Jillian Cantor is the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults including, The September Sisters, The Life of Glass, and The Transformation of Things. Her latest novel for adults is Margot (Riverhead Books), a reimagining of Anne Frank’s sister in post-war America. She will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.
My grandfather was a Kohen, which I’ve learned (thanks to Google) means he was a Jewish priest, a descendant of Aaron. I never really knew what he meant when he told me this (repeatedly), when he was alive, only that he had been raised deeply religious. But as an adult, as my grandfather, he was more of a cultural Jew. And this was how I was raised, filtered down even one more generation. As a child, I didn’t attend Hebrew School (though one year I begged my parents to send me, just so I’d have something to keep up with all my Catholic friends who regularly attended CCD). We never went to synagogue. We’d go to Passover and Rosh Hashanah dinner at my parents’ friends’ house each year (the only other Jewish people we knew who lived nearby), though I can’t remember my parents ever cooking their own holiday dinners. We celebrated Hanukkah instead of Christmas, of course, but my sister and I only sang “The Dreidel Song” as we lit the menorah.
My grandparents lived six hours away when I was growing up, and we only saw them a few times a year, but whenever we did, it was my grandfather who would remind us about being Jewish. As a kid I’d roll my eyes when he’d tell me that I’d care more about my religion when I grew up, when I had kids of my own. I couldn’t understand what he meant. His version of religion, by that point, was socializing at the JCC and reading The Jewish Chronicle. He also was fond of calling all us Bubbelah in public – an endless embarrassment to all the cousins in our teenage years.
My grandfather died almost five years ago, so he never got to see what happened when my children got old enough to talk, to start asking me questions. (Why doesn’t Santa Claus come to our house? My youngest son swore it was because our house didn’t have a chimney…). It was around this time that I started to understand what he meant, about religion feeling more important to me when I got older and had kids of my own. I didn’t suddenly start attending synagogue or learning Hebrew, but I did suddenly feel the need to teach my children about where they came from. I read them books about the Jewish holidays and cooked dinners for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. I bought a children’s version of the Haggadah so my oldest son could read from it at age four, when he was a budding reader, and I helped my youngest son memorize the four questions to recite. My husband, who is also Jewish and was raised more religious than I was, taught all of us the Hebrew prayer to say when we light the menorah, which we now sing in addition to “The Dreidel Song.”
When I was writing Margot, I did a lot of research about the Holocaust and the Frank family. But some of what I had to learn had to do with aspects of being Jewish that I never really learned growing up. At times I felt a little bit like an imposter, wondering if I really had it in me to write about being Jewish, when I was still figuring so much out for myself. But as I researched and wrote, I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather. If he were still here now, I can just picture him saying, I told you so, Bubbelah.
Read more about Jillian Cantor here.
Jillian Cantor has a BA in English from Penn State University and an MFA from the University of Arizona. She is the author of award-winning novels for teens and adults, including, most recently, the critically acclaimed The Lost Letter, The Hours Count, and Margot. Born and raised in a suburb of Philadelphia, Cantor currently lives in Arizona with her husband and two sons.