How I Know My Past Life Was Jewish

I’m hesitant to share the following because I don’t want to step outside my cultural zone; however, the truth begs to be released and my job is simply to transcribe the thoughts and memories. The reader makes sense of it all, yes? Besides, I’m not declaring myself Jewish without the blessing of a Rabbi – I’m simply giving credit where credit is due, even if it stretches back before the memories of my present incarnation.

How do people string together past lives? What is it that makes one remember, down to the marrow, something that came from before this incarnation? What can possibly shake off the veils that encapsulate this life and expose the framework that has given form to spirit? For me, the answer revolves around two things that remain constant in my life – food and forename. When you consider how many times a day we need to eat and how many times we hear our names – of course these things would be the appropriate vehicle with which to drive through meaning. 

As a child I didn’t know anything about Judaism until I started paying attention to attendance in school. A couple kids got to take off a lot of time in September and they called it a ‘new year’ which made sense because that’s when we start a new school year. Could that be the True New Year? My Dad made sweeping generalizations about Jews at the dinner table that, while intended to demarcate their intellectual affinities just wound up sounding anti-semitic, especially when they were repeated to my 3rd-grade colleagues (really, very sorry about that to this day). My Mom would roll her eyes at these comments, and he would defend himself appropriately – he had nothing against Jewish people and he was only noting their tendencies in, frankly, a positive way. It just sounds bad without the nuance. 

This argument worked because of the evidence: my parents were die-hard Holocaust officianados. They were not going to forget the atrocity happened, they were going to watch the movies, read the books, and raise their children to be aware that a bully can get their way and go too far if everybody complies. 

In total, I was aware of Judaism through dinner table tales outlining the horrors of the Holocaust, a mystical attraction to numbers (like me!), special/unknown holidays, and – although unbeknownst to me at the time – food. As a family, we happened to frequent a Jewish deli for meals out probably on the order of once every two or three months. I have early memories from Ralph’s – using a booster seat, having to leave the table to roam around like young ones do, being told to not touch the bark chips in the plant beds and playing Riddly-Iddily-I-Dee-Dee. The coolest thing, to me, about Ralph’s was that everything was plated by itself so that no touching of items, no mingling of juices and flavors could happen. This was my kinda joint! My favorite foods were buttered noodles, pickles and salami. The crust on the Rye bread was pretty good, too. I stuck to chocolate pudding for dessert since pie crust lacked the sugar content to keep my attention. 

One day in May while hanging at my friend Missy’s house, her Mom, Mary, was 100% on about a pie her Auntie had made. Missy had some great aunts that lived in Illinois and would come visit to help babysit and make homemade confections. Today’s bake was strawberry rhubarb pie. Mary was all about it and wouldn’t take my uncertain ‘no’ for an answer. I mean, I liked strawberries – a lot – and I could see there were large sugar crystals sprinkled on top of the crust. I can’t say I’d ever seen that before. Mary loved it so much that she had to see others love it, and she’s certain I would, too. I’m fairly certain I wo—… wait a minute, I thought, I could trust Mary. Everything she put on a plate and told me I’d like, I did. I opened my mouth for a bite that was headed my way – “you’re going to like this, I promise” – is this the voice of Mary or the sugar gods? – opened up like a baby bird and never ever ever regretted opening my mouth for strawberry rhubarb pie again. The flavors hit all the right spots and the word ‘yes’ capitalized off this chain of events like colorful explosions. My world was made complete. 

Truth be told, I was a little wigged out by how the rhubarb resembled celery. I found that if I thought about this too much while eating, things didn’t taste the same and I started to feel queasy. So I stopped thinking about it and made sure the rhubarb was always paired with a juicy strawberry. Problem solved. I shared the experience with my family at the dinner table; everyone was unimpressed except my Dad who was a little miffed I never took his advice to try his bite of rhubarb pie at Ralph’s. What’s so special about Mary? -Hard answer because both adults were charming Scorpios, but it was the exact question a Scorpio would ask.

There’s another food that Mary kept in their pantry, a non-sugary food that is sought when the sugar coat on our teeth feels like a woolly mess and we were tired of crunching on dried pasta. When there were no chips, there was something plain and simple: matzoh. We’d nibble bites off the big squares like mice. I couldn’t believe I didn’t know about this, something like saltines but with more history. It felt old and wise. This was exactly what I was after when I took the wafers from church! I can’t believe my mouth made the connection at that age – but this foray into unleavened bread helped to shine a light on a real possibility that I was awakening something old and wise within myself.

I stated it nonchalantly, but I should back up and retell this tale of absconding the body of Jesus, in a wrapped wafer roll, from St. Francis in the Fields. My Mom volunteered at ‘our’ church. Choosing that pronoun doesn’t feel quite right because it never felt like ‘ours’ in the sense that we weren’t always there and we weren’t that religious. But since my Mom volunteered, I would either arrive early with her to set up the altar or stay behind to take it down. I was not an enthusiastic church-goer. Looking back, it’s obvious that hearing stories based off scripture, singing songs led by an overbearing soprano, and being forced to sit through Sunday school would be boring and a total chore at the end of a busy week of school, gymnastics, piano, ballet, and more gymnastics. This shiksa needed a break on Sundays, not a reminder of how to be pious and holy! 

This shiksa was also always hungry before lunch and that communion moment definitely came at the right time. Man, that cheap red wine did heat up the tummy a bit and the little morsel of wafer would offer not just a skosh of sustenance but also the mouth experience that can belong to only a wafer. It could melt on the tongue or soak up a little vino or just get crunched up. I had never had anything like this before, and I had to have more. So I wore the right pair of pants on a day where I stayed behind after service. The type of pants that had pockets on the side of the thighs, something found in the 80s and perhaps a riff off parachute pants, but I’m only guessing. Does this mean my act was premeditated? Absolutely. I probably tried three times before I was actually successful, aborting my mission out of guilt. But the desire to pop one wafer after another in my mouth was so strong, that I dressed for success. 

I took one roll and hid it under my bed. No one knew. The wafers didn’t taste as good. I felt horrible, worse than when I stole the pink Chewels from Marsh. I could see the open, trusting eyes of the priest, Sandy, and her imagined disappointment. Stealing is wrong, even if you’re hungry; and even though I hadn’t seen Les Mis yet I knew that my hunger was for an experience, not sustenance. I thought about trashing the rest of the roll, but I suspected that throwing Jesus in the trash was not ideal, so I returned the barely used roll back to the tin of wafers during an early set-up to set myself straight. I felt redeemed and fine with my secret: no one had to know that a roll of wafers spent two weeks under my bed, and no one had to know that I was tracing my own spiritual DNA.

There’s a song by Jason Mraz that came out in 2008 that was everywhere all the time – I’m Yours – where he has a line that gets me every time. It’s the strangest thing, I know the part is coming, I steel myself to resist the crack of emotion that comes with the lyric, and yet, every time my voice breaks when I try to sing “our name is our virtue.” See, even now – it gets me. Tears, a feeling so deep that I was given this name as a gift to connect me to something older than me. A feeling of gratitude for this lesson I have to learn through not just the meaning of Mindy (honey and love) but also its connection to Jewish culture. How many old Bubbes asked me my name and displayed twinkles in their eyes when I told them my forename? “And what’s your last name?” They would ask with a smile, and the twinkles would dim when I would reply. “What’s your mother’s maiden name?” would be asked in a hopeful tone that would also be met with a disappointing return upon my answer. What were they searching for, a true Jew hidden in a Gentile name?

What true Gentile hates Christmas? I’ll never forget the lie of Santa and how betrayed I felt being enticed to believe and then being told to stop believing. What true Gentile gets bothered by the virgin story of Mary and uses this as their argument to disavow the Christian followings of the home? (Madonna’s Like a Virgin came at the right time, for me). What true Gentile dances with a 70yo Rabbi Helman at the El Dorado in Santa Fe? What true Gentile makes really good matzoh ball soup and rugelach? What true Gentile steals the body of Christ from church without fear but with guilt and shame? What true Gentile feels uncomfortable at a baby shower and won’t put away the baby clothes before the baby comes? 

Speaking of babies, and speaking of mothers… While I was pregnant with my first my Mom and I were on the phone and she told me about a really good movie she had seen. This is saying something because my Mom doesn’t tend to get excited about movies and books enough to share a recommendation. But with this she did and made a point to tell me that I really needed to see it – like so many times that I had to say ‘alright, enough already!’  I had heard about it and seen the case at the video store, so I went and rented ‘The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.’ Pregnant. Why did the clerks not warn me?  Maybe because I wasn’t showing yet, and when I was showing I looked overweight or frumpy because that was winter in the Pacific Northwest. 

I watched it and cried, no sob is more like it. Heaving crying, crying for hours afterwards. Confused why my own mother would subject my pregnant body and mind to such horrible memories, like shit, life’s hard enough, you know? I was attending an MFA program where I had to give six hours of attention on a weekly basis to art projects expressing the subconscious whims of my classmates while, once every two months, I reaped twenty minutes of falsified interest for my own pursuits. Then, I would clean the toilet for work study. I could’ve used a lift, a chuckle. She could’ve recommended something like ‘She’s Having a Baby’ which always makes me cry but doesn’t involve murder, deceit, and collective trauma. Something with Love and Rockets, and Kate Bush.

My memory takes me back to watching ‘Of Mice and Men’ with her in the theatre and having her whisper the outcome of the scene from the barn at the end. “Mom, that was so annoying that you did that during the movie, why would you do that?” I queried on our way home. “I thought you should know so you could be prepared,” she explained. Her reasoning seemed kind, but a simple hand hold would’ve done the trick. 

I confronted my Mom over the ‘Boy in the Striped Pajamas’ recommendation. I couldn’t figure out how a woman who had experienced pregnancy would think it was a good movie for a first-timer in the first trimester. She was unapologetic and even supported the idea that it was an uplifting movie – at least for her. The friendship between the boys moved her, no matter the outcome at the end. “Well, you know how it’s going to end, I mean, come on,” she defended her stance, “it’s not like there’s a surprise ending to the Holocaust!” She’s right, I mean why have any hope that a friendship could turn a German general’s head around? Why not be able to enjoy something positive – a friendship – amidst such horror. She was willing to look at the situation through the eyes of a child and, I suspect, felt like it was an example of love and loyalty to the bitter end. 

She doesn’t know it, but she’s kinda jewish. I’m only saying this because my close Jewish friend told me so, or rather, has been saying so for the past 20 years. “Are you sure you’re Mom’s not Jewish?” She has quipped more than a few times. ‘”Aries moon” is my response. It explains her directness and her covert sense of compassion. ‘Covert’ because she has compassion but isn’t about to let anyone tell her what to do with it. She also has a Rosanne Rosannadanna take on everything, “it’s always something!” she likes to say, even today. She’s super cheap and tends to go martyr on some things – oh, just thinking about the sudden lack of cartilage in her knee – how long has this been going on? How long did you stand on your feet for a full-time job past retirement age because you wanted the health benefits and liked the extra dental coverage? 

Here’s my take, as whimsical and new agey as it is, bear with me: I suspect my family, pre-present incarnation, was Jewish and was exterminated in a concentration camp and collectively decided that nothing was worth this kind of shit ever again. No system of belief is worth the slaughter, the horror. Keep it to yourself. And I guess that was fine for us – even through the flirtation with Episcopalianism, my Brother’s escapade into LDS, my Father’s emancipation from Catholicism – we didn’t take anything spiritual too seriously – at least not outwardly.

What about all the holidays we celebrated as ‘Christians?’ Don’t mean a thing, not compared to the Jewish holidays. It turns out that celebrating Jesus gets pretty boring compared to the Jewish holidays that actively celebrate life – the good, the bad, the line that runs through, the ties that bind, the way forward. Christianity doesn’t seem to care about ‘our’ life, just his life and ‘the’ life. And while there’s wine, there’s just not enough about the grapevine to keep my attention. 

Does this mean I want to pursue conversion? My Mom made me get confirmed in the Episcopalian church at 14. I was pissed. Why was this necessary, after already being baptized – I tried to bargain, it went nowhere. I still don’t understand even though her reasoning was “you’ll always have a place where you belong.” I felt so betrayed, like I thought we were all ‘never ever’ together in this rejection of organized religion! My parents were both trained scientists – it made no sense. My Dad could only affirm that my arguments were sound. So, no. I don’t see a conversion happening. If that were the case, I’d be washing the feet of lepers somewhere or going full Taoist in a hut by the river. But here I am, rubbing oil into the soles of children and praising their own divine nature. Here I am learning the secrets of the martyr mama: Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, thanks. Are you hungry?