My Welfare Mom, Our Food Stamps, and Why I’m a Marginal Jew

“Do you think you could leave some more toilet paper next time?” The girl hollered from across the crowded school cafeteria. I didn’t know her or the other girls at her table, but I knew the request was meant for me: I cleaned the bathrooms in their dorm five mornings a week. I was on line for the salad bar, trying to duck the growing attention by examining the scuff marks on my shoes. But she fired the question again and, like a torpedo, it found me.

“Heyyy,” she yelled. “Tomorrow: Could you leave a couple extra rolls?”

It was the first week of my freshman year at Brandeis University. I had applied to the elite, predominantly Jewish, East Coast school because it was a fine university and I figured I had a good shot at financial aid, being a low-income Jew with a 4.0. In fact, Brandeis practically paid me to come; except for the chunk of aid I had to earn through work-study.

I chose the highest-paying job that took the least amount of time. Every morning I heaved a steel bucket up and down four flights, toting sponges, disinfectants, rubber gloves and a mop with toilet paper rolls skewered on the handle. From 6 to 9, I scrubbed, mopped, polished and wiped away graffiti and the remains of recent bulimic purges. It felt awkward cleaning up after my classmates as they tweezed their eyebrows and curled their hair. It certainly didn’t help me feel welcomed or accepted the way I’d thought I would, among other freshmen, most of us Jewish and away from home for the first time. I felt like an outsider.

I should have anticipated as much. Months earlier, when my letter of acceptance and registration materials had arrived on Brandeis letterhead — blue-and-white with Hebrew writing — I began doubting whether I belonged at a school with such a strong Jewish legacy. I had always connected being Jewish with material wealth and privilege, attending Hebrew school and becoming bat mitzvah. As the daughter of a single, alcoholic mother who lived on welfare, I hadn’t grown up with any of these things. In fact, I grew up knowing more Christmas carols than Friday night prayers in a home that defied every stereotypical notion of what being Jewish was about.

My Jewish experience began and ended with a few unexplained rituals: eating sugar-dipped challah on Rosh Hashanah, lighting yahrzeit candles on Yom Kippur and sipping Manischewitz spritzers during seders. Even though my mother had grown up in a traditional Jewish home, by the time I was born, whatever meaning the tradition had once held for her was gone. Ten years earlier, at age 29, she had been widowed with two young sons; in her subsequent marriage to my father, she had been battered. When she fled him — with the three of us kids in tow — survival was her sole preoccupation. Terror and depression nearly paralyzed her. Her way of coping: two Scotches at dinnertime, earlier on weekends. A psychiatrist had prescribed tranquilizers to replace the Scotch. My mother found they worked better together.

Until I was six, we lived in my late grandmother’s two-family house, in Queens, New York. When my half-brothers left home for college, my mother sold the house, because it was expensive to maintain. She drank more, she worked less, and we moved from one apartment to the next, always in search of cheaper rent. We managed to live in Jewish neighborhoods, but my mother’s drinking and our relative poverty made me different from other Jewish kids. We couldn’t afford synagogue membership, so I didn’t attend Hebrew school or even think about becoming bat mitzvah. There were no mezuzot inside our doorframes, or kosher dishes in our kitchen. We served milk with meat, ate scallops when they went on sale and fried bacon on Sunday morning. We made no distinction between the sacred and the ordinary. Friday night dinner welcomed Shabbat in my friends’ homes but was like any other in mine, with the clink of ice in my mother’s cocktail breaking the silence.

Although I made friends readily, I avoided inviting them over because I dreaded the prospect of my mother answering the door with too many Scotches in her, slurring and reeking. I never discussed her drinking or divulged that the canned goods in our kitchen cupboards came from the school’s Thanksgiving food drive, which supplemented our monthly allowance of food stamps and government cheese. I did eventually conclude, however, that being Jewish was everything I was not.

Relief came at the end of seventh grade, when my mother moved us across the country to a non-Jewish, working class community in San Diego, to be near her only brother. Since most of the families in our new neighborhood were barely scraping by, blending in was easy. As the only Jew my new friends had ever met, I was a curiosity, but no longer a misfit, especially once I persuaded my mother to let me have a Christmas tree. I stayed in California until I left for college. Living there was the only time I did not feel ashamed. Going to Brandeis undid all that, which is why I made my first year there my last.

My feelings about being Jewish — or not — came and went during the next 15 years. Denying them was easy around non-Jews. “I’m nothing,” I would respond when asked about my religion. “I was born Jewish, but I’m really nothing.” But rejecting the fact of my Jewishness felt oddly painful among Jewish friends who loved the tradition for the guidance and wisdom it provided. In their company, I felt connected yet alienated, envious and confused. By blood I was Jewish. In my mind, however, I was an imposter: a low-class, white-trash welfare kid who had never learned enough about Judaism to claim it as a birthright. What would it take for me to feel like I belonged? My mother’s death, my marriage and, above all, motherhood made me to want to try.

I hadn’t grown up with the language of prayer, but something about these major and life-altering lifecycle events made me want to pray. I craved the words and rituals that had guided generations through grief, sanctified marriages and blessed children. I began reading and trying to learn the prayers and basic tenets of Judaism. I said kaddish for my mother and married a similarly conflicted, nonobservant Jew under a huppah. When Sophie, our first child, was born, I vowed not to pass on the ignorance and shame that had informed my own pained Jewish identity. When she turned five, we joined a Reform synagogue and enrolled her in Hebrew School. It is important to know who you are, I told Sophie and her little brother, Ben, whenever they complained about going. You are Jewish.

It is your heritage. Question it. Struggle with it. Reject it, if you must. But know what you’re rejecting.

As for myself, I tried to make living Jewishly my new normal. I joined a Torah study group and learned to read Hebrew. I encouraged Friday night family synagogue attendance, volunteered for social action projects, joined the b’nai mitzvah tutoring carpool, sang in the temple choir and exchanged Shabbat Shaloms with fellow congregants.

I expected this new involvement to give me the feeling of legitimacy I had longed for, and I waited for my newly adopted Jewishness to become a second skin. Instead, it gave me a feeling of déjà vu: Here I was again, unable to afford a temple membership. Although my husband and I were not remotely poor the way I had been growing up, we would never have the money to be full-price congregants. The temple’s offer of a special financial “arrangement,” rather than making me feel valued, rekindled the shame I felt watching my mother collect food stamps and government cheese. And even though the temple assured us that we were not the only low-income members, the diamond-clad women who filled the sanctuary on Friday nights made me feel otherwise; like I could never be worthy of the tribe.

Nevertheless, I was determined to instill in my children a sense of pride about being Jewish, and somehow I succeeded. At age 13, after completing their mandatory Jewish education, both Sophie and Ben chose to become b’nai mitzvah. We fully expected the turmoil and distractions of adolescence to dampen their interest in Judaism afterward.

Indeed, at 15, Ben is nursing an age-appropriate cynicism toward any suggestion of religion or spirituality. Not Sophie. For her, Judaism has become more important. She loves the tradition, belonging to our Jewish community and observing the High Holidays. A social activist, she loves knowing that performing mitzvot is part of her covenant with God.

And, she loves Israel, despite its troubled existence, where she spent the summer before her junior year in high school.

“I want to go back, and I want you and Dad to come,” she cried when she returned. Her tears were of longing, not only to resume the deep connection she had found, but for us to share it with her.

I am heartened that sophie is free of the conflicts about Judaism that have plagued me. When she attends college in the fall, regardless of the work-study job she takes, her experience of being Jewish will be different from mine. It will neither burden nor isolate her, perhaps because it was allowed to flourish.

I don’t know if my impoverished childhood is all that undergirds my ambivalence toward Judaism, or if my conflict also stems from my embarrassment over how much I don’t know, or from my feminist discomfort with the liturgy. I do know that, after more than a decade, self-consciousness continues to cripple me. I go through the motions of chanting prayers and observing rituals, watching myself watch myself, feeling like a fraud.

Someday I hope to be like Sophie, at home in my Jewish skin. In the meantime, I can only trust that in Judaism, with its invitation to question and doubt, my struggle has its place.

Andrea Kott is a writer in Sleepy Hollow, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the Journal of the American Medical Association, Parents’ magazine and other publications.