Terry Barr’s essays have appeared in such journals as South Writ Large, Poetica, Eclectica Magazine, Red Savina Review, Steel Toe Review, and Hippocampus. His essay collection, Don’t Date Baptists and Other Warnings From My Alabama Mother, is now available from Red Dirt Press. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.
When the Truth Is Found
I am only half Jewish, and I’m the only member of my family who chooses to make that claim. My younger brother, my only sibling, is not worried about such designations, and for whole years at a time, I forget that in his half-ethnicity, he is wholly like me. For decades into my adulthood, I continued to believe that amongst our family members, we were the unique ones: I, who wanted to share our secret, speak our truth, and he, who couldn’t care less. As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones caught or bound by the oddities of genetic code and culturally mixed marriages.
Or by the disturbingly secret proclamations from larger governing bodies.
I am not a religious half-Jew (my father’s side), nor was I ever a religious half-Christian (my mother’s). I wholly do not feel the need to be religious, and so I certainly don’t feel the holy need anymore, as I did twenty years ago, to convert to Judaism. I was raised a Methodist, christened and confirmed in the church, yet I neither asked nor felt the need to be conformed to Methodoxy. Though I attended weekly Wednesday confirmation classes led by poor old sweet and boring Brother Frederick, I’d rather have been reading Batman comics than the Bible back in those days, the days when I was nine years old; the days when my mother actually did buy me a Batman comic before class to whet or soothe or compensate my palate for the Jesus to come.
Biologically, though I am now a formerly nominal Christian, I am still a half-Jew (and half-Gentile). What I think that means is that I have somewhat diluted ancient Jewish blood flowing through all my veins. I also have a clear and inspirational hankering for pastrami, lox and bagels, and smoked sturgeon and eggs (especially from Barney Greengrass). I often eat too much and am just as often more bloated than not. Yet, my dietary problems have nothing to do with keeping kosher. I unapologetically consume hickory-smoked Alabama-style baby back pork ribs whenever I can. I eat shellfish too, especially shrimp and crab, which I love most especially in gumbo.
And cheeseburgers. God I love cheeseburgers.
But food aside, my Jewish half-self does observe the rituals of Chanukah, lighting candles, singing “Baruch-Atai Adonai” for eight nights. I acknowledge Rosh Hashanah with apples and honey. But on Yom Kippur, while I reflect, I never atone, at least not to the one God my father believed in.
What I do, instead, is teach Holocaust Literature to college students. And Southern Jewish Literature (as well as Creative Nonfiction, and Modern Novel, and Southern Film). I discuss with my students pogroms and Kristallnacht and the works of Viktor Frankl and Art Spiegelman. As with my meals, I do so gladly and with gusto.
I do so because when I first took this job, I couldn’t have done so. At least I couldn’t have done so as an openly half-Jewish man. For there were other kinds of laws in place, very unkosher and very strict.
College by-laws that insisted, decreed, ordered that all faculty members be affiliated with a Christian church.
I heard of this decree only after my first, very positive interview with faculty from the college via a phone call, one late fall morning from a woman from the college I hadn’t met. A woman who taught American Literature and who asked me in a high musical voice:
“Terry, they forgot to ask you last week if you are a member of a Christian Church…”
“Well, I was raised a Methodist…”
She cut me off then, exuberant and very much relieved:
“Oh, that’s excellent. Now, I hope we’ll meet soon.”
We did, roughly two months later when I was hired.
That future colleague, I think now, did me a favor. Not only did she alert me to the policy, she also interrupted me before I could go on to say,
“…but I haven’t attended that church in fifteen years and don’t really consider myself a Christian anymore.”
Maybe I would have earned a better job somewhere else if she had let me finish my answer. Maybe I wouldn’t have just started my 29th year at this small, rural, liberal arts college in upstate South Carolina where I have been half ecstatic and half depressed over those years.
But maybe, if she had let me finish, I wouldn’t have become a writer of my own peculiar journey.
I know for a fact, however, that without this job in this place, I would not have wondered so deeply about my status as an unrecognized half-Jew. I would not have been motivated to seek conversion at a Reform congregation in my adopted town. And, I would not have had the opportunity after that initial conversion encounter to turn away from the whole process after the outreach person kept insisting that once I converted, I would then want to bring my “wife and daughter into the temple family.”
I looked at this aging woman who could have been my half-grandmother, and said,
“But my wife doesn’t want to convert. She doesn’t want to be involved in any organized religion, though she supports my choice.”
The recruiter’s face fell, but she didn’t give up.
“Maybe after a little while, she’ll change her mind!”
When she didn’t hear from me again after several weeks, this lady called my home and left a message:
“I hope I didn’t say anything to offend you, Terry. We still want you as part of our congregation, our temple family.”
Actually, I wasn’t offended, but I was put off, permanently. Perhaps owing to my father’s always quiet contemplation of his faith, I expected Jews to act not so much like Christians in this inducement to convert. People are people, though, and some wear stars and prefer rye while others wear crosses and prefer sourdough. And while it’s all manna, still, wherever I looked, the stars were hidden in their suburban alcoves, while the crosses neoned themselves across my peripheral night sky.
Especially at my job.
In my first years at the college, colleagues assured me that I could teach whatever I wanted, and they were right. No one said anything when I taught Joyce and Faulkner, Potok and Roth. Louise Erdrich or Malcolm X.
They also said I could live wherever I wanted, too, but hoped I’d choose the tiny, former mill town where the college is located. I always thought, and in fact dreamed, that I would reside in a college town: the town of Montevallo, home to the primarily liberal arts state university I attended as an undergraduate, was my model. Yet, given Clinton, South Carolina’s size, its increasing poverty and lack of job opportunities for my wife, she and I chose not to live in the depressed hamlet that had birthed the college back in 1880. I could sense my colleagues’ disappointment when I told them our decision, and I wondered if I was also sensing judgment: their judgment of my judgment that this place was insufficient, too provincial, too narrow and uncultured. I was never sure about their wonder, but the truth was that I did reject the town as a place to live, which meant on some level that I was rejecting my colleagues as friends, as people I wanted to spend down time with. As people I wanted to trust.
Because in one crucial area of my life, I didn’t trust them.
You see, by not living amongst them, when asked by these same colleagues if I had found a church to attend, I could say whatever I wanted. I could lie and name Downtown Methodist, Summit Drive Methodist, or even that quaint Anglican church in a crumbling historic district. Or I could say what I actually did say,
“No, I haven’t. I’m still getting to know the community.”
Which was funny, not only because I kept saying it for three years until my colleagues sort of took the hint, but also because my community, the neighborhood where my wife and I lived, was populated by many elderly couples who, when we met, asked secondly—after “Where do you work?”—“What church have you joined?” They assumed something Presbyterian since my college is associated with that denomination. And all I could say was, “No, I was born Methodist,” and then they’d finish my thought by naming the various Methodist churches they knew, or relate in great detail which church they belonged to, along with the reasons why they went there and not some other. Reasons that dealt most often with class and economics, such as “I couldn’t afford to go there. They’re too rich for me,” which is what our neighbor Miss Essie, who later became my daughters’ unofficial grandmother, said about a church across town. A very big church.
So I learned that membership has its privileges and its price, as well as its governing covenants. Covenants that strictly forbade religiously-addled people like me from inclusion.
Though I had flown under the by-lawed radar for several years already, could I really remain a member of a body that would prohibit me if they knew more than a half-truth?
So in year five I began telling some trusted colleagues (who were in departments other than mine) my fears and troubles and truth: that my Dad was a Jew and that I had some issues being a part of something that would exclude him; that I might want to become a fully Jewish man like him. And to my fears, I heard some of the funniest responses:
“We’ve had other colleagues who’ve tried to change that policy. One, who made a motion at every faculty meeting to abolish the policy!”
“Oh, it was voted down every time! But everyone came to expect his quirky monthly motions.”
Another told me that,
“That policy itself has been changed. We used to call ourselves ‘Evangelical’!”
“What does that mean?”
“We used to exclude Catholics!”
“But, we have several faculty members who are Unitarian, though they don’t tell anybody!”
“Unitarians aren’t Christian?”
“Not according to our By-laws! And, by the way, neither are Mormons!”
And then, after I grew so bold, there was the colleague in my own department who told me this:
“You see, when we hire someone who’s Christian, at least we know the kind of person he is.”
I’d add the exclamation point, but I really don’t think it’s necessary.
A few years later, after that colleague got to know me better and had a half-change of heart, he told me of a candidate for the Library Director’s job that his search committee had just turned down:
“He was Jewish, and when I told him our policy, he started crying and asking why? Why would we do that? I got one of our Jewish students [Now that was even funnier, as if we had many, instead of two] to call him back and explain.”
Explain what? That we’d take a Jewish family’s money, but refuse to pay a Jew any?
Does it matter, really, that your librarian is Jewish? Or Baptist? Or a heathen?
I don’t know what those two unsettled Jews said to each other that afternoon, but I do know that on the one occasion when an administrative position at the college opened up that vaguely suited my wife’s educational background, she applied, was interviewed, but didn’t get the job. I was told it was because no one knew whether or not she was a church member. Of course, they didn’t bother to ask.
Of course, she would have told them No anyway.
Once, as we were driving to Biltmore Village on an overnight family trip, my father said to me,
“After all, we all believe in the same God.”
My mother and wife and our daughters were in the car following us, so it was not only a funny thing for my father to say, but so unlike him. So intimate.
“Yes, Dad, we do,” I said, though I knew it wasn’t true. Or rather, I believed that he and I believed in the same God, as did my Christian mother: the God who hadn’t created a hell, the God who didn’t impregnate a virgin girl with his spirit. (My mother is half-apostate). Yes, we all agreed about that God.
But I had been teaching in a place that didn’t agree, and I had grown up in a small town in Alabama that would never agree with us even though for a century, that town’s Christian citizens lived side by side with its Jewish citizens, and one of these Alabama Israelites actually won the Christmas lights competition somewhere back in the 40’s or 50’s. There was even a synagogue in our town, though I didn’t learn that fact until long after I had moved away.
I heard my father’s voice that day of our drive, and I kept hearing it at every faculty meeting, which began with a Bible lesson and a prayer to “our one savior, Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
In those moments, which came once a month on the last Thursday at 5:00 pm, it didn’t matter that I liked Jesus and thought he was a loving, wise, and charismatic man. What did matter were the years of pretending to believe what I didn’t believe.
So regarding Jesus, God, and the gulf between them and us, I rose at one faculty meeting, in my seventh year of service, and asked our President if we “couldn’t revisit the faculty membership rule?”
I had been cautioned against doing this. I had been told that it would enrage the President who himself was a minister and was also bound to the Board of Trustees, the chairman of that body being the senior minister of the largest Presbyterian congregation in the state of Georgia, and maybe the entire south, and who, not incidentally, was also an alumnus of the college.
“That policy isn’t going to change, Terry, as long as he is the Board Chair,” my department head told me.
But, as maybe you can see, I am a very stubborn half-Jewish man.
“You never know,“ I said, and strangely, instead of rage or even defensiveness, our President merely said,
“Yes, we can do that. Maybe we ought to examine the policy in one of our faculty forums.”
And then he assigned that very job to poor old Tim Gaines, chair of the forum committee.
Committees take their time and so it was a few months later that the forum date was announced, during the semester when I would be on sabbatical. I was sure that nothing intentional was meant, that the committee did what it could.
I was also sure that nothing would keep me from that forum, scheduled as it was on a late Tuesday afternoon in January.
Our second daughter was just an infant then and our older girl had just turned five. I was parent-in-charge on Tuesdays, as my psychotherapist wife saw late clients. So I took both girls with me to the college; I hired two of my best students, Karen and Meg, to babysit. Karen took Layla, the infant, in her arms, and Meg held Pari’s hand as they said goodbye to me and headed towards the Student Center for ice cream.
“Bye Daddy,” Pari said and waved. I waved back. I entered the building then, the school library, and I had never felt this alone since that time thirty years before when I had been dropped off for my first day of kindergarten.
“Like a lamb to slaughter,” I thought as I descended the stairs to the forum.
Someone, with either great foresight or the most harrowing sense of dramatic irony in the world, had arranged the tables in two facing rows. And true to the rules of armed conflict, the pro-Christian faculty members sat on one row, the renegades on the other. Of course it gratified me to see that I wasn’t alone on my row. Yet, it didn’t exactly shock me to see who my antagonists were.
What I knew, though, was that on this night and at this forum, I was the antagonist. So be it.
In an hour-long forum that now, 20 years past, seems like a tremor of a dream, I remember these moments:
My colleague Jim Peterson, an untenured instructor of Basic Grammar and Creative Writing, talking about his Jewish heritage and how much this policy hurt him. I hadn’t known Jim was half-Jewish, like me.
Our college chaplain, Greg Henley, remarking that keeping non-Christians out of the faculty ranks was the “Unchristian thing to do.”
A professor of “Bible” suggesting that maybe the college “isn’t the place” for me, and maybe I would be better off “moving on.” He said this in such a soft, compassionate voice, a voice that failed to take into account my family, the abysmal job market, and that I had been at the college much longer than he had.
A professor of Psychology who made this analogy: “You’re a member of Amnesty International, right? Well, Amnesty wouldn’t accept a known terrorist for membership, would it?”
The word “breathtaking” captured my feeling then, as it still does today. I had “broken bread” with this man. But I guess, in the relative degrees that often define our relationships, I was a terrorist, if what he meant was someone who was shocking the current of their world.
Finally, in the only thing I said that I truly remember from that night, I looked at my foes and said,
“To me, this policy is not only wrong and hurtful and unchristian. It is cruel and bigoted.”
“We’re not bigots,” a professor of Christian Education shouted.
“Well, I don’t know what else to call it. To me, you are.”
And at that point, Tim Gaines called the meeting to a close.
Before I knew it, I was walking through the cold night toward the Student Center where I found Karen still cradling Layla and kissing her brow, and Meg in great conversation with Pari about her Sesame Street book, “Elmo Goes to Day Camp.”
“You know she calls Betty Lou ‘Belly Lou,’ don’t you,” Meg said.
“How did the forum go,” Karen asked.
And I just looked at them and shook my head.
“That bad, eh?”
On the drive home where I was indeed heading to my monthly Amnesty meeting, I thought about my girls. Were they 1/4 or 1/8th Jewish? What world would they find when they became adults, and what would I have done to prepare them, to help them find their own place?
And what, if anything ethnic, would they choose to announce, or be?
Those questions plagued me in the following years as I taught Jewish literature courses, as I got mail addressed to the “Jewish Studies Department.” As some of my daughters’ schoolmates told them that they would pray for them to become “saved.”
Yet, as I discovered to my immense joy, whatever percentages my daughters claimed or were, we would all have to reassess ourselves when, at that year’s Rosh Hashanah meal, my wife’s sister revealed their deepest family secret: that their mother was the daughter of Jewish parents, back in old Iran.
This is a secret I’m not supposed to tell, so please pretend that you don’t know it. Please make it your own readerly by-law, imposing this stricture as you will on all those near you. For you don’t want to get me kicked out of my life, do you?
Isn’t it pointless, though? One-eighth/ One-quarter. Half and half? Do we really have to count and declare what we are? Who we are?
Yet we do so because we don’t want others to do the math for us? To define us?
And in this case do we add the fractions or multiply them? Would any sum or product be enough to satisfy those who decree or measure the substance of our lives?
Three years ago, the faculty elected a trinity of representatives to work with members of the Board on a by-law change to the membership rule. Elected that day were a lapsed Catholic, a Buddhist, and me. The rules had been increasingly relaxed over the years to allow members of “other faith communities” into our ranks. But after our committee met for a semester, we passed a new by-law, one that stated, simply, that to be a member of our faculty, one need only respect and be sympathetic with the college’s church-related mission.
Some found even this objectionable—either because it said anything at all about religion, or because no one else on the faculty got to weigh in on the final declaration (But what was the vote for representatives for? What did these critics think the nature of those who were elected meant?). I know, however, that the new policy allowed for more room than we’ve ever had at the college. Room to breathe. Room to be individuals.
To be ourselves.
Room to see that God, in whatever conception we might have, is larger than we are. And whether this God is the same one we all believe in, or doesn’t exist at all, or thinks that our many denominations, sects, and forms are ridiculous, or somehow really good and necessary, I believe we’re all better off sitting at our desks, leaning over long tables in libraries, or delis, or riding in the front seat of family cars, being who we are. Openly and truthfully.
Even if we’re only half sure what that “truth” truly is.