As I prepare some comments on Israeli WMD’s to put up over at Winds of Change, it occurs to me that my own heritage becomes something that I should disclose, to allow readers to make a judgment on whether my own ethnic or religious affiliations might have something to do with my positions (I don’t think they do, but I don’t necessarily get to make that call).
I’m a mutt. When asked, I typically identify myself as “a Californian”.
My father’s family were German Jews who left for the United States in the late 19th Century, but they didn’t practice, and I’m not sure if my father was even bar-mitvah’ed. His own spiritual affiliations were much more Eastern, as befits his personal beliefs…which can best and most simply be described as Beatnik. I read my first D.T. Suzuki book at his house when I was a young teen, and his circle of friends included a preponderance of jazz musicians, poets, and horseplayers.
My mother’s family were in part Hispanic, with a strong mixture of Native American and some random other strains that changed as I listened to the oft-changing stories of my various relatives. Like my father, my mother stepped away from her family and their culture as fast and hard as she could; she never spoke Spanish in my presence, and to my knowledge can’t. She has reinvented herself as a Southern California charitable figure, and a strong participant in her nontraditional Eastern religion.
The feature common to both of them was their efforts to personally step away from their heritage and to reinvent themselves as Californians.
As a child, the strongest adult figures I remember include three men who worked for my father, and who had a strong role in raising me when my divorced parents were otherwise occupied. Each was a senior blue-collar worker, at the boundary between management (my dad) and labor (the teams that worked for them).
Robert (never “Bob”) was a sandy blonde from Kentucky who made sure I knew all the lyrics to “Tennessee Stud” by the time I was ten, introduced me to Bob Wills and Johnny Cash, and explained to me as he bandaged my hands after a fight at school that you never hit the hard parts with your hands, you used your forehead, elbows, or better still, a hard object you picked up close at hand.
Theodis was from the back country in Louisiana, where his black – never “Negro” – sharecropper father had raised ten children on hand-me-downs, help from the church, and damn hard work. Theoidis’ main lesson to me was that no matter how hard or smart I worked by myself, the job couldn’t get done unless everyone on the team helped. Five of us kids were hired one summer, to pick up trash and sweep the concrete slabs on one of the jobsites, and as the son of the boss, getting the work done somehow became my responsibility.
Joe was one of Theodis’ brothers, and I’ll save him for last because he took special responsibility for me. Joe showed me that a man works even when he’s tired, and goes home when he’s done, not before. When I was hungry he showed me that a belly full of water would hold you for a few hours until he could take me out to eat – it wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me how that lesson had come to him and what it said about his growing up and how present hunger must have been. His family ate damn well, and sat together every night at the table for dinner, talking, and didn’t eat while playing or watching TV or walking around the neighborhood, and so does my family now.
Somehow, my own heritage is – in my mind at least – a crazy conjunction of all these things.
In West L.A., old Jewish men want to introduce me to their doctor daughters.
In East L.A., people approach and address me in Spanish.
I’ve been pulled off of the San Diego – Los Angeles train after a 140 mile bicycle ride down there because my skin was dark, I was unshowered and smelled, and when asleep I couldn’t respond to the questions of the Border Patrol agent.
When I lived in Paris with my first wife, everyone was convinced that I was Lebanese.
In Wisconsin with my second wife, everyone thought I was down from the rez. (they thought I was Native American)
In Corsica, everyone was convinced I was Corsican, and when I went on to Sardinia, everyone there thought I was Corsican too, until we checked into a luxury hotel where they were convinced I was an Arab.
I’ll admit to enjoying this confusion.
Somehow I see it as an advantage, but as a Californian I – like many of my compatriots – believe in the power of reinvention, and that I’m not a slave to my heritage – or heritages, in my case.

12 thoughts on “SOME BACKGROUND”

  1. Does Israel Have a Right to WMD?

    During the run-up to Saddam’s War, a number of critics of the war raised the issue: “What’s wrong with letting Saddam have WMD?? We have WMD. Israel has WMD. Why is his possession of them

  2. I get that mixed identity thing – on the outside I’m as Irish-German as you can get, but in my mind and heart, my heritage is derived just as much from my Italian nana (an older friend of my mother’s who babysat me), my Taiwanese nana (my stepdad’s best friend’s war bride), and my black grampa from Alabama (my stepdad’s best friend and one of the first black medics in the Navy), as well as my stepdad’s Blackfoot and Comanche blood (he was raised on the rez in Oklahoma). All of those people contributed fundamentally to who I am and how I look at the world, never mind how the world looks back at me.

  3. Ain’t that the truth! I’m a Californian of various European and Indian extractions (short version: half Mexican, half pioneer) and I think I picked up just as much from my Jewish and Muslim and liberal and conservative friends and mentors as I did from my parents!
    Yes, I too have been mistaken for Lebanese, Armenian, Spanish, Italian and even, once and in bad light, part-Chinese. And I, too, when abroad, identify myself as `Californian’.
    Let’s hear it for not being shackled by our (genetic) `heritage’, but free to draw from all our heritages, all of what’s been passed down to us by the lives that have touched ours…wherever they came from.

  4. You lived in Wisconsin for a time? Bonus-a-um! Where abouts?
    (Although I’m in Colorado at the moment myself, I consider myself a Metic here, and still consider Madison Wisconsin “home”).

  5. Well, you know how it is. All those people look alike.
    Living as I do on Milwaukee’s integrated North side, I have much fun with that line when my neighbors connect me with some other American of Eastern European extraction.

  6. Being the offspring of a Bohunk and an English-Pole…..nobody guesses that I’m anything.
    So much for being unique.
    I always wanted to have some distinct coloring, features or accent and have peole mistake me for something other than older/younger than what I am.
    Enjoy the variety inherent in your genes!

  7. Hurray for “gene” variety, that in itself is what has made this country great.
    Lets see…Croatian Grandma, French Grandpa, Czechoslovakian Grandma, Hungarian/Ukranian/German Grandpa and married to a Norwegian.
    Gosh that must mean that I am an American.

  8. I am always mistaken for a middle- or upper-class white woman, which is pretty much what I am now. However, the white thing is a tiny part of my genes and I had a not all middle-class upbringing.
    But it’s easy to just smile and nod.

  9. Interesting. I’m German Jew, Italian, Spanish (as in Spaniard), and Algonquin Indian. My looks? Blonde hair, blue eyes.
    One interesting thing about my background is that while I was growing up, my family never mentioned the German Jew part. See, my grandparents escaped Germany by saying they were Hungarian. So, when they came to America, they continued the lie. My grandfather even started going to a Catholic church, and by the time of his death, you couldn’t convince him he wasn’t a born & raised Catholic.
    When I was 17, I was having a discussion with my mother about my heritage… as I ran down the things I knew about, I mentioned being Hungarian. My mom sort of chuckled and gave me the story.
    It’s kind of funny to look so Anglo, and tell people “I’m mostly Jewish & Italian”… a lot of people tell me they don’t believe me, but I don’t understand why they’d think I have a reason to lie about it.
    Oh, and I also grew up in Cali… so from now on I’m checking “other” and filling in “Californian” when I have to write my ethnicity on anything. :-)

  10. I have a similarly mixed heritage, and it’s kind of funny. The people in our family run toward startlingly different hues. I’m a fairly pale Aryan type, while my sister is dark-skinned, olive-complected, could easily pass for dark-skinned Mexican. The father of her first son is a dark-skinned Mexican, yet the boy is a little pale blond-haired blue eye like me, while his little sister by the same father could easily pass for Arabic or dark-skinned Mexican.
    Funny, eh?

  11. Great war song that applies to this post topic by rising stars “Confidence Man” is available for free download at:
    Song includes line: “Cowboy king has drawn his line in the sand….”
    Piss of the right by playing the song and getting your friends to play it. College radio is starting to get on board. The song is a great contrast to all the “blind patriotism” that was exhibited on the run up to Iraq.

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