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What am I, chopped liver? A personal battle with Jewish identity.

I am an inveterate quiz taker. I've taken quizzes about my work style, my love life, my decorating lack of style and even my taste in pets. It turns out I would do best with a pet rock, but don't tell that to my cats.

When I saw a quiz on what kind of Jew I am, I couldn't resist. Especially when the answers labeled me in terms of food. You can't get more Jewish than that.

What did I find out about myself? Well, for starters I found out that I'm a charoset Jew. According to the quiz, like this Passover fruit and nut mixture, my Jewish identity blends tradition and innovation. That's a fancy way of saying that I am more Jewish in terms of cultural and ethnical ties, than religion, and my religious identity revolves around holidays and lifecycle events.

That could also explain why I put on weight around Passover, all that matzoh goes straight to my hips.

No surprises there and I was quite happy to be charoset since I'm on a low-carb, high protein diet and nuts are allowed. If I had been a blueberry bagel Jew or a lukshin kugl Jew, then I would have been in big trouble--way too many carbohydrates. Remember what I said about Passover. I can put weight on just thinking about food.

Being a charoset Jew fits in with the fact that I haven't been to synagogue since my cousin's kid got married 5 years ago, I don't belong to any Jewish organizations, even though I support many Jewish charities, and I'm willing to date non-Jews. What can I say? I like men with broad shoulders.

On the other hand, if I had kids, I would definitely make sure they had some Jewish education. I have written several letters to the editor about the Middle East, all pro-Israel, and I once went to a klezmer concert. Okay, I left the concert after haft an hour because it was giving me a headache, but it should still count towards my Jewishness.

However, one question and answer in particular took me aback. In toting up the number of Jewish versus non-Jewish friends, I was surprised to realize that most of my friends today aren't Jewish. I grew up in a non-Jewish area of Montreal where the Jews tended to stick together--probably out of self-preservation considering we were surrounded by a large French Catholic population that wasn't noted for its religious tolerance.

Not that there was a lot of antisemitism in the English area where I lived, at least not overtly. Because education was split along language and religious lines, I went to an English Protestant school as opposed to a French Catholic one. I would guess that maybe 10 percent of the students at my school were Jewish. Although we were allowed to take off the Jewish holidays, you'd never find a single dreidel among all the Christmas decorations, or a Hanukkah song sung at the Christmas concert. For the most part, we were simply invisible.

That's probably one of the other reasons we banded together. Just to reassure ourselves that we existed. With the exception of my best friend who was Lutheran, all my Mends were Jewish, and I went to more bar mitzvahs than you can shake a stick at. I can still remember the red velvet dress with the Peter Pan collar that I wore for at least 6 bar mitzvahs before my mother gave in and got me another dress.

As a kid, I went to synagogue on the High Holidays and spent most of the time being bored to death. Our rabbi was not noted for short sermons, and I was more interested in seeing who would wear the ugliest hat than in learning anything about the world and being a Jew in it. In fact, I probably thought being a Jew meant wearing ugly hats to shul. I know a lot of women who seemed to share that notion, though their definition of ugly might have been a little different than mine.

My mother kept kosher in that solid North American tradition: meat, dairy and traife. My grandparents and parents all spoke Yiddish, a language neither my sister nor I bothered to learn though we could recognize a couple of words. When my parents tried to get us to learn Hebrew, we gave the tutor such a hard time that he gave up on us. Although I now regret that, I'd never admit it to my mother.

It was only much later on that I realized how lucky I had been. I was the typical Jewish American Princess who didn't have to do anything to earn her crown. I was Jewish but it really only meant more holidays from school and usually better food than most of my friends got--certainly more of it on the plate.

My father, who was active in the Jewish community, waited until I was an adult to tell me about the vitriolic antisemitic letters the organizations received on a daily basis. That's when he also told me that the Jewish school bus service I took to my nursery school at the YM/YWHA regularly received bomb threats. Bomb threats against kids? Amazing how some things never change. Yet somewhere along the way I turned into a WASH--a white, Anglo-Saxon Hebrew. How did that happen?

I guess part of it had to do with leaving home and going to another city to continue my education. I lived near the university in an ethnically diverse area, not surprising since universities tend to be microcosms of the world. My friends were equally diverse, and since I had no family living in this city, I didn't have any personal connections to the Jewish community. The thought of joining a synagogue never even crossed my mind. To me, synagogues were for families, not for university students on their own.

After university, I stayed in that part of town, mostly because it had easy access to the subway and I didn't have a car. The two main Jewish communities were further west and north, and they tended to be family-oriented. A single woman living alone would not have fit in. At least that's what I told myself.

If it weren't for the boxes of delicatessen delicacies my parents used to bring me when they visited, I probably would have forgotten I was Jewish. Even now, thinking of the chopped liver, the matzoh balls, the smoked meat, the apple cherry squares, and the rugelach makes my mouth start to water.

Suddenly it was 20 years later. I had bought a house in a very nice but overwhelmingly Protestant area of the city and was probably the only person on the block who didn't put up Christmas lights. I still remember a neighbor's astonished face when I said I didn't celebrate Christmas. She automatically assumed I was too mean-spirited. It never occurred to her that I might not be Christian.

I go to yoga on Saturdays instead of going to synagogue, stretching my body rather than my mind. My cousin's kid married an Orthodox Jew and neither of them will eat in my house. They say it's because I don't keep kosher; I say it's because they know I'm a horrible cook. And if it weren't for a friend inviting me over for Hanukkah and Passover, I would probably ignore both holidays.

But just when I'm afraid that I'm turning into a closet Christian, something happens to remind me that I'm a Jew. The situation in the Middle East seems to bring my "Jewishness" to the fore. As I mentioned, I've written and published a number of letters to the editor stating my position. I've had several heated arguments with people who can only see simple answers to complex questions, without looking at the conditions that led to the problems in the first place. These same people tell me that there is no longer any antisemitism in the world because we've grown out of it.

Even more surprising to me and to people who know me, I've also begun to write articles about religion. The first one was written out of anger at the Catholic Church for hiding behind its ecclesiastic skirts when the child abuse scandal broke out and at Muslim fanatics for using their religion as a platform to teach hatred and war. The gist of the article was that fundamentalists of any religion have blinded and deafened themselves to God, substituting cultural and political traditions, thus perverting their religions to their own ends.

Because of that article, I was asked to talk at a Unitarian Fellowship meeting where I introduced myself as both a Jew and a wavering agnostic. After I gave my talk, one of the members of the congregation asked me if I ever feel a need to believe in God and religion. I thought about it for a minute or so before I answered. The words that came out of my mouth amazed me. I said that for many years, I hadn't felt that need. However, lately I was feeling a need for some kind of connection to something greater than I am.

I don't know if that means I am finally growing up and realizing I am not, in fact, the center of the universe. Or maybe it's because the world has gone so crazy I need to think that somewhere out there is a spirit or intelligence greater than we are because if we're the best the universe can create, then the universe is in serious trouble.

Since that first article, I've been writing more articles on religion as much to begin my own exploration of my feelings as anything else. I'm still not sure where that exploration is going to take me but I'll quote a line from one of my articles to hint of the direction: "the Bible is a journey, not a destination." My journey is just starting, but with each step, I find myself gaining a new awareness of what religion could mean to me.

In any case, a few weeks ago I was walking along a busy street, window shopping, when a particular window caught my eye. Or rather, the sign in the window of a nondescript building. It was a small sign and all it said was: If you want to learn more about Judaism, call this number.

I wrote the number down but haven't called yet. I kept the number, though, because sometimes even someone who's charoset likes a little lukshin kugl on the side.

HARRIET COOPER is a freelance writer and instructor. She has published over 50 personal essays, humor, and creative non-fiction pieces in newspapers in Canada, such as the Toronto Star. She often writes on family relationships, social issues, health, food, cats, writing and day-to-day life.
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Title Annotation:Jewish Identity
Author:Cooper, Harriet
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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