Sometimes I feel like I do my ethnicities exactly backwards. I am biologically Irish but was adopted into a Jewish family, and I always want to do Irishness the way a Jew would and Jewishness the way an Irish-American would.
Irish-Americans, you see, are tremendously invested in the idea of being part of an Irish diaspora. There is a great fascination for contemporary Irish politics and culture. Irish-Americans take trips to Ireland and fly Irish flags and hang out in bars built in Ireland and representing a sort of nostalgic Irishness. If you read the Irish-American press, it often seems like the American wing of the Irish press, republishing stories from Irish daily news. Irish-Americans are obsessed with whatever county their ancestors came from (and often retain relationships with distant cousins still in Ireland), and, in general, behave as though they're just Irishmen living abroad and might return at any moment. I do this too. I'm Facebook friends with distant biological cousins in County Mayo.
In the meanwhile, there is little interest in an explicitly Irish-American identity. I should know -- I also run a website called "The Happy Hooligan" which primarily concerns itself with the Irish-American identity, and it has been met mostly with shrugs from my fellow Irish-Americans.
In the meanwhile, American Jews have things exactly reversed. While we do view ourselves as a diaspora people, we have not been scattered away from Europe, but instead from Israel, long ago. We're obsessed with the experience of being American, and what it means to be a Jew in America. But those of us who have roots in Europe don't seem to have much interest in them. There is some historic interest, yes -- Jews will take Holocaust tours of Poland, as an example, visiting the ghettos and the extermination camps. And there are some that visit cemeteries and shtetls, to see where their families came from.
But very few American Jews see themselves as somehow connected to those places in a contemporary way. My brother was once in the Marines, and was honorably discharged, and complained that all they did was discuss fighting with Russia. "But I'm Russian," he told my father. "Our grandfather came from Russia!"
"We're not Russian," he responded. "We're Jewish."
I think this is understandable. Although my grandparents came to America before the Holocaust, they came to escape antisemitism, and those that remained were, almost without exception, murdered. I can understand wishing to wash your hands of Europe, wanting to leave and never look back. Especially for Jews, whose European experience was always a bit unconventional. Jews were rarely treated as indigenous members of any European nationality, but instead as rootless interlopers. Jews often lived in areas that were largely Jewish, primarily spoke a Jewish language, and sometimes entire Jewish communities would uproot themselves (or, more often, be uprooted) and move to a different country altogether.
So when Jews came to America, they may not have felt much connection to the place they left, even if their families had been their for centuries. And so we let whatever European nationality we had evaporate. We were not Polish Jews, we were not Lithuanian Jews, we were not Ukrainian Jews, we were just Ashkenazi Jews, even if those distinctions had once meant quite a lot.
It still means a lot to me. Although I understand the impulse to just leave the past in the past, especially when it is so fraught with pain and betrayal, the Jewish experience in Europe predates the rise of the Roman Empire and continues to this day -- there are about two million Jews in Europe today.
In his book "Yiddish Civilization," author Paul Kriwaczek wrote about growing up in an England whose understanding of the Jews of Europe mirrored my own when I was younger -- a sort of generalized shtetl story, largely influence by "Fiddler on the Roof." I think a lot of Americans think about their family's histories like this, largely because their families, understandably, refused to discuss it. We all seem to think we are descended from impoverished farmers who lived in largely Jewish villages, occasionally contending with Cossacks who rode over the hills but otherwise leading a simple, sagely life.
But it wasn't like this for most. Many of Europe's Jews lead an urban experience, and many of the places that we still remember as being centers of the Jewish experience were, in fact, huge cities that the Jews shared with non-Jewish neighbors. Vilna, as an example, is Vilnius, the capitol of Lithuana, and was primarily Gentile, but had so large a Jewish population that it was known as the "Jerusalem of Lithuania." In fact, there was a Jewish sect that migrated to Lithuania in the 15th century called the Karaim, who served as an elite military unit, which is not the sort of Jewish story you usually hear from Eastern Europe.
We also don't hear that there were Jewish Cossacks, but there were. There was a Ukrainian group called the Zaporozhian Cossacks who apparently couldn't give a fig about someone's religion, and so they had Jews in their ranks. And in 1878, one of Catherine the Great's ministers founded a regiment of Jewish Cossacks called The Israilovsky Regiment -- as their name suggests, they were intended for Israel, where they were supposed to liberate Jerusalem. There are other stories of Jewish Cossacks, and I like this stories. They are worth remembering.
Anyone who studies Jewish cooking knows that we simply borrowed and adapted the food of our gentile neighbors. The fashion favored by many Hasids was borrowed from the clothes of Polish nobility. Yiddish is a great borrower, drawing from almost every European language and superimposing it upon what often feels like a Slavic structure -- with touches of Greek, Latin, and even Turkic. Yiddish theater borrowed from the conventions of European folk theater, while klezmer borrowed from military music, Gypsy musicians, and European folk songs.
We were never just Jews, living in some sort of bubble that separated us from Gentile Europe. We were Europeans, and, more than that, we were Europeans whose experiences often were shaped by the part of Europe we came from.
So while I understand my father, I do not agree with him. We were not just Jews, we were Russian Jews -- and, having known many, many Jewish immigrants from Russia, I know just how very Russian they can be. We weren't just Russian, either. As I construct my adoptive family's genealogy, I find Belarussians, Poles, Bessarabians, and Ukrainians.
Maybe not enough time has past since the Holocaust for us to reclaim our European identities, to see ourselves as products of a second exile, an exile from Europe. Maybe we will never be able to look at the politics or culture of, say, contemporary Belarus and feel like it has anything to do with us in the way that Irish-Americans are obsessed with contemporary Ireland. Perhaps the betrayal was too great. Maybe there is no going back when all so much of Europe rejected you and spendt a decade trying to exterminate you. Especially when there is still so much antisemitism in Europe -- why would we want to claim a heritage that still despises us?
I don't have any answers. I just have an interest, and maybe it's the Irish in me. But I can't help but want to know more about the places my family came from, even if all they wanted was to leave it behind.