So I wasn’t like the other kids. I always thought it was because we were Jewish. That was the usual excuse: we don’t eat lobster because… we’re Jewish. We don’t go to school on Sukkot because.. .we’re Jewish.
I was definitely Jewish. I went to Hebrew school, and to services.
But wherever I went, I was never like anyone else. I liked pretending to be other people, and dressing up in costumes. I liked reading the Narnia books and The Lord of the Rings and Joan Aiken. The many ways I was different all got mixed up in my head, and when other kids were rotten to me, or I felt like I didn’t really belong, I figured being a Weird Kid had something to do with being Jewish and something to do with liking to write poems and plays. “Oh, you’re so creative,” they’d say at both schools, which was a way, I thought, of making sure I knew I wasn’t like them—not quite an insult, but not exactly a warm cuddly.
I wouldn’t have believed, then, that my very “weirdness” was what would let me grow up to write novels and have my own public radio show. I was just too weird, right?
I still can’t separate my being an artist from my being a Jew, though.
Nowadays, in America, you can choose to be Jewish and “normal.” But for centuries, people couldn’t. To be a Jew was automatically to be the Weird Kid, whether we liked it or not. The radical dietary and social restrictions of Jewishness, coupled with the fact that the locals didn’t like difference, meant we had no choice. And, like lots of Weird Kids, some Jews got to be the artists, the thinkers, the activists who wound up changing the world.
Now we have a choice… but:
I think a Jew who buys into bland American normality is losing something. The alternativeness of Jewishness can give you something special, that insight into being Not Like the Others. I hate to see us give that up. Being like everyone else is not all it’s cracked up to be.
Ellen Kushner is the host of Public Radio International’s “Sound & Spirit,” an award-winning weekly show that explores music and beliefs around the world. She is the author of three novels, including Thomas the Rhymer, which, while published for adults, was a New York Public Library recommended “Book for the Teen Age.”