Portrait of an Outsider: Lamentations on Growing Up Jewish in the American Melting Pot

Jennifer D. Klein

For my mother, Sally Reba Vexler Klein (1940-2019)

Bring me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to be free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores

(inscribed on the Statue of Liberty)

The American melting pot has long been assumed a positive component to American culture; after all, what could be bad about a culture that allows people to come together from every corner of the world?  Only in the last few decades has it become acceptable to criticize the belief that people of varied ethnicities come to America to blend into some sort of goopy mass we can all be proud of.  I never liked the image of the melting pot; I always found myself puzzled by the conundrum of a blended culture where everyone got to follow their individual beliefs.  How could that even be possible?  As a child I could already tell there was a problem inherent to the concept–how could one country both blend cultures into one melting pot and still maintain and cherish the diversity of individual cultures?  And which was I expected to do, by my family, my peers, or my school?  This predicament permeated my childhood; on the one hand, I wanted to be able to celebrate what was unique and special about my Jewish upbringing.  On the other, like any kid in America or otherwise, I just wanted to fit in.

Sadly, I almost never did, especially when it came to “American holidays,” by which I mean predominantly Christian holidays.  As a friend put it once, the dominant narratives of America are Christian-based, no matter how inclusive our society tries to be.  As a Jewish kid growing up way to the intellectual left of mainstream America, holidays felt like they were about not measuring up.  Deck the halls and be merry?  Yeah, right.  While all the other kids in my school showed off piles of Christmas presents in December and stuffed their faces with chocolate each Easter, the holiday spirit was something I got to sit out and watch.  After all, who can compare the bland matzoh crackers and bitter herbs of Passover with the creamy, chocolaty delicacies of Easter?  Especially when you’re a kid, comparisons only make things worse.

My mother tried to help–and mind you, she really thought she was helping.  As is so often the case, however, reality turned out to be ironic.  The more my mother tried to make me feel included, the more I felt like an outsider.  I still remember bitterly the day she talked to my principal about the elementary school lunch menu in third grade.  Well meaning enough, my mother pointed out that the little Santa figures decorating December made me feel like I wasn’t a part of my community.  Mind you, I hadn’t consciously felt excluded until my mother put it that way.  I still have a strong visual memory of the lunch menu in question. I remember looking at October and wondering whether that meant they’d have to take off the jack ‘o lanterns, too, or the cute little bunnies around the sloppy joes and grilled cheese sandwiches of April, and I remember thinking it would be my fault if they did.

Mom did the same thing over lots of language uses: Christmas Break needed to be Winter Break, and Easter Holidays were Spring Break.  To my mom, I mean.  No one else seemed to care in that pre-PC era, though everyone got more careful when I was around.  Instead of making me feel protected and included, however, this attention to language made people uncomfortable.  Like whites hesitant to use the word “black,” my friends and teachers started pausing uncomfortably while they struggled to find the words that included me most.  Much as that should have been encouraging, what it did was make me feel like a leper.  The more the politically-correct movement grew, the more my feeling that I was being included because they had to grew as well.  I can recognize now that a good part of the problem was my own inferiority complex, but that still didn’t mean anyone really cared about the difference between wishing me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah.

Mom tried through a lot of means to make our holidays as exciting as Christmas and Easter seemed to be from an outsider’s perspective.  She always cooked great meals around the Jewish holidays, and we had no shortage of desserts.  However, my mom was famous for her belief that sugar requirements could generally be cut by at least half.  She was, and still is, a health-food nut, both the cause of my relatively healthful habits and of my mild obsession with junk foods like plastic-wrapped cheese slices and nacho cheese dips made of everything but cheese.  So while my friends followed Christmas by telling stories of sweet, rich, whipped-cream- laden desserts and chocolates, my sister and I had to satisfy ourselves with Mom’s under-sweetened St. Charles cherry cobbler, which I swear used to wrinkle the insides of our mouths and pucker us permanently, it was so sour.  She wasn’t particularly liberal with the vanilla ice cream either, so it provided small relief.  Don’t get me wrong; my mouth still waters when I remember that cobbler, but as a kid it just didn’t measure up to the sugary decadence of Christmas.

Mom actually brought an early version of the diversity movement to my schools, and however embarrassed I was at the time, I can’t help thinking she really did open some minds with what might now be called a “glocal experience” for my peers.  She brought an electric fryer to school at Hanukkah and made latkes for everyone; she taught the kids to play the dreydel game and lit the candles for my class every year until I reached adolecense and stopped letting her.  She told them about the light that burned for eight days, but anyone could tell that one eternal flame wasn’t as exciting as a shiny, sparkly Christmas tree.  She brought matzoh and charoset at Passover, told the stories of Moses and the exile from Egypt.  But no matter how much this was meant to make me feel like I was a part of things, like what I had to share mattered, it mostly did the opposite.  It felt like my differences were on display–and no kid likes that feeling.  Ironically, I heard from an old friend recently that my mom’s presentations made her wish she celebrated my holidays instead of her own.  But this is small consolation now, after such a long childhood cluttered with wishing I could run away and join a family that had a Christmas tree and believed in the Easter bunny.  Besides, my friends were wrong to think we got more presents than they did just because we had eight days of Hanukkah; at least in my family, the majority of the days were filled with practical gifts like socks, and we got one significant gift each year.  Not that I’m complaining–it just doesn’t stack up to your average American Christmas, where the quality of the holiday spirit seems to be measured by the number of presents under the tree.

The world outside of school and family didn’t help any of this in the slightest; if anything, popular American culture just reinforced the sensation that everyone else belonged to a club genetics didn’t allow me to join.  Splattered across television, billboards and every mall I entered, I saw what was cool, what was popular, and it sure wasn’t singing “Dreydel, dreydel, dreydel, I made it out of clay.”  Cool was getting everything you wanted for Christmas; cool was being able to relate even mildly to the slew of Santa, reindeer and drummer-boy movies my peers went on and on about.  Mind you, my sister and I weren’t even allowed to watch cartoons or network shows beyond PBS and “Little House on the Prairie,” so being able to relate to singing snowmen and joyful forest animals wasn’t likely anyhow.  But seasonal programs were so Christmas-oriented that it was completely impossible for us to enjoy them.  I only recently managed to see and appreciate the original cartoon of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and the only reason I enjoyed it was because I can see myself in the character now that I’m old enough to have a little perspective.  Seasonal programs in America are not designed for inclusion, but for entertaining the majority–so even if my great-grandparents were the “tired and poor” the Statue of Liberty welcomed to Ellis Island, I still wasn’t going to find anything I could relate to on tv during December, April, or any other month with a significant Christian holiday in it.

One year, Mom decided that instead of celebrating differences, she should try to make us feel like we fit in from within the structure of the Jewish holidays.  Among other things, I recall an attempt to make Passover feel more like Easter by buying us chocolate.  And the idea was a good one; after all, the main thing we coveted about Easter were the sweets.  Anyone could tell that the stories of slavery, plagues, exile from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea were quite a bit more interesting than the loose connection between Christ’s death and a giant bunny rabbit–really, it was all about the sugar.  And Israeli chocolate is to die for, while Passover is all about sparsity and sacrifice–it’s no wonder Easter looked so much better.  So Mom’s idea was a good one, but for some reason I think she figured it would be more “Jewish” somehow, more acceptable perhaps if she got candy with a less Easter-driven shape.  So my mom bought us giant Jewish star lollypops, made entirely of chocolate.  They had Hebrew writing in their centers, and were so big it took us almost a week to eat them.  Delicious?  Yes, certainly.  Embarrassing?  Let’s just say those lollipops didn’t come out after lunch at school, amid the eggs and rabbits everyone else had.  My sister and I nibbled away on those giant chocolate stars in the privacy of our home, and we made each other promise no one would find out about them.  So much for helping connect us with our peers.

I learned a lot from my mom, even if it took four decades for me to get it.  My mother grew up in a very Jewish community in 1930s and ’40s Boston, but was unable to practice Judaism to the degree she wished because she was a girl; for her, it was the finest gift she could give to educate her daughters in Judaism and try to make it a meaningful part of their lives.  But my sister and I grew up in a different era and a different world–we had few Jewish peers in our mostly-secular neighborhoods and schools, so what for my mom was celebration quickly became separation for us.  But she meant well, this I’ve realized, and she was right to try to help me find meaning in my cultural and genetic roots.  The bigger problem wasn’t Mom, it was the melting pot–it was the persistent American belief that adaptation and assimilation provide a reasonable, acceptable road to success.  No matter how good my mother’s intentions, or those of any parent trying to preserve family cultures and traditions in America, the melting pot makes it hard to appreciate what makes us different, especially when we’re young.

Ultimately, I think I got lucky.  It turned out to be ok to be different, and my identity as “the outsider” even became a badge of honor through various periods of my life.  I eventually found schools and communities where being a nonconformist was exactly why I fit in, communities where America was viewed as a giant salad which mixed but never blended its myriad ingredients.  I’ve even learned to smile when people wish me a Merry Christmas.  And if I still haven’t quite developed a full appreciation for Judaism or American holidays, at least I know that my mom contributes her part to the American salad, and that I contribute my own.

I like to think I’m the olives.

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