I turned 50 this past November. Nine days after my birthday, my grandmother died at 94. It's almost as if she was waiting for her oldest grandchild to hit the half-century mark before she left us.
In the obituaries, my grandmother's maiden name is given as Helmar. It was actually Hellmann. Her father Jacob Hellmann, my great-grandfather, got tired of his kids getting beaten up and cursed for being Jews in 1920's South Boston (Feeneyism didn't spring from a vacuum), so he changed the family's name to Helmar - it sounded more German than Jewish and he had an accent - moved them to Arlington, Mass. and sent them off to the Catholics in hopes of blending in.
No one was fooled, but the suburbanites of Arlington were a little more genteel than the urbanites in Southie so few people squawked about the Jews next door. Thus my grandfather Joe, the archetypal Boston Catholic Irishman in so many ways, fell in love with and married a Jewish girl named Rose in 1930's Boston. When my grandfather married Nana, he was marrying a girl who he and everyone knew was Jewish even though no one talked about it. From my earliest memory, I always knew my grandmother was Jewish-- but it only came up once. My grandfather's best friend, Jim Flynn, who spoke with a brogue his whole life though he never saw Ireland until well into his adulthood, married Rose's sister Margie.
It's daily life now but it was a big deal back then. The Boston Catholic-Jewish thing, whatever that thing is, is now part of the American fabric and my family is a small thread in it.
My grandmother's conditioning from her early childhood was to never let on that she was Jewish. It was a survival mechanism reinforced over and over again by her family and her environment in the first years of her life. It was an open secret in the family that Nana was Jewish but it was never directly addressed to her by any of the family except for me (always the troublemaker) a few years ago, the last time she cooked dinner for me in her own house when I was visiting them in Massachusetts.
She and I were sitting at the dining room table in the afternoon, talking about family, history, Boston, and all the other subjects I loved to talk to my grandmother about. She was wise but not an intellect as my grandfather was. She also told great stories. I can't recall how I came to ask the question, but it happened nonetheless: "Nana, your parents were Jewish, weren't they?"
She froze for a split-second and then answered, blankly and with no emotion (sure sign of the conditioned, automatic response), "They were German."
I pushed, "But they were German Jews, weren't they, Nana?"
She got a little mad for a second and said, "They were German."
I relented. I'm the only member of my family that wasn't scared of her, but even I knew my limits.
Later in the evening after dinner, my grandfather, grandmother and I were in their living room, talking like we did since I was a youngun. I was their first grandchild and even though I didn't turn out quite as they'd hoped, they still enjoyed my company.
The topic came around to politics and the war and my grandfather opined about the Muslim threat. I said, "Grandpa, I'm a little more worried about the crazy Christians and Jews in our own ranks than I am about crazy Muslims overseas."
Nana, without missing a beat, said, "The Jews watch out for their own!"
Laughing, I said, "Thank you for answering my earlier question, Nana."
Thankfully, she had a great sense of humor so this event never became an issue. I also suspect that her own conditioning kept her from even thinking about it afterwards. The topic never came up with her again and it was the only time the topic ever came up.
My great-grandfather, Jake, was a Jew to the bone even with the crucifix in the hallway. He resembled Lee Strasberg, to get a picture of him. He died when I was about 11 but I vividly remember him, his accent and his desire to be kind to the kids in the family. When I was about 9, he gave me a little plastic box with a white stone in it. He'd picked the stone up off the ground at the shore of the Dead Sea when he visited Israel in the 1960's. He also gave me a rosary. I no longer have either of those things but I do have the memory of him giving them to me and solemnly telling of the origins of each object. I was just a kid but I knew he was trying to tell me something even if neither of us was sure what he was trying to say.
Over the years, Jake has become an embodiment of sorts in my mind. He was Jew and Christian but neither Jew nor Christian, if you know what I mean. He took the best of both and left the rest on the side of the road. A worthy model.