Jewishness and cartoons
I really don’t like to make personal posts on this blog because I don’t want this space to be about me, but I’ve been wanting to say it was particularly interesting for me to hear Rebecca Sugar discuss her heritage and its effect on her upbringing in this recent SDCC interview.
I’m very similar to Rebecca that way–I’m a half Jewish woman, and my mother converted before I was born because her husband’s religion mattered more to him and his family than hers did to her. It was super important to that side of the family to have Jewish children, while my mom was a lifelong atheist who was raised Catholic. My grandfather was a cantor and my grandmother was very religious, and she sang a lot of sacred music herself (in addition to her theatre career–Grandma had several roles in Broadway shows). My father played the piano on Sundays in our temple and taught Sunday School sometimes. I went to Hebrew school as a kid and I was the only person in my classes with blond hair and with a name that couldn’t be written in Hebrew. (I had to use a different name when I was there. It contributed a lot to my feeling like this part of my life was separate from everything else. Rachel, who’s Rachel? Oh I’m Rachel, I forgot.)
In elementary school I was usually the only Jewish kid in my class. My mom had raised me to make big stink about it if anyone (especially adults) tried to pressure me into doing Christian things, because we lived in the Bible Belt and it was just so casually part of life there. When we had an assignment to write about our Easter and I had to request a different assignment in front of my class, some kid came up to me at recess that day and asked me why I hated God.
I tried to keep it as a positive thing in my life–that being different was something to be proud of or at least not ashamed of, and that’s more or less how I felt most of the time. But sometimes it was super alienating, and then on top of that I didn’t totally belong in with all the Jewish kids either. My dad was the one with the Jewish history and he was pretty hands-off raising us until we were older, so it was sort of like a secondhand, unsure version of Judaism that was practiced at home, with a mom whose exploration of the religion with us extended only as far as learning all the verses of the Hanukkah blessing.
Culturally I usually didn’t feel very Jewish, and emotionally/spiritually I am not what you’d call a believer in God, but what I really valued about Judaism and my Jewish upbringing was this connection to ancestry, tradition, and inevitably music. My father would practice the songs for the services on the piano in our home, and my sisters and I had special dresses we would put on and dance in the living room while he played. There is a special flavor to most Jewish music; almost all of it is in a minor key. For that reason I never associated minor keys with sadness or melancholy the way many other people I’ve known said they do. Even when they’re singing about joy, Jewish people usually express it in a minor key–I interpreted that as sort of as a connection to loss and terrible trials, but also with OVERCOMING THEM. It was always beautiful to me. As a music major in college I would remember piano lessons as a kid and always gravitate toward minor chord progressions. It was weird when someone told me a little song I wrote sounded “depressing.” It wasn’t supposed to be.
But then again, not everything was beautiful. I remember another incident where my dad was one of the people carrying a decorated, bedazzled Torah scroll around in a celebration of the holiday Simchat Torah. I told him later that when I grew up, I wanted to carry that one too. He said I couldn’t because I was a girl and only men were allowed to touch them. (!!!!) The fact that HE agreed it was a bad rule, and acknowledged that some jobs were only for women, didn’t change that I would have to obey those rules if I wanted to participate at all, and though I was later introduced to denominations of the religion that have less restrictive rules about women’s participation, that really stuck with me. Celebrations of being female shouldn’t have to feel secondary to men’s.
I don’t think I know of another creator who has such a similar background to mine and must have been raised with so many of the same influences that she ended up putting in her creative work. I don’t post any original writing here (except, like, character analysis posts or something), but I’m sure my fantasy stories have been massively influenced by some of what I discovered exploring these themes in my early life, and my work today would be very different without them. But, I suppose very much like in Steven Universe, there isn’t anything overt about the influences from my spiritual education. I don’t just plunk in a Bible story or something. It’s more a thread or two and, more importantly, the feeling of the blanket.