Tikkun Magazine, Winter 2011
My son's middle school was having a "culture fair" recently, so he asked me for some guidance. His task was to create a display that described his Jewish heritage.
"When is it due?" I asked.
"When did your teacher first assign it?"
"Oh, a couple of months ago."
This answer filled me with pride. Though I had failed to provide him with a grounding in his Jewish birthright, no one could argue that I had stinted in his training as a procrastinator -- a skill that my own parents had painstakingly drilled into me from an early age.
"Ask your mother," I suggested.
"But she's Japanese."
"Yes, but she makes a delicious kugel."
But my wife, a non-procrastinator, had already completed her day's duties and was sound asleep. So instead, my son suggested that we go online to ellisisland.org and look for records of our ancestors' arrivals. This got me excited, as I've always longed to know more about previous generations of my family. Especially on my father's side, such information is scarce, since everyone has eternally been at war with everyone else: the only way bloodshed has been avoided in our American diaspora is through a negotiated fifty-state solution.
Our journey to ellisisland.org was a perilous one -- crammed onto a tiny laptop, riding through cyberspace along with thousands of other travelers in search of a homepage. All we had for sustenance was what we could scrounge from the fridge. After what seemed like an eternity (our Wi-Fi has been pretty wonky lately), we arrived at our destination -- haggard, yes, but also grateful that Fate had allowed us to reach the promised database without contracting some fatal virus.
Unfortunately, we could find no trace there of either my father's or mother's parents -- no indication, from ship manifests or clerical logs, that any of my kin had ever debarked at Ellis Island. This raised the uncomfortable possibility that I was an android, in whom scientists had meticulously planted false "memories" of a secular Jewish childhood along with a totally fictitious ancestry in Eastern Europe. Perhaps that could finally explain the "otherness" I'd often felt among human beings, as well as my curious affinity for hardware stores.
Or maybe the names had just been spelled differently by the Ellis Island functionaries.
In any case, it was getting late -- and my son needed answers. Fortunately for Jews like me, there are Mormons. Mormons keep genealogical records the way my family keeps grudges. It was through the Mormon-run Ancestry.com website that I finally tracked down historical records of my forebears. In 1920 in Brooklyn and in 1930 in Allentown, Pennsylvania, census workers had interviewed members of my mother's and father's families, respectively. Unfortunately, these interviews had apparently been quite boring and perfunctory, as the reproduced forms gave only such basic information as "number in household." Decades later, during the McCarthy Era, the government would take a much keener interest in my communist-leaning family. (Little did the FBI realize that, with our clan's tendency toward procrastination and internal bickering, we had zero chance of organizing a successful backyard barbecue, much less a revolution.) Sadly, though, there wasn't enough time before my son's culture fair for us to launch a Freedom of Information Act request for our family files.
So, as usual, in the absence of hard facts I was forced to fall back on my memories. And as we sat there in the dark kitchen, our faces illuminated only by the computer screen, I was suddenly overtaken by an affecting recollection from my own childhood: sitting with my dad in the old movie theater where he would often take me to see the numerous Japanese movies featuring Zatoichi, the blind masseur and swordsman. My schoolteacher father, though not a masseur or a swordsman and only very nearsighted, identified strongly with Zatoichi. Both of them were committed to empowering the downtrodden against their corrupt oppressors, whether in nineteenth-century Japan or twentieth-century America. And when -- as he inevitably did, in every installment -- Zatoichi suffered, Dad suffered as well. Watching him weep as, up on the big screen, Zatoichi was dragged along rough terrain by a rope attached to a galloping horse, I learned what it meant to empathize with others on the margins: I learned what it meant to be a Jew.
At the time of this writing, my son has not yet received a grade for his culture-fair display. It's possible that his teacher may have been confused by a Jewish cultural history depicted entirely through the stories and images of a blind Japanese masseur and swordsman. Then again, we live in Berkeley, so maybe she understood. And I bet she enjoyed the tasty kugel that my wife baked in the morning.
Josh Kornbluth is a monologuist who lives in Berkeley with his wife and son and their cornsnake, Snakey. His latest solo show is Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? You can follow his doings at joshkornbluth.com.
Kornbluth, Josh. 2011. Culture Klatch. Tikkun 26(1): 95