First of all, being Jewish means recognizing your differences from the non-Jews, the goyim. For me this didn’t really happen until high school, as reported in my memoir:
Once, walking home from high school I got in a fist-fight with an Irish kid who called me all kinds of rich-Jew-bastard names and happened to be a good lightweight boxer from the other side of town. It was totally humiliating. I had no idea of how to duke it out, none, and he kept popping me until finally I just walked away in disgrace, blood from my nose dripping on the snow. After this incident, the kid would go out of his way to say friendly hellos to me at school. I wanted to take his life.
Jews like me were brought up to be non-confrontational. In some ways we thought of ourselves as more like the gentiles than our co-religionists. And, it should be said, most of us didn’t have any real sense of religion, the stark, grim old-testament stuff that fueled our more conservative and orthodox brethren.
Reform Jews like me and my parents were practiced hypocrites about religion. My parents rarely went to temple (never to be called “schul,” of course). But they wanted me to be grounded in the faith so I went to what was called Sunday School starting in, I think, the sixth grade.
Finally, I found it just boring and unenlightening, and I told my mother I wanted to quit. She said that first I should talk with the rabbi, an amiable man named Dick Hertz, whose name made him the butt of many jokes. But I stood my ground and the elders gave way. To this day, I have nothing to do with the religion, though I love Jewish culture, its myths and memes and street wisdom.
In my teens I laughed at the funny pseudo-Yiddish jazz that Slim Gaillard recorded, tunes like “Drei Six Cents” and “Dunkin’ Bagel.” People like Slim and Cab Calloway weren’t mocking the language; they were having fun with it. Slim seemed to look at Judaism the way I did, as an amusing cultural artifact. Mickey Katz was funny, man. After them came Sid Caesar and a wave of Jewish comedians like Lenny Bruce. Mel Brooks was my hero later on.
Jewish humor finally permitted folks to dwell on the horrors of World War II after it was over. Earlier, my parents and grandfather Sam did not discuss these things, though Sam sent money early on to save some of the family in Germany. All of it was too grim to confront and, like many, they were living a life of ease.
The 1950s were a time of conformity, as we know. Life had been good for a lot of Americans during the war, and now it was time for some Jews to relax a bit and assimilate culturally. My family was part of this. They made a big deal out of food and sumptuous meals, with fare like matzoh ball soup and latkes (referred to as “German potato pancakes”).
In my later years I strove to recover the truths of what cultural Judaism had become since my family had glossed over it. I finally could take pride in my culture and its ability to survive not only Hitler but a whole history of antisemitism. As I grew older my nose, formerly straight, began to droop. You can’t read too much into that.