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The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

The Book I've Been Avoiding Writing

A Bad Jew

By Steven Pressfield
Published: April 16, 2014

[This is the first post in a new series about the writing of The Lion's Gate. After today the series will run Mondays and Fridays. "Writing Wednesdays" returns in this space next week.]

I found out I was a Jew when I was thirteen. My Dad told me. I never knew until then. It was kind of a shock.

Two thoughts struck me at once:

1. If my parents have been keeping this knowledge a secret from me and my younger brother all this time, they must really be ashamed of being Jewish.

2. I myself, through thirteen years of regular-kid U.S. life, had acquired a helluva dose of anti-Jewish prejudice. In other words, I was prejudiced against myself.

I remember thinking, “Me Jewish? There must be some mistake.” I peered at my face in the bathroom mirror. Holy cow, I am Jewish! How could I have missed it all these years?

A week of shell shock and denial followed. When I emerged, I made a decision.

I decided I would get with the program.

If I’m a Jew, I’m gonna be a Jew.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan fields questions from the press, 7 June 1967.

I started going to temple. There was none in my hometown so I hitchhiked to the next town. My Mom and Dad refused to drive me.

The weird part was, the real Jews at the temple rejected me. To them I was an outsider. I didn’t belong. I was the new kid from the next town who couldn’t speak Hebrew, had never had a bar mitzvah, didn’t know what Hannukah was and, to boot, had a bad attitude about being Jewish.

After about two months I realized that this new regime wasn’t working. I reverted. I went back to being a regular American.

I know how crazy all this sounds, but, trust me, scenarios like this were not that unusual in the late 50s, the heyday of the Assimilation School of being Jewish in America. Being a Jew was a secret that some parents kept even from their children.

But back to me being a regular American. I still knew I was a Jew. I began casting around for role models. What Jews or Jewish images existed in the culture that I could relate to and be proud of?

Borscht Belt comedians? Molly Goldberg? The Holocaust? I didn’t even want to think about it.

I’m thirteen years old. I want Chuck Yeager. I want Audie Murphy. I want John Wayne.

When I began encountering anti-Semitism in my own life, my confusion deepened further. I just couldn’t get any purchase on the idea of being a Jew.

Then came June 1967.

The Six Day War.

Israel kicks ass on Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

All of sudden the TV was wall-to-wall with images of Jewish fighter pilots, Jewish paratroopers, Jewish tank commanders. And they were major-league studs. My mind was blown. I thought, Now we’re talking! Finally: some Jews I can relate to.
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