Passing

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She had grown up a member of the only Jewish family in her small town in Orange County. Pained by the prejudice she experienced as a child, she decided never again to reveal her Jewish heritage. She would become a Gentile. She straightened her hair, bobbed her nose, changed her name, and left both Orange County and her Jewishness behind. But, she told my mother, the break did her more harm than good. She recanted her choice and returned to the bosom of her family and her religion. She could not “pass” any longer. Touched by the sorrow that passing had brought to my mother’s life and to her own, she had come to the mall to tell her so, face- to-face. She cried, she said, for the pain they both knew.

From Dallas, Texas, came a haunting letter to which I keep returning: “I was particularly interested in your book because of my own life. I grew up in New York. My maiden name was Myersen. [The name is changed here for privacy.] When you grow up in New York and your name is Myersen, you are asked several times a month if you are Jewish. It was seldom an ugly question. It was just informational. The answer to this question was ‘Oh, no. It is an old Danish name. Jews spell it “O-N.” We are Danish.’ In 1983 my mother told me that she discovered a letter indicating my father’s family was Jewish (Danish Jews). I have been dealing with the amputation of my heritage and recovery of my heritage since 1983. I will become a Jew in a formal ceremony quite soon.”

A Harvard Ph.D. living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrote, “Your book raised such basic issues about identity. . . . After we move from our own personality and reality that we take from our genetic makeup, our family, our marriage, work, et cetera and move into the community to which we think we belong, how much is intrinsic, and how much is imposed from the external world? It is hard for me to rely on genetic contributions from my ancestors as supporting my identity, perhaps because I can trace my background back only two generations on one level and almost six thousand years on another. Because Jews were expelled from so many countries and continents in their history yet lived all over the world and intermarried with every population, physical appearance is meaningless to identity. One has only to go to Israel to see this. ... We all are linked through history and common belief. Should that not be the linkage between all of us, regardless of our skin color?”

I met one young blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned woman who said she didn’t know she was black until she was twelve.
 
 

In the Point Loma section of San Diego there is a vast bookstore that has been converted from one of the city’s vintage theaters. Bordered in triple rows of Caribbean-colored neon light bars, the curving Art Deco marquee bore my name as the guest author. In this arresting setting an equally arresting, elegant pale woman with large gray eyes and a croquignole wave pressed her business card into my hand. On one side the print read, “Ethnic hair specialist.” On the other, a quickly scribbled note: “I will call you to tell you my story.” And call she did, the next day. As an adopted child she had always wondered about her ethnicity because she did not feel she was either black or white. Just this year, she said, she managed to have her adoption records unsealed and saw for the first time a picture of her long-dead mother: a teenage Jewish girl who had conceived an out-of-wedlock child by a young black man. The girl’s family prevailed on her to give the child up for adoption. In the file was a letter from the mother saying that she wanted to reclaim her baby. She never did, seemingly because of the daunting adoption process at that time. She later died in a mental institution. Speaking in a near whisper, the daughter ended the conversation, “You don’t know what it meant to me as a grown woman to see my mother’s face, to touch her handwriting, to learn that she really did want me, and to know about my mother.” I knew.

Back in Los Angeles, I had an urgent telephone message that a young woman had to speak with me immediately. When I returned the call, the woman told me that she had not known she was black until she was twelve years old. Her hair was blonde, her eyes green, and her skin fair. All her family had passed for white in San Diego. And that’s what she had assumed she was until the day she found an old family scrapbook with some yellowed photographs of people who were clearly brown. She asked her parents about them. Her mother refused to discuss the photographs or anything related to them; her father admitted they were relatives but said he had left “that life” behind.

At seventeen this girl went East to meet some of her dark relatives, and upon returning to the West Coast, she decided, she said, to “embrace her blackness.” She was the only member of her family to do so, although the rest of her siblings had been informed of their heritage. Now the director of a large and flourishing human-service facility in Watts, the expansive African-American neighborhood in Los Angeles, she stays in touch with her family but lives across the color line.

How would the book be received in the heart of Dixie? I wondered a little nervously while being driven to a radio interview on the far outskirts of Atlanta. The small-scale station occupied the second floor of a two-story boxlike building. My interviewer, a heavyset, jovial middle-aged man in a short-sleeved shirt, eyed me with a curiosity that matched my own. Yes, I thought, he does fit my image of a good ol’ boy. Now what?