Connecting to My Grandmother’s Judaism in the Unlikeliest of Places

My Jewishness all but hibernated until I moved to Germany.

I remember walking out of history class — I think 9th grade — after another lesson on World War II. A classmate stopped me and gave me a strange look, like he smelled something funky, before telling me what he apparently took away from the day’s lesson.

“You’re probably Jewish enough to have been killed in the Holocaust.”

I don’t remember how I responded. I doubt I came back with anything witty. My Holocaust comeback game was woefully undeveloped, I guess.

I just remember being stunned. Who says that to someone?

I’ve since learned that he was probably right. What this kid couldn’t have known was that that’s how I would continue to view my Jewish heritage for the next decade-plus. That is, through the prism of how much hiding my family would’ve had to do had we lived in Europe during the war.

You see, my paternal grandmother was Jewish, but she made no effort to share her Jewishness with her children and nothing got passed down. To this day, neither my aunt or father (her children) can explain why she was so secretive about her Jewish family, her life, or why she didn’t bring much Jewishness into their house.

I knew Grandma Ruth married my nominally Catholic Grandpa Bud at a synagogue in Cleveland, but that’s about all I knew as a kid. I didn’t know she was Ashkenazi — I didn’t even know what that meant. Years later, when I’d get my DNA tested, I had to embarrassingly ask co-workers if they ever heard of “Ashkenazi” before while I wondered why “nazi” featured so prominently in this ethnicity I apparently had.

As an even younger child, I made dumb jokes about being “a quarter Jewish.” Or, “My grandfather was Catholic and my grandmother was Jewish, so it cancelled us out,” as if identity was merely a mathematical equation. With the benefit of hindsight, I now see that my parents were simply very skeptical of organized religion and the fanatics that can come with it.

But I wasn’t a nuanced child, and jokes were an easy escape, so when someone asked my religion, I’d say “Joedaism,” narcissistically combining my name with Judaism. I never said “Christian,” which I learned was the “default” religion when my public school elementary teacher asked if I believe in God. Ah, you gotta love that separation of church and state.

But in reality, I had no cultural or religious upbringing. My first time in a religious setting was my maternal grandmother’s funeral at age 10. All I remember is sitting in a pew at some point. And given the circumstances, I didn’t particularly care for it. Funerals — not my thing.

Then there was that time I got hoodwinked into watching a Christian praise band with a friend, lured in with the promise of free soda and snacks. I had no idea what a “praise band” was at the time, but I felt gross and made an early exit once the preacher started slipping into “the Jews killed Christ” territory. Even though I had no Jewish upbringing, I still felt like he was attacking me. The snacks weren’t that good anyway.

In college, when I had every opportunity to explore whatever I wanted, I remained disconnected from my Jewish heritage. That is until the Borat movie came out and my roommates started calling me a “Jew” in that obnoxious Borat voice. This didn’t end until they served me a slice of cake with a swastika carved into it. In a fit of blind rage, I threw one of them up against the wall and told them that this Borat nonsense stops now.

I was also mad about ruining a perfectly good piece of cake.

My Jewishness, if it’s even fair to call it that, all but hibernated until I moved to Germany. Something about being here, surrounded by the historical markers of Nazi atrocities, forces you to actually ponder what would’ve happened had you lived in Europe during the war. This coupled with the DNA test sparked my curiosity to learn more about this “Ashkenazi” business and what it actually had to do with me.

Countless books, trips, recipes, songs, podcasts, language lessons, and apps later, I feel like I finally have a connection to my Jewish heritage — and it’s been as satisfying as finding the right plug for the device with a customizable input. Oh, there it is! I’ve been looking for this!

I pursued everything from challenging my agnosticism with religious texts and learning some Yiddish to researching the stories of my ancestors. Apparently, my great-great-grandfather, David Meyer Stern, helped start an Orthodox synagogue in Cleveland (Knesset Israel Congregation, since merged with Taylor Road Synagogue). He was also a Talmudic scholar who “possessed a vast Hebrew Library which many people consulted,” according to his obituary. The local paper even proclaimed him in all caps, block letters, “LEADER IN JEWRY.” Or as my brother said in modern parlance, “Jewish AF.”

Last year, I even traveled to the shtetl outside of Bardejov, Slovakia that David left with my young great-grandfather and his wife, Anna Feldman, for the United States. I felt something there. I’m still not exactly sure what it was. I do know that I was grateful to travel someplace I otherwise would’ve never heard of and to visit the cemeteries (one desecrated, one still standing strong) of my ancestors.

The point is, my connection is no longer exclusively with the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people but with the joy of the living culture — especially food. You can find me most every Friday baking a challah in the kitchen and coming up with my own Jewish riff on popular dishes, like Jewish bibimbap or a kasha matzah black bean burger (I’m telling you, it’s good).

In fact, food seems to be something that actually did get passed on in my family. Since starting this little journey, I’ve learned that my great-grandfather (David’s son, Maurice) helped start a horseradish business that lasted in some form until March 2020.

My cousin Kristen calls our grandmother the culinary one of the family. Her mother (my aunt) recently shared that they still make Grandma Ruth’s chopped liver for Thanksgiving and occasionally her recipe for a cold beet borscht. And when I made potato kugel for the first time, I realized it was hardly my first kugel. My brother recognized it instantly as something Grandma used to make all the time. Turns out, at least the culinary legacy seems to be thriving in my generation. Kristen recently launched her own food truck and her younger brother Brad (also a cousin) has been slinging Yaki-Soba noodles for the better part of a decade.

Despite it all, I can’t help but sometimes feel like an imposter. I still feel the need to awkwardly clarify that I’m not a “halakhic Jew,” referring to the fact that since my mother isn’t Jewish, many in the Jewish world wouldn’t consider me Jewish, either. Of course, the Nazis would’ve thought me Jew enough (Mischling zweiten Grades, to be exact) but that’s not exactly the validation I’m looking for.

But I know I’m not alone. I recently spoke with some other people in the same predicament as me. Andrew Evans hosts the Unbordered podcast about his mysterious Jewish grandfather he never met. We chatted recently about our respective Jewish heritage. His biggest fear? He doesn’t want to seem like Bryan Cranston’s character on Seinfeld, the dentist Tim Whatley who Jerry accuses of converting to Judaism for the jokes.

Nonetheless, Evans admits to feeling a connection to that aspect of his heritage and a bigger pull toward cultural aspects of Jewishness even as he struggles with whether or not he has the right to light a hanukkiyah.

My friend Sam Dewey is less concerned about whether or not she can light the Hanukkah candles. With one Jewish grandparent, she’s been rocking her “Happy Hanukkah” sweater for years. But she admits there’s never been a serious examination of her Jewish heritage. It wasn’t something the London born 29-year-old spoke about much with her grandmother, Lottie-Marie, who herself fled Nazi Germany where her family had owned an Apothek. Sam tearfully admits that she regrets not asking about it before her grandmother died.

It might be too late for Sam to ask her grandmother about her Jewishness and why she didn’t share that side of her identity, but she is currently in the process of reclaiming German citizenship with her mother. If nothing else, that’s been an experience that’s brought her even closer to her mother.

For me, I’ve mostly had to fashion my connection alone. Nonetheless, it feels important to me to continue to live and celebrate the culture. Because if I don’t, I worry that assimilation will be fully complete, the Jewishness of our family relegated to an interesting bit of trivia from the past.

I doubt I’ll ever fully cure myself of this impostor syndrome. I know myself too well, for better or worse. So the answer I think I’ve landed on is to continue pursuing what feels right.

And it does feel right. Jewishness has been in my family’s history for far longer than it hasn’t. In the end, when I find myself feeling especially cloaked in imposter syndrome, wallowing in self-doubt (otherwise known as “a day of the week”), I tend to retreat to Israeli author Amos Oz’s thoughts on the matter.

“A Jew is anyone who chooses or is compelled to share a common fate with other Jews,” he wrote, summing it up even more in a monologue published in Tikkun:

“Who is a Jew? Everyone who is mad enough to call himself or herself a Jew is a Jew.”

I guess I’m pretty mad.

Header image of Berlin by mgs/Getty Images.

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