I had my bar mitzvah in July. No one had planned it; it was an unofficial, spur of the moment thing -- an invitation from the rabbi to engage further in that part of Judaism. I was at the Kotel (by the Wailing Wall), when the Chief Rabbi of the Danish Mosaic Community asked me if I wanted to have a bar mitzvah. He was a wise man I had just met but already admired a great deal, and before I knew it, we had commenced the ritual. When he arrived at the final prayer, he asked me to state my Jewish name.
“Joshua Tepper,” I said.
It is a name that I never use — my legal name is Joshua Teperowski. Was I lying? Or was I, by saying the true name of my family, which my grandfather had abandoned in hopes of survival, telling the rabbi an underlying truth. By orthodox religious law, your mother has to be a Jew for you to be Jewish, and my mother isn’t. As I stood there listening to the rabbi’s Hebrew prayer, eyes closed and legs shaking, I wondered what I was.
My mother wasn’t a Jew, but her father was. He was a Pole named Icek Tepper, “fortunate” enough to be taken to a Russian labor-camp, shortly before the rest of his hometown of Boryslav was scourged. Icek escaped the camp by holding onto a train, and subsequently changed his name to the less Jewish-sounding name Ignaczy Teperowski. When Ignaczy, during the post-war chaos, married a staunch Catholic and my mother was born, the Judaic laws of religious inheritance meant that she was not born a Jew.
However, not being Jewish in the eyes of Jews is not necessarily the same as not being considered Jewish by the rest of society. As such, my mom was just Jewish enough to be pushed out of Poland by the anti-Semitic wave of the late sixties. Decades later, my grandfather’s Jewish identity trickled down to me, though twice-diluted. And so, I grew up identifying as being at least some kind of a Jew — albeit an agnostic one.
Before I became a vegetarian, I happily ate pork, so when I qualified to join a Birthright trip to Israel with some forty other Scandinavian Jews, it was due to genealogy rather than dutiful Jewish practice. I was excited to go on a journey that both of my siblings had enjoyed, but as the trip approached, a bothersome realization crept up on me: I was bluffing. Yes, our family practiced “Hanukkah” alongside our Christmas celebration, but it consisted of lighting all nine candles at once. And more often than not, we ended up just doing it on the very eve of Christmas!
Yes, I absented from my classmates’ confirmation preparation during middle school, but I hadn’t had a bar mitzvah either.
My mom was raised in a time and place where advertising one’s Judaism was consequential, if not directly dangerous, and her father therefore always kept a lid on that part of the family’s identity in her upbringing. This, once again, trickled down to my family’s culture, resulting in the fact that we barely kept Shabbat, and only visited the synagogue for concerts and talks. In truth, I was non-Jewish in more ways than just my lack of maternal inheritance. So before departing for Israel, I bought an “Introduction to Judaism” paperback in a frantic effort to avoid accidentally mistaking Rosh Hashanah for Yom Kippur or matzo for challah.
The first time I feared my bluff would be called was during an orientation meeting some weeks before the trip. We were to meet for lunch in the community house by the Copenhagen Synagogue, and as I struggled to find a building I was supposed to frequent, I felt as if I was wearing a giant sign screaming, “I’M NOT A REAL JEW.”
I put on my best poker face, in the shape of a kippah, and joined the meeting. My nerves were eased as I met the other trip participants: A group of friendly, down-to-earth, secular kids — no sidelocks in sight. I smiled and relaxed, but also made sure to send a signal by shoveling an abundant amount of hummus on my plate. Despite my efforts, I still managed to foil my own facade near the end of the meeting, as a young man entered the room and addressed us all.
“Who is that guy,” I whispered to the neighboring girl. “That guy” turned out to be the chief rabbi, Jair Melchior, the grandson of the very man who signed my birth certificate and membership of the Mosaic Community.
The girl, Lea, gently smiled at my ignorance, and was obviously not judging me – which also seemed to be the case for the rest of the trip participants. So why did I still have this nagging feeling that I was pretending? My lineage qualified me for the Birthright trip, but I still felt like I was lying to someone. I just didn’t know who.
As we boarded the plane bound for Ben Gurion Airport, I was not even halfway through my paperback. I felt that I would soon have the rug pulled out from under me. But throughout my journey across Israel with my Jewish peers, something entirely different happened. In their reflections, I saw parts of my own Jewish identity that had previously been hidden in plain sight. We were brought closer together by all the ways in which we are not like our Protestant peers back home. We pronounced hummus with the necessary guttural “rrr” in the beginning of the word, and collectively laughed at our parents’ common wish for all of us to find a “nice Jewish spouse.” To much amusement, I told about my father, who is a prototypical wannabe-Jew. A full-blood Dane, who has no Judaic origins or faith, but who relishes the rich traditions of cultural-Judaism. A man, who is so devoted to this endeavor that he has been married to not only one, but two Jewish women. As I jokingly told them all of this, a faint voice within me asked whether I was just a wannabe like that. But this voice was quickly muffled as Israel grew on me. Truly, the Land of Milk and Honey grew on all of us as we shared childhood stories, and I realized that I wasn’t alone in having a yiddishe mama.
One night we sat down, in preparation for the following day’s visit to Yad Vashem, and reflected on the Holocaust’s significance for Jewish history and, as importantly, for contemporary Jewish identity. We were asked to indicate by a show of hands whether we had any immediate family that had been lost during the atrocities of the Second World War. In a crowd of almost fifty, all but a few raised their hands. At that moment it struck me that I had never been in a group like this before. I suddenly remembered watching a WW2 movie in middle school, and how I had cried my eyes out as the song Mein Shtetle Belz was played in the soundtrack. That day, I had been alone with my emotions, but here, there were suddenly people who grew up with that very same song. Perhaps, the Judaic parts of my identity had lacked a crucial catalyst all this time; a quintessential element of the culture: A Jewish community. After all, the Jews are not just a religious group or a race. They are a people.
Now, when I meet fellow Jewish peers at college, we exchange understanding smiles. On Saturdays, I greet them with “Shabbat Shalom.” I proudly tell tales of my Birthright trip, proclaim my love for hummus and namedrop various Israeli sites. Sometimes, I question if I do this merely for the comfort of belonging to a cultural group, and I’ve found that the answer feels different from time to time. Perhaps the issue of my Jewish identity is not one to be solved definitely. Identity evolves as we do, never remaining static or tangible; but when I embraced Rabbi Melchior by the end of the bar mitzvah, a part of mine was clear for a moment. ■