Many times over the years I wondered if Sofie, my birth mother was Jewish. I'd told myself it might be possible because she'd left Germany to live in France where I was born. Although it was many years after the war and the holocaust, I wondered if she hadn't left Germany due to a climate still rife with anti-Semitism. Had she fled to avoid the bigotry and hatred of Jews in post Nazi Germany? This was only one of many things I wondered about this woman whom I'd never seen.
If so, this was definitely something I could empathize with. And, if this was the case, then I was supposed to be Jewish too. Since my adopted parents were Baptist, it might pose a bit of a problem.
There was a Synagogue across the street from the house I grew up in. This place always fascinated me. The only thing I knew about Jewish people, at the age of five or six, was that they went to "church" on Saturday, which kind of intruded into part of our play area because now cars were parked there, and that they ate some strange foods. I knew they ate strange foods from my many visits to Izzy's deli down the street. I'd been there plenty of times with and without my mother.
Sometimes she'd send me alone to get coleslaw. We'd always have coleslaw from Izzy's when we had fish for dinner. They made the best coleslaw mom always told me. Many times one of my aunt's would try to get me to eat her coleslaw, but I wasn't having it. Her's looked nothing like the stuff we always bought, and besides Izzy made the best, mom said so, and his didn't have raisins in it like hers.
Gefilte fish, lox, bagels matzo balls and a host of other strange things lined the clear glass deli counter. I'd always ask what everything was and why we only got coleslaw and none of the other foods they had in there. I was told this was all kosher food. I didn't know what Kosher meant, but it didn't look like it meant tasty. But if it took eating this to be Jewish, I could do it. I must admit, I had serious doubts about ever eating lox. Lox looked to me like what I imagined the inside of a person might look like. But if I were Jewish I knew I could somehow eat it. I decided that mom wouldn't make a good Jew, because she never wanted any of those foods, just the coleslaw.
My parents patronized a lot of Jewish businesses in the neighborhood. These small mom and pop stores and the synagogue were the last remnants of a community now transforming from Jewish to black. Only the stores remained as a reminder that this had once been an all Jewish neighborhood. The great majority of the original residents of the neighborhood were now long gone. There were still one or two Jewish families living there, but not for much longer.
I know Philadelphia is supposed to be the "City of Brotherly Love", but this brother was not feeling the love. But it was only the early 60's, not everyone was in tune with the Civil Rights movement. Things would change.
The Jews were always nice people, I thought. We never got the stares, looks of disgust, whispering, snide attitudes and outright disrespect that we'd find in other stores. Never did I sense anything really negative, no one ever seemed shocked to see these black parents with this little bi-racial child.
It was always, "Hello Mr. Davis, hello Mrs. Davis, what can I do for you today Mrs. Davis." There was always a certain amount of respect given. We didn't find that in the other white non-Jewish establishments. I found out that Jewish people celebrated Christmas for seven whole days. Later I learn it was called Hanukkah, but who cares if it had a funny name. Heck, seven days of presents was reason enough to be Jewish to me.
Not only that, they had loads of holidays throughout the year as well. Holidays, that they shared with us non-Jews. I knew they shared because we got off school for some of these holidays. To top that off, I found out about bar mitzvahs, I could become a man and get presents too. I asked my mother what it meant to be Jewish and she told me that the Jews were God's chosen people. Hot Damn, God's chosen people, and all these holidays too. Why weren't we Jewish?
There were no black Jews at that time. Sammy Davis hadn't yet converted. But once I found out that he had, I was ready too. Heck, our last name was Davis like his and they took him in, why not us. The synagogue became a source of fascination for me. What went on in there, and why on a Saturday, what were these people doing?
Around the age of six or seven I joined the Cub Scouts. The troop was sponsored by the Synagogue. There was only one black boy in the troop at that time, I made number two. The other boy was Derek. I'd vaguely known Derek from school, he was a grade or two ahead of me. The troop met weekly in the Synagogue annex, which was attached to the main temple.
I was getting closer to finding out what was in this building. Once a year the Cub scouts held a Blue and Gold dinner celebration. The celebration was to be held in the main building of the Synagogue this year and that meant that I was getting close to getting in that mysterious place. As it turned out the dinner was held in the basement auditorium, which had it's own separate entrance on the side of the building. So I was not quite all the way in, yet. All of us boys were told not to go upstairs to the main portion of the temple.
Being boys some of us took this as sort of a dare. Those boys who were Jewish and attended the temple saw it as no big deal, but me, I was intrigued and here was my big chance. After climbing the stairs I found a set of doors that separated the sanctuary from the main outside doors. I never made it into the sanctuary portion of the building. We were caught and it was back down stairs for us. I still wanted to know what went on in this building, now more than ever.
"Mom, tell me again, why aren't we Jewish?"
A few years later the building was put up for sale. It remained empty for about a year before being bought by a Black Baptist church. So one Sunday I announced to my mother that I would not be going to church with her, as I had for every Sunday of my life. I told her that I was going to go to the new church, by myself. Here, finally, was my chance to satisfy years of curiosity, if she'd only agree, which I had major doubts that she would. Much to my delight and surprise, she made no fuss and said ok. I don't know what I was feelling as I climbed those familiar steps, that I'd only looked at for so many years. I could see that the front doors were wide open this Sunday morning, which they never were when the Jews were there.
As I reached the top of the stairs the sanctuary doors were closed, but there just outside those doors stood black women in their bright white usher uniforms, white shoes and white hats and corsages, that I was used to seeing in all the other churches I'd been to in my life. "Ok," I thought, "not too much different so far." As one of the ushers handed me a program, the appropriate break in the order of service occurred which allowed them to open the sanctuary doors and let in those people who were waiting to go inside. As they opened the doors, my eyes widened with anticipation. Ta da!... I was finally here!
Aside from a few left over Jewish symbols, like the Star of David and menorahs, which were built into fixtures and etched into the stained glass, this place looked like every other church I'd been to. Nothing strange, nothing mysterious, no mystical mumbo jumbo, just an ordinary place of worship. I can't say that I was disappointed, but I was enlightened. Damn! All these years and they were just normal people doing normal things in that building. I think that's when I decided that people were really all the same.
I can remember when I was eight years old, my parents let some sadistic Army doctor convince them that I needed surgery and they conspired to have me circumcised. I can vividly recall in the days following the surgery, the excruciating pain when it came time to change the bandages. If ever there were a time to be Jewish, that was it. It would have all been over when I was a baby. It was now painfully obvious that Sofie wasn't Jewish after all and, neither was I. And after experiencing the pain from the snip-o-the-tip, I never would be either.