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  • God and Bugs Bunny
  • Stephen Miller (bio)

The headline for an article in the Times Literary Supplement reads: "The Self You Choose." The article concerns how the poet Thom Gunn tried to find a new identity in part by changing his given name from William Guinneach Gunn. Can we really choose a self? Though we can give ourselves a new name or even change our sex, we are always chained to our ethnic identity. I will always be of Jewish descent.

I could ignore my ethnic heritage, dismissing it as inconsequential. Or I could brood about it, as Philip Roth often does in his novels. Or I could embrace it. The brother of a Jewish woman I know has three sons who have a strong sense of their Jewish identity, but each has chosen a different way of celebrating it. One is a secular Jew—interested in Jewish culture but not observant. Another is a Reform Jew—that is, observant but only mildly so. The third has become a Hasidic Jew—choosing a very strict and demanding version of Judaism, immersing himself in a world filled with Jewish rites and rituals.

It is unlikely that I will choose any of these Jewish identities; I'm in my sixties and haven't chosen one of them yet. Though I have not tried to hide my Jewish heritage, I've more or less ignored it for the last forty years. Yet the Jewish component of my identity cannot be gainsaid. "Memory," a writer in the Economist says, "is central to the question of 'who am I?'"

I have many memories of my Jewish childhood. The main thing about my Jewish childhood is that for the most part it was not very Jewish. My parents never went to services, and they never followed Jewish dietary laws. When I was growing up I often had bacon for breakfast and occasionally ate ham and cheese sandwiches for lunch. My mother, whose parents were Orthodox Jews, tried halfheartedly to observe some Jewish rites. On Hanukkah, a relatively minor Jewish holiday, she made latkes (potato pancakes) and put up a menorah to commemorate the eight-day holiday. On the first night of Hanukkah we said a prayer when we lit a candle, but when I became a teenager this practice stopped. [End Page 256]

My parents also halfheartedly celebrated Passover. Jews are supposed to substitute Passover dishes for their regular dishes. We did not do that, but we did not eat bread during the Passover holiday. And on the first night of Passover we went to a seder given by my mother's sister and her husband. They were Reform Jews who kept a kosher household. I found this religious celebration a chore. I was bored by the obligatory reading from the Haggadah—the Passover prayer book. Year after year we read the same stories, uttered the same prayers, asked the same questions, and heard the same answers. I tried to read the passage assigned to me as quickly as possible. The faster I read, the sooner we would eat.

I also had mixed feelings about my uncle. I liked to talk to him because he was an educated man—a leading public-health official who had a master's degree from mit. But I could see that he disliked my father, who was a traveling salesman with an eighth-grade education. Though my father could try anyone's patience with the same corny jokes every year, he was my father, so I did not like the expression I saw on my uncle's face when my father was talking.

In one respect, however, I was a very traditional Jewish kid: from the age of ten to thirteen I went to Hebrew school for two hours three times a week. I feared the military-looking Israeli woman who was our teacher. She would rap your knuckles with a long pointer if she thought you had not prepared for the class. It was not painful, but it was humiliating. My strongest memory of Hebrew school was the moment after class when I opened the door of the dark and dank Hebrew Institute of University Heights in the Bronx...