Or, how I went to New Mexico in search of my Native American ancestors and found my Jewish grandmother.
I recently returned from a trip to New Mexico for school. We have these small conferences called “Intensives” where we travel to a locale and have guest speakers, planned activities, and faculty help us explore a topic. It was quite an experience.
In my post from my Epistemologies course, I wrote briefly about being called to understand Native American ways of knowing. In non-academic speak, that means some of the books and discussions in the class helped me see that I was disconnected mother’s side of the family who is mainly of European descent, but also Cherokee. I had always identified with my Dad’s side of the family, which is half Russian Jewish. So, when I heard about the intensive in New Mexico, a place I have always loved and associated with Native American culture, I jumped at the chance to take part. I anticipated connecting to the Native American elements of New Mexico, learning about the culture and history, and getting a sense of how my own Native American history has influenced my family culture and the way I experience the world.
Funny how things never go the way I imagine.
From the moment I walked outside the airport and took a deep breath, I was filled with nostalgic longing. I had visited my aunt in Santa Fe several times as a child with my family; traveled in Ladybird Johnson’s entourage for a visit in my teens, along with my mother, aunt, and grandmother (Nana Muriel); and had visited frequently on my road trips back and forth between Texas and California in my twenties. I hadn’t been back in probably 15 years.
There is something timeless about New Mexico. Even when driving along the flat, endless I-10, I can always feel the change from Texas to New Mexico. The air smells bright and clear and slightly smoky, almost like sage. The mountains and soil shift from brown to red and orange.
This time, I felt the same sense of stillness and openness, but with a deep, visceral sense of my Nana. My Jewish, Californian, Nana. I missed her suddenly and painfully, and the feeling did not leave me until I got home.
The curriculum was different than I had anticipated. We read a book called “Land of Disenchantment” about the darker side of New Mexico: historical and current mistreatment of both the Native American and Latino peoples by encroaching American whites, the deep-rooted psychic pain of disenfranchised and disadvantaged Latinos who used dangerous drugs, and many other stories of oppression, subversion, and survival by people who had been colonized multiple times.
So I set aside my (perhaps exoticist) longing to delve into Native American culture and opened up to learning about the history of a state that has a similar history to the states in which I have lived the majority of my life: California and Texas. I realized that I have almost always lived on land that not only was the home of Native American peoples, but was also part of Mexico after it fought for independence from European colonizers. I know I must have learned some of this in school, but it had never really hit me until now that I have spent the majority of my life living on this same land, twice colonized by European settlers who I share far more ancestors with than the original inhabitants of the land. This was humbling, to say the least.
The study of social justice in general seems to create a lot of guilt for those of us who fit into the “privileged” class. And let’s be honest: anyone who can afford my college is privileged, regardless of their origins. Still, this predominantly white guilt can be overwhelming and perhaps also counter productive. While I struggled with my feelings of inferiority for not understanding the history and struggles of the Latino population in my home states, I began to think more deeply about the ideas of inclusion and exclusion, and what they mean to me.
As I pondered these issues, I was at the same time dogged by memories of my Nana. She visited my aunt in Santa Fe many times. She wore layer upon layer of Native American made turquoise and silver jewelry from New Mexico. I have a sense that she loved this area the same way I do. Whatever the reason, I felt her presence on this trip more than I have since she died in 2008. At times I was overwhelmed with memories and sadness. Was I completely disconnected from the subjects we were studying? Was I caught in my own narcissistic ramblings and thus inattentive to my fellow learners? Honestly, I don’t know.
I know that the sudden memories of my Nana, combined with discussions of alternate ways of understanding culture, connection, and history made me think much more deeply about her life and her relationship to Judaism, and to the concept of association or belonging in general.
My grandmother was born to Jewish parents in the Bay Area in 1924. Her grandparents had immigrated to the US to escape the Pogroms in Russia. Her father, in particular, had continued to face discrimination and violence in the US for being a Jew. With the mounting violence in Germany, her parents decided to disassociate themselves from the religion, in the hopes that my Nana and her brother could assimilate into mainstream American culture and avoid discrimination or worse.
It didn’t really work out that way. My grandmother had a nose job when she was 16, paid for by her father, ostensibly to look less Jewish. She married a gentile, my Grandpa Bob. My grandpa’s mother, who objected to her son marrying a Jew, tried (and failed) to have the marriage annulled.
My grandmother continued to live in the in-between. She and her kids went to a Presbyterian church, but one day, she heard some of the other women in the church referring to her as “that Jewish woman.” When I knew her, she identified in many ways as Jewish, but knew little about the religion.
I called my father to ask him about his memories of Nana and her relationship to our Jewish heritage before I wrote this paper. I learned that he had also been called a disparaging name by another child (he assumed the child’s parents had said something about his Jewish heritage and the child had picked it up). While he said it wasn’t a majorly traumatic experience, he remembered it nonetheless. Like my Nana, my dad faced some censure for his Jewish heritage, without the advantage of community membership.
All of this is to illustrate that my family’s relationship to its Jewishness is uncomfortable at best. I grew up in the post-modern, hippie, and largely Godless world of the 1970s in California. We didn’t have a strong historical-cultural identity. But my Nana swore in Yiddish, made latkes and matzoh ball soup, and identified in many ways as Jewish. Jewish culture was by far my strongest childhood cultural identity. I also looked more like my Dad’s family. So I identified as Jewish, without ever stepping foot into a synagogue until my early 20s. (I did, however, watch Fiddler on the Roof countless times. Does that count?)
When I was 23, I started dating a Jewish man. To my surprise (and consternation), he told me that I was not Jewish. My mother was not Jewish (Judaism is matrilineal), my family did not practice the religion, and I had not gone to Hebrew school or had a bat mitzvah, and neither had my mother or father. To him and his family, I was a Shiksa.
I learned a great deal about Judaism as a religion and a cultural identity during the years of our relationship. I learned to love and appreciate the holidays, music, and traditions. But the lesson I learned most clearly was that it was an exclusive club to which I did not belong. I was welcomed warmly by some members of the family, but largely viewed with trepidation, should my boyfriend choose to marry me and have children, (who would not be Jewish unless I converted). When we were briefly engaged, my fiance’s father and sister-in-law urged us not to tell the patriarch of the family that I was a gentile, lest he cut us out of his will. I was very much an outsider in a culture that I had always thought I had a deep connection to.
My grandmother had a similar experience, as did my father. She was never seen as truly “white” (Christian), but also never accepted as a member of the Jewish tribe. When my father left for college at MIT in the late 60s, he experienced similar exclusion by Jewish students. Until I almost married into my ex’s family, I could never have imagined what it would feel like to be an outsider and therefore innately lesser. It was not a pleasant experience.
My grandmother was peopleless. She was never accepted into mainstream society, but was cut off from Jewish society as well. As I pondered that during the week in New Mexico, I realized, due to my own experiences, that I felt much the same way.
I conversed with a very kind man at the intensive. He was Latino and had grown up in New Mexico. When I told him about my grandmother and my thoughts about her isolation, he told me he had a hard time imagining that feeling. He said he grew up poor, but with a deep sense of who he was culturally and historically. Until then, I had never really delved into how this aspect of my family history affected how I see the world.
The history of the Native American and Latino peoples of New Mexico carries many threads of loss and deprivation at the hands the dominant white culture. After the intensive, I visited the Pueblo Museum in Albuquerque with another student. There I learned about the “Indian schools” created for pueblo children who were forced to abandon their own languages and cultures. I feel deep anger towards the people who tried to deprive these children of their cultural identity.
Within a Social Justice context, we often discuss peoples who have held on to their identities despite violence and deprivation. They are easily identifiable by their continued affiliation with their ethnic, religions, or geographical group. But we do not talk very much about those who have tried to assimilate for equally strong reasons. Was my great-grandfather abandoning his faith, people, culture, and traditions? Perhaps. But he was also trying to keep his son from being beaten up for being a “dirty Jew” as he was. Was he a traitor to his people, or a compassionate and hopeful father?
Trujillo, the author of the book we read for the intensive, uses the Trickster archetype as one of his major themes. Tricksters live at the edges and in between spaces. Trujillo interviews drug addicts, portraying them as participants in their cultures and families, rather than as weak societal rejects. He tells a touching love story with mythological overtones, with a not so touching end. He takes mythologies and turns them on their heads, forcing us to look beyond both fairy tales and cautionary tales.
Trickster makes us see what is or what can be, instead of what we are conditioned to see. Perhaps my family’s cultural heritage contains a hint of Trickster – the person who sees beyond the ordinary and lives beyond the traditional. Perhaps that in-betweenness is something that helps me see connections and solutions.
Jewish or not, my Nana Muriel was a Mensch. She was beautiful and original, compassionate and kind, and funny and irreverent. She looked like no grandmother I have seen before or since. She swore like a sailor. (See, it’s hereditary!) She was a WAVE in the Navy where she worked as a medical assistant, she was talented and creative, an expert at ferreting out swap meet deals, and the queen of finding the best parking spot. She was, in her own way, a Trickster. She defied categorization, expressed herself freely, and lived on her own lively terms.
The gift of this trip to New Mexico was re-visiting my grandmother as I knew her when I was young, and being able to share my stories and shed my tears with my compassionate and brilliant co-learners. The learning came from realizing that this “peoplelessness” that my family shares is itself a cultural experience. It’s not romantic, and perhaps not sexy or dramatic enough to base a movie on, but it’s my experience, and my father’s, and my Nana’s. For generations, we have tried to trade belonging for freedom; identification for creativity. But the by-product of this bargain is a certain kind of loneliness that I find myself struggling with as I age. I sometimes envy the families that have a strong cultural identity, stretching back hundreds of years. I envy the resonance of speaking the same prayers that your ancestors did, on the same days, at the same times.
Shortly before my trip I listened to an interview with Thich Nhat Hanh who talks about the universality of suffering and the importance of compassion. He asks, how we can desire a kingdom of heaven with no suffering? Suffering is the key to compassion, which begets love and joy. This theme ran through my heart while contemplating the history of New Mexico in conjunction with my family history.
Can both inclusion and exclusion cause suffering? How does our ancestors’ suffering affect our worldview? Our decisions? Our hearts? This experience took me on an unexpected journey. In opening myself to what it was, instead of what I thought it should be, I reconnected to both my suffering and compassion. I looked deeply into how my grandmother related to the world, and discovered how her experience is a part of my experience. I thought about how I will pass down this identity–this tightrope walk between inclusion and exclusion–to my daughter, and how she will reshape it for the next generation.