As a young child, I was told “we’re Jewish”. My family never went to synagogue. We didn’t pray. I wasn’t given any information about what “Jewish” meant. My examples consisted of lighting a menorah for Hanukkah (inconsistently), going to my grandparents’ for Passover (where we ate some unusual foods), and attending some of my cousins’ bar and bat mitzvahs up north (where I sat in boredom listening to them sing in a strange language before the fun party began). I even attended shul once with a neighbor. We walked miles back through time to a place where women and men spent most of the day segregated and everyone around me spoke nothing but Hebrew. Needless to say, “Jewish” was not presented to me in a particularly glamorous way.
On top of that, my family, and also society, enjoyed celebrating Christmas. Along with our menorah, we often put up a beautiful Christmas tree with twinkling lights rising up above piles of beautifully wrapped gifts. We loved going to see the new Christmas movies in the theater, listening to Christmas songs on the radio, and walking around the mall in all it’s Christmas glory.
During middle school, I became close with a girl who was “Christian”. They always went to church on Sunday morning, so if I wanted to sleep over I’d need to tag along with the family while they attended church. We would dress up like we were attending a wedding and then go to their huge, modern church filled with lively music that was sang in English. The inside was a stadium filled with people. The content never really meant much to me, but the place sure made an impression. Then, when it was over we’d go out for lunch at Pizza Hut. Quite the opposite of my “Jewish” experiences.
My knowledge was limited to what I saw. Judaism made a very poor impression on me, and as a result I rejected it to the point of repulsion. “Jewish” appeared to me to be an unfriendly old man with a long tangled beard who emitted the scent of age. He sat by himself and grumbled about the changing world. I wanted nothing to do with him.
As I grew into a teenager who knew everything about everything, I would tell my family, “I’m not Jewish!” I identified better with the religious beliefs of one who is agnostic. I rejected and resented being associated with the grumpy old man. My beliefs were completely different from his. On top of that I’d become infuriated by those who would associate me with him by appearance. How can one “look Jewish” when there’s no such region as “Jewland”.
My grandma always used to say to me in her cute little English accent, “You’re Jewish! You’ll always be Jewish whether you believe in it or not! If the holocaust happened again they’d take you no matter what you believe.” Harsh, but she was right.
After I was diagnosed and all the doctors were trying to figure me out, one question kept coming up… Are you of Ashkenazi Jewish decent?
Cancer does not care what my religious beliefs are. Cancer does not care that I don’t want to be friends with the little old man. Cancer doesn’t care that I’m spiritual, not religious. Jewish is in my DNA. Grandma was right, though I’m sure she would wish she was wrong on this one.
Thankfully, I do not have the BRCA mutation that is often seen in people of Ashkenazi Jewish decent. What I do have is a family history. The one question I wish I’d asked my genetic oncologist is, “lf I look exactly like my great aunt who had breast cancer, does that mean our genes look alike too?”