When My Jewish Family Didn’t Want Me Anymore

My family.

You are my family.

I didn’t realize that we were family when I first met you.  You came in clothes that felt like they had been bought in another time, in another place.  No one in my family dresses like that, I thought.

But then you told me that we were family.  You called me your brother.  You gave me this big bear hug and you told me I could come to your house whenever I wanted.  And for years, I chose not to.  Family or not, I hardly knew you.  I had a family, I didn’t need another one.  A larger one.  One filled with tribes and tribal markers and beliefs I didn’t buy into.

But you kept inviting me.  You told me, “My home is your home,” and you would remind me of everything happening there.

So finally one day I came.

And I never left.

Because as soon as I sat in that room with you, and we argued, I felt like I was arguing with family.  The kind of argument that isn’t just about the debate itself, but about deepening our relationship.  About something deeper than whatever we spoke about.  And indeed, I hardly remember the debate itself.

Instead, I remember the warmth.  The smiles.  The beer.  The way we stayed up all night.  The way we watched the sun rise together.

And I remember every week after that, the same experience.  The feeling of family.  The feeling I belonged.

And then you told me one day that it’s not easy to join a family.  I had to learn the rules of the family, spoken and unspoken.  I had to understand our history, how we lived our lives, who our ancestors were.  So you told me about another home, one that was located where our family had originated.  In the homeland, you told me. 

And off I went, to a country full of my family.  Almost everyone I saw, somehow related to me.  I had been to the country before, but to visit the only group of people I had defined as family before.  The small group.  Not the larger one, not the one that was made up of people from all over the world, with all different beliefs, with different languages and ways of thinking.  It was beautiful to suddenly reexperience our homeland in that way.  Our family’s home.

I moved into my new home, a school where different family members had taken it upon themselves to help the people who had rediscovered their family to learn all the things you had told me about.

And soon the they become you, and soon you were teaching me, because it is all you, you see?  You are my family.  You who taught me.  You who brought me in.  You who live in the homeland.

And you now, you reading this.

You taught me, and you educated me.  You cared for me.  You brought out the books that our forefathers had passed down to us, that they had received on a mountain by our Father, and you told me, “You cannot know yourself without knowing your family, and you cannot know your family without knowing the books that have sustained your family.”

And so I set about knowing, and you guided me, and you loved me.  We’d stay up late, just as you used to stay up late with me just as you did before you sent me off to visit you in the homeland.  You surrounded me with others like me, some further along, some just starting out, some not sure if they were really part of the family, but wanting to know more.  And then they became you, and soon you were all teaching me in your own way, and you all became family as well.  Of course, you always were.

The journey after that became one both beautiful and painful, for to learn about your family from books is not the same as to live with your family.  I moved in with you when I went back to my home, got married, and started living as you do.

By then, I had believed all the stories, and I had even started dressing a bit more like you, even though it scared me.  I started eating what you ate, and praying in the same way you taught me.

We moved back to the homeland when we realized we had more to learn.  We had a child there because you told me that in our family, the Father gives a purse to everyone who does so.  I worked for you.  And although I was haunted by my doubts about you, I kept going.

Soon, you invited me back to where it all started, back to an outpost that had been built during the long years our family had spent kicked out of our homeland.  It was prosperous, and it was beautiful, and it was chaotic, as any outpost will be.  One of our revered family elders had only recently passed away, but he made his mark felt so deeply that the people nearby had learned to dress like him, had read all he had written, and had become the part of the family that had originally brought me in and taught me.  A beautiful circle back, I thought, to the part of my family that cared so much about reminding those in our family to remember who they were.

And soon they became you, and now I was living with you, and I finally was truly experiencing what it meant to live with your family, not just as a visitor, but as a full-fledged member. 

And at first it was beautiful, just like all the other stages.  You stood with me as I had more children, as I worked with you more, as I started writing about you as well, giving my own contribution to our long history of sharing our family’s experiences in books and essays.

And it was around this time when things started to change.

You invited me to start building a wing to our home.  You told me, “Your experiences outside of this home have taught you things we could never learn.  Bring it.  You matter.”

So, I started building.  But then things I never expected happened.  You stole from me.  It took me a while to realize it, but in my first attempt to build with you, I realized that the stones weren’t being shipped, and that a lot of what we had built was actually just an operation to build bricks but where the money went to you instead.

Other things started falling apart.

You had so graciously invited me to live in part of your home, offering me rent that didn’t make us go broke and that was a good way for my family to grow.  It was beautiful.

But then we discovered that you didn’t tell us about the lead in the home.  We found out because of our daughter’s lead level in her blood.  When we raised a fuss, you did everything you could to get us to leave.  One day, that’s what we did, and we found another home.  Even then, you hurt us by refusing to follow through on giving us money you had owed us.  So the experience stayed with us.  Our family had cheated us.  Again.

I tried working with you again.  Again you stole money from me. 

I started to wonder about you.  You were my family.  But was there more about this family you hadn’t told me about?  When you hugged me and brought me in, you never told me that you might steal from me.  Or that you’d shrug in indifference when your home infected my daughter’s blood.  Or that you’d steal from me… again.

But still I kept on.  You reminded me that it’s not easy with family, especially a new one.  You want to idealize them, and that makes it all the harder, you told me.  Just keep at it, you said.  Find the family that empowers you, you said.

In fact, even as I lived among this part of my family that dressed like the elder, I started to discover other parts of our family history that you had never told me about.  But our family is so diverse and vast that it was not hard to find the other texts you had hidden away.

I got to know other elders.  Realized that their view of the family history and writing as vastly different than the ones you had taught me about.

I loved it.  All of it.  I drank it in like I had found an oasis in a desert, and I then looked up to find a paradise that existed right next to me all along.

I visited another house that had been built with some of those ideas in mind, right there in the same outpost.  Tucked away but here for longer than many of the others who called this place home.

I got that same feeling that I had had when I first visited you and you told me I was family.  Here it was, the part of the family that I felt truly part of.

And so they became you too.

But what I didn’t realize was that you were at war with yourself.  I had no idea how deep that went, and how bad family feuds can get.  When you first told me about family, you brought me chicken soup and deep ideas.  You didn’t mention the feuds. 

And soon, I was caught up in one.  Does it really matter what it was about?  If I told you that it was about a piece of string, would you believe me?  Well, of course you would: because you fought that war.

It was then that my relationship with you changed.  I started to put boundaries up.  I told you that I didn’t want to be called by the name you used when we first met.  You had betrayed me, you had treated me like trash over a piece of string, and if associating with that part of the family meant you would hurt me, then I wanted nothing to do with that side of the family.

And I wanted to make you become them.  But you were right about one thing: we were family, whether I liked it or not.  You were you, whether I liked it or not.

And so even though I didn’t go by the name you had tried to give me early on, and I had chosen my own, and I was connecting to others that had rejected the name but accepted the family, I couldn’t look away when you started doing things I had never imagined you doing when we had first met, when you had first hugged me, when I had first travelled to your homeland and lived with you and learned from you.

I had always known that you had seen yourself as especially beleaguered, from the horrific things our family experienced in Europe to the way our homeland was often seen by other families as the epitome of evil.  But I never thought it would lead you to fall into celebrating someone that actually truly was evil, and who had offered our family a few token promises as long as we promised to look away when he hurt and tortured others.

I could hardly take it watching my family do this, watching especially the parts of my family who had brought me in be his most enthusiastic fans.  I started to see your love of your family from a different lens: you loved your family so much that you stopped caring about other families. 

But I had spent my life around other families.  And I didn’t want to be part of a family that hurt others just to get what it wanted.

I tried telling you.  But you hated me for it.  It was as bad… no, worse… than our argument over the piece of string.  Maybe I had just gotten used to arguing with you.  But I told my wife that watching how you behaved when I spoke up, the way you even treated me like I didn’t belong anymore sometimes, that if it hadn’t been for the argument over the piece of string, I wouldn’t have known what I was getting into by speaking out against you, and I would have left.

I just couldn’t let the fact that we were family go.  If we weren’t family, why would I care?  What difference would it make?  I’d just go off and connect with others like I once did.  But we were family, we are family, and I could not let it go.  I didn’t want my family doing something that would hurt others and ultimately hurt themselves.

I could not help but feel hurt, though.  I had spent so long really buying into the idea that family sticks together, that family is love, that we were all siblings, that it was a shock to see how family can hurt us the most.  I had been living in a fantasy world, imagining a family that was functional and perfect, but that was only because of my own needs, because I had hoped I’d finally found my place after feeling alone for so long.  And while it was true that I had found my place, the fantasy I had built around us came crumbling down during this time until there was hardly anything left except the belief that one day, as our elders taught, we’d be united in harmony.  But until then, we were as fractured as our texts had told us we had always been.

That time was marked with loneliness, mainly.  I had broken off with you, but I had stayed connected.  Changing my name had no effect on how pained I was, it just made it easier to absorb your anger.

You didn’t realize, though, that you had given me gifts along the way, things parts of you might even end up regretting. 

A wife who believed in me, and who saw what I saw, and who promised to fight also, and who stood by me even when your venom was the strongest.  Without her, where would I be?

And soon, a new community.  A new family.  A family built around the others who felt similar to me.  They had similar stories.  And they also felt lonely.  So they became you, and suddenly I had discovered a branch of the family that cared just as much about fixing this disease we had been infected with, but who also needed others to help build them up.  Not everyone had a wife like mine.

And then, a voice.  A voice you had given me, dear family.  A belief in myself that didn’t truly exist until you told me, “Your experiences outside of this home have taught you things we could never learn.  Bring it.  You matter.”

All of these were thanks to you, dear family.  And it was because being part of a family is a reminder that we matter, that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and that we are responsible to more than those in our immediate vicinity.  So, these things came together, and I felt like I could tell you how I felt, and I would never stop even if you told me I didn’t belong.

Which, I suppose, is why I wasn’t surprised on the day you actually told me that.  The day you claimed I had made it all up, and that my branch of the family was really never part of the family to begin with.

It started with a rumor spread by a crazy uncle.  I mean, don’t most rumors get started that way?  An angry uncle who thinks he is the protector of the family’s reputation when he doesn’t realized that the hate he spews at meals and in public actually hurt the family’s reputation more than anything else could?  Yes, that sort of crazy uncle.

The problem is that when a family is fracturing, and members are taking sides, and some members are seen as endangering the family, they’ll do anything to protect their family and themselves.  But the problem is that for such family members, the “you” is deeply important.  The seeing of each other as family is how they live their lives and it’s how they know who to protect and fight for.

And so you looked at me, and after years and years of promising me I’d always be part of your family and bringing me in and feeding me and doing so much good and caring so deeply for me, you listened to the crazy uncle and you agreed that I was actually just an actor pretending to be part of the family.

Because when I was no longer part of your family, then you could attack me with confidence.  You could look at me as a “them” and you could claim I was just one of those people on the outside who attack as opposed to one of you who cares about you and is just as much a part of the family as anyone else.

I had seen you do this before.  You’ve done this to family members who themselves decided they wanted to leave.  Even though you’d go around talking to family members who had no connection to you, you’d treat the family members who had been hurt by you so deeply, abused and worse, as if they were outsiders.  You wanted them to leave because then you wouldn’t have to face up to the way they had been treated and accept your responsibility in their walking away.  And so you accepted their narrative because it suited you, even though it was the exact opposite of what you told people like me, that you can’t divorce a family, that even if you don’t talk, even if you don’t know, you’re part of the family, you always will be.  But these people: you were better off without their complaining.  So out they went, family members broken and pained, with no support and no love out to fend for themselves.  And you dared to then feel hurt when they were angry at you.

I had seen you do this to even the ones who wanted to stay.  People who broke some of the rules you believed in, like the ones who grew up with you but came out as gay.  Suddenly, many of them were no longer welcome home.  You were Tevye, walking away, refusing to love your daughter when she broke the things you deeply believed in.

And even as you did all this, you’d fight for the abusers in the family to stay.  The people who did indescribable things to children were suddenly people we had to remember were family.  People who had broken every single oath, the very essence of what it means to be family, you had fought for them to stay.  Why?

And so, as I saw how you used this same logic with me, I looked on unsurprised, and almost not even concerned or hurt, I thought back to how these other family members were treated.  And I realized another reason they had been angry, and why I had sometimes received their anger too.

Because as I tried to speak up about Crazy Uncle and his supporters, I looked around to see who expressed concern or wanted to remind me I was part of the family.  It was only you who had been with me in the fight.  Because you were in it with me now, you had also been told you weren’t part of the family.

But everyone else was silent.  Not agreeing, of course, but quiet.

So quiet.

Just as I had been when you had turned those who left into “them.”  And in so doing, their you had become them, and I had accepted your narrative.

And so, now I have a job, one that you first taught me, but which you could not live up to, and which perhaps, no one family can fully ever live up to.  And that is to remember that the other family members are also you, no matter what you or even they say.

And so you has to encompass us fully.  And it has to become we.  Us.

Because the only reason we can ever use the word “I” and “You” is because of a lie, a mystical illusion in which we imagine we can separate from each other.

You taught me this, didn’t you?

You and I, and all of the ones we call “them.” 

We are all family.

We are all one.

Welcome.