying my supreme naiveté toward any possible Jewish connections in my family.

During our trip, I became friendly with the German racing mechanic, who had been badly injured the previous year, in the crash that killed James Dean.

Back in Los Angeles, he and I and our girl friends went out regularly on a bunch of double dates. So it seemed natural to invite him and his girlfriend to a small get together at my parents house, where I was still living at the time.

I totally convinced myself that this would be a happy event for my father. He would enjoy being able to speak with a couple of recent German émigrés in their native language, and maybe even share some of their experiences from before, during and after the war.

But among other things, my German racing mechanic friend was Schwabish, the German equivalent of a southern Red Neck. Furthermore, he had been in the Luftwaffe as an aircraft mechanic during the war, working on Messerschmitt ME 109 fighter planes. As one would expect, my father’s reaction to him was not exactly warm and fuzzy. Cold and distant would be a better description.

But it wasn’t until years later that I realized just how dumb I was by trying to put those two together. And how naïve I was to expect anything other than a low level of hostility from my father.

More when we get into Part 2 and  Stacie’s next questions:

How did I feel about the possibility? and What did I do about it?

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What Does it Mean to be a Jew? Part 2 » For The Life of Me - […] question in Part 1 was: Did I ever get any clues that our family was […]

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