Wednesday, February 27, 2002

Asserting Identity
Yes, I Am a Jew Meryl Yourish blogs, asking Does it bother you to know that I'm Jewish? Does it make a difference in the way you perceive my words? Do you hate me now that you know? Will you stop reading a weblog written by a Jew? ….Would you kill me because I am Jewish?

Her essay is frightening and poignant, eloquent and painful. She is an honest and elegant writer, and I am glad I found her.

Yourish writes about her friendship in college with a Polish girl. I am Polish on both sides of my family as far back as anyone can document – except for one Swedish guy who managed to slip in somewhere back in the very early days. The historical relationship between Jews and Poles in Poland is problematic to say the least, and the same is true of how members of my family here in America feel, I am sad to say. My parent’s best friends were a Jewish couple, and my mother kept in touch with Gerry long after her husband and my Dad died. Gerry died last year at the age of 90, and my mother still misses talking to her. On the other hand, I have relatives who still say the most awful things about Jewish people. But then, again, they say awful things about anyone who isn’t Polish.

I grew up in a Polish ghetto in the city of Yonkers, New York, back in the 1940s, when Polish immigrants flooded that city’s streets because they connect very easily out to Ellis Island. I also grew up bilingual, having been taught to speak Polish along with English in the parochial school across the street from our house. As a child, I remember being derisively called a “greenhorn” by the more Americanized citizens. I didn’t like it, but I just switched to speaking English, and then I was like everyone else. The kinds of hatred Meryl Yourish knows I never knew.

Generally, I grew up proud to be Polish. My paternal grandmother (born Mary Sklodowska) was Madam Curie’s (born Marie Sklodowska) first cousin and remembered her from their early days in Sklody, the town in Poland where they both grew up. I danced in a Polish troupe when I was a young teenager. My early years progressed safely in the bosom of a large clan, tribe, extended family that faithfully kept us youngsters faithful to all of the old traditions.

For my freshman research paper in college, I chose to focus on the activities Polish Underground as they helped Jews to escape the Warsaw Ghetto through the sewers. I knew that there were plenty of my “countrymen” who had opted for more secure politics, but I always felt proud of those who threw their lots in with their Jewish neighbors. That research paper was lost long ago, but I often wish I could go back and read through it again. I would like my kids to read it.

I don’t really get in to my ethnic heritage much these days. Oddly enough, my daughter is using my mother’s old recipes and teaching herself to make all of the Polish foods that I never bothered to learn how to make.

What has that all to do with Meryl Yourish and her blog? Well, I don’t understand anti-Semitism either. I don’t understand any kind of bigotry. As I used to tell my Dad, I know what side I’m on when the revolution comes.
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