Last night, I was exchanging numbers with a regular at karaoke, someone I liked in a peripheral, see them frequently-at-work-and-they-seem-pretty-cool way and she was offering me what sounded like a dream job. When she was putting my last name into her phone, she said, “Sneider, wait, are you a fucking Jew?” to which I said, “Well, sorta. My grandmother was Jewish.” She then made a succession of anti-Semitic comments while typing my number into her phone. I was too dumbfounded to respond, so I just excused myself and walked away.
Last year I did some genealogical research into the forgotten Jewish side of my family. In this timeline, they moved to the US from the Ukraine (then Russia) to escape religious persecution. They worked their asses off, had a ton of kids, one being my grandmother, a woman who died when my dad was seventeen. She married a Catholic dude, my grandfather, the man responsible for the Jewish-sounding last name, and was disowned from her family. The story ends here. She died in her forties of a heart attack, heavily medicated and schizophrenic. There was a fight for the body and she was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens, likely the one down the street from my old apartment on the Bushwick border. Last year, I found the other half of my family in the late-late hours when I am too keyed up from working raccoon hours to go to bed. The living family members I met have art galleries and do real estate and wear gorgeous hats with feathers that you can only pull off if you are the type of old lady who smokes long cigarettes and doesn’t give a fuck. It made sense. This was how it was supposed to be. Instead, I am of the branch with the uncle who died of a heroin overdose, the aunt who used to lock her kids in the closet, and the cousin who tried to sue me when my first book came out. Somebody screwed up the blueprint.
The phrase, “Are you Jewish?” never seems to be followed up with, “Oh, cool. Because we’re playing kickball and we need another Jew for the Jewish team,” or, “Great! We’re coming up on the 100-year anniversary of the Pogroms, so everybody gets a Visa giftcard.” About five years ago on the subway, a very old Hasidic man asked if I was Jewish and I responded the same was I did at karaoke last night: Well, not really. Sorta. My grandmother was. He grabbed my head and tried to ram his tongue down my throat. I pulled away and hit him, but his gross, old tongue grazed the side of my face and he ran off the subway before I could do anything about it. Another time, two younger Hasidic guys were giving out Mitzvahs, so I let them do the thing where you hold a stick and an unripe lemon and chant together. I figured they were kind of like the Greenpeace guys with clipboards in Union Square, just trying to fill a quota of Mitzvahs for the greater good. I didn’t really have anything to do anyway. I also secretly hoped that it would give me unstoppable good luck and I’d be able to shoot Stars of David from my fingertips to melt those little gold chocolate coins onto s’mores. Instead, my train was delayed, I got into a fight with my boyfriend, and the show I hosted that night was a train wreck. It took a week for the Mitzvah to wear off.
Despite the weirdness in my genealogy, the disownings and the mental illness, I am proud of who and where I come from. It is not easy to pick up and start a new life in another place, especially when my grandmother’s family came to America. It is also not easy to make a decision that leaves you without the support of a family, as my grandmother did. Regardless of what the outcome has been, these are brave choices. I have never been discriminated against on the basis of religion, or, more accurately, family background. Being a woman, sure: I’ve been paid comparatively low wages, had my boob grabbed by a boss, and been given unwanted backrubs. Being a weirdo, okay: I’ve had cars of teenagers throw things at me from moving cars, had strangers give their unwanted opinions on my tattoos, and not been taken seriously because my hair was pink or blue or neon yellow. Last night was a taste of ignorance that I am going to have to sit on for a while, and hopefully the sand that is under my ribs right now will turn into something that doesn’t sting so much.