Sunday, August 6, 2006

The Mysterious and Inexplicable “Pull” of Jewishness

Although only “half” of my being is Jewish since I had a Russian-Jewish father and an Irish mother, I have felt throughout my life a pull or draw (which I can’t explain) to the warmth, energy, laughter and loyalty to whatever we mean by “Jewish.” This tendency is all the more amazing to me since I am a Catholic priest, totally devoted to my Faith, delighted with the joys of Catholic spirituality and convinced that Catholicism is the fullness of Religion as revealed by God, bar none.

Yet, I have a Mezuzah on the door post to my office which I touch reverently as I begin my day of counseling God’s suffering children. I have two yarmulkes which I use at appropriate times. I love Jewish humor and I love to “hang out” with Jewish friends. I bristle and suffer when someone makes an anti-Semitic remark, particularly when the “bigot” has no idea of my Jewish side since, as they tell me, “You look so Irish.”

A snide remark about the Jews is an attack not only on the Jews but particularly on my father and on me! Never mind that such bigotry is insulting to my Jewish Lord, Jesus, and His holy Jewish Mother and all my Biblical heroes, the Big Fisherman, sweaty Peter and the bald headed, bandy legged enthusiastic Paul and John and Mary Magdalene as well as later pals, like Edith Stein, among so many others . It is, also, insulting to my Catholicism which declares such behavior to be overtly sinful. Certainly, my own instant rising to the challenge is not only my conscious Catholicism but also, I suppose, the unconscious awareness that had I been in Dachau in l938, I, too, could have ended up in the oven. Irish looking or not. Devout Catholic or not. I definitely have Jewish blood. I must wear the Star on my sleeve and declare myself as Juden.

As a kid, during the devastating economic depression, my father, mother, sister and I worked Jewish Hotels in the Jewish Alps (the Catskills) as the “Social staff.” We could get no other form of income. The Jews provided one. We sang, danced, did skits, juggled, and ran Bingo games for the old Jewish gals. We ate Kosher food in which case I would scandalize the good simple Jewish waiter (Emil, with the heavy Central European accent) when I insisted on having a glass of milk with meat. I have never forgotten the warmth and cordiality and these Jewish good times from my adolescent years.

Yet, the attraction can hardly be environmental when I recall that I was forbidden to meet my Jewish grandparents because I was a clearly defined Christian (even an altar boy).[1] I had little Jewish contact apart from the summer jobs. My name had been changed from Rosenbloom (my birth name) to Lloyd. I was brought up in a totally Christian, non-Jewish world. I was identified de facto as Gentile, not Jewish. How come this almost mystical feeling in me?

I even recall one of my Christian relatives, a good, simple, uneducated man, utterly without thinking, would shout “Ya Jew Bastard” at any one who would cut him off. The offending motorist could be black, yellow or brown, Catholic, atheist or animist. Somehow he had co-mingled an unarticulated anti-Semitism with low tolerance for conflict into this automatic epithet. Of course, he had easy access to similar putdowns for blacks, Poles, Italians and Puerto Ricans. If he had had any other ethnic makeup than his own, I am sure he would easily have been able to classify the Irish as Donkeys and Micks.

I, as a psychologist, am very much aware of identity formulation. Even my good friend and colleague, Dr. Arnie Zucker, who is very Jewish[2] and a psychiatrist, frequently sings into the ears of his twin grandchildren to solidify their Jewish identity. Believing that behavioral data, even at this early age, will be recorded deep in their young psyches, he sings them little ditties like: “Aren’t you glad that you are a little Jewish boy? Aren’t you glad you were not born a goy?” While some observers believe that the term “goy” is itself an ethnic putdown, nevertheless the process of identity is taking place.

I have probed my own identity formation and asked why do I feel so protective of things Jewish? Whence this kind of pride I feel in Jewish history? I personally revel in the knowledge that such a small percentage of the human race has made such incredible contributions to the world. While I cannot equate everything which is Jewish with the state of Israel, I am amazed how such a tiny country, outnumbered and besieged by hostile neighbors, has been able to give to the world so much of what makes life joyous and livable. I see the startling non-correlation between a small world Jewish population and their disproportionate representation in various fields. Out of a relatively tiny ethnic population comes a large percentage of Jews in professional fields like medicine, law, the arts, education, and certainly business.

How often I have heard the off-hand remark: “Go get yourself a good Jewish lawyer” meaning, I suppose that this would ensure a more pleasing outcome than if one hired a non-Jewish attorney. The compassionate human concern of the Jewish physician is legendary. The dominance of Jewish comedians has been obvious especially to me with my show biz background. How often have I enjoyed belly laughs with Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, Alan King, Henny Youngman, Uncle Miltie Berle, Don Rickles, Jackie Mason and on and on and on. Even within the world of sports, I enjoyed in my early youth the antics of Jewish boxers like Maxie Baer, Benny Leonard, and Slapsie Maxie Rosenbloom. I remember the great Hank Greenberg with the Detroit Tigers and the All-American running back, Marshall Goldberg, at the University of Pittsburgh. In effect, I am very aware that positive Jewish influence is very widespread, certainly in the history of the United States.

I find myself rooting for Israel and praying for her safety and success. I am nauseated by remarks such as the one made by the President of a European country that Israel is an insignificant “sh---y little country”. My reactions are as if I were fully Jewish and an Israeli. Why is this?

Some years ago when I was hosting a television interview show for WNBC in New York, my guest was Fr. Dr. John Oesterricher, the Founder and Director of the Institute for Judeo-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University. My concern and interest was to explore the identity of the Jew. He, a convert to Catholicism with a Germanic background, in response to my question “What is a Jew?”, spoke of “people.” He dismissed notions of race, nationality, religion and the like. We are a people, he said. He was a devoted and convinced Catholic priest but he was a Jew and always would be. To him the notion of people hood transcends other specifics. He did not believe that Judaism and Jewish-ness are co-terminous. Nor do I.

Yet, is there some kind of “spiritual” gene? Is there something in the spirit of people which is passed on to descendants? I , with wide eyed amazement, read Cahill’s carefully written “The Contribution of the Jews”. Clearly, God has chosen Jews to be His own people. I, as a Catholic, believe I incorporate the basic and, perhaps, inchoate Will of God as found in Biblical History. I understand and admire the deep loyalty to family and community which Jews have for their own People. Franz Werfel, Jewish, author and admirer of Catholicism described in his “Between Heaven and Earth” why he could not become a Catholic as much as he was so inclined. To leave his people in their hour of need and join the “other side” would be, in a sense, a betrayal. The “pull” for the People of God is enormously strong. I know it. I feel it. I am the anomaly. I am fiercely Catholic and consciously Jewish. And I like it even if I can’t really explain it.

[1] A situation which has been a source of deprivation and even resentment for me. I was never forbidden by my mother’s family, only my father’s. This can be explained by the experiences of my Jewish grandparents in Russia/Poland relative to the brutal pogroms.
[2] He sings as a Cantor in his own synagogue and is deeply involved in its activities. He sees his work at Iona and his friendship with me, at least partially, as a witness and spokesman for the Jewish world.