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Out of Hiding

Weaned on the Holocaust and Anne Frank, She Had Run From Her Jewish Heritage. Then She Started Searching for Answers to the Question: Who Are We?

October 27, 2002|Susan Baskin | Susan Baskin last wrote for the magazine about breast cancer.

When I was 12, my aunt screamed at me across the kitchen table: "You're a Jew. No matter what you say, what you do, you're a Jew. And they won't let you forget it." I remember my parents, seated across from my aunt, saying nothing to refute her charge. This was my fate, their silence said. I was a Jew. And I hated it.

What happened in my parents' kitchen that night corroborated feelings that had been spawned years earlier. Weaned on the Adolf Eichmann war-crimes trial, the atrocities of the concentration camps and my generation's poster child, Anne Frank, I grew up waiting for the "knock on the door." Anne Frank's diary was the first nonpicture book my father gave me, and like many of my contemporaries, I adopted her as my hero. I named my first diary Kit and spent hours in my bed at night planning where, between the walls in my house, my family and I could hide from the Nazis. What I couldn't understand then was that in embracing Anne Frank's life, I embraced her death, for in her story, the two are inseparable. But in the Jewish New York of my youth, my passion for her wasn't unusual. The mounting details of the Holocaust were the stories grown-ups told around the kitchen table. As a child, if you listened quietly, you were allowed to hear them, part cautionary tales, part portents of your future. If it wasn't my grandmother who was killed, it was her mother, or the family of our "refugee" neighbor. Their ghosts were the silent companions of my childhood. They came to life in my dreams. Like someone starving, I devoured the tales of sacrifice and death, reading, watching, listening to anything I could until the faces, bodies and the flames became so much a part of me that they were encoded. Heeding the lessons well, I became entangled in the paradox of feeling safe and warm within my Jewish world, while knowing that ultimately being a Jew meant annihilation.

But I wanted to live. I wanted survival lessons. When none came, I made plans of my own. I'd marry a non-Jew, I told my father. That way, I would save my family and myself. My father shook his head. If you were as little as one-quarter Jewish, the Nazis took you. How would they know? They'd know. Still, I was undeterred. In the second grade, I made my first non-Jewish friend. After playing together at her house, I asked her mother if she would hide me. She said yes, shaken by my request. The thrill of meeting someone with powers like hers filled me with the possibility of salvation.

If safety and being a Jew were an oxymoron at best, what remained elusive was what bargain I had to strike to grant my survival. In Hebrew school, I would be the child in class to argue with the rabbi in favor of intermarriage. As an adolescent, I stopped wearing the Chai around my neck, or any article that seemed remotely Jewish. In college, I studied the Bible with an ex-nun and spent my junior year in Jerusalem taking English literature courses. And the man I married, though Jewish, didn't read Hebrew, worked on the High Holidays, and cooked me my first pork chop. While I wanted to cast off being Jewish, clearly, I didn't know how not to be. Like a snake shedding its skin, every time I would try to slip away from it, I would discover another sheath of Jewishness that had grown around me.

Chazak. Chazak. Chazak. Out of learning comes strength. Three weeks after my son was born, a women's Torah study group formed in my neighborhood. I was searching then--for community, an avenue for spirituality, but most of all, for answers. For the sake of my children, I wanted to understand this people whose destiny so clearly spelled death. I wanted to reckon with the actions of their God. And if I don't yet have the answers, what I gained from joining the group is the certain knowledge that my questions are not mine alone, but reside in Jews who came before me. Realizing that my predecessors were just as mystified by who we are pulled me within my religion, rather than pushing me away. It led me to ask whether it is the mystery that binds us and keeps us here, and whether it is in seeking the key to that mystery that I, like those before me, find self-knowledge. For in the search for meaning, my questions have allowed me to discover myself as a Jew.

But that is personal. My study of Judaism fed my mind and my spirit. And though I found a way to reclaim a Jewish identity in my personal life, I was still struck dumb in public. I could light Sabbath candles in my home on Friday nights, but I had qualms about the mezuza hanging outside my door. I could present my professional self publicly, but as a Jew I wanted to stay invisible.

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