Barbara Kreiger is the author of The Dead Sea and the Jordan River, a chronicle of the natural and human history of two of the Middle East’s most iconic bodies of water. Barbara is guest blogging here all week as part of the Visiting Scribe series on The ProsenPeople.
I was raised in a multi-generational Jewish family with firm roots in southern Connecticut, to where my great-grandfather Abraham had immigrated from Russia with his wife, fittingly named Sarah, at the start of the twentieth century. My earliest memories are of living in his home with him, a house he had built on a small street in Shelton. We were three children by then; my great-grandmother had just died, and Abraham asked my parents to move in with him. My grandparents lived next door, making my childhood very cozy and fulfilling, and very Jewish.
There weren’t many Jewish families in the small towns of the Naugatuck Valley between New Haven and Bridgeport, and we Jews were a tight community. There were two Orthodox shuls, one in Derby and one in Ansonia, and in the mid-1950s the two congregations merged. I remember the groundbreaking, when we kids ran around with our little shovels to participate in the ceremony. Before long, the building was ready for us, and my life from that point through high school was focused on Beth Israel Synagogue Center, the yellow brick structure in Derby. Friday night services, Hebrew school twice a week, Sunday school for history, culture, and Israel, and a long string of bar and bat mitzvahs, then confirmation, all served as the glue that kept each class together until we went our separate ways to college.
It’s an understatement to say that it was a rich and intensely meaningful experience, growing up in a small town amid generations who were committed on behalf of the community itself, Jews worldwide, and Israel. It has served all my life as a template for fulfillment. These days it’s impossible to replicate that model, with generations scattered, aspirations divergent, and identification so individual rather than communal. But those years taught me what I needed to know about what it means to be a Jew.
To be a Jew is to value our particular way of living because we love it, not because we have to. We love it because it’s beautiful, and it holds certain truths for us. In my family we spoke always about fair play, rooting for the underdog, loyalty, responsibility to those who have less than we did. It’s beautiful because the Shabbat table was set with a white tablecloth, our best china and crystal glasses, the brass candlesticks my great-grandmother had brought from Russia, the shiny silver wine cup a bar mitzvah gift to my father, the challah tucked under my grandmother’s satin cover; beautiful to hear my grandfather with his Ashkenazi Hebrew chant Jonah on Yom Kippur; beautiful to hear the old folks speaking Yiddish; beautiful because it simply was.
But our particularism never obscured a larger worldview where we were taught to embrace a universal system of values based on justice and fair play. To be a Jew is to be inclusive, to understand that once we were strangers in Egypt, and millennia later in America, and that it was our obligation to treat the real or metaphorical stranger with compassion. To be a Jew meant to question the status quo and never take our comfort for granted. To be a Jew meant that when we opened the door at our seder, it was not a mere symbolic gesture but would be fulfilled in our sensitivity to others.
So when I think about my connection to Jewish life, I don’t see it as something I created but rather as a birthright, part of my genetic make-up you could even say. I admire those who create a sense of Jewishness for themselves and their families. But I can’t take credit for myself. To be Jewish was to be human, was one of the wonderful ways to be human. And with that understanding, I was sent out into the world.
Barbara Kreiger is adjunct associate professor and chair of creative writing in the Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Program at Dartmouth College.
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