Abe Jaffee's America hosted a variety of exotic human types. Dad's favorites were 'newly discovered' Jews. Not obvious Jews ' the Sids, Sollies, Arties and Morties with whom he competed for leadership roles in the Knights of Pythias, the Jewish War Veterans, and innumerable Brotherhood Committees. Such familiar Jews he dismissed as anthropologically uninteresting and endlessly disappointing.
'My co-religionists!' he called them with a dismissive roll of his eyes.
Maybe that's why he was always inventing a more congenial tribe, concealed behind the fresh faces of the Congenitally Gentile.
Take the echt-goyish art of baseball. My brother and I are mesmerized by a game beamed live from the House that Ruth Built.
'So howah the Yankels doin'?' asks Dad, reminding us of the subtle ties of kinship that link all who affirm the traditional rights of the Bronx to host the World Series. And, of course, when The Mick, six feet of solid Okie muscle, steps up to the plate and settles into his stance, Dad shakes his fist in mock fanaticism and bellows,'Give it a zetz, Mendele!!'
The sports world was only the tip of the iceberg ('eisberg' in the Old Country). After a day servicing commercial refrigeration throughout the five boroughs, Dad would bring home a story of a Chinese waiter on Second Avenue who 'speaks Jewish like a Galitzianer,' or of a Mafioso in a Queens fruit market who 'has such Yiddisher ta'am, I call him Rabbi Zino.'
One Sunday morning, over a light brunch of onion board, bialys, cream cheese, 'appetizing' (New Yorkese for smoked fish), scrambled eggs fried with belly lox and onions, and babke, Dad delivered his most impressive disclosure of the hidden thread of Jewishness that bound humanity into a unity.
Sharing my forthcoming sixth-grade report on early New York State history, I intoned: 'The Empire State's first empire was the Iroquois Confederation, fashioned by the Oneida, the Seneca, the Onandaga, the Cayuga, and the Mohawk.' I let this disclosure sink in to the family's consciousness as I re-applied a dab of cream cheese to my bialy.
Mom smiled benignly at her son's effort at erudition. Dad sniffed an opportunity for further instruction:
'Yeah, they were the foist Jews here ' before Columbus!'
'Jewish Indians?' I scowled. 'Gimme a break!'
'Whaddayatawkin?' Dad protested, looking wounded. 'Sure! In N'yawk, Mohawks, but in di alte haym ' Shmohawks!'
Case closed. Years later, I learned what Dad, a lover of history, already knew: that more than a few Christian missionaries had believed Native Americans to be the remnants of the lost 10 tribes of Israel.
Lately, Dad's Shmohawks come to mind often as I read about the legal tussle between anthropologists and Northwest Native tribes over the remains of the so-called Kennewick Man. His skeleton, estimated by carbon dating to be between 9,300 and 10,000 years old, was discovered in the shallows of the Columbia River, near Kennewick, Wash., in 1996.
Local Native representatives argue that what's left of Kennewick Man belongs to Native peoples, under provisions established by Native American Graves Protection & Repatriation Act of 1990. Their right to provide the bones of an ancestor with proper burial supersedes the professional interest of scientific researchers in studying remains of the human populations of Pleistocene North America.
But is Kennewick Man an ancestor of contemporary Natives? The very first archeologist to take a close look at the bones back in 1996 observed that these are not the remains of one of the Northeast Asian wanderers who, some 13,000 years ago, are said to have trudged across the Bering Straits to become the biological ancestors of the tribes now known as Native Americans.
Mr. Kennewick's skull, it seems, has neither the broad, flat facial plane, nor the high cheekbones of the genetic community dubbed 'Mongoloid' by physical anthropologists. Rather, he has the longish face and prominent chin of the 'Caucasoids,' the prehistoric ancestors of Europeans. If so, Ken (don't you feel you know him by now?) is not a Native American ancestor under the rubric of NAGPRA.
No one is quite sure what this White Boy was doing in the Native American 'hood millennia before any of his anatomical descendants would return as Conquistadores and begin the process of reducing Natives to a conquered nation nursing its memories on the rez. But does the existence of Caucasoid Ken (or even his inevitable Barbie, whenever she turns up) damage the Native claim to his remains? Not at all, say the tribes.
Despite a few anatomical anomalies, he is the past of their world and they are the embodiment of his. And who's to say that a tribal burial isn't the perfect end for an ancestor of contemporary Europeans who have nearly forgotten the brief Christian interlude in their millennial paganism?
Whatever the legal disposition of this case, the historical implications are fascinating and will take a while for students of the prehistoric Americas to sort out. For Jews, however, there is another layer of meaning to this story. The Native tribes remind us that ethnicity is as much a matter of the imagination as it is of the genes.
Sure, the cultural vapidity of mid-20th century American-Jewish suburbia drove Jews like my father to bring Chinese waiters, low-level Sicilian thugs, and even the Mohawks into his tongue-in-cheek Jewish Tribe of Imagination. But was Dad (except for the location of his tongue) much different than our contemporary co-religionists, who imagine their Jewish tribe tucking into a lunch of blintzes and sour cream after receiving the Torah from Sinai? If the tribal past remains alive for any of us, it makes the same demand upon all of us: that we change the past by reading it through ourselves, and become the past by reading ourselves back into it.