For this interview, which I conducted as part of the research for my book, I focused on two specific odd and eccentric Jews: my mother and me.
One of the key elements of my childhood was my mother’s decision to have me, and my brother, pretend not to be Jewish while we were growing up in Mississippi. That choice is both the premise of my book, and a topic of great interest for me. Strangely enough, I never actually asked my mother much about it. Now I have, having forced her to sit in a car with me and drive around Queens talking about the past.
First question people always ask is why. Why did you decide to keep our Judaism a secret? Rather than just asking you directly, though, tell me what prompted you to think about moving from New York to Mississippi in the first place.
I wasn’t making a living.
Okay. But more specifically—why Mississippi? I mean, we could have gone to, like, Boise or wherever.
Yeah, but this was where I got recruited to start a practice. I could also have gone to Boca Raton, but I didn’t want to.
What was wrong with Boca Raton?
I just figured it was gonna be another New York. Just warmer. Then there was one in Phoenix, and Palm Springs, and one in North Dakota that wanted me to come.
Other than North Dakota, all of those places, culturally speaking, would have been very similar to New York. Palm Springs and Boca Raton have plenty of Jews, you know?
Well, I didn’t think about that—I happened to have my first interview in Biloxi, and you know your father and I had driven past there when Jason [my older brother] was an infant, and I thought it was the most beautiful place in the world. I just did. It was a beach. There was nobody on the beach except these gorgeous antebellum mansions.
But did you ever think, okay, I’m moving to the Deep South. That’s very different.
I guess I didn’t look at it as the Deep South. I looked at it as the beach.
But why were you ready for such a big move?
Because New York was too hard. It was. I mean, I chased the guy who washed my windshield down the street. And he ran. Okay? He ran.
What do you mean you chased the guy—
You know the guys who used to wash your windshield? [editorial note: Rudy Giuliani’s much maligned “squeegee men”] One guy came after me, and I got out of the car and I chased the guy down the street. I was cursing truck drivers—the truck drivers knew me. They would laugh and wave because I had cursed them at some point. [another editorial note: my mother is a shade over five feet tall]
Okay, so you were uncomfortable in New York. It was too much of a stress, you had two children. The divorce was nasty.
And my mother had just died for God’s sakes. And I couldn’t meet any guys. They were all gay.
You could have moved to New Jersey.
My goal was a small town. I wanted it to be warm. I did not want a big city. I wanted small town. I wanted warm weather.
When did you decide that you were not going to tell people you were Jewish?
I knew that anywhere I moved I probably wasn’t going to tell them.
Because I just didn’t want that stigma anymore. I didn’t want my kids to be a minority.
But there are so many other solutions to that.
You could have said we’re atheists.
Hmm. A woman from New York, and a doctor? First question is “Are you Jewish?” Okay? So I said I was, um, Unitarian.
Where the hell did you come up with that?
They don’t really believe in Christ. So it’s the next best thing to being atheist.
And so you knew before we moved to Mississippi that that’s what we were going to do.
I don’t know if I told you. Did I? I don’t even remember. I don’t even think it came up until we moved.
Or until we went to Episcopal school. Was that what it was? Or was it before that?
Yeah, before, because I knew people would ask. People are very nosy, and they ask the most inappropriate questions.
I’m still trying to understand, was it when you were a kid you decided you didn’t like being Jewish? There was some problem with it? Was there some…
I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.
When was that?
When I was 12 years old. That was it. I did not want to be a lampshade. I did not want my kids to be a lampshade. I knew I could not prevent it for me, but at least I could prevent it for my grandchildren.
But you were living in an environment where being Jewish wasn’t risky at all.
It does not matter. It was post–World War II. I felt that it was risky. I felt that it could happen again. It happened with Torquemada. It happened in France. Every Western society has killed the Jews.
But isn’t that sort of obsession with that—the belief that it will happen again—you understand that that’s totally fucking Jewish, right?
Okay, but I decided to go a different direction with it.
What about in your house growing up? Grandpa and Grandma were not religious, but clearly they valued being Jewish—
No, they valued… They thought it was important that I have a religion, because everybody went to a church or a temple.
But Grandpa was the president of the B’nai Brith chapter.
That was different. That’s a social organization. It’s to help Jews throughout the world. It’s not religious.
But you knew you were Jewish. You viewed yourself as a Jew. Would you have married a non-Jew?
Sure, I dated non-Jews.
Really? It seemed that most of the guys you dated after Dad were named Morton or Ira.
Because that’s who I knew and that’s who was attracted to me.
But you told us when we were young, before we moved to Mississippi, we knew we were Jews. Right?
I guess. But I remember I got really, really, really annoyed at your grandfather—
Grandpa Dave [my father’s father]. Unbeknownst to me, he registered Jason as a Jew in New York in a Temple. I don’t know what that means, but he did it.
And why were you mad at him?
Because it wasn’t his business. It wasn’t his job, it was my kid and I didn’t want it.
Right. You and Dad made up your mind that we’d have no religious instruction.
And that was something you were in agreement about, right?
Yes. Now, your father had no religious instruction until he wanted to become bar-mitzvahed, and then he went to this crash course for two weeks. And that was it.
Well, it wasn’t long. He didn’t go for a traditional length of time.
What makes you think that?
Because he told me.
I don’t know about that.
I had much more religious training than your dad did.
I went to Sunday school every week.
Uh, pretty much.
I didn’t know that. Did you learn Hebrew?
Yes. But I did not go to Hebrew school. My parents refused to allow me to go to Hebrew school.
They didn’t want me to do that.
I’m trying to understand why.
Because I don’t think they wanted me to be that kind of a religious Jew.
But you were in a reform Temple.
They didn’t want me to have that kind of background.
Did Grandpa ever talk about the Holocaust?
No. Except that to say that he got his mother out and that they did not want to leave and he knew what was coming. And that the rest of his family was killed in the camps.
But there was nothing like “You know this is the lesson of Judaism one way or another.” You know, like “It’s bad to be a Jew, or it’s good to be a Jew because everybody tries to kill you and we survive.”
No. I only grew up knowing that Jews were smarter than everybody else. And we were better. That was an a priori assumption.
That’s why people remain Jewish, you know. Even if it’s only cultural. Because part of the religion is that you’re better than everyone else.
But you wanted to cast that off?
You wanted to give up being the smartest guy in the room!
I don’t have to say I’m Jewish to be smart.
Okay. So did you go to my Dad’s family’s seders?
That was the first seder I’d ever been to and I hated it.
Why did you hate it?
Because it was stupid.
Because here were these people who were non-religious all the rest of the year and all of a sudden they put on this holier-than-thou ceremony in a foreign language that nobody understands that lasts hours on end.
It doesn’t anymore, by the way.
It’s hours on end.
In my house? It’s hours on end?
We’re eating the whole fucking time!
No. Hours on end, with people pontificating. And I don’t like that.
But you thought it would be better to be Christian?
I want my kids to not be at risk.
But that’s separate, I mean. I’m not talking about the risk part.
I’m talking about how you looked at this religious ceremony that we did in people’s homes once or twice a year and you thought, “This is pompous. This is ridiculous. I would prefer to be in a Christian church or among Americans doing American things.”
Well, if you’re going to have that kind of pomp and circumstance, then I’d rather do it there.
Okay, so I want to circle back to the time period after you accepted the job in Mississppi. You had already decided, whether consciously or unconsciously, that when you moved, you would stop being Jewish.
Yes. First of all I thought, “I’m going someplace where nobody knows me.” How are they gonna find out I’m Jewish?
That’s a question of getting caught, that has nothing to do with motivation.
But why is it anybody’s business anyhow? I don’t want to be different when I move to this different place where there aren’t any Jews.
But that argument doesn’t work either, because you’re saying it’s none of their business but then you’re actively lying.
Well, if they ask me then, yeah.
But that suggests that there’s something wrong with the prior identity, right? Or you feel like you will have a problem.
Yes. But I think there is a problem with being Jewish. I don’t want my, again—
You think there’s a problem there.
What is the problem?
You’re gonna be killed.
Even now. In the United States.
I guess it’s not unreasonable to think that.
Right, so I don’t want my kids, grandkids, great-grandkids, great-great-grandkids to have that as an option in their life.
Do you ever think about your great-grandparents? That you’re sort of casting them aside?
I’m not casting them aside. None of my parents, in any way, I don’t think were ever religious. My grandmother, for goodness sake, my grandmother tried to hide the fact that she was Jewish in Germany.
You mean during the Holocaust?
Before it in 1902!
How did she try to hide it?
My grandfather’s name was Cone. She switched it go Glaser because it’s not a Jewish name.
That’s why she did it?
For what purpose?
She didn’t want people to know they were Jewish!
She pretended not to be Jewish.
That’s all I know. They definitely changed their last name so it wouldn’t be Jewish.
Back to deciding to move to Mississippi. So you decided you were moving to Mississippi. You decided you were not gonna be Jewish when you were there—
Do you remember how you decided what you were gonna tell me and Jason?
Did you give it any thought? What you might say to us about this?
I was just gonna make it a rule.
Okay. So you realize that sort of seems irrational, right?
I just don’t remember.
Well, I’m asking you to try to remember.
I don’t remember. I don’t remember.
You don’t remember it at all? That this was the new rule? Think.
Yeah, I do remember when we got to Mississippi that I told you that.
What did you tell us?
I said don’t tell anybody you’re Jewish.
Tell them you’re Unitarian.
But you have no real recollection of the conversation itself? Because that is like a huge moment in my life, and you don’t remember it at all.
I don’t think there was one conversation.
Really? How did it work?
Uh… I just, I think when you started school I said “Listen, just don’t tell anyone you’re Jewish.”
And how did we react?
You didn’t say anything when I said that. It didn’t come up as a big conversation.
We didn’t react.
Is that basically it?
Yeah. Because it wasn’t gonna be an issue, really. Just don’t. If somebody asks you just say “nothing” or you’re Unitarian. Just don’t say you’re Jewish, whatever you do.
You don’t remember a significant amount of attention paid to telling us that this was what we were going to do. You don’t remember us reacting.
No, you didn’t.
Did you tell us not to tell my Dad?
Really? He didn’t know.
I think you knew not to say anything.
Wasn’t it a concern?
You know—I didn’t think about it. Isn’t that weird?
All of this is weird, Ma. But you would not have wanted Dad to know this.
Probably not, and he wouldn’t have been happy about it.
No, he would not have been.
But again, I didn’t really think about it.
So let me ask you, was there every a point at which you thought to yourself, “This was kind of unnecessary?”
No. I thought it was necessary. I still do.
In what way?
It was hard enough to be accepted as a female doctor—I’m still an outsider as a doctor. It’s really weird.
But you’re an eccentric, that’s why you’re an outsider. Because you’re a nut.
I’m not a nut!
I think you’re a nut in a good way. I like your being a nut.
Yeah, but nobody else knows that!
Everybody knows that. Okay, but you’ve never regretted it? You’ve never felt like, well, here today with me might be the price that you’re paying for it?
Even now with me writing the book?
No. I still think I did the right thing.
Based on what?
I still think that it’s a bad thing to be Jewish, and since none of us believe in religion or God, who gives a shit?
Did you ever fuck up? Did you ever say to people, “Hey, when I was a kid and we were at Passover, and…”
You never let on? Nobody every caught you?
And were you concerned about that? Did you think about that?
What was I supposed to be concerned about?
That you might say something about your past in New York that would allow people to realize that you were Jewish.
No. Because I didn’t think I had grown up particularly Jewish.
You didn’t think you’d grown up particularly Jewish? You were the child of a Holocaust survivor; you were raised in Queens, went to Sunday school, and graduated from Barnard! What are you talking about?
Because I always—because my parents never wanted me to be a religious Jew like everybody else in the neighborhood, so I was always, again, a little bit of a—a little different than everybody else. I didn’t have a bat mitzvah. I didn’t take off on the High Holy days. I didn’t have a Seder.
So you were never worried in Mississippi. Did you ever think to yourself—what did you think would happen if someone found you out?
I just felt I wasn’t gonna be successful there.
No, I mean, after you went down the road a ways with this, if you were discovered to have been a liar, what did you think would happen, because that’s what I think would be the biggest concern, once you’ve made the commitment to it, is “I can’t let anybody know not because it’s going to be such a big deal that I’m Jewish, I mean they may not like me for that but whatever, the big problem is gonna be that they’re gonna think you’re a liar.”
I guess I thought it was none of their business.
But what if they found out? Then it becomes their business, because you’ve been lying.
I didn’t think that was gonna happen.
Okay, so you never played out the consequences of the action—
No. I never played out the consequences of my actions.
You’re an odd bird, Ma.
What do you mean I’m an odd bird? I made the decision, that’s it.
The day you made that decision you stopped feeling Jewish in your head? Like you didn’t think you were Jewish? I always felt Jewish, I always felt, like you talk about, “I’m superior, I’m a Jew, you know we run everything…”
Yes, but that’s a bad attitude.
Fuck the good or bad, I don’t care about good or bad, I still felt that way. I still felt Jewish, you know? But you didn’t.
I don’t think so.
Once you decided.
Once I decided that was it.
That’s a pretty powerful state of mind. I wish I could do that. Just make up my mind about something and it just happens.
That’s the way I function.
Right. And no thought—did you ever think, okay, here I’m telling my kids to lie about this thing in Mississippi and don’t tell anybody about it and they seem to be doing okay with it, but then they go home to spend time with Dad, and now they’re doing this Jewish thing and that’s gotta be weird for them because they’re human beings and that’s gotta be freaking them out? Or is that just something parents of my generation worry about: How I’m making my kids crazy.
I think that’s true.
But in a way you were part of the first generation that worried about making their kids crazy.
Yes, but I did not think that. I was only focusing on the fact that I was saving your life.
Saving my life.
I was saving you. Serious. I literally thought I was saving your life.
How did you think you were saving my life?
Because I was making you not Jewish.
How did you decide on Christ?
Christ Episcopal? [This is the school I went to, where I studied the Bible, attended church each week, and sang in the choir]
It was the best school available. I asked people.
But didn’t you think it would cause, sort of, problems for you?
Why not? You’re sending your kid to religious school. People are going to ask you about religion.
There was no other private school. I had no choice.
But you understand what I’m talking about, right?
Yeah, well, I figured it would work out.
Also, if you put a kid into a religious environment, things might happen. Were you thinking to yourself, “Hey, they might really get involved in this sort of thing.” I was in choir. I took communion. I went there for a year and didn’t take communion and then I started to take communion. You wanted that, you encouraged that.
No, you didn’t talk about it at all. You didn’t tell me that. No.
But when you sent us to Episcopal school, there was always the potential that we could get really religious.
Well, I didn’t think that you’d be exposed to that much religion. It’s a school for goodness sake. I mean that’s just interesting information, you know what I mean?
What do you mean?
It’s an education. It’s part of Western European history.
So you weren’t thinking we might grow up religious. Did you ever think we might open our mouths?
No, I thought you were good kids and you wouldn’t do it.
Do you remember anti-Semitism as a kid? I just don’t understand how this—I just don’t understand how you arrived at the decision. It seems so simplistic just to read The Rise of the Third Reich and decide “I don’t want to be Jewish.”
But I grew up in a post–World War II era. World War II was fresh. It wasn’t history. It had just happened, and it happened to my family. It was not history, it was my life.
But that’s very typical. Your understanding of the book was very typical and, you know, you could read the literature of that age, like Philip Roth and all that tension between the secular kid and the religious parent and all that stuff, but they never stopped being Jewish. The decision that you made to become a Christian, and not convert mind you, until later, but to pretend, is extremely unusual.
Well, I was triggered by moving. There’s no question about that.
Well, but nobody forced you to move. You chose to move.
There was no way I could live in New York anymore. It was too crazy.
Okay, so, obviously I’m going to write this book and your friends might see it.
Yeah, but they don’t have to see the book.
How are they not gonna see the book?
They’ll forget about it. All they know is that you’re an author and that you’ve got a book deal.
Mom, every time they see me they’ll ask. You know that, right? So what are you gonna do? Why did you tell them I was working on a book?
Because I’m proud of you.
I know. But there’s going to be a book about your choice.
I don’t expect anyone to read it.
Well, it’s in the first chapter, Ma, that’s usually the part people read.
I don’t expect anybody to buy it either, and I ain’t buying it for them.
Page 1 is going to read: “I was nine years old when my mother forced me to convert to Christianity.”
I did not.
Sure you did.
No. I thought it would be best that way, but I was hoping, with a little coaxing that you would agree with me.
I think it’s terrible. I think it’s terrible what you did. I think it fucked with our heads in a big way.
I don’t think so. First of all kids are very resilient. That’s number one.
And number two, you never had a damn religion anyhow.
Sure we did. We had a religious identity.
No, you had what you call a cultural identity.
Well, a cultural identity based in religion.
You were American.
No. American, fuck this Jewish-American shit.
But that’s not true. You can say that all you want but we come from a very specific history in America and it’s not the same as somebody else’s. It is what it is. You may not like that, but the truth is you even more than me grew up in a very, very specifically Jewish context.
You think it’s the right thing to do to pretend to be a different religion.
To get rid of a religion that’s a pain in the ass. Since you don’t believe in religion, you get rid of that one that can harm you. It can harm you. It’s an actively harmful situation, so you get rid of it.
Don’t you think you could have done that in a more principled way though? Like, “We are going to be atheists.” Right?
Well, that’s pretty much what Unitarians are.
First of all, we were not Unitarians. We could have become Unitarians.
We could have, but the Unitarian church was way too far away. And I didn’t have you go to church. We didn’t go to church at all.
I know that, but my point is you didn’t have to do what you did. What you did is weird.
It’s not weird. I was protecting my family. Everybody hates the Jews.
Everybody hates the Jews.
You know the Tom Lehrer song.
Yes, I do.
Well, what’d he say?
He said everybody hates the Jews.
Exactly. And it’s true. If you have a tumor, you cut it out.
Judaism was a tumor?
Well, it can kill ya.
You’re a lunatic, man. You’re nuts.
I’m not nuts. It could kill you. I got rid of it.
Then why, if you feel like that then we should have just become actually Episcopal, like actually do it. You must have known there were some limits.
It was unnecessary to do something I really didn’t believe in.
You were always trying to get me to go to fucking midnight mass and all that bullshit.
That was fun.
It’s not fun.
It is fun.
It’s got all the good songs.
You have to understand, I could go now and see it as a cultural event, but at that age, to me, that would have been the pinnacle of hypocrisy. Seriously.
Well, kids take things very seriously, at that age. Religion is bullshit. For that it’s okay to lie.
No, Ma, it’s never okay to lie. Don’t you understand that?
Everybody lies, but it’s never okay.
It’s okay to decide you don’t like Judaism and don’t want to be Jewish.
It’s okay to leave the religion. It’s not okay to do what you did.
You have to, if you’re gonna live among people in the South, you have to do it. I still think you have to.
I don’t think you’re right.
Well, I do.
So you read my article about the Crypto-Jews, right?
Yeah, of course.
What do you make of that?
I think it’s kind of cool.
No, I mean, the historical act, you know?
That’s fine. You do what you have to do.
You don’t see any parallel with you?
Yeah, so? Does that make them bad? No. It makes them survivors. I regard myself as a survivor. I want my children and my grandchildren and my great-great-great-grandchildren to be survivors and not be…
Yeah? And not be what?
I’m trying to think of the word. Not be victims. I did not want to be a victim. How’s that? And I don’t want my family to be victims. And I do feel it can happen in the United States.
Did you have a specific definition of what you wanted to in your head when you were a kid? Did you want to be a WASP? And what did you want us to be? What did you have in mind?
Yeah. I wanted you to be an all-American boy.
But we were.
Yeah. Only if you weren’t Jewish.
I don’t get it.
You don’t get it?! What is the matter with you?
What is the matter with me?
What is your problem?!
I mean, did you hate your father or something? Did you want to kill your mother?
Of course not! No!
What was the problem?
What does that have to do with anything?
You were rejecting them.
No, I wasn’t. I was not.
What did Grandpa know? [my grandfather lived the last ten years of his life with my mother in Mississippi.]
He knew. I don’t think he was too happy.
He never talked about it.
Did you ever talk to him about it?
I told him “Don’t tell people you’re Jewish.”
And what did he say?
Just like that?