Schrodinger’s Jew: Exit West and Jewish Migration

I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating exactly how Jewish I am. I promise, I am bringing this up for a reason.

I contemplate how Jewish I am because it’s not exactly a clear cut answer, as it it for most people. My mother is Catholic and my father is Jewish, so I would be 50% Jewish, right? Except Judaism traditionally is passed down through the mother’s line. So I’m 0% Jewish. Except that alongside Christmas and Easter, my family celebrates Hanukkah and Passover. My last name is very Jewish; it roughly means “date branch” in Hebrew. The vast majority of my family migrated to the United States long before the Holocaust, but not all. I will never know who those distant relatives were, or if I would have ever gotten the chance to meet them. They would have been so, so distant, but I still wonder.

My family, both sides of it, is frequently obsessed with genealogy. We can trace my mother’s family all the way back to the United Kingdom and Ireland. In fact, a fun anecdote I was told as a child is that not only were my ancestors on the Mayflower, my great-great-great-however-many-greats grandfather fell off the Mayflower and had to be rescued. With my father’s side, however, it’s not so easy.

We can trace my father’s family back decently far for a Jewish family. Inevitably though, as many Jewish families do, we end up hitting a dead end: we simply have no idea what country we are actually from. Not only that, those places we would be from have changed throughout the years. Depending on when you look, I could be Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, or Latvian. With my mother’s side, we know most of my relatives were from Scotland and Ireland. We can trace exactly where they were and where they went. With my father’s side, however, all I know is that I am vaguely Eastern European. That’s it. I have no more information.

Towards the end of Exit West, friction between Saeed and Nadia starts up as to exactly how much they want to stay connected to their homeland. As Nadia becomes more and more separated, Saeed in turn yearns for connection with other Middle Eastern migrants. This friction is a part of their inevitable conclusion, which I won’t say because we’re not supposed to have finished the book yet. Despite their different reactions to migration, however, one thing is clear: their home is not their home anymore, no matter how much they may or may not want it to be.

I never got to choose how much I wanted to connect with my roots. I wear green for St. Patrick’s Day. My parents went and visited the place in Scotland my mother’s family comes from. I even chose a Celtic name for myself. But I don’t get those same things on my father’s side.

For all it matters, I’m a practicing Unitarian Universalist who is an active and passionate member of Unity Temple’s youth group. UUism is neither Christian nor Jewish; indeed, it was chosen by my family because it is a religion where my parents can still exist in the faiths of their childhood while still attending the same church.

I don’t know how Jewish I am. I’m not even sure it’s my decision to make. I’m stuck in a strange limbo between Jew and goy. I’m both and neither at the same time. I’m less Jewish than my Jewish friends, but more Jewish than my friends of other faiths. I’m not not Jewish, but what does that really do for me? At the end of the day, though, it’s not really a question of how Jewish I am. It’s about this sense of home that I don’t get to have. It’s about the fact that I more-or-less get to choose whether I am affected by anti-Semitism. It’s about me playing three-way tug-of-war with religion while not believing in a God. I can see it Saeed and I can see it in Nadia, being pulled every which way, not knowing which direction is right for you, endlessly straining to stay in the middle and always, always failing.

4 thoughts on “Schrodinger’s Jew: Exit West and Jewish Migration

  1. Finn G.

    I pretty strongly relate to this post, since my father’s side of the family is also Jewish and also rather difficult to track down. I know that two of my great-grandparents were German Jews (my dad’s dads parents) who left Germany shortly before the Holocaust, but the rest is kind of a mystery. Some were Polish, I think? Several of my relatives also live in Israel now, but I have no idea at what point that started or what family members were involved.

    The point is that pogroms, the Holocaust, and all the other wonderful anti-Semitism running around history makes it pretty hard for Jewish families to know exactly where they came from. I wouldn’t claim in the slightest to be a victim of religious discrimination or nativism (what do you know, being a white male in this country means I can bypass a lot of those types of problems), but those institutions do shape the experiences and history of so many families across the world, including those in Exit West.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Josephine D

    I relate to this a lot as well, even though I’m not Jewish. I actually have a story about my own family that your post made me think of. My father’s parents were born and grew up in Haiti, meaning, going back far enough we’re descended from African slaves and so can’t really trace our ancestry. So, a couple of years ago my dad’s brother bought my grandma one of those “23andMe” DNA test kits for her birthday so she could find out what part of Africa her ancestors were from. And she got super mad and basically said something along the lines of, “That’s a complete waste of money! Why do I need to spit into a tube to find out where I’m from? I already know where I’m from! I’m Haitian!” She made my uncle return the kit. Everyone in my family kind of laughs about this as my uncle’s massive birthday gift fail, but when I was reading your post, it kind of made me think–my grandmother is a little bit like Nadia. She doesn’t care about what geographical region her genes come from, because she built her own sense of identity and belonging based off the place where she lived. Obviously, in my grandmother’s case, it wasn’t all her choice. Her family had lived in Haiti for generations, and even when the first of her ancestors to live there came over from Africa, they wouldn’t have been able to survive and eventually to revolt against the institution of slavery if they refused to work together on the basis of national origin. However, both Nadia and my grandmother don’t dwell in the past. Even though they were both forcibly severed from their roots–Nadia through losing her country and family to war and my grandmother through not knowing her family history because her ancestors were enslaved–they each created their own sense of self based on the culture and values that they connected with personally, rather than where their ancestors were from. And because, like Finn said in his comment, so many families throughout history have been torn apart because of various forms of discrimination, maybe all of us who are descendants of those families have to figure how to form our own senses of self in that same way, to an extent. I don’t know. I’m still figuring it out myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Josephine D

      P.S. Sorry for such a long comment, your post really just struck such a chord with me! Honestly, so many of the feelings you mention having I have felt as well. Thank you for sharing something so personal, I’m sure lots of people other than me can also relate to it as well.

      Like

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