To Be Pure: On Doubt, the Rules of Jewish Identity, and Questions of Familial Inheritance
Deborah Feldman Recounts Lessons Learned from Her Grandmother and Her Early Crisis of Faith
Bubby, am I 100 percent Jewish?
I am eight years old when I first dare to formulate the question I had been turning over in my mind for such a long time. I have been worrying that there might be a sinister reason for the way my thoughts tend toward doubt instead of faith. This way of life we lead, it does not come naturally to me, although I know it should. Because no one else suffers from this affliction, I wonder if genealogical contamination can explain the anomaly. I suspect I am regarded as tainted by my mother’s actions, so it follows that she too could have been tainted by someone else, by some mysterious, forgotten ancestor in her past. This would explain why I am the way I am, and not like the others.
Bubby, am I 100 percent Jewish? I ask. Because I think that whether I am or am not is a matter that defines my destiny. Because I need to know if I have a hope of fitting in.
What a silly question! she exclaims in response. Of course you are Jewish, she assures me. Everybody in our community is.
She dismisses my earnest fear with a laugh. But how can she be so certain?
Look at our world, she says. Look at how separate we live.
How we have always lived. Jews don’t mix with others, and others don’t mix with us, so how do you think you could be anything less than 100 percent?
I didn’t think to inquire then why so many people in our community have light eyes, pale skin, and fair hair. My grandmother herself had always spoken proudly of her blond children. Pale, non‑stereotypically Jewish features were valuable commodities among us. They meant one would be able to pass. It was the gift of disguise that God granted, seemingly at random, although we were led to believe that he had a precise system in terms of granting privileges, so perhaps lack of blondness denoted a spiritual inferiority, or perhaps it was actually the other way around, depending on how you looked at things.
When I met my husband for the first time at the age of 17, I focused mostly on his golden hair and what that would mean for my genetic legacy. I wondered if the gene was strong enough to guarantee me golden-haired children, children who would be safe when the world, trapped in its unalterable pattern of orbit, turned against them. Now I understand that those Eastern European features and fair coloring align perfectly with the genetic studies that have long since confirmed that none of us are 100 percent of anything. But these findings never made it into our midst, and if they did, they probably wouldn’t have mattered. In our community, we believed that as long as we were separate, we were pure by default.
This word, though, “pure”—it doesn’t come from our language, from our vocabulary. Our word for “pure” is tuhor, and its original meaning applies only to spiritual purity. It means to be pure of intention, to be clean of sin. In the Hasidic tradition, this kind of purity ostensibly outweighs the importance of strong ancestry. The obsession with pure bloodlines would come later, perhaps as a by‑product of the ideology and laws that defined us by exclusion. One drop of Jewish blood was all it took, not for the first time in Hitler’s Germany, so those who could, fought to hide that drop and deny its existence, but out of instinctive protectiveness, those who could not retreated into a perverse pride. They invented a kind of purity for themselves. They created family trees that went back a thousand years to show their intact stems. They discriminated against Jews who couldn’t prove their undiluted status. Just like the Nazis, they too withdrew into the false and treacherous cocoon of consanguineous identity. Since they couldn’t be a part of that other world, the next best thing was to create a special club to be a member of instead. We are tuhor, they said, and they meant our souls of course, but this time they also meant our blood.
If my blood is Jewish, then my soul is as well. This is why I want to know. I want to understand how exactly Jewishness is imprinted on me. What exactly is it that I have inherited? How can I force the concept of it into something graspable? But really, the question underneath all questions is this: How can I make my Jewishness bearable to me?
Bubby says to me, quite absentmindedly, while sitting at the table running individual cabbage leaves under a fluorescent light bulb to check for worms, which would render them unkosher, that God put the other nations onto the planet for the sole purpose of hating and persecuting the Jewish people. It is this opposing force in the end that defines us, like how God created night and day, darkness and light. We need one to define the other. Our Jewishness exists precisely in the context of the attempts to eradicate it.
This statement from her—which is supposed to explain the world to me, which says that everything out there is terrifying and will always be so, because it is the way things have to be in order to justify our existence—it is so extreme that I feel then that she can’t possibly mean it; she’s just parroting what the rabbi says, what everyone in the community is always repeating. Because wouldn’t it be a grave overestimation of ourselves to imagine that all the evil in the world was created for our suffering? Isn’t that kind of arrogance a sin in itself, to regard one’s suffering as the holiest of holies, submitting to it like an orchestra to its conductor, sacrificing personal will for the sake of some ultimate directorial vision?
Even though in our community we do not interact with gentiles unless there are exceptional circumstances, in which contact is strictly regulated, I know that Bubby had real relationships with non‑Jewish people before she joined the Satmar sect. She’s mentioned the neighbors in the small village in which her parents ran a store, how they came to turn their water into seltzer by using the pump in the front yard and brought little gifts in exchange; how they traded eggs and milk and meat for the wares that Bubby’s parents sold.
She remembers being sent off to live with her wealthy grandmother in the city when she was too old to sleep in the common bedroom with her ten siblings, and those elegant women with the fancy French hats and fur stoles her grandmother invited over for tea, tortes, and cards. She traveled with her grandmother to spa towns in Europe, where they stayed in resort hotels and socialized with people from all over the continent. But all that was before the war, and marrying my grandfather and joining Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum’s new community with him meant that the only people she was supposed to come into contact with were ones just like us.
But then I think of how she picked up that cleaning lady a short while ago, as we chanced across that ritual that most housewives in Williamsburg participate in. Every morning, at the corner of Marcy and Division Avenues, the illegal immigrant women from Poland, or sometimes Lithuania, Slovakia, or Ukraine, line up for a black‑market job at the place where the street forms a bridge over the expressway. Over the noise of honking horns and tires thumping over shoddy roads, the humiliating negotiations are conducted. A Hasidic housewife approaches, looks each woman over carefully as if to assess their physical condition, and beckons to the one deemed satisfactory with a crooked finger, indicating for her to step forward. An offer is made, usually low: five dollars an hour. If the woman is feeling bold that day, if the group waiting is small and it is still early and she thinks her chances are good, she will counter with eight, but probably concede at six. Then off they go, the two of them, the cleaning lady walking behind the housewife in a show of subservience, following her to the home where she will perform the lowliest of chores so the lady of the house will be spared such indignities.
It does not escape me even now that this theater of selection is a bizarre mirror of a collective memory. I see it as an unconsciously inherited vendetta playing itself out in miniature against the backdrop of a wire highway fence. The story of our community founders, of survivors who had once been “selected” by the gentiles for a future among the living, is perversely inverted each time a gentile cleaning woman is beckoned forward. A small satisfaction, but a palpable one nonetheless. And yet, my grandmother had never taken part in the performance until that day.
We had been accidentally walking by that street corner on the way home, carrying the bags of groceries my grandmother had acquired, and suddenly my grandmother stopped in her tracks, staring fixedly at a woman behind the group of others pushing forward and clamoring at the housewives, a woman with dull brown hair streaked with gray who was leaning back against the fence with her hands clasped in front of her and her eyes looking down at the floor, waiting to be selected but perhaps too proud to ask for it. My grandmother seemed frozen as if in some reverie. I set my bags down on the ground, regarding the scene with curiosity. Bubby pointed her finger at the woman.
You, she said. The woman looked up.
Magyar vagy, Bubby said, in a way that sounded like a statement rather than a question.
The woman looked surprised; she nodded and stepped forward. She issued a gushing stream of Hungarian words, as if she had been holding them back for hours and now someone had given her permission to finally let them all out. She grasped Bubby’s sleeve, her body arched away from the group of others standing there; she bowed before my grandmother as if performing an obsequious curtsy, as if she was begging us to free her from the dread of waiting, the shame of being the last one standing there, the fear of having to go back home with no prospect of earnings for the day.I thought it might temper the bitterness of that old, lingering betrayal that she only ever sparsely referred to in my presence.
I don’t know how my grandmother knew that the woman was Hungarian. There were very seldom any Hungarian women on that street corner, which my grandmother cited as the reason she refused to hire a cleaning lady. She didn’t like the fact that she couldn’t communicate with the Polish women; she didn’t trust them in her home. Instead she did the grunt work herself, bent on her knees with a rag, a brush, and a wash bucket. But now there was a Hungarian, and indeed, someone from her very own region, not too much younger than herself. Did she recognize this person from her past? Or perhaps this woman was simply a representation to my grandmother of all those neighbors from her childhood, the ones who had counted as friends before the political temperature changed and they gleefully assumed the homes and lives wrested from others, all loyalties forgotten. Goyim were all like that, she had said. Waiting to benefit from your destruction. That’s how God made them. They are helpless to go against their inborn natures.
But still I could not decide if it was pity or the personal desire for vindication that drove Bubby to take that cleaning lady home with us. There seemed to be some kind of human connection between her and that woman, who walked at Bubby’s side and babbled in that secret language that I had only ever heard my grandparents speak, vibrating with joy at being chosen by someone who could understand her. Did Bubby actually feel loyal to someone who shared her origins, even though that person wasn’t Jewish? Or rather, did she feel a need to prove to her how the circumstances of the past had been upended, to show that woman everything she had achieved for herself here in America, with her four‑story brownstone house, her chandeliers and carpets and floor‑length lace curtains? To show her on which side of history the real triumph lay?
I watched as she brought the woman into the kitchen, gave her various cleaning tools, and set her up with the tasks she normally did herself or handed off to me, the daily routine of ironing, dusting, and polishing. I was perturbed by the fact that she did not ask the woman to wash the floor. That would have been obvious, I surmised: my grandmother watching as a gentile woman from her home region got down on her knees in this large and comfortable home that she now owned. I didn’t necessarily want to see this random woman degraded, but I did think that the experience could give my grandmother a kind of closure. I thought it might temper the bitterness of that old, lingering betrayal that she only ever sparsely referred to in my presence, but which I knew still burned in her deepest store of memories.
Excerpted from Exodus, Revisited: My Unorthodox Journey to Berlin. Used with the permission of the publisher, Plume, a division of Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2021 by Deborah Feldman.