Bad Jew

Reckoning with a heritage as painfully distant as it is impossible to lose


It’s 1982, and I’m strolling Birmingham, Michigan’s outdoor shopping district with my friends Holly, a wannabe punk rocker, and Bruce, a sweet boy wearing a leather biker’s jacket and an unfortunate, scraggly mustache. Birmingham, with its wide streets and greenest green lawns, is the Detroit suburb where my mother landed after her divorce, where I’ve grown up, and where, as a high school senior, I know maybe a handful of Jewish people, none of whom I socialize with, despite technically being one of them.

Beside a preppy clothing shop on Maple Road, Holly stops to chat with two classmates: tall, morose Thad and black-haired Missy, both above me in the high school hierarchy. Thad’s older brother is here also, lurking on the edge of our circle: Walter, beautiful and distant, a few years older than the rest of us and currently sporting a nearly shaved head.

The traffic on Maple Road moves in a steady thrum while Holly chatters a little desperately to Thad (is she crushing on him?), Missy and Bruce watch each other without speaking, and I keep my head down, willing myself into invisibility. Then I hear a whisper at my ear, and it’s Walter, standing way too close, his tall frame bent over me. I look up into his narrow face, the long nose and thin lips.

“Excuse me?” What would Walter, at least three or four years older than the rest of us, have to say to me?

He starts again, a deep drone, and I realize he’s not speaking after all; he’s singing, quietly, so only I can hear him. “Hava Nagila,” that’s what I’m hearing—a Hebrew song of rejoicing. But Walter’s version comes slow, deep, and menacing.

It probably takes me a minute to figure out what’s going on, to remember that I’m Jewish, because I’m not a very good Jew and I forget my heritage more often than not. I have a Jewish last name, but when would Walter have heard it?

Clearly, he has. As he stares at me through slitted eyes and continues the low song, I understand that he means it as a threat, that as a Jewish girl, I am unwelcome in his presence, and he wants me to be frightened.

I am.

“Hava Nagila”—”Let Us Rejoice”—is the most recognizable of Jewish melodies (Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song ” notwithstanding). It originated as a wordless prayer in the 19th century in what is now Ukraine, with lyrics added in the early 20th century, and went on to become one of Harry Belafonte’s greatest hits alongside Banana Boat. Currently, “Hava Nagila” serves as accompaniment to the hora, that ubiquitous circle dance, at weddings and bar mitzvahs the world over.

It wasn’t a song I grew up hearing, however, in the non-Jewish community where I grew up, or within my religiously ambivalent family, consisting of my grandparents Bubby and Zaidy and their three daughters, each with a daughter of her own. Bubby, the only child of a well-respected Russian rabbi, kept kosher all her life and sent her girls to Sunday classes where they were meant to learn Hebrew and cultural cohesion, though neither lesson took. Nonetheless, she didn’t share her Judaism with my cousins or me. Perhaps she expected her daughters to pass down the traditions, and when they didn’t, she gave up. Or maybe the loss of her European family in the Nazi extermination camps rendered her mute about her faith. I never asked, and now that she’s gone, I have nothing but guesses.

By the time I came around, our little family had no connection to a neighborhood shul or greater Jewish community. Often enough, when my mother had a hot date and left me with my grandparents on a Friday night, Bubby would light candles, and Zaidy would sing a Hebrew prayer in his wobbly tenor. But they never explained the purpose or meaning of these prayers, nor did I think to inquire. It was just something that occurred in their home, like Zaidy tending his lush garden or playing cello and Bubby sewing or fixing salmon patties for supper. Sometimes, when he was feeling up to it, Zaidy told me stories from the Torah about stalwart Moses or David and his vicious brothers, and while I welcomed the attention, these tales often left me more stressed than anything, what with their constantly threatening subtext, the familial betrayals, the droughts and famines, the claustrophobic sense of forever being the focus of God’s all-seeing eye.

As for my mother, a free-spirited, single gal making the most of the ’70s and ’80s, she flat-out rejected anything to do with her Jewishness, including her maiden name. In fact, when she divorced for the second time, she kept the last name from that union, preferring that people think she was Irish. She even looked it, with her red hair and freckles, neither of which I inherited. Why did she cast off her heritage so vehemently? Heck if I know. She and I don’t speak of such matters, and when I raise the subject, she usually rolls her eyes and lifts her hand in a What can you do? gesture. Sometimes she’ll say, “Well, you know…” but won’t finish the thought. And I’m left behind once again, no closer to answers.

The point is, my family was hardly the sort to spontaneously belt out raucous renditions of “Hava Nagila” or any other songs of joy at gatherings—our little clan being less than joyous. We celebrated no weddings, no bar mitzvahs, during my childhood. There was no one to get married, you see. No boys to welcome into adulthood. As for bat mitzvahs for the girls, well, that wasn’t a thing we did.

We—including my aunts, uncles, and cousins—hardly came together as a group anyway, only at Pesach and Yom Kippur, two particularly somber holidays. The way I see it, there are exuberant Jews, folks relishing the richness of tradition and history that make up Jewish experience, delighting in the miracle of our continued survival, and depressing Jews forever kvetching about the tsuris—trouble—in our lives, always oy vey-ing about this or that. It’s fair to say my family crouched squarely in the downer camp.

I’m maybe 10 years old when Bubby and Zaidy tell me a story about listening to the radio in the early days of their marriage, during the Depression and leading up to World War II. “Things were so terrible,” says Bubby, with the little bit of accent she never lost. She rubs her arthritic hands back and forth, fidgeting in her remembered anxiety over the news from Europe that she and Zaidy heard on their radio all those decades ago. “The Jewish people were in trouble. They were trapped in di yiddishe gas”—the Jewish quarter—“or being taken away so no one saw them again.”

“That must have scared you,” I say to her. It frightens me even hearing about it, despite being an American girl safe at the table in my grandparents’ knotty-pine kitchen.

“Yes. The U.S. has been good to Jews, but nothing lasts forever. Who knows if it could happen here?” I understand what she’s talking about, though I didn’t learn it from my teacher at school, who never mentions such things: the Nazi death camps, where most of Bubby’s extended family was murdered.

“It was terrible, listening to the news every day,” says Bubby. “Hearing the updates about that man.” She refuses to say “Hitler” aloud.

“And that other man,” says Zaidy with a shudder. He’s referring to Reverend Charles E. Coughlin, a popular radio personality of the 1930s with fascist sympathies, who, starting in 1938, used his position at Shrine of the Little Flower Roman Catholic Church to deliver blistering anti-Semitic diatribes from the pulpit. These speeches, broadcast by radio stations across the country, were heard by millions of Americans.

“It happened so close to home,” says Bubby. “I thought for sure they would come for us.” The Shrine of the Little Flower, distinguished by its soaring, phallic tower displaying a bas-relief carving of Jesus looking mournful on the cross, is located just down Woodward Avenue from Birmingham and just north of Detroit, where Bubby and Zaidy’s big white house is located. I pass the church nearly every day.

“The huge crowds on Woodward who came to hear him speak—” Bubby stoops her shoulders. “You wouldn’t even believe.”

I do. “How did it end?” I ask.

“It just did.” Bubby spreads her hands as if to say, Who knows? “One day the broadcasts quit, and that was that.”

“I think the government shut him down,” explains Zaidy. “All his praise for Hitler”—Zaidy whispers the hated name—“America was going to join the war, and that couldn’t look good. I bet Roosevelt put a stop to it. He wasn’t a friend to Jews, but he did the right thing in the end.”

“The president of America didn’t like Jewish people?” I ask.

Bubby sighs, reaches out to rub my fuzzy, ashen hair. “So many didn’t. So many still don’t. You must remember to be on your guard, Bubalah. Always be careful who you trust.”

“You don’t look Jewish,” say the friends I grow up with, the boys I date, and new acquaintances throughout my adolescence, then more commonly during my late teens and 20s, when I straighten my natural curls, chop my hair into asymmetrical layers, and dye it pale gold. I line my eyes in hard black and go to music clubs to watch British bands working at their synthesizers, the hypnotic beats riding the smoky air, or punk and grunge bands pounding their rage into the night.

I’ll be flirting with some stranger over gin and tonics, names are exchanged, and the guy will look confused and say, “Your last name sounds Jewish, but you don’t look it.” Why do they feel the need to tell me?

I’ll nod, admit my heritage outright, even as I cringe a bit in fear of oncoming hostility. I haven’t forgotten Walter, after all. Still, I’ve never denied my Jewishness. It would be like renouncing my arms and legs, the skin that holds me fast. But I don’t know what to do with people’s befuddlement, with their realization that Jews look like everyone else, nary a horn sprouting on our foreheads. Am I expected to say “thank you,” perhaps?

I can’t do that. Not even then, during the period I’ve become most unglued from my heritage. Instead, usually, I’ll duck my head. “Oh, really?” I’ll mutter. Then I’ll change the subject as fast as possible.

It’s summer 2000, and I’m hugely pregnant with my daughter, whom I will gift with a Hebrew first name when she comes in late August. During the pregnancy, I feel for the first time a tug toward the birthright I know nearly nothing about. I even consider joining a synagogue (a hormonal reaction caused by pregnancy, no doubt, since the urge doesn’t last beyond those few months).

In July, my friend Deborah holds a shower for me, and among the guests crowding her back yard are my husband’s friend Jimmy and his wife, Jasmine. Jimmy is Latino, so he should know something about bias, I think. Nonetheless, over potato salad, grilled chicken, and Coronas with lime wedges (iced tea for me), Jimmy cocks his handsome head to the side and takes a breath like he’s readying himself to say something important. We’d been discussing the ongoing strife in the West Bank and Gaza that would, in September of that year, lead to the second Palestinian Intifada.

“I really don’t like Jews,” says Jimmy.


I kept a hyphenated version of my Jewish last name at marriage. Jimmy attended my wedding to Steven, which was officiated by a Reform rabbi and chock-full of Hebrew (I couldn’t understand a word of it). Surely Jimmy knows I’m Jewish, that I’m near-to-popping with a Jewish child, descent being matrilineal according to the Talmud.

“What?” I say when no one else speaks to Jimmy’s words. Around me the shower continues unabated. Soon enough we’ll be called to cake and beribboned gifts containing the cutest of teensy outfits. Hava Nagila! “You understand I’m Jewish, right?” I ask him.

He doesn’t apologize. “I just hate how Jews treat the Palestinians,” he tells me. “I think it’s unfair.”

To be clear, I happen to agree with him about Israel’s current actions. Not all Jewish people march in lockstep with Ariel Sharon and the Likud party. Lots of us, including plenty in Israel, wish the Palestinians had their own homeland. We’d like the Palestinians to quit lobbing stones and bombs into Israeli territory, too, even while we regret Israel’s heavy-handed response.

“Jewish people and Israel aren’t interchangeable,” I say to Jimmy, who doesn’t appear convinced. I look around for Steven to support me. He was born Christian and now practices Buddhism, but more importantly, he’s my husband, father of my soon-to-be Jewish baby. I see him talking to Jasmine at the far end of the table. As usual, I’m alone in my Jewishness, such as it is.

My less-than-constant support for Israel has been a cause for dissension between me and my cousin Sheila, who, like me, was raised with nearly no tradition and faith beyond what we could glean from Zaidy’s prayer singing and Bubby’s candle lighting. But unlike me, Sheila found her way to Lubavitch orthodoxy as an adult.

I understand her attraction to the community; if you’re one of them, they look after you like you’re family. But more than that, with Jewish Orthodoxy, there’s a prayer for every occasion, a hardcore understanding of your place in the wild, chaotic world. It’s a comfortable certainty neither Sheila nor I grew up with. Something I still live without.

“But you think Israel has a right to exist, don’t you?” Sheila asks me time and again, even as I’m unsure what to say. Doesn’t everyone have a right to exist?

“Yes, of course,” I tell her. “It’s there now, and I don’t want more people displaced.” Sheila tips her hatted head—Lubavitch women are expected to cover their hair upon marriage so as not to tempt strange men with their lush locks. She doesn’t wear a sheitel—wig—like many women in her community do, only because she wages an ongoing battle with her hair, and, having mostly subdued it, doesn’t want it entirely hidden away.

“But you don’t think Israel should have been formed in the first place?” She’s close to distraught, my answers making her miserable.

“I don’t know,” I say. In my secret, selfish heart, I’m grateful for Israel, since it would probably admit my daughter and me should the U.S. give us the heave-ho. Certainly that thought gave Bubby comfort throughout her life. But I’m not crazy about the land grab that gave rise to the state. And I can’t believe that Israel’s founding was sacrosanct just because of some 2,000-year-old claim in the Torah.
Sheila doesn’t come out and say I’m a bad Jew, but I wonder if she thinks it sometimes. Then again, she cheats the rules all the time—the hair, for instance, or the dictate against working on Shabbos, so when Steven and I visit on the holy day, she makes him, the token goy, light her oven and flip on or off the lights as necessary—like God wouldn’t know the work was occurring at her direction. As far as I can tell, many Jewish people treat God like a dotty old uncle who can’t see the nose on His face.

But what do I know? I’m not a believer.

Sheila tells me there are no bad Jews, only more or less observant ones, as if the Jewishness I was born into is branded on my DNA, a genetic characteristic I couldn’t lose if I wanted to (I don’t), as if the ethnicity she and I share is synonymous with supposedly Jewish racial characteristics. But that’s all a story, right, since race is a social construct? After all, which shade of tan is dark enough, which nose too big, which hair texture sufficiently kinky to push someone from one classification into another? It’s a myth, one that fueled slavery and the Final Solution and pogroms  and Inquisitions. It states that Jews are other and gives rise to anti-Semitism across the U.S. and around the planet.

But where does that leave me? I don’t observe the faith or most of Judaism’s traditions. I have no relationship with the nosy, patriarchal God and don’t much like the sorts of rules that govern my cousin’s life, even ones promising to bring me kinship and comfort in this lonely, frenzied world we all share. Truthfully, I’ve spent much of my life frustrated at my Jewishness, not wanting to be disliked for something that I neither could control nor had a personal connection to.

It’s a muddle, you see, how everything leads to digressions. I’ve been writing this essay in one form or another for the past 30 years, and I still don’t have it right.

My husband tells me that Jewish slurs were common in his household when he grew up. I learn this firsthand when his brother casually lobs out, “That guy was really Jewing me,” during a barbeque at Steven’s and my home. I don’t remember the rest of the discussion, who the guy happened to be, or what he did to my brother-in-law to incur such condemnation. Nor does the world stop; other guests go on chatting and chewing. The 100-year-old cherry trees continue flowering in all their pink glory. Cars both tricked-out and shabby zip back and forth in our Southwest Detroit neighborhood.

“I’m Jewish, remember,” I finally say to my brother-in-law, this man who looks like my husband but sees the world so, so differently.

He looks away, takes a swig from his glass of French rosé, the bottle of which he brought to our party. Do I not even deserve the courtesy of him hiding his bias?

I say it again: “I’m Jewish,” and he goes on ignoring me. I am invisible, a transparent glass girl—which I guess is better than being an outright target.

At last, I give up, because that’s what I always do, in the same way I once upon a time sidled away from teenage Walter instead of confronting him about his rendition of “Hava Nagila.” I like to think I’d do better today.

But still.

Achtung!” Steven’s stepfather gives me and my daughter, now 16, a Nazi salute, extending his right arm into the air with a straightened hand. This, just a few years ago, at the in-laws’ dinner table, during a visit to their well-appointed Florida home, palm trees swaying outside and delightful, multicultural art decorating the inside walls. My daughter and I, both shocked to our core at my father-in-law’s outburst, sit mute. No one else makes a peep. To be fair, most everyone is still in the kitchen, but his exclamation was loud.

Finally, my daughter whispers to me, “Did that just happen?”

“Yep. Yep, it did,” I whisper back.

Later, during this same meal, my father-in-law comments with no small amount of pride that everyone in his family is Aryan.

“No, we’re not,” I say.

“We’re definitely not,” echoes my daughter.

My father-in-law looks confused. He’s got dementia, you see, which evidently precludes us, or anyone else, from calling him out on his words and actions. And I suppose I should shrug it off; the man is ill, after all. He never did or said such things to me before his illness, even if he privately thought them.

But here’s the thing: these micro-aggressions have been adding up, building over time. They’ve formed a brittle shell around me now, as if one more slur or slight will break me into jagged shards. All this for an identity I can barely access.

It makes me worry. Anti-Semitic violence in the U.S. is currently at an all-time high, with 2,717 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism reported last year.

I think about the 2018 synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, another in San Diego in 2019, the hostage situation earlier this year in the Colleyville, Texas synagogue. Jewish people aren’t the only ones being targeted in this violent age, but the rise in hatred makes me fret for my daughter, makes me wonder if I did her a disservice by giving her a recognizably Hebrew first name.

Back then, when the name rose from the miasma of my childhood memory, I claimed it like the best of carnival prizes. Shoshanah—rose—which, until this moment, I’ve never stated in my writing, preferring instead to use her middle name to give her a semblance of privacy. Still, Shoshanah is the most beautiful of names. The soft sounds against the roof of the mouth, how it flows like river water over the tongue and lips. It was the name of my Bubby’s dear friend, someone I didn’t know. But I loved the idea of the isolated, agoraphobic woman I grew up with having such a friend.

And now my daughter wears the name, claims it wholeheartedly. Will it make her a target in the future? Did I put her in front of a speeding anti-Semitic train with no way off the tracks?

The thought hurts my heart and skin and bones.

Steven and I drive past the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, a city we once visited for a conference and came to love. The Squirrel Hill neighborhood is delightful, all tree-lined streets dating back to the 1760s and houses of various styles set into the rising earth, a charming shopping district, and so on. In 2018, a gunman shot up the temple there, killing 11 people and wounding six.

I check out the blocky stone structure as we pass, the tall, stained-glass windows. Someone left flowers by the entrance: a commemoration, perhaps, all these years later. I’m deeply sad in that moment, for the lives lost, for the assault on these people. I suddenly realize that, in choosing not to formally be part of a community that might be targeted, I also have no one to mourn with when such tragedies occur. I grieve and worry alone.

For so many years, I carried my Jewishness like a weighty stone on my back. I wanted to hide from it, from the truth of the death camps, the cell-deep hatred that willed such viciousness into being. I wanted to distance myself from the millennia of persecution, from the side looks of strangers when they realized I was other. But even then, the Walters of the world tracked me down.

And yet, I’ve remained defensive about my Jewishness, too. The last name I kept, the grandparents I write about, my smattering of Yiddish, the Hanukkah songs that I learned from a pamphlet and taught to my daughter and husband.

Some people have the privilege of leaving a heritage behind as they assimilate, but I don’t want to. Not anymore. Even though the Orthodox who walk Greenfield Road in nearby Oak Park—the women in their long skirts and sheitels, the men in wide brimmed fedora hats and prayer tassels—have no interest in me and wouldn’t claim me as their own. Nor would the Conservative and Reform congregations in my area. And why should they, when I’ve barely taken a step in their direction?

But my name still establishes me as a cousin, if many times removed, just as it marks me for potential violence. I might be a bad Jew. I might not go to shul or keep Shabbos, but I’m Jewish, nonetheless. So I claim it now, my personal history with its snubs and slurs, the ones I wasn’t brave enough to acknowledge or combat. I claim it because I’m the daughter of a Jewish woman, even if she doesn’t own her legacy, and she’s the daughter of a Jewish woman, and so on into antiquity. I claim my Jewishness for the very reason I struggle with it. Just as Jacob wrestled all night with his angel, being Jewish has never been easy. It wasn’t meant to be. So I claim the crumbs and shmatas—rags—and tatters that make up all I have of my heritage. They might not be much, but they’re wholly mine.

Hava Nagila! I claim them all.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Laura Bernstein-Machlay teaches literature and creative writing at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit. Her work has appeared in the The Georgia Review, Fourth Genre, The North American Review, and the The Massachusetts Review. She is the author of Travelers, a collection of essays.


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