My cousin, Sue shared the following with me last week. As soon as I read it, I knew I needed to share it with you. On its surface, it’s laugh out loud funny. Just below the surface, it’s an achingly familiar story about a child desperately seeking connection and a mom trying hard to honor his method of finding it.
I am grateful that its author, Cheryl Murfin, a Seattle-based writer, editor at Seattle’s Child and mother to Aidan, 13, and Maddy, 16, has been kind enough to allow me to share it here.
The Controversion of Aidan B
My son says he is Jewish. I am not sure what to do about this, since, neither I nor his father is Jewish. We are about as goy as you get.
I know where the idea came from, of course. It came from the book, 10 Little Giflte Fish, being read by my former partner in his best New York-Jew-sitting-at-a-back-table-at-Katz’s-Deli voice every now and then for a year and a half.
It comes from the co-mingled holidays we adopted — you show me a kid who doesn’t want to celebrate Chanukah once he figures out it’s EIGHT days of gifts. No matter that they are small tokens. Numbers matter. It comes from my friend Andrea’s fairly incredible matzo ball soup, brought over for one hilarious joint Passover dinner in 2008. It comes from the fact that he is suffering his first crush – on a girl named Rebecca Rosenberg.
It comes from missing the man he calls his “first friend,” even though at the break of our relationship the two were experiencing a struggle of wills.
It comes from being autistic and wanting to belong to a group.
So I know where it comes from, but what is a Catholic-born-but-atheist-opted parent to do? Thank God he’s circumcised already; that’s all I can say. Oy.
This year for Chanukah I decided to bring my son to the Jewish Secular Circle – a group dedicated to Jewish culture, without the religious baggage. It was a friendly gathering, lots of chit-chat and enough potato latkes to sink a ship. But halfway through the evening, I notice my son is introducing himself to people as Moshe.
“Hi, I’m Moshe! What kind of car do you drive?” he says to anyone who will listen. “What kind of car do you drive?” is how he starts conversations. It feels comforting to him as his nerves jitter in the face of meeting someone new, like rubbing a rabbit’s foot in your pocket. Eventually I redirect him to a corner and demand that he introduce himself by his own name.
“But MOM,” he sighs, clearly frustrated at my lack of awareness. “I CONTROVERTED!” I can feel the Manischewitz going up my nose.
I decide to let it go. I know this is his way of dealing with a breakup that he doesn’t understand. He loved my partner, envisioned Chanukahs far into the future. He is coping, Moshe is. Clearly he takes his controversion to Judaism seriously.
My compassion is just overriding my embarrassment when I notice that Moshe-Aidan is actually speaking to people in what he calls his “Jewish accent.”
How can I describe this? Think Irish brogue with an East Coast up-tone punctuated every other word with “Oy” and “What a Tsuris!” Except that he doesn’t know what a tsuris is. I think he means what a schmuck, but then I realize I am glad he is NOT saying that.
“Lose the accent!” I hiss-whisper into his ear. I’m trying not to make him feel conspicuous. I am trying to be supportive.
“But MOM,” he hisses back, with no hesitation. “I’m CON-TRO-VERT-ED!!”
We are in this place, Moshe and I, where I realize I must let him make his own in-roads, his own missteps and achievements.
And so, I force myself to walk across the room to give him the space to meet people and to be just as Jewish as he’d like — whatever he thinks that is. He seems to be doing very well; I see people smiling, then looking at him in great surprise and quite a few patting him on the back.
I can’t help myself. After about five minutes of this back-slapping, I mosey on over in his general direction to listen in — just to see how he’s doing with this new social challenge — when he sidles up to a very old man. A man clearly from New York. A man very clearly Jewish-born and raised. He’s got the shawl. He’s got the yarmulke. He has reached his hand out to my son with the most tender of eyes.
Just as I come into earshot, I hear this brief conversation:
“Hi! I’m Moshe! What kind of car do you drive?”
The man, whose name tag says Rabbi Weitz, informs my son that he drives a Volkswagen bus.
“You know the GERMANS make those, don’t you?” says my Moshe.
“Yes, I do.”
“OK, just checking.”
“So, were you raised in the synagogue or are you just learning about our culture tonight?” the rabbi asks.
“Ohhhh, well…,” starts Moshe.
I can feel something shift in the air, a bomb about to drop. I race to intervene before he can get one more word out. But I can’t cross that much space without looking like I am attacking my son and so he continues on unbridled.
“Well,” he says again, and I can tell he is trying to find something important to justify his new-found faith. “I’m Jewish because my Mom chopped off my penis and then her boyfriend dumped her because he’s from New York.”
The Rabbi’s eyebrows are raised in a most uncomfortable arch. I snatch Moshe from the jaws of conversation and march him toward the door.
“What? You DID chop off my penis and that makes me Jewish!” He tells me.
“Not another word,” I say as I push him toward the car. “You can talk to your father about your penis – he’s the one who made that decision. And right now, I am EXTREMELY controverted!”
And really wanting the Jewish ex who dumped us to choke on his 10 Little Gefilte Fish.