OAKLAND, Calif. (JTA) — I know now that my family tree is adorned with rabbis and Hebrew novelists, Yiddish auctioneers and shtetl folk healers. But as a kid, I didn’t know a thing about it. I didn’t even know I was Jewish.
My mother, Claudia, pulled up her roots as a teenager and came west to San Francisco in the Summer of Love trying to find a new family — one based on a shared vision of communitarian love, not tribal bloodlines or ancient texts. She still hadn’t found what she was looking for by the time I was born at the end of the Vietnam War, and my early childhood was spent wandering the American West in search of an elusive utopia.
By the time I was 10, my mother and I had hitchhiked for thousands of miles and befriended hundreds of exceptionally strange people. We had danced around bonfires and lived in vans, buses and an ice cream truck. Some nights we slumbered blissfully under the stars; others I lay awake paralyzed by the howling of wolves.
Our quest for utopia stalled out in rural Washington State when Claudia married Leopoldo, a former Salvadoran guerrilla fighter who brought with him demons from the civil war in Central America and a serious drinking problem. My mother was convinced that he was a messianic revolutionary hero she had foretold in clairvoyant visions. I was pretty sure Leopoldo was going to kill us.
In the summer of 1986, we moved to a temperate rainforest on one of the San Juan Islands. Leopoldo told us he was going to build us an ancient Egyptian-style pyramid to live in, but his plan failed when he threatened to kill the property owner. As the winter rains fell, we found refuge in a dilapidated little apartment in the town of Stanwood, Wash.
I found refuge in the local public library, where I began researching the Jewish legacy I’d just learned was my birthright. The ancient spirituality of the Land of Israel inspired me, and the rich tradition of the ancestors made me feel like I finally belonged somewhere.
But my mother’s political condemnation of Israel gave me pause — until I finally got access to a television after my seventh-grade teacher assigned watching the nightly news as homework. Claudia wouldn’t throw down $50 for a used television of our own, but she reluctantly agreed to let me watch elsewhere.
I had to admit that the moving color pictures gave me a new perspective on certain news stories. The Midwestern drought that Claudia had dismissed as a corporate scam to gain more farm subsidies sure looked like a bona fide disaster to me. And despite his evil policies, Reagan actually moved and talked like a nice old man, not a demon loosely draped in human skin.
But the most startling difference was my take on the intifada. This was an issue that kept me awake at night. How was I supposed to take pride in being Jewish with genocide being committed in my name?
But now the intifada was being televised. Instead of a still, grainy picture of a Palestinian boy holding his leg in pain, I was presented with broad pans of hundreds of men hurling rocks and Molotov cocktails at almost impossibly restrained Israeli soldiers. I peered in to look at their skin color.
Claudia had characterized this conflict as a redux of the civil rights movement, except this time the dark-skinned, oppressed minority wasn’t just being denied its basic human rights and dignity, but also being targeted for extermination. But that wasn’t what it looked like on camera.
When presented with my thoughts on the issue, Claudia assured me my conclusions were all the result of selective editing and government manipulation of the media. But I wasn’t so sure.
Claudia’s grip on my worldview began to erode in front of the television, quickly disintegrating entirely. On one thing after another, I realized my mother was wrong.
Maybe the Israelis were actually decent people trying to make the best of a complicated situation. And if this were true, maybe the same could be said for America.
Maybe the police and the government and the corporations — everyone I’d been taught to hate and fear — were all fundamentally good people trying to do their best in complex times. And what if black and brown people weren’t morally superior to white people? What if we were all just individuals who should be judged by the content of our character? Wasn’t that what Dr. King had been talking about anyway?
And if that were the case, maybe your politics shouldn’t define your moral worth. Maybe you could be an uber Republican but still be a good person. And maybe, just maybe, you could believe in the revolution and the people and still be a terrible person.
I walked back thinking about the river of ideas I’d been swimming in my whole life. All of the life choices my mother had made, all of the deprivations I had suffered — were they all premised on delusions?
The walls of my room were plastered with protest posters I’d picked up over the years, and I looked at them now with new eyes. First, I tore down Israel Out of Palestine! And then I tore down U.S. Out of North America! And then I ripped at my political wallpaper with the zeal of a recently deprogrammed cult survivor until all that remained was one anti-nuclear war poster. Then I tore that down, too. Who knew? Maybe you could hug your child with nuclear arms.
(This was excerpted from “Free Spirit: Growing Up On the Road and Off the Grid,” to be published by Hyperion Books on Sept. 10.)