Fatherhood On The Fringes Of Judaism

A few weeks ago, I first learned of the term “Fringe Jew.” I was amused. It’s actually reassuring to know that there’s a term for my kind of Jew. I’ve been to maybe Temple twice since my Bar Mitzvah and my family is secular in practice. Formative years as a child were spent in Israel (ages 5 to 9), but my family had zero involvement with any American Jewish community since our return (save my Bar Mitzvah). I was the token Jewish kid in my group of friends most of my life.

Lately, as a 33-year-old adult professional, I’ve found myself at networking events where I’m inextricably drawn, like moths to a flame, to the other Jews.

The JEWDAR is strong with this one.

Recently, I’ve become intrigued by this foreign-to-me clique of Minnesota Jewry who’ve been, to me, hidden in plain sight… (Or I from them?) Now like a forgotten sleeper agent, I feel like I’ve been activated but don’t yet know my mission. It has something to do with my son, my dad, my complex childhood, and the paradox of feeling estranged from a community to which I never did belong.

There was nothing traditional about my Jewish upbringing. My family made Aliyah when I was 5 years old in 1990. For the four years, we lasted, my parents and their four boys lived in a two-bedroom caravan, with no air conditioning, at the edge of the Judean desert in a small, secular settlement about 10 minutes northeast of Jerusalem, in the West Bank village of Almon Anatot. We were never particularly religious in the organized sense, but my father was extremely passionate about Zionism and he knew his scripture.

He’s dead now.

The morning of February 20 this year, he left me a voicemail saying he thinks he had a stroke and needs my help getting downstairs.

He was driving Uber the day before, 70 years old, he had just passed his licensing exam to be a mortgage originator. He grew his own marijuana in a lightproof tent in the kitchen of his one-bedroom St. Paul apartment.

Politically, he was slightly right of Avigdor Lieberman.

He read every single book by Joyce Carol Oates. He purchased T-Shirts from InfoWars and Breitbart. He listened to Bob Dylan, U2, Bruce Springsteen, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift, and Jackie Evancho.

He loved my son, his first and only grandchild, always willing to babysit at the drop of a hat. He hated living in the city, but he took an apartment off Como and Dale so that he could be closer to his grandkid and help us save on daycare.

When I got to his house, he could still talk normally. His right side was completely paralyzed so there would be no getting down the stairs ourselves. By the time the paramedics got there, his speech was garbled. He couldn’t tell them when it happened. It wouldn’t have mattered. It was a massive brain hemorrhage.

I rode with him in the ambulance to St. Joseph’s Hospital in downtown St. Paul. On March 13, he departed from the living hell of existence that was his last 23 days.

And now he’s dead.

But I’m alive and I have a kid and my wife isn’t Jewish and the side of my extended family that is Jewish lives in California and doesn’t want to be part of our lives.

My only child, my son, is 3 years old. Almost 4. Being father was never so hard – until I lost my own. To be a father without a father guiding this new soul that is my child into becoming part of this horrifically beautiful, divinely evil realm of the living.

Before Anatot, we lived in the immigration absorption center of Mevaseret Tzion in West Jerusalem. Kindergarten was a bazar of languages, colors, and cultures. Operation Solomon just took place, the Soviet Union recently collapsed, the first intifada was in full swing, and the Gulf War broke out.

Dad was all about the Zionism. He had little patience for the robotic ritual, yawning at the forced pageantry which makes up that rote piety passing itself off as anything of true spiritual significance. The divine serenity of the Judean desert hills, the Dead Sea melting into Jordan at the edge of the eastern horizon, small town comradery, and the righteous romance of living on the frontier drew him to the village of Almon Anatot. Looking back now, considering the library of Clint Eastwood VHS’s, it really makes sense. In fact, I fear that wild west grandiosity informed an embarrassingly significant portion of my father’s behavior.

By 1994, my mother had enough. Enough of my dad. Enough of marriage. Enough of Israel. We were building a beautiful home overlooking a canyon with a view of Jordan, but it wasn’t getting finished. Just as life was in America before Aliyah, so in Israel we were virtually bankrupt, collectors calling non-stop. After four years of living in a two bedroom caravan with no air conditioning at the edge of the desert – Mom was done. She asked us if we wanted to “go on a vacation to America” – which we of course did. I should have known it wasn’t a vacation, I was always pretty aware that we were super poor, but I had faith then. For a nine-year-old, I was kind of an idiot.

My parents move back to the States and divorced. I lived with my mom and brothers in an apartment in Burnsville. We were on welfare for several months while she renewed her LPN nursing license and searched for a job. I was released like a feral dog into the prim and proper Apple Valley school system. Apparently, you weren’t allowed to swear if you were a kid and fighting wasn’t really cool. Being Jewish was certainly not cool. In Israel, at my school in the French Hills (Givat Tsarfati), I was really popular. Being the American kid who had the best movie collection, and being one of the toughest and strongest kid, having a cool older brother, being fluent in English – all these things counted for serious status points for a 3rd grader.

My brother got to have his Bar Mitzvah at the Wailing Wall. It was really important for me to have my Bar Mitzvah, even if it was in Minnesota. Dad understood. He arranged for me to get Bar Mitzvahed, which I did, on December 10, 1998, at Temple of Aaron. He was sure to personally insult my instructor and I would be amazed if he actually paid his bill in full. When I asked him why we never went to Temple regularly, he said you can’t afford to be a Jew in Minnesota. Something about how if you join the congregation they push to join the schools, the cost of which made him want to spit. There was no love for organized religion or the hoity side of Jewish society. So there it was. I was destined to the fringes. And that was that.

Dad was my last link. Mom was Jewish on her Dad’s side, but that part of the extended family is also hidden somewhere in plain sight. No, he was the last of my real family’s link to the old world. I didn’t feel I really need a Jewish community before my dad died. We could lament and debate about Israeli politics, history, the Bible. The man was not religious in an organized sense but he knew his bible through and through. I never really needed to. I never really wanted to. I was satisfied to be Jewish through osmosis. Jewish … but not too much. As the token Jew, I hold a certain authority with my goyim friends group. It was good enough.

Standards of life changed for me when I had a kid. You become a different person. Part of you ends forever, and a new part is born with your first child. That’s expected. The death of a 70-year-old man with high blood pressure who lives off fried chicken and Glenmorangie may have been expected but only as an abstraction. The reality is much the same as having a child. This version that you ended, and this other man inborn. This orphan man. This amalgam.

As long as dad was alive, all the ironic impersonations and inside jokes and mannerisms and caricatures – were all just schtick.

But no. It’s not a schtick anymore. Now it’s me. I’m what’s left. Me and my brothers and our memes of our father.

Do the chips on our shoulders ever go away? I’m not sure, but how we deal with them can certainly evolve. Being conscious of our thoughts, the thoughts that precede our actions which set examples and pass down our habits and attitudes to our children. An unconventional form of Judaism was such a significant force in my life through my father. His passing ignites an intense gratitude for the relationship we had, the life he gave me. Despite all the pain and problems and complexes – I cherish my history at the school of Bronson-style hard knocks which was my upbringing. Nonetheless, I don’t want my son suffering from the same stress of domestic instability and Aliyah is not something on our family to do list.

However, I feel this internal obligation to bring Judaism’s affecting force into my son’s life. I’m not positive which path will be taken, but that’s the great thing about being Jewish – I am free to devise my own path. And if I need ideas, I’ll never be at a loss for suggestions, options, and advice so long as I am part of a Jewish community.