Originally published August, 2009, in International Family Magazine
My friend in college, Debra, asked me, “What are you?”
I did not understand the question.
“What are you? How hard can that be? I’m Jewish, what are you?”
I said I was not religious.
“Neither am I. Just tell me what you are?”
I had not been raised with a religion… in fact; it had not been mentioned, kind of like sushi. I was 25 before I had even heard of sushi.
I asked my parents, “What am I?”
My mom said, “Brooke.” She laughed.
“I know that, but what am I relative to you?”
“But what religion am I?”
“We don’t know. You haven’t told us.”
“How can I not even know what religion I am?”
“That is a personal choice – you will need to make it yourself. Or not.”
This was frustrating, “Ok, let’s make it simple. How about race? I’m not Black, right?”
My mom said, “I wouldn’t be too sure. There was a lot of fooling around going on. Everyone did it; don’t let them tell you otherwise.”
It was like sparring with a judo master who fades from every thrust.
In total exasperation, I said, “Look, my girlfriend is Jewish, and she wants to know what I am. Let’s start there… I’m not Jewish, right?”
My father became serious, “Do you want me to tell you what I want you to be?”
“Yes.” That would be a start.
“When they come to round up the Jews, I want you to be Jewish.”
My friend in graduate school, Mona Hakim, was born in Bethlehem. When she was young, her family moved to Lebanon to avoid threats against her father’s life. She was going to the American University of Beirut when the civil war started.
She told me that your identity card had your religion printed right on it. Thugs would stop your car, and if you were the wrong religion for that part of town, they would chop your head off and place it on a fence post. Muslims did it. Christians did it.
Some people began blackening out their religion on the ID card. That worked for a while. How could you kill someone if you didn’t know what they were?
It didn’t take long for the thugs to think up an answer. If you were Muslim, and you weren’t proud of it, you deserved to die. Christians felt the same about Christians. They couldn’t agree on much, but they did agree on that one thing… don’t say what you are, and we’ll kill you.
That is when she decided she had to get out of there.
I asked her, “So, what are you?”
She said, “I’m not telling you. I’m through with that shit.”
Turns out, she was Mona – good enough for me.
If you conclude that your problems are caused by members of another group, you had better make sure you are not one of them.
If those others are humans, then you are either one of them, or you are inhuman.