“Is the cornsnake Jewish?”
This was a tough question to answer. I was visiting with the first-grade class taught by my then-girlfriend, who had introduced me to her students as “Farmer Josh” -- and then thrust a large-ish cornsnake into my less-than-willing hands. The little ones crowded around me, and excitedly asked me questions about this miraculous creature, about which I unfortunately knew nothing. It was possible to bluff some expertise regarding the snake’s eating and grooming habits -- but on the subject of its Jewishness, I was frankly stymied.
“Cornsnake” certainly sounded like a Jewish name -- not so different from “Kornbluth,” really. Perhaps the Cornsnakes and the Kornbluths had even come from adjacent shtetls in the Old Country. And the animal did have an ambivalent air about it (another telltale sign of my people), alternately twisting around my wrist and trying to escape up a shirtsleeve. But was it descended from Abraham, or merely from a nondenominational, ethically challenged reptile in the Primeval Garden?
I wanted to confess to these kids that I just didn’t know -- that I had some questions even about my own Jewishness. And yet I couldn’t bear to let them down: they were so excited! I suppose I also longed to impress my girlfriend by fielding all queries with an effortless grace and charm. In the end, I improvised the kind of answer-as-question that my late grandpa might have responded with: “Why wouldn’t it be Jewish?”
Several years later my girlfriend had become my wife, and I was bringing our son to the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, kind of a cold-blooded wonderland. With his first day of kindergarten approaching, he was feeling somewhat unsettled -- and we thought perhaps it would comfort him to have a pet. After looking around the store -- at all manner of lizards, turtles, and the like -- he spotted a bin of tiny baby cornsnakes, and chose the prettiest one: a female he named Snakey.
We brought Snakey home and set her up in a tank, with a heater and a water bowl and a log to hide in. As I watched her writhe and slither, I couldn’t help but think back to that former student of my wife’s -- and to wonder: was Snakey Jewish?
As I had come relatively late in life to the study of Judaism, I didn’t have easy access to the kind of rabbinical wisdom that this issue seemed to call for. And as we lived in Berkeley, there seemed at least a fair chance that the snake was Unitarian. But the question wouldn’t stop nagging at me -- so finally I made a list for myself of possible pros and cons.
On the plus side: Snakey was persistent, much like the Jewish people, who had somehow remained intact over thousands of years. She never ate leavened bread. She enjoyed basking in blistering conditions that resembled Israel or Miami Beach. And the cruel vicissitudes of life often made her come out of her skin.
On the minus: She demonstrated no particular grasp of Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” philosophy (though she had a terrific grasp of mice). She rejected an empty Manishewitz matzo box that we once offered her as an alternative refuge to her beloved log. And facially she kind of resembled the Rev. Pat Robertson.
Eventually I decided to wait and see if she would ask for a bat mitzvah when she was about to turn thirteen. But alas, she never made it that far. A little while ago, at the tender age of ten, Snakey started acting erratically -- moving in a herky-jerky fashion, ceasing to maintain her usually glistening exterior, regurgitating her food. And just a short time later, she passed away.
The folks at the Vivarium said it was probably some sort of internal disease, one that nobody could have detected. They assured us that these things happen, despite the best of care. But I couldn’t help wondering whether there was something I might have done differently: fed her smaller mice, lowered the temperature in her tank, read to her from the Torah.
In the time she was with us, I had begun my own tentative, serendipitous approach to my ethnic roots. As she grew, I grew (though far less rapidly). And in honoring our home with her spirit, she inspired my family to deepen our spiritual practice. Snakey -- or, to use her pre-Ellis Island name, Snakovitch -- added a mythological dimension to our days, inspiring us to connect the mysterious world around us with the burning questions within us. In an important sense, she made our little apartment into a home.
But was she Jewish? For the answer, I may have to await my own encounter with the creator of all things -- creatures with legs or without, circumcised or circumscribed, reptilian or Reform.