Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I used to argue with my mother when she tried to shove my Jewish heritage down my throat. She said "You're Jewish and there's nothing you can do to change that."

I said "I can be whatever I want to be. I don't believe in the Jewish religion. I don't want to live in Israel. I don't do any Jewish stuff. You can't tell me who I am. I'm whoever I want to be."

She said "That's not what the Nazis would think. They'd shove you in the oven with the rest of us."

I said "So you want to give the Nazis the power to define who I am? You think I should agree with them?" Truly, she needed to work on her sales pitch for the advantages of being a Jew.

I understand my Jewish identity a lot better now that I have a Christian identity to compare it to. For example, I only realized once I was well into attending church that my style of group worship was distinctly Jewish. Judaism is sort of about what you believe, but the group aspects of it are more about what you do. Dietary restrictions, lighting candles every Friday, and an endless number of other physical rituals. Last night I got together with my family for a Passover ceder. We don't always get along, but every year we sit around a table, read the Passover story aloud, eat matzah and other symbolic foods, and sing traditional songs in Hebrew. That's how we bond.

I wasn't prepared for the Christian focus on having correct beliefs. There are probably Jewish groups out there that care more than my family about believing certain things, but in my experience what you believe personally is not anyone's business and is a separate matter from one's Jewish identity. For example, I'm pretty sure that my father's mother is an atheist, and she doesn't keep kosher, but she's made it clear that she can never forgive me for being baptized. She doesn't care what I believe. I talk to her about how it's all about the primacy of love, and she waves me off with a flick of her hand. That's not important. I participated in a symbolic ritual with the other team, thereby aligning myself with the enemy, in her eyes.

You have to understand that for many Jews who lived through the time of the Holocaust, whether or not they were in Europe, the lines are very blurry between non-Jews, Christians, and Nazis. All goyim are equally suspected of anti-semitism. She hasn't said it in so many words, but it's almost like getting baptized was the equivalent of getting a swastika tattooed on my arm, from her point of view. I didn't anticipate that she would interpret it that way, and I'm sorry now that she feels so betrayed. I'm not sure what I would have done if I knew that she would be so traumatized.

Then there's Jewish Guilt. I grew up with so much of it that I didn't even notice it was there. It was like taking air for granted. I thought that because my family wasn't constantly laying clear, explicit guilt trips on each other, that we were exempt from the Jewish Guilt stereotype.

But now I see that my mother's side of my family lives and breathes guilt. It's the fabric of our relationships. Guilt is the currency of what my mother's family calls love. Which isn't really love, or at least is a very tainted version of it. A toxic, crazy-making, strangulating attachment. Which does contain affection, maybe 50% of the time. It works like this:

Relative A is feeling insecure about her place in the family. She wants to prove that she's important and cared for. How does she get attention and prove her worth? By generating guilt in the other family members. The more guilt she can elicit, the more status she feels that she has obtained. Although she'll never be satisfied, and she is never truly convinced of the "love", because she knows she's just manipulating people to obtain a desired outcome. There's no room for sincere, heartfelt, spontaneous love in that equation.

(I say "she" because that side of my family consists mainly of women.)

How does Relative A try to stir up guilt? There are various accepted strategies. 1) She can point to the various obligations that the family has jointly determined are the standard for proper behaviour, such as hosting family gatherings, spending time talking on the phone with one another, and gift-giving. If another family member has not fulfilled their obligations, or needs to be reminded of their obligations before fulfilling them grudgingly, this is prime guilt-generating fuel.

2) Pity, sympathy, and guilt are merged concepts in my mother's family. The female members compete to be the most miserable in order to win attention and make the others feel guilty for not supporting them enough. However, because it is a competition, the players all try to downplay each others' problems so that they can come out on top. And because it's a passive-aggressive playing field, no one can openly come out and say "that's nothing - you should hear what problems I have!" They have to be sneaky about it. It gets very complicated.

I'm realizing now that I've lived and breathed guilt like fish breathe water for most of my life. Which is kind of horrifying, but at least I've figured it out so that I can start to make some different choices.

How it was: I felt guilty for existing when I was a kid, because my mom made it clear that I was a burden to her. I felt guilty when I couldn't make my parents happy, because in my family it's not each person's responsibility to create their own happiness. We're all responsible for each other so that we can all blame each other for being miserable and feed the guilt cycle. I felt guilty when I was happy, because how could I be happy when other people who I was responsible for weren't happy?

In other words, I felt guilty all the time. If there was nothing immediate to feel guilty about, I'd feel guilty for not feeling guilty, because how irresponsible is that?

I'm not sure exactly what the alchemy was that allowed me to finally snap out of it, but it's pretty awesome to be able to just take one step back from all the madness and see my whole world change.


Kate said...

I feel like I grew up in your home with those last couple paragraphs. Guilt or - as my therapist makes me say - SHAME - was/is/has been the basis of my identity for so long, that I still have trouble recognizing it for what it is. I'm working on it. You too!

Warped Mind of Ron said...

Glad you are attempting to break the cycle. Guilt is that tool where you only feel better by knocking the next person down and then they do the same with others. Before long everyone is miserable. I find it odd how some people get hung up on the label of Religion you choose when what's really important is the person you are and what you do with that.

Jameil said...

What a stressful way to grow up! I'm so glad you now recognize it and are working to get from under it!!

Anonymous said...

Remember, family is just a bunch of people you are forced to spend time with. Doesn't mean they can't be assholes sometimes. In public, you'll meet the occasional asshole. Somewhere, that asshole has a family. Sometimes, it's your own family.

Jenski said...

What a weight you must have lifted (or are still pushing off) yourself. I hope this realization helps manage family get-togethers too. Happy Passover.

Ily said...

Much of what you've addressed in this post hits home. You've made me think about guilt this morning and how some people use it (even in a passive-aggressive way) to try to control others. I have a Relative A, too...a AND b.

It's good to know that you can sit back and figure it all out without going crazy, and write about it without feeling guilty.

I'm sure your decision wasn't made over night; you've done the research and felt you've chosen a belief that makes sense to you, that speaks to your heart. I admire you for that.

A beautiful post, my friend. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and Happy Easter!! :)

Sparkling Red said...

Kate: I haven't seen you write about your childhood on your blog, so it's interesting to hear that you grew up in a similar environment. It's tough to shake, isn't it!

Ron: That is so well put. What you call yourself doesn't matter - it's all about what you do that proves what kind of person you are.

Jameil: Yup, it was stressful alright. The upside is that plain old normal life seems like heaven compared to the daily hell I used to live in with my parents. It made me into a more grateful person.

WIGSF: Family are the people you can't get rid of, even when you want to. At least I enjoy my mom's family around 50% of the time, which is a better percentage than some people have.

Jenski: Thanks! It does help. I have to keep reminding myself of my new resolution, but it will sink in eventually.

Ily: I'm glad that you found my post thought-provoking. I have heard "therapy" described as any process which makes the unconscious conscious, so that we can make different choices. I don't think we need a professional therapist to do that. We just need each other and honesty.

DarcsFalcon said...

Guilt is a terrible time waster. I must be weird because I don't seem to feel guilt for things - unless you know, I'm really guilty. I didn't grow up Jewish or Catholic so maybe that has something to do with it? Baptists didn't seem to be big in trying to induce false guilt, at least not in my experience. That's something to be grateful for at least! LOL It's good not to have it, so good for you for ditching it. :)

Dianne said...

I grew up Roman Catholic but spent much of my time with my Jewish Nana

for me there were few differences in the daily-ness of either religion - rules and judgements where what I learned

what I did adore was learning the traditions of Russia and the foods and the music and the stories

but my Nana was exceptional in that she accepted everyone

I have always felt that organized religion does a lot to fragment people, I think to make them easier to control

Nana used to say that guilt started with the church/synagogue and was then perfected at home

Ily said...

Happy Easter, my friend!! :)