Gerry Fierst is someone who would describe himself as “spiritual”, but he also says: “I also love the ritual of religion which connects us to all who have gone before and all who will come long after we are gone.” Especially as Gerry got older, he realized der pintele yid lived inside of him as he could hear the words of his ancestors and pass the tradition of the blowing of the shofar on to his children.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:Why-Am-I-A-Jew
How important is it to you to have a conscious spiritual life?
How important is it to you to express your spirituality in a religious community?
What do you know about the great diversity of expression and experience within Judaism?
An article about being culturally Jewish: http://circle.org/cultural-jews-release
In Every Tongue: The Racial & Ethnic Diversity of the Jewish People by Diane Tobin
Family and Childhood
So why am I a Jew? Why do I identify myself as a Jewish American instead of a Nothing American? Especially when somebody asks me if I believe in God and I hesitate. God? War, famine, genocide. Why would God create such a world?
And then, and then I hear the blowing of the ram’s horn. In the week between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, the period is called The Days of Awe. The story goes that the Gates of Heaven open. And in that week, you’re supposed to repay your debts. You’re supposed to ask anyone you’ve harmed for forgiveness. And you’re supposed to look inside your own self, at your own failings. And you are supposed to restore yourself with prayer and with fasting. And then at the end of the week, you have Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement. All day long, you fast and you pray. And God, who has taken down the Book of Life, writes your fate in that book and then puts it back up on the shelf. And then at the end of that day, that day, which I used to hate as a little boy because you had to admit to all the petty jealousies and all the resentments that are just normal to everybody.
At the end of that day, the ram’s horn is blown. A great bony, curly thing. It’s sound is the sound of the ages. It’s the sound of Moses coming down the mountain, the sound of the children of Israel leaving Egypt. It’s the sound of Abraham, the father of all three of our religions.
I used to thrill to hear that sound. Then, as the sound of the horn vibrated through my body, I would realize that the Gates of Heaven were closing. And quickly, I would mumble, “Forgive me, God.” And the new year would begin. And we would go home. And we would break the fast with a wonderful meal that my mother had prepared. Smoked fish, lox, bagels, white fish, herring. And we would have apples and honey for good luck. My mother would always say, “May we all be here again next year.”
Well, there’s no stopping time. My mother died six years ago. I had just come back from out-of-town, and the phone rang. My mother had collapsed. She had fallen to the floor saying, “Bye, bye world.” My son and I rushed to her bedside. “Mama, Mama, I’m here.”
She opened her eyes. And she reached up and touched me on the cheek. And then she fell back against her pillow, and never awoke again. At the end of the day, when I went home, exhausted from the emotions and the duties of death, I threw myself into bed but I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and I turned. And then, suddenly, the whole room went cold. I couldn’t move. My arms and my legs were heavy. I couldn’t breathe. And I realized my mother was in the room. She couldn’t leave. “It’s ok, Mommy. We’ll be all right. It’s okay.” And I felt all the energy flowing out of the room like a current of water. Was it a dream? Did I imagine it? I lay there, and then I heard the creaking of the door to the attic in the hallway. The wind had blown it open, and I went to close it. And when I got to the hall, the door was there – open. The stairs went up, and at the top of the stairs, a light.
The Jews don’t believe in heaven. When we die, our body goes back to dust. But where does the life force go? What happens to the energy? When I was a little boy, I asked my mother, “What happens when someone dies?” And she said, “A little bit of us goes to everyone we love.”
When New Year comes, I go to synagogue with my friend, Annie. We go to the Yizkor service, the memorial for the dead. And then we wait until the ram’s horn is blown. There’s an expression in Yiddish, di pintele yid, the spark of a Jew. I’m not an observant Jew. I don’t keep all 613 commandments. But the spark that my parents put inside of me, it lives. And as best I can, I try to retain the heart of my tradition.
Growing up in New York City, Gerry never understood that Jews were such a small percentage of the world’s population. In his neighborhood, one could go for blocks and blocks and never meet anyone who wasn’t Jewish. But when Gerry went to visit cousins who had retired to Albuquerque, he discovered that “we all look alike when we are the other.”
Did you grow up in a neighborhood of people who were very similar to you? What are the advantages and disadvantages of growing up in homogenous communities?
Why did the police officer not see that Gerry and his cousin looked very different from each other? How is it that we can look but not really see a person?
A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson
Anti-Semitism in America by Harold E. Quinley and Charles Y. Glock
Stereotypes and Discrimination
I think of myself as an American. But every so often, I discover that I’m still the “other.” And I’m always shocked by that discovery.
I was visiting with my cousins in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I’d worked in the local school, and I got home mid-afternoon to find that my cousins had gone out, and locked the door. Well, I knew where the key to the side door was hidden. So, I went, and I got it, and I opened it up, and there was a chain on the door. I looked around. I found a wire hanger in the trash. I straightened it out. I was so smart. I reached in, and I jimmied the chain, and opened the door. I had broken in. I went, and I changed out of my business suit. And I went, and I got iced tea.
And I sat down in the kitchen, cooling off from the desert heat when I saw a police cap moving across the high window over the kitchen sink. The neighbors had called the police. They’d seen me breaking in. I got up. I went to the front door even before the policeman rang the bell. I opened the door, and he jumped three feet.
“You live here?”
I tried to reassure him. “Uh, no, it’s, it’s my cousins’ house. I’m just visiting.”
“You got I.D.”
“Yeah, sure. But I took off my clothes. I left my pants in the bedroom and I’ll go get my wallet.”
“Well, I’ll follow you,” he said. And so, he walked in behind me, and down the hall, where the family pictures were up on the wall.
“Hey, is that you?”
He pointed at the 13-year-old cousin, who was having his bar mitzvah. Red hair, long face, hooked nose, prayer shawl, kippah.
“No,” I said. “That’s my cousin.”
He looked at my face. He looked at my cousin’s face.
“You look just like him. Hey, you don’t need I.D. You’re Okay.”
And the officer turned and left the house. And I knew, that to him, we all look alike. We all look like the
Growing up in his New York City Jewish neighborhood was a world of homogeneity for Gerry. But an occasional intrusion of “alien nuns” could be truly scary to a young child unfamiliar with other religions.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: The-Nuns
Have you ever reacted with the same kind of fear that Gerry and his friends had when they saw nuns? What could the adults have done to help the children understand who the nuns were?
What allows someone to react with curiosity rather than fear to someone or something that is different?
Does every group have prejudices and biases? Does being discriminated or misunderstood yourself lead to your being more open-minded about others?
Catholic and Jews in Twentieth-Century America by Egal Feldman
Stereotypes and Discrimination
History leaves us all with prejudices. For 2000 years, the Jews have been chased from country to country. They’ve always been the “other.”
“Well, my family, they fled Russia about a hundred years ago. The Czar of Russia had encouraged his subjects and his soldiers to kill Jews. One day, the Cossacks, the Czar’s horsemen, were riding into my little village the Zubkova.
My cousin heard the horse’s hooves in the street, and she ran out to get the children inside. But she wasn’t quick enough. There was the Cossack, sword drawn, coming down the street. She threw herself on the baby, and the sharp blade came down, right across her back.
And that night, my grandmother said, “Enough! We’re going to America!”
And so, we came to America, where we could be safe, where we could live with other Jews. But memories like that, they don’t go away. They’re in our culture. They’re inside our genes.
One day, when I was about five years old, I was sitting on the steps. My sister and my cousin were with me. We were playing, when suddenly I saw them. I’d never seen anything like that before, but I, I knew that they were dangerous. I knew it, in my DNA.
They were big, and they were black. And they seemed to be flying down the street, with big white wings that came out of their head. My sister, my cousin, they saw the look on my face. And then they looked, and then we three were all frozen in fear, as the monsters came, closer and closer.
“Where they going to kidnap us? Or maybe even worse?”
They reached us. They started to reach out their hands towards us.
“Good morning, children.”
Aah, aah, aah, aah, aah! And we ran inside. Escaping from the nuns.
Featuring Storytellers Arif Choudhury, Gerald Fierst and Susan O’Halloran
Through exploring misconceptions and common threads such as immigration and disagreements within their own religions, these three tellers bring alive their distinct histories and our common humanity to illuminate the experience of being an American in a time of religious tension, change and possibility.
What were you taught about other faith traditions? Were you given accurate information or misinformation?
What groups do you identify with? Do you ever feel as though you don’t fit in in your own group?
Why do people condemn, fear or stereotype people from different religions?
Is there a religion you’d like to learn more about? What similarities between the major world religions might surprise you?
Religious Tolerance and World Religions by Jacob Neusner and Bruce Chilton
Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
More alike than not. When the three of us started working together, Gerry, Arif and me, Susan, one thing we discovered, over and over again – we are so different. For instance, man, woman, black hair, red hair, less hair, brown skin, white skin, raised Muslim, raised Catholic, raised Jewish, white collar.
My father was a doctor. My father was a doctor too. Now my family, blue collar workers, mostly manual laborers, but we did have one teacher. Big family, small family, medium family. Ah huh, younger. Okay, older. But Gerry and I, we like to exercise every day and we eat healthy. Huh, and I consider potato chips a vegetable. So, you can see, we’re really different.
In fact, sometimes the three of us would look each other and we’d say we’re so different. How could we ever be friends? But then we kept working on our show. We started discovering how similar we were, for instance, how all-American our upbringings really were.
All of our families celebrated the Fourth of July. How more American than that can you be? Yeah. We celebrated Fourth of July and we had a barbecue – tandoori chicken! Ha, ha!
Food seemed to be the common element for all of our holidays. For instance, on Thanksgiving, my grandmother would always make her prized, lime green Jell-O mold with those little miniature marshmallows suspended mid-mold.
Yes. And my family for Thanksgiving, amongst all the other foods, we also had Jell-O mold but we used the recipe from Julia Child with Grand Marnier.
Now see my working class, beer and peanuts family, we would not know what Grand Marnier, I can’t even say it, Grand Marnier liqueur was. Ha, ha, ha! And in my Muslim family, we didn’t even drink alcohol so I don’t even know what a liqueur really is.
And all of our families were baseball fanatics. My teams were the New York Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers. And Arif and I, we’re Chicago kids so we are waitin’ for the Chicago Cubs to win the World Series. Go Cubs! Oh, and that’s a real definition of faith!
Yeah, but then we kept talking about our faith traditions. We came to one major similarity – that we all pray to one God. And it’s the same God, the God who spoke to Abraham.
And in all of our religions, at one time or another, the women covered their hair as a sign of respect and dedication, devotion. And in Judaism, the men also wear a skullcap when they pray and when they’re indoors.
Yeah. Muslim men often cover their hair for prayer as well. And in all our faiths, we learned another language to practice our faith tradition. I had to learn Arabic to read the holy book, the Koran, and I learned Latin and I learned Hebrew. And we all have religious leaders. For Muslims, it’s called the imam.
Now Catholicism, there’s the priest, the bishops, the cardinal and then the pope. The Jews have a rabbi. Similarity though, in our religions most of the top leaders are men. Ha, ha, ha. And then sometimes we discover somp’in’ that really surprises. For instance, Catholics, we believe in the virgin birth of Jesus and so do Muslims. And, see, we didn’t know that.
But all of our religions have times for prayer and for fasting. I remember when I was a little kid, on Yom Kippur, we’d spend the whole day praying and fasting. Uh, All I wanted to do was to go home and eat.
Ha, ha, ha. For me as a Muslim, as a kid fasting, then sleep deprivation, every day for the 29 or 30 days of the holy month of Ramadan, I’d wake up before sunup to eat an entire medium cheese pizza and half of two liters of Diet Coke. So, I go that day from sunup to sundown with no food or drink.
And say the thing about how you sometimes you get stuck out traveling, you still have to pray when you’re on the road. Right. Practicing Muslims pray five times a day no matter where you are. So, a few years back my uncle and I were driving on a rural highway in Illinois heading up toward Chicago. The sun was coming down, was time for Maghrib prayer. So, my uncle pulled the car into the gas station. We took our shoes and socks off, threw our coats on the grass nearby as prayer rugs and we bowed facing east to the holy city of Mecca. Just a few feet away from the gas pumps and the highway.
Now prayer for us meant all 12,000 of us parishioners of St. Thomas Moore Parish going to one of the many Sunday masses. I used to go with my grandma and she’d always bring her crystal rosary. And sometimes the sun would stream into the stained-glass windows, hit that rosary and spray rainbows up and down the pews. I thought my grandmother’s rosary was made of magic diamonds.
As we were learning about all our faith traditions and the different facets and elements of our faith practices, we were showing all these flip charts and all the categories and the yellow sticky notes were posted with different pieces of each of our faiths. And the more that we looked at all those little slips of paper and the more we told the stories behind all those little yellow slips, the more we realized that really, we were more alike than different even though our families came from very different parts of the world.
My family came from New York City. I grew up in Brooklyn, in a little neighborhood called Borough Park. Borough Park could have been called Sholahova, which was the name of the little shtetl town or Jewish town that my family had come from. The avenue of Borough Park was lined with all the old Jewish merchants – the pickle man, the poultryman, the kosher butcher, the shoemaker, the baker – everybody was Jewish. I didn’t even know that the whole world wasn’t Jewish until I went to public school.
I lived in a house with my great-grandmother, my grandfather, my great aunt Tillie, my great-uncle Sam, my aunt Alice, my uncle Sidney, my cousin Jenny, my mother, my father, my sister and me. Next door were my cousins, down the street were more cousins. The doors were always open. Everybody came in and out all day.
My first crib was a dresser drawer. That way whoever was in the house could take me up and down the stairs and whoever was staying there would watch me. Every month, the whole family came to our house for the family meeting and we discussed whatever problems anybody had. Did they need a job? Did they need a loan to start a business? Do they need to get married? Whatever problem you had, the family would help. And that ethic went out into the big world. When we were very little, my great-grandmother, she would give us a dollar bill and she would say, “Go get milk and butter but I don’t want you to go to the big store. I want you to go to the little man. If we don’t help the little man, who will.”
Nowadays, well, the family still gathers. We celebrate holidays and life passages. And if we ever need help, we turn to each other and we know that there will always be help out there because if we don’t help each other, who will.
Now I grew up in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. My neighborhood was only 90 percent Irish when my grandparents came from Ireland to Chicago. They moved to an inner-city neighborhood of Chicago in the early 1900s that was just about 100 percent Irish. And coming from another land, they must have felt some comfort in being in a city that had politicians with names like Kennelly and Kelly and Daley. Now many years later in the 1950s, I was born and when I was 10 months old, my parents took us out of that mostly 100 percent Irish type neighborhood and moved us to a new development on the outskirts of the city.
They felt like pioneers. There were no streets, no sidewalks. We didn’t get mail delivered. And suddenly, they had new neighbors, some of whom had names such as English names or German names or Italian names. Now to my grandparents, this was a very dangerous situation because mixed neighborhoods could lead to… mixed marriages. And, sure enough, in high school didn’t I go and date a boy named Jim Worpinski. A Polish boy. This was interracial dating back then. Now we may have been many different kinds of white ethnic groups but the thing that held us together is that neighborhood was 99 percent Catholic. If someone asked you were… where you were from, you would say your parish on the southwest side of Chicago. I would say, “St. Thomas Moore.” I didn’t know that the official city name for my neighborhood was Wrightwood ‘til I was about 20 years old. Someone asked me where I’s from, I said Tommy Moore because we’re on a nickname basis with our St. And it did feel like ours. It was our St. Our neighborhood, our city.
When I heard Gerry talking about Borough Park, I realized that he and I have something in common. I also grew up in a Jewish neighborhood except I wasn’t Jewish. And when I hear Gerry and Sue talk about growing up in their ethnic and religious enclaves, I realize how different my story really is because I grew up in a suburb of Chicago as the only Muslim boy… as the only Bangladeshi boy.
My parents came to America from a country called Bangladesh, a small country just between India and Myanmar. My father first came to America because he wanted to study medicine. And then he hoped to go back to Bangladesh when it would be safe for him to have economic and educational opportunities there. But his father, my grandfather, told him to stay in America because there might be civil war brewing. At the time, Bangladesh was called East Pakistan and it might be war between East Pakistan and Pakistan for Bengali freedom. So, my father stayed in America, made money, sent it back home to the family where my mother’s family lived through the war. One of her cousins were… disappeared. The Pakistani army came and took him away. They never saw him again.
But later my father returned to marry my mother and they came and settled in Chicago where my dad, my dad got a job as a neurologist at Veterans Hospitals and we lived in this one high-rise, apartment building, because three other Bangladeshi families lived in that building too. So that was kind of our ethnic enclave. My mom and dad wanted to live there because they could share their language and their customs and their shared history and their shared loss from the war with those other families. But then one day, my dad decided to move away and buy a house in Northbrook. Now when I was living in that high-rise apartment, every morning our fathers would go off to work and our Bangladeshi mothers would gather those kids together and they would spend the day and they would trade each other’s specialty, Bengali recipes like chicken korma or roshgulla, a nice dessert. But they also taught each other new American recipes that they were learning from box tops and the sides of ingredients boxes like spaghetti with meatballs or macaroni with cheese or tuna fish sandwiches. And the other kids and I would watch Sesame Street or Electric Company.
But then we moved to Northbrook and then we were isolated from those families. Those families became my surrogate aunties and cousins and… to us. And now I didn’t see them very often, only on Saturdays at parties. And I lived in this… big house with my younger sister and my mom. And my sister and I played out… indoors quite a bit. I didn’t play outside with the other white kids. They all seemed older and they seemed to know each other. They had all gone to preschool together. I didn’t go to preschool with them so I didn’t play with them and I was afraid of being different. There was always constant reminders in our house about how different we were. There was patriotic Bengali music on the record player and each house had a… each room in the house had these woodcuts of balishi vistas, rural fishermen fishing and farmers farming. When I, later, got older and had white friends and I went to their houses, they didn’t have any of that stuff so I didn’t want to be different. But I was and I came to accept it. My parents had always thought that we would eventually go back to Bangladesh once my father was settled and had more opportunity there but that never materialized. And it was a young country with a lot of political turmoil. And then I was born and my sister was born. And my, my younger brother was born and my parents decided that kids are American. Let’s stay in America.
So, we wanted to share some of our stories with you today from our longer piece as long as everybody keeps in mind that nobody can speak for his or her group. I can’t speak for all Catholics, which certainly means I can’t speak for all Christians and I can’t speak for all Jews. And I can’t speak for all Muslims. These stories are just part of who we are.