My so-called Jewish life: Growing up Jewish in name only

December 13, 2012

Eliot Stein is a guidebook author and D.C.-based writer. Hear him and others speak at My So-Called Jewish Life, a night of unique, autobiographical Jewish storytelling Dec. 15 presented by   Sixth & I Historic Synagogue and SpeakeasyDC.

I remember surprisingly little about seventh grade. I can’t really tell you much about the books I read or the classes I took, but I can tell you that for 45 minutes Monday through Friday during second period, I had the pleasure of attending Ms. Jenkins’s Reading and Writing class.

Each morning at 8 a.m., I would eagerly shuffle my Vans and baggy Old Navy cargo jeans to her class. It was the only class where I sat in the first row, and she had the distinct honor of being the only non-grunge band that I scribbled on my Trapper Keeper.

The amount of reading and writing we did in Ms. Jenkins’s reading and writing class was minimal. In its place, we had what she liked to call “quiet time.” I have vivid memories of my grown-woman princess slouched over in her chair, leaning on her desk with her hand covering half of her face and whispering instructions like, “Okay guys, Ms. Jenkins has a headache this morning, so while you read, we’re going to turn the lights down and listen to Aaliyah.”

One morning, Ms. Jenkins summoned enough energy to not only turn off the lights but to give us an assignment. She didn’t even look at us and said, “Class, today during quiet time, I’d like you to take out two pages in your notebooks and write about a meaningful moment that changed your life.”

Total silence.

It’s one thing to ask a bunch of people to wax lyrical about a profound, life-changing moment. But it’s another thing when those people are 12.

As soon as she said the instructions, I remember my mind started racing and I thought to myself, what could I possibly say about this … let’s see … there was the time two weeks ago that Thomas Kaufman and I snuck in to go see “Spice World” at City Place … or maybe there was the time a few months back where I was dared to French kiss Valerie Fischel, and instead of wiggling my tongue around, I just stuck it out and parked it in her mouth.

The problem with each of these things, I told myself, is that none of these events were going to interest Ms. Jenkins. That’s really all that mattered to me. This was a grown, mature woman who wanted to read about grown, mature things, and this was my one chance to impress her. So I started to think about the most impressive, extravagant, grown-up things I could think of. And that’s when it came to me.

Earlier that year, I had joined a travel soccer team with a bunch of kids who lived in Bethesda. They went to schools that I had never heard of called things like JDS and Sidwell Friends and had last names like Schwartz and Goldstein and Kraus. As soon as I joined the team, I started getting invitations for their birthday parties, and you know what? They were incredible. Up until this point, my birthdays had consisted of flag football parties in the park, ice cream cake and goodie bags filled with packs of gum and Topps baseball cards. These guys’ parties were in massive churches and hotel reception rooms, and they got to invite, like, 200 people – which meant, like, 200 presents.

Oh, and the best part about it? So, in addition to all the food, and dancing, and gifts, you emerge from these parties as a full-fledged adult. We’re talking a legit, caterpillar-butterfly deal where get to flap your puberty wings and come of age … right in front of people.

It wasn’t going to get much more impressive than that, so I was sold. I was going to write about the very moment that I became a man: I was going write about my bar mitzvah.

The only problem was that I hadn’t actually had my bar mitzvah yet. And that I’m not actually Jewish.

But it didn’t matter. It was only a matter of time before I got to have this rite of passage blow-out party. And the reason I thought that was because each time I got an invitation to another one of these sacred shindigs from the guys on the team, they’d say things like, “So, you’re gonna invite me to yours, too, right, Eliot Stein?” And I’d say, “Yes, Benny Baltrotsky, I will.” “Of course, Trevor Zimmer, I’ll see ya there.”

So I ripped out two pages from my notebook, and I scribbled down your standard Old Testament passage into adulthood, as dreamed up by a 12-year-old goy. I did my best to piece my fake bar mitzvah together from the handful of real bar mitzvahs that I had attended. And where I fell short on details, I relied on what I think I remember people saying about what really takes place. (After all, it’s this creative interpretation of what actually took place versus what people said took place sold as fact that has kept we Christians thriving as a people for more than 2,000 years.) And as I wrote each line, I was imagining Ms. Jenkins reading it back to herself — preferably while in bed listening to slow jams — and being wowed that the little ball of acne who sat in the first row of her class was actually a grown man.

I was so proud of this paper that I wrote my name in big, bold letters at the top of the page for Ms. Jenkins to see, and she gave me a 95% on it.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized that this first foray into a Jewish identity was kind of in the cards. After all, if a name is supposed to identify you, then mine was kind of … my birthright. As I got into high school, it became fully apparent that the only thing weirder than a prepubescent gentile faking a bar mitzvah was the fact that a guy named Eliot Stein was actually a gentile.

I mean, let’s be real: The odds of a guy named Eliot Stein being a gentile are about as good as a guy named Malik El-Shabaaz being a Catholic.

In fact, according to scripture (BabyNames.net), the name Eliot is Hebrew for “Believes in God,” which is just another way of saying Really Really Jewish.

Needless to say, this has caused me a good bit of confusion so far in my life, but it seems to have caused a lot more for you guys.

I get invited to Seders and Rosh Hashanah dinners most every year. I probably got about a dozen recruitment e-mails from my university’s Hillel group. And I was actually asked by my boss at my last job if I was a member of the tribe. (Not knowing that that’s apparently an expression you guys have, I looked at her and asked, “Do you mean Chippewa?”)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve actually started to embrace this confusion, and everyday assumptions that people have. I’ve used my name as a golden ticket to do things like actually join that Hillel group, and rush a Jewish fraternity, and accept invitations to go to those Rosh Hashanah dinners. And you know what? I’ve learned a lot along the way. Most notably, that your honey is delicious. Probably because of the Macabees.

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