When the birth announcement of Athene, daughter of my Parisian college boyfriend, arrived by e-mail, I excitedly showed la bébé's picture to my 16-year-old. My husband and I are perilously close to becoming empty nesters, which is suddenly making babies irresistibly appealing.
“Isn’t she adorable?” I gushed. “You know what? We should go to Paris and see her!”
“Well, I’m not going to Paris any time soon,” my son announced. “I don’t want to be ‘Je suis Ezra.’”
To hear him say this was surprising. He appears somnambulant during our morning carpool, but it turns out he’s been attentive to the news on the radio. It had not occurred to me that Ezra might consider himself a target in the growing climate of anti-Semitism in Western Europe.
With his green eyes and fair complexion, inherited from his Ashkenazi ancestors; his tendency to over-use the word Oy, a habit he picked up from me; and the surname he shares with his father, he believes he’s easily recognizable as being of Jewish descent. But he’s Jewish with an emphasis on the “-ish.”
Like many non-congregational Jews in America, we barely qualify as holiday Jews. Ezra’s bar mitzvah took place in the community room of his Episcopal school. We attend Passover Seders except when we don’t and celebrate what we affectionately call the three days of Hanukkah. By the third night, I’ve got to work late, the math tutor is coming, or we’ve just forgotten. The upside is that a box of candles lasts us several years.
I am a second-generation American, and a kind of cultural identification of Judaism, if not the religious imprinting, has stayed with me. My grandmother’s Yiddish creeps into my vocabulary. I buy challah for Shabbat — white chocolate challah, but still.
My son, on the other hand, claims membership in the “nones,” the one-third of Americans under 30, who, according to the Pew Research Center, have no religious affiliation. I know I fostered this secular humanism, and I see his weekly volunteering with children on the autism spectrum as confirmation that community service doesn’t require a religious mandate. My son’s social circle is more ethnically and economically diverse than mine was, another positive hallmark of the “nones.”
But with each new hateful incident, I lament his waning connection to the tribe. In some feverish “Fiddler on the Roof” frenzy, I’ve started Googling birthright trips to Israel and replaced his bedside copy of Sam Harris’ “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion” with Primo Levi’s “If Not Now, When?” This has been met with eye-rolling on his part, but teenagers know how the world categorizes people by their look, their background, their name.
My son’s last name, like my husband’s, is Kahn, commonly understood to be a German variation of Cohen. Ironically, a persistent spelling error has led to his being confused with his ethnic opposite, Ezra Khan, a popular name among Pakistani Muslims.
We first became aware of the difference the transposition of two letters can make at an airport 2002. Our family was pulled aside by airport security for questioning, and informed that our 4-year-old son was on a no-fly list. On the upside, our Ezra recently was credited on IMDB as a cast member of a new movie, “Trespass Against Us,” for a role that was actually played by the accomplished British actor of Pakistani origin, Ezra Khan. I hope we’ll get invited to the premiere.
Last week, my son and I learned of the Copenhagen shootings while eating breakfast. I asked my “none” the question I’d been wondering about since the killings at the Paris kosher deli last month.
“Would you ever deny being Jewish?”
“I guess so, if it’d save my life.”
I nodded, wondering whether the mothers of the other Ezra Kahns and Khans were also worrying or praying for their sons’ safe passage in the world and if my tacit acceptance was affording me just a glimpse into the psyche of those who conspired to hide their children’s Jewish identity during World War II. My son sighed and like the teenager he is, begged me to please, please, stop talking to him and let him eat his bacon and matzo brie in peace.
Annabelle Gurwitch is the author of “I See You Made an Effort,” just released in paperback.