My father was a six‐foot‐two Bronx Jew. My mother was a five-foot‐one Mississippi Baptist. Let the hilarity ensue.
They met in New York, and my father proposed with a very romantic “Okay, I’ll do it.” They married and moved to the San Fernando Valley, land of porn and the color brown. And then they had me. Now, even though he now lived in California, my father, he was Bronx. He had Allerton Avenue and stories of the city. My mother was Gulfport. She had stories of finishing school, hurricanes, and family members stealing Civil War cannons from her front lawn. I had a Ralphs store on every corner.
I was raised as Jewish. Sort of. It was the kind of Jewish that included Hanukkah, Star of David paraphernalia, and the occasional trip to temple, usually on high holidays or when someone my parents cared about died, which wasn’t often ‘cause my parents didn’t really care about anybody. Hebrew school would’ve been fine, except for the fact that it was on the same day as my ballet class, so — pass. And my mother never considered actually converting to Judaism. Why would she? She danced around at temple much harder than anyone else. That had to make you Jewish, right? The fact that bacon was the staple of both of their breakfasts; the fact that not a prayer was taught, learned, or repeated in my house (at least not until my grandmother died when I was 24 and then my father suddenly became very Jewish sitting in the garage, drinking Crown Royale and muttering broken prayers which may or may not have made any actual sense to someone who understood what they were supposed to mean); the fact that actually being Jewish was not at all part of being Jewish, it all seemed completely normal to the two people I shared a last name with. (Although the last name on my birth certificate was actually my father’s stage name, not his legal name, so technically I do not exist.) Basically, I figured out early that finding an identity was going to be completely up to me.
Anyone who knows me would be truly flabbergasted to learn that as a child I was very quiet. A friend of the family says that when I was 4 you could tell me to sit on the front porch and not move until someone came back to get me and I would sit there forever. Like a dog waiting for his dead owner to come back home and throw him a ball. I’m not particularly proud of that information, but it has been backed up by several independent sources, so I’m going to assume it’s true.
So, as a kid, I had no voice. And no great inclination to go anywhere, apparently.
And then one day, bored to death from being an only child living in the Valley, I wandered out to the converted garage that doubled as my father’s office and found a beat-up record album stuffed behind the Freudian books that I desperately wish my father had read. It was 2000 Years with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks, the record that introduced Brooks’s 2,000-year-old man character. Something stirred in me. Possibly it was heatstroke since we had no air-conditioning and we were living in the freaking Valley.
I went into my tiny bedroom — a room so small Anne Frank would’ve walked in, looked around, and said, “Really?!” — and put the first album on. Carl is interviewing Mel, the 2,000‐year‐old man. “But I don’t look more than sixteen, seventeen hundred, right?” It wasn’t just the words. It was the way he said everything. And then it dawned on me. That was Jewish. That’s how it’s supposed to sound. And feel. It’s fast and furious and human and exhausted and hilarious. To this day, whenever a discussion of God comes into play, the first thing that pops into my head is Mel saying, “There’s something bigger than Phil.”
And that was it. I instantly adopted a New York accent. I became Van Nuys via Brooklyn (well, Brooklyn in the forties). I was never prouder than when people would say to me, “You’re from California? I thought you were from back east.” I would dream of the Catskills. I would worship at the altar of Woody Allen. I would stay as far away from white bread and mayo as I possibly could. If my mother would not convert, if I could not have a bat mitzvah, if I could never truly learn the rituals, the words, the point of leaving a chair open at Passover, at least I had them. I had Mel. I had Carl. I had found my inner Jew.
Guest columnist Amy Sherman-Palladino is the creator of Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, which has its winter finale tonight at nine on ABC Family.