1. Blood, 1977
In a large house on the edge of Seattle's Central District a Jewish family gathers in their dining room, overlooking the wooded ravines of Frink Park. Two generations are on hand to celebrate the arrival of a third, and a mohel has been summoned, an old, dumpy man carrying a little black case.
Inside the case are the instruments he will use to execute the circumcision in accordance with Old Testament instructions. The baby, eight days old as suggested by the Book of Genesis, is sucking on a cloth soaked in red wine. He appears quite happy. In the distance, out the windows, through the trees, is Lake Washington, and beyond the lake, the Cascade Mountains. It is, historically speaking, a surprisingly wet and leafy place to find Jews conducting an ancient desert ritual.
The older generation of the family includes a man named Moses, now going by Martin, and his wife Franzi, now going by Frances, both of them Americanized refugees who fled Vienna, with some difficulty, after Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Martin has jettisoned his Austrian accent and joined American medical circles. Frances is less excited about linguistic assimilation, and speaks with a flagrant disregard for English grammar. Their son is a refugee of a different sort, having fled the East Coast for Seattle. He is the new father.
On the new mother's side, the elders include William, born in Brooklyn, in 1915, to two Jewish refugees from Russia: Heiman Massarsky, who came to this country to escape Russian anti-Semitism and conscription into the Czar's army, and Rose Dubroflonski, who followed him. With William is his wife Eva, now going by Eve, also the child of Russian immigrants. Earlier in his life, William managed to get into the Ivy League, a trick at a time when elite schools were trying to limit their numbers of Jewish students. Earlier in her life, Eve worked for the Red Cross in the Pacific theater during World War II. They met in Okinawa, where William was serving as a military translator, and were married after the war.
This gathering is hardly the first Jewish circumcision ceremony to be performed in the damp outpost of Washington State, where the first Jew is believed to have arrived as early as 1845, back when the state was still a territory. But the gathering is typical of Washington Jewry in the complicated genealogical paths that lead up to it, in the unorthodox mix of participants who have assembled, and in the wildly divergent brands of faith among them. A relative on the edge of the crowd will be heard muttering after the ceremony about it having been "barbaric." The parents, no fans of strict religiosity themselves, are nevertheless having the ceremony and will soon enroll their child in Jewish daycare (though it will be a daycare run by Kadima, a leftist Jewish group). The elder men are pleased, sipping wine and wearing yarmulkes.
Holding the baby is another member of the older generation, Nora, a communist atheist Jew from Canada, who sees no contradiction in any of those terms. She is related to the baby by her marriage to a man whose own connection to the child traces back through Vancouver, B.C., to Pennsylvania, British Palestine, and, ultimately, Vienna. Nora is fulfilling the role of the sandek, sometimes translated as "godparent," the person who holds the baby while the mohel creates the biblically-commanded "covenant of the flesh."
The baby, in other words, has a godmother who does not believe in God. Which raises the question, never far from any American Jewish gathering, particularly in a relatively un-Jewish place such as this: What exactly is being celebrated? The continuation of a culture? A binding genetic affiliation? A respect for shared tradition? A religion?
There is no time to address all of that. The mohel is ready. The baby screams. Blood watches blood.
The baby, I should mention, is me.
2. Mountains, 1917
One of the problems of Washington Jews is that they have been, and remain, very much out of context. The Jew of the modern imagination is a big-city dweller—a persecuted minority in the capitals of Europe, a resident of bursting tenements in early-20th-century America, the urbane sophisticate of contemporary Manhattan. By contrast, in the boxes of worn photos housed at the University of Washington's Jewish Archives, the Jews of this state pose with evergreen trees as backdrops, wearing Stetsons and dirty work boots, selling equipment to gold prospectors.
Washington Jews have been, and remain, Jews in the wilderness, though a far more evergreen kind of wilderness than the one talked about in the Book of Exodus. In the 2003 book Family of Strangers, one of the few serious works of history about the Jews of this state, there is a black-and-white image of 14 Jews, two of them from one of Seattle's most prominent Jewish families, the Alhadeffs, standing in a mountain pass, snow-capped peaks in the background, big, outdoorsy smiles on all of their faces.
It is a striking photo because over some 4,000 years of Jewish history, snowy mountaintops have never played much of a role in Jewish iconography. Practically every other geologic form has made an appearance: parting seas, deserts in which a tribe could get lost for 40 years, farmland, rivers, marshland, the hills of Jerusalem, the flatlands and forests of Eastern Europe, the harbors of New York. As far as big Jewish mountains go, however, there is really only one, and it is not a mountain in the Pacific Northwest sense. It is Mt. Sinai, where the heavens are purported to have erupted as Moses climbed to the top to receive two stone tablets inscribed by God.
I have been to that mountaintop. There was no snow. There weren't even any trees. It is a low mountain in the barren midsection of the Sinai Peninsula, a triangle of land between mainland Egypt and Israel, a cracked moonscape the color of sun-baked mud. When I climbed Mt. Sinai in the summer of 1997, to absolutely no revelation whatsoever, I slept at the top, needed only a light sleeping bag to keep warm, and felt very distant from the mountaintops on which I hiked and camped as a younger man. The summit of Mt. Sinai is about 7,500 feet, roughly half the height of Mt. Rainier, where, on a lower flank of that mountain, I once slept, shivering, in an igloo I'd built with members of my Boy Scout troop—none of them Jewish.
The modern imagination is not, of course, correct in its casting of Jews as exclusively urban creatures. But the focus of this imagination on the urban Jew is understandable, a product of the places that Jews were pushed to, and through, over the course of a history that is in large part the story of exile and expulsion. Jews have been kicked out of ancient Israel and 15th-century Spain, herded into crowded ghettos across Europe, and were often, in the places they wound up, prevented from owning farmland. Thus Jewish literature talks about the cities Jews left, the harbors that received them, the new neighborhoods they hurriedly settled. Mountains, being places of repose, tend to get left out of this narrative.
Which is probably why I'd never heard the story of my paternal grandparents' forays into the Austrian mountains until recently, when I happened to read through a family history written by my grandfather Martin in 1979, two years after I was born, and a few years before he died.
My grandfather had arrived in Vienna from a small Polish village in 1917, at the age of 7, with his mother, brother, and three sisters. "It was not an easy trek," he wrote. "There were hay wagons and crowded trains, waiting and negotiations." The six of them had come to reunite with my grandfather's father, an alcohol dealer who had become stuck in Vienna during the First World War. They were a religious family, and in their new apartment in Vienna, a relative would come by regularly to teach my grandfather the Torah. The relative would often fall asleep in the middle of a lesson, and my grandfather would grab a preferred storybook, stashed nearby, and pull it into his lap.
In the summers, my grandfather swam in the Donau Canal, a detour of the Danube River. In the winters he skied in the Weinerwald, a section of the Austrian Alps that reaches into Vienna, using Goiserers, hiking boots that strap onto skis.
Later, in Vienna, he met my grandmother and dreamed of taking her on a train trip to the Schneeburg, a mountain about 40 miles from the city, where they would climb to the top and relax in an emergency shelter. Her mother, however, refused to give permission for such a trip if it involved an overnight. "There was no such thing as backtalk to one's parents," my grandfather wrote. So the couple began the trip at 3:00 a.m., climbed the mountain, warmed themselves in the shelter, descended, and got back to Vienna, "in time to satisfy my future mother-in-law."
It was a sweet, relatively easy time. But soon my family would be on the move again.
3. Numbers, 2006
New York, where my grandfather and grandmother ended up after barely escaping Hitler's Anschluss with their lives, is more than 4,000 miles west of Vienna. Seattle, where my parents arrived after fleeing the strictures of their East Coast upbringing, is, of course, much farther west—and much less Jewish. Here, I am forever floored by the number of people who remark on my being Jewish as if it were some very curious and foreign thing, but perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. There are about 37,000 Jews in greater Seattle, according to a "Jewish Census" commissioned in 2000 by the local Jewish Federation. If that number is still roughly accurate, then Jews currently make up less than one percent of Seattle's overall population.
By contrast, in Los Angeles, a 1997 survey found well over half a million Jews—a number roughly equivalent to the entire population of Seattle for that same year. In the San Francisco area, a 2004 study found more than 225,000 people living in Jewish households, making them 10 percent of that region's overall population. And in New York State, the world's biggest Jewish center outside of Israel, there are nearly 2 million Jews, with Jews in Manhattan making up about 12 percent of that borough's population.
I went to college in Manhattan, where meeting a Jew is like spotting a taxi. On the Upper West Side, where I was living, December would bring more apartment windows lit with electric menorahs than with Christmas lights. When I went out to bars with male friends who happened to be Jewish, no one ever assumed my Jewish friends must be related to me, as often happens here.
In Seattle, people tell me over and over that I'm the only Jew they know, which constantly amazes me. But, again, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. The other night I was talking with a friend who said that before he temporarily left this city, at the age of 18, to attend college on the East Coast, he didn't know what a Jew was. Even more astounding: The number of Seattleites who know I'm Jewish and yet ask me, year after year, what I'm doing for Christmas.
There continues to be a basic and widespread ignorance in this city about some of the fundamental tenets of Judaism, an ignorance that is no doubt linked to the low number of Jews in this area, but one that continually leads to awkward encounters, annoying conversations, and embarrassingly ham-handed actions from public officials. Take, as one example of this region's bumbling dealings with Jews, the silly contretemps that erupted this year over the Christmas trees at Sea-Tac airport. The whole thing was absurd and dripped with a thinly veiled small-town longing for national attention (no matter that getting this national attention involved boarding the "War on Christmas" crazy train). But it was nevertheless telling that after Sea-Tac officials were confronted by a litigious rabbi who wanted a menorah on display at the airport in addition to the Christmas trees, the officials temporarily took down the trees and publicly admitted that they had never given any thought to their exclusively Chistmas-y decorations. This would be too embarrassing an admission to make in a more Jewish city. However, in a region that tends not to think much about Jews, it was accepted as an understandable oversight.
Similarly, last year, when a candidate for the board of the Seattle Monorail Project, Cindi Laws, suggested that her Jewish opponent was being financed by wealthy Jews in an alleged anti-Monorail Jewish conspiracy, her defense was largely the same—that she hadn't thought much about Jewish sensitivities until some vaguely anti-Semitic sentences came tumbling out of her mouth.
In the 2000 census by the Jewish Federation, 28 percent of Seattle-area respondents said they had personally experienced anti-Semitism in the past five years, and the most commonly reported experience was being singled out unfavorably in a social relationship. This doesn't surprise me. In Seattle, I haven't experienced anti-Semitism in the classic sense of being called a "kike" or checked for horns beneath my hair, or in any of its more violent manifestations, such as the shooting earlier this year at the Jewish Federation, in which Naveed Afzal Haq, a loner upset with Jews, killed Pamela Waechter, a 58-year-old Jewish fund-raiser, and injured five other women. But I do frequently find myself in social situations where people say amazingly stupid things about me, or Jews in general. Often, I chalk it up to them never having known a Jew. But at times it can seem an almost willful ignorance, one that makes me wonder whether, at the root of this ignorance, there is some anti-Semitic disinterest, or perhaps disdain.
Lately, as Seattle becomes more sophisticated, and people here travel to and from bigger cities, where they learn that all the cool kids in the really big cities tend to be down with the Jews, I've been presented with a new type of awkward encounter. This one involves the Seattle hipster who wants to prove that he's so down with the Jews that he's able to make harsh fun of them, to their faces, in front of his friends. This is, of course, a variation on the white guy who wants to publicly call his black friend "my nigga," and sometimes, in the right room, in front of the right people, or with good friends, a certain amount of post-Jewish, post-anti-Semitic humor works. There is something liberating about being able to laugh at one's own identity, especially in the presence of people who don't share it. But the precondition for this is a shared understanding and respect for the identity that's being mocked. In Seattle, that precondition is rarely met. More often, I experience what happened to me at a party the other weekend: I walked up to the back stoop, where people were outside smoking, and a young hipster friend announced to the rest of the gathering that "the Jew" had arrived. Since it's not safe to assume any random gathering in Seattle is ready for post-anything jokes, all eyes turned to me, and I was expected to provide a cue, to either get upset or laugh, so that the rest of the gathering would know whether to be silently outraged (as is the Seattle way) or ironically amused (as is the Seattle hipster way).
I like to say nothing in these types of situations, and instead just stare at the eager-to-be-down hipster, trying to achieve an expression that can be interpreted as either annoyance or diffidence, one that lets everyone marinate in the real issue: Their own clumsiness at dealing with Seattle's Jewish problem.
4. Jude, 1938
I have a Jewish problem of my own. I'm not an extremely religious person. I celebrate the major holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Passover), but I do it less out of an articulable faith in a divine power than out of a limited respect for tradition, the enjoyment of certain rituals and the healthy social interactions they encourage, and, to be completely honest, a hedging of bets.
As a rule, I prefer rational thought to superstitious thought, but all my life I have been observing Yom Kippur, the holiday in which I atone for a year's worth of bad deeds, forgive those who have harmed me with their bad deeds, and in exchange, am supposedly written into the next year's "Book of Life" by God. I haven't died yet. Every year at Yom Kippur I think: Why stop observing now and tempt the easily angered deity of the Old Testament, if He indeed exists? In this same vein, I have developed a habit of silently saying the first among Hebrew prayers, the Sh'ma, upon takeoff and landing at airports. Again, I haven't died yet.
I bring all this up to explain my guilt. It is not about my failure to rise to the defense of my religion and the Hebrew God when people like the guy at the party do stupid things related to my being Jewish; I figure my own idiosyncratic version of Judaism, which anyway people like the guy at the party don't understand, is far more of a problem in the Hebrew God's eyes than my failure to throw cheap wine in the face of some overly cheeky acquaintance. What I feel guilty about relates to my grandfather. I feel that my grandfather Martin, who was rounded up by the Nazis, but through luck and connections managed to escape Austria in 1938 with "Jude" stamped in his passport, would not be amused at my tolerating the glib use of my Jewishness as a party punch line.
5. Islands, 1902
The best-known wave of Jewish immigration to America, the one that is lodged in the popular consciousness, is the wave that brought my grandfather Martin to New York, the one that occurred in the 1930s and 1940s, during the Holocaust. But it was much earlier waves of immigration—often occurring for similar reasons, such as pogroms in Eastern Europe or rising anti-Semitism in Turkey—that built Seattle's Jewish community. In 1910 there were 4,500 Jews in Seattle, and they made up a significantly higher percentage of the city's overall population (about two percent) than they do today.
In general, the Jews who landed in Seattle were people who had money to risk in starting a new business in a frontier town (like the German Schwabachers, successful businessmen from San Francisco who became some of the city's first lenders and grocery-store owners); people with a sentimental attachment to a geography of islands and water (like the two Jews from the Turkish island of Marmara who came here in 1902 with a Greek friend, felt at home, and sent for their relatives); people who had adventurous souls (like Adolph Friedman, the first Jew on record to set foot in Washington State); or people who already had relatives here (like the entire town of Skapiskis, in Lithuana, which seems to have followed a few relatives to Bellingham).
By contrast, the Jews who came to America during and immediately after World War II were desperate, many looking for the safety of a large Jewish community. Like my grandfather, they were for the most part happy just to have made it to New York. Of the 150,000 Jews who arrived in the U.S. in the 1930s and '40s fleeing Hitler's Germany, only 1,000 of them settled in Seattle.
The East Coast Jews of this period developed an identity formed by opposition. My grandfather Martin had known the worst of Europe's anti-Semitism. My other grandfather, William, was teased for his Jewishness growing up in 1920s Brooklyn, and after graduating law school had his career path curtailed by the anti-Semitism at major New York law firms. The Jews of Seattle, for the most part, have had a different experience.
From the beginning, Jews here were part of the business and political elite. One of the first territorial governors in Washington, Edward S. Salomon, was Jewish. Seattle's sixth mayor, Bailey Gatzert, was a Jew from Mississippi (by way of Germany) who'd first been drawn to California by the gold rush, and then up to Seattle by his marriage into a family of West Coast Jewish merchants. He spoke English with a southern drawl, served as a Seattle City Council member for several terms, and when he died, in 1893, received an obituary in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that began: "The history of Seattle can never be told without telling much of the life of Bailey Gatzert." When, in 1897, the steamer Portland landed at the Seattle waterfront bearing more than a ton of gold from Alaska and setting off the Northwest gold rush that would put Seattle on the map, the ship docked at a place named Schwabacher Warf. And as Seattle subsequently boomed into a frontier town where eager prospectors bought equipment and passage to the Klondike gold fields, Jewish merchants often became richer than the prospectors themselves, selling pre-made packs of supplies and equipment designed to last a man a year in the Klondike. At Cooper & Levy Pioneer Outfitters, located at First Avenue and Yesler Way in what is now Pioneer Square (and what was then a neighborhood filled with actual pioneers), the packs of equipment were stacked along the sidewalk and sold, 24 hours a day, for $1,000 each.
These early Jewish merchants were generally part of the first wave of Jewish immigrants to Seattle—Jews of German descent. After the Germans, beginning in the 1880s, came Eastern European Jews, and then, just after the turn of the 20th century, a wave of Mediterranean Jews. Although these Jews didn't face much organized anti-Semitism, they did, following a long and rich pattern of minority-group in-fighting, look down on one another. The German Jews, generally better educated and more assimilated, looked down on the Eastern European Jews, the newer arrivals. And the Eastern European Jews, in turn, looked down on the Mediterranean Jews, with their strange water pipes and unpronounceable dishes, like borekas (stuffed, savory pastries) and ashuplados (Passover meringues), which were definitely not traditional European Jewish staples like gefilte fish.
Part of this was a result of the long-standing division between Ashkenazic Jews (Jews from Eastern Europe) and Sephardic Jews (Jews from the Mediterranean and North Africa), a division likely rooted in European racism and the need of despised minorities to have someone else to despise, even if that means despising someone more similar to them than different. Thus, as recounted in the aptly named Family of Strangers, the Ashkenzic kids of Seattle called the Sephardic kids "Mazola," for the olive oil they used in their cooking, and the Sephardic kids called the Ashkenazic kids "schmaltz," for the chicken fat used in their food. But these divisions were also an outgrowth of the intense longing among Seattle Jews to assimilate; the fear behind much of the acrimony was that some Jews were making the rest of the Jews look bad.
All of which goes some way toward explaining another problem of the Jewish community in Seattle: Its sense of itself, which is thin and fractured.
There was a Jewish neighborhood that emerged in Seattle's Central District in the '20s, '30s, and '40s, and it had about it the flavor of the famous tenements of lower Manhattan during the same period—friends and relatives from the old country squeezing into small rented houses, Yiddish-speaking housewives bickering over chicken feet, a parade of dressed-up Jews moving up and down Yelser Way on the Sabbath, heading to and from temple (or synagogue, or, as the Russian Jews called it, shul). But this neighborhood didn't have quite the same crowded desperation or rivalry with other nearby immigrant groups that one would have found in New York, and it didn't have nearly the number of Jews; in fact, even in Seattle's "Jewish neighborhood," Jews were never a majority.
In addition, the local Jewish community lacked a strong artistic class to record the feeling of the time. There was no Saul Bellow of Seattle writing "I am an American," no Allen Ginsberg writing "when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings," no Gershwin writing musical scores that would later become soundtracks for movies written by some Seattle version of Woody Allen, no great Jewish painters or singers to speak of. And so there never developed a recognizable sense of the "Seattle Jew," as has developed in New York, Chicago, and L.A.—a Jew with a literature, a sound, a textural memory. The closest Seattle Jews came to artistic greatness was by familial association. Ferdinand Toklas, cofounder of Washington's first department store, was the father of Alice B. Toklas, the writer and partner of Gertrude Stein (both she and Stein made their mark elsewhere, however). In itself, that distant connection—more about a Seattle businessman than a true Seattle artist—is a metaphor for Seattle's Jews. To this day, though many prominent Seattle Jews are major benefactors to the arts (the Benaroyas, for example), this city's best-known Jews remain, as in the pioneer period, businessmen: Howard Schultz of Starbucks, Jeff Brotman of Costco, the downtown developer Martin Selig. To the extent that anti-Semitism lurks beneath the surface of some social interactions in the Northwest, it could be due, in part, to the one-dimensional (and stereotype-reinforcing) reputation of Seattle's better-known Jews: all of them powerful merchants or rich businessmen.
As for the Jews of the old Jewish neighborhood, without strong anti-Semitism to unite them in opposition, they lived together for a time and then, once they had established themselves, moved out of the Central District, surrendering it to Japanese immigrants and African Americans. The Sephardic Jews ended up in Seward Park where, as a proportion of this city's overall Jewish population, they now constitute one of the largest Sephardic communities in America. The Ashkenzic Jews moved to Capitol Hill, North Seattle, and, later, Mercer Island. Behind it all was an overwhelming drive to blend in. When certain clubs, like the Seattle Tennis Club and the Washington Athletic Club, banned Jews from membership, older establishment Jews who were allowed to remain on the rolls said nothing, kept their club privileges, and left the fighting to others.
These days, there is only one Jewish temple remaining in central Seattle, Temple De Hirsch Sinai, on Capitol Hill. The rest of the central Seattle synagogues have been transformed into something much different, like the old Bikur Cholim Synagogue at 17th Avenue and Yesler Way, which is now the Langston Hughes Cultural Arts Center. There, the decorative Jewish stars that were once carved into its façade and the engraving of the Ten Commandments that once inhabited the frieze over its entryway have long since been covered over with cement.
6. Memory, 2006
Aside from Family of Strangers, on which I relied heavily for this story, it wasn't easy to find source material for a piece about Seattle's Jews. There is no Jewish museum here, no central repository for a grand narrative about Jewish life in the Pacific Northwest. There are plans to create such a museum in Seattle, but they are nascent and at the moment moving rather slowly, especially for a community that has ample financial resources and a history that now goes back some 160 years in Washington State. Meanwhile, the local African-American community, which reached critical mass in Washington after World War II (several decades after the first big waves of Jewish immigration) is planning to open the Northwest African American Museum next year, inside the old Colman School in the Central District.
It may well be, however, that the local Jewish community has more pressing concerns than the creation of a museum. I am an anomaly among Seattle Jews in that I am, at least on my father's side, a third-generation American, carrying around with me the memory of my immigrant grandfather Martin. One of the major findings of the 2000 "Jewish Census" was that Seattle is the first-documented "fourth generation" Jewish community in the United States. "Most Seattle Jews, especially those under 40, have no direct connection to the immigrant experience and traditions through their own families," the report stated.
This is one of the most important of all local Jewish trends, because for more than a century the immigrant experience has been central to Jewish identity in America—first for the immigrants themselves, and then for the children and grandchildren of the immigrants, the generations that grew up in the presence of aging transplanted Jews, hearing Yiddish and rolling their eyes at their elders' foreign habits. My grandmother Frances spoke of an old-country way of making gefilte fish that involved a carp swimming around in a bathtub, and we all still laugh when someone brings up that messy-sounding endeavor. She is dead now, as are all but two of the older members of my family who were present, in 1977, in the house on the edge of the once-Jewish Central District, to watch my circumcision ceremony. Nora, my non-God-fearing godmother, is in her late 70s and still living in Vancouver. William, my Brooklyn-born grandfather, is 91 and now living at the Kline Galland Home for Jews in Seward Park, where matzoh ball soup appears to be on the menu every day.
Seattle, of course, is already a much different place than the Jewish Brooklyn of my grandfather's youth, and largely by design of Jews who came here precisely because they wanted to wear their Jewishness more lightly, or were born into this lightly Jewish community and now know nothing different. In Seattle, according to the "Jewish Census," more than half of all people who identify as Jewish have no formal ties to any synagogue or Jewish group. Of all local marriages entered into by Jews, about half of them are "intermarriages" to a partner who is not Jewish. And according to the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000 to 2001, Jews in Western states such as this one are far more likely than Jews elsewhere in the country to tell demographers that they are neither orthodox, conservative, nor reform Jews, but rather "just Jewish" or "secular Jews."
The old notion of what it means to be Jewish is unraveling here in Seattle at the same time as the thread of the story of Washington Jewry is being dropped—or, if not completely dropped, then at least let very slack. When my grandfather William dies there will be no more Yiddish speakers in my immediate family, but at least there will remain, on the East Coast, plenty of museums and other testaments to his experience, the experience of a first-generation Jewish American born to immigrants in 1915, the same year Bellow was "Chicago born."
There with my grandfather at the Kline Galland home in Seward Park, however, are other Jewish Americans, Seattle born, who remember the neighborhood on Yesler Way and the peculiar arc that Jewish identity has followed over the last century in this un-Jewish town. When they die, it's not clear how this city is going to tell their stories, or if it is even interested.