Next Year Nowhere

So, last week, I was a legal observer at a civil disobedience event. Two union locals are locked in ugly contract talks with the university and they wanted to make a point about their solidarity, so they arranged with the local police to arrest anyone who wanted to be arrested. About 700 people volunteered; the police dutifully arrested them all, handed them the civil disobedience equivalent of parking tickets (since the protest involved blocking an intersection, this approach was oddly appropriate), and wished them good luck in their negotiations. You know, it's a union town.

One interesting feature of the protest is that the rally beforehand was held on the town green, which is privately owned. Usually, private ownership of "public" space means trouble, because the rent-a-cops who lock down these spaces don't answer to the same Bill of Rights as their government-issue counterparts. But in this case, the green is overseen by a trust whose members are more in sympathy with the unions than with management. As a result, they sometimes approve events the town wishes they'd turn down and they provide a limited degree of sanctuary for people who want to express their grievances with the university. You know, it's a union town.

Anyway, at this rally, I was doing my absolute best not to get arrested, since being arrested cuts down your credibility as a legal observer. Of course, I wasn't really needed as an observer, first because the police were so down with the whole union solidarity thing, and second because the streets were lined with other folks there to show additional solidarity of the not-being-arrested kind. So my role was really mostly limited to wearing my "Legal Observer" T-shirt and giving people who asked the phone number of an organizer.

So there I am, participating in the lining and the solidarity and the not-getting-arrested and the hey hey, when the Lubavitchers roll up.

Usual note up front: if you don't recognize a noun, Google it.

As I was saying, the Lubavitchers roll up, in their suits and other trappings of ultra-orthodoxy, and start going up and down the lines of people on each side of the street. It's Sukkos, so they're carrying palm trees and esrogs, which make for decent conversation starters. If the exotic foliage and obscure fruit don't work, they drop back to the more prosaic but direct technique of staring you full in the face and asking "are you Jewish?" I notice that they don't ask this question of the schvartzes.

One of them, a bit shorter than me and disturbingly serious of mien pops me the question. I don't hesitate at all in saying "no." He walks on, and only later do I realize what I've said.

I didn't fast on Yom Kippur this year, for the first time since I achieved my majority. I didn't have a big meal with apples and honey for the new year; I didn't even think about going to services. This time last year, I was more actively Jewish than ever before in my life; this year nothing.

It's always been cultural. I'm not religious in any meaningful sense; I'm probably your classic unbeliever. My mother has told me that the only kind of book that I showed utterly no interest in as a child was Bible stories. I get uncomfortable around displays of religious enthusiasm; I feel distinctly out of place in houses of worship.

Still, of all the faiths of which I am not a member, Judaism has always been the faith of which I would be a member, were it not for the whole atheism thing. I have enough Jews in my family that the Nazis would have come for me; the Jewish calendar has always been a steady background hum in my life. As I've said, call it cultural. Being a self-identified urban New York intellectual has a certain resonance with modern American Judaism; I have a sense of solidarity with other Jews, a sense that when pressed, I'd line up on their side for the game of kickball. Besides, some of my best friends are Jewish.

You turn to such things in times of trouble, perhaps. After last September, I didn't find faith -- if anything, I recoiled from what faith led people to do -- but I did grab tighter hold of that sense of community. My housemates at the time helped, Sam Sr. -- that remarkable, imperious, generous, manipulative, brilliant contradiction of a man and source of endless surprises of Jewish lore -- in particular. And the symbolism of the holidays spoke to me, too: I wasn't about to pray as part of my atonement, but I could see that atonement was something I and the world desparately needed. I didn't carry around an esrog, but I wouldn't have lied to someone who did.

No more. If, as I've thought, the only true basis of my Jewish self-identification was cultural solidarity, the events of the last year have utterly wrecked my sense of solidarity. Blame Sharon, blame the people who keep him in power, blame all the Israeli Jews who've closed ranks to protect a specifically Jewish national identity, blame the American Jews who'd rather shut down civilized discourse than countenance criticism of the barbarity their cultural solidarity would excuse. This was never what I meant by thinking of myself as a Jew, but the concept is polluted now, and it's not one I'm in any position to reclaim.

Don't get me wrong. I hate what the Palestinians have been doing, too. The whole of the Holy Land is filled with people acting in bad faith and with murderous motives. Suicide bombing is as wholly unacceptable as the murderous reprisals it incites. But I am not and have never been a Palestinian; there is nothing there for me to renounce or walk away from. Somewhere in the last year, I left my Jewish identity on the floor of a large and empty room, a room I am not certain I could ever find again.

It's kind of funny; I went through a phase of mild guilt over being blond and blue-eyed. It resonated with me that people who looked like me had done horrible things in the name of looking like that. But my body's been fixing that one; my hair is darkening with age. Cultural identity works the same way, perhaps: at some point when I wasn't paying attention, I gave up on Judaism and started seeking my community elsewhere. It wasn't something I decided about; it just happened. It's in the nature of such things that this fact makes the decision truer, I think.

This month, when people wished me a happy new year, I didn't admit to them that I'd forgotten it was that time of year again. Something died and disappeared, and it wasn't until I said that it didn't live here any more that I even thought about its absence. I know that the loss of a vauge and ill-defined sense of cultural adherence to a religious tradition is hardly to be counted among the the tragedies of this last year, but I feel the loss nonetheless.

Next year nowhere.