WHAT I AM NOT©

Not long ago, carried by some crazy emotion, I suddenly became aware that I was not whole, that I was missing something.  During some sleepless nights that followed, sensing every bed sheet wrinkle under my body while awaiting for the morning sun to insinuate itself over the distant mountains, I began to introspect about what I was missing.

Of course, I am missing my parents.  The death of parents is not to be underestimated as to the impact it has over children.  I am not talking about becoming parentless at age ten.  I am talking about losing for ever the capacity to turn around with pride and show your parents what you have accomplished, or simply turn around knowing that they will be right there, with those reassuring smiles, telling you that no matter what, you are a winner, and that they trust you will overcome any obstacles, as it was when I was ten.  But I am not talking about missing parents.  It is something more complex than that.

I remember that when I was a kid, I already was missing something.  I became aware of it when the MacDonald brothers called me that first time “perro Judio” (loosely translated as dirty Jew). And there were many other occasions during my childhood and adolescence when I was reminded that I was a dirty Jew.  In any other respect I was a Colombian, or so I thought.  Except that my skin was somewhat lighter than many of my friends and classmates and that I was Jewish and they were Catholic.  So I guess, that at that time, somewhere deep in me, it was established that I was not a Colombian.  Oh sure, I was a Colombian by definition.  I had been born there and that is that.  But it had not been me the one to draw boundaries on the sand, it was them that were telling me what I was not.  Of course, one adapts to this kind of things.  The mind of a young lad is plastic enough.

As I grew older and became a teenager I entered Medical School.  I felt good about it.  I remember to being scared.  It was because of the awesome responsibility that rested upon my shoulders.   I was the youngest in the class and for that matter, the university.  My sister had already walked those same corridors and she had been the best student.  Everybody expected me to do well.  I did well, although not as well as my sister had and yet, I still was reminded once in a while that I was not one with the nature that surrounded me.  Those occasions were few, but meaningful.  Whenever I was arguing with someone any sociopolitical topic, at some point during the argument I would be reminded that I could not possible be argued with because I was a Jew.  This was an interesting intellectual experience.  I am a very good argumentalist (and I am making this word up if it does not exist already).  So, when I entered a conversation on politics, or religion, or something as pedestrian as arguing about potholes and why the municipality did not fix them, somewhere along the argument, after failing to convince me and fearing I would convince them, they would say that I thought differently because I was Jewish.  Mind you that Jewish here was not meant as an insult or even as a religion, but as a culture and way of thinking –a bigoted assumption in addition of being wrong.  Again, I was reminded that I was not one of them, I was not a Colombian.

But if I was not a Colombian, what was I?  I was Jewish.  But being Jewish was not equivalent to being a Colombian and should have not been incompatible with it.  I was missing something.  What?

When I finished medical school, I immigrated to the United States to pursue graduate studies at Princeton.  I already knew that I was not returning to Colombia.  My sister had attempted to return to Colombia to teach and do research at the university.  She had encountered every imaginable opposition.  Not that the university did not want her, or that her colleagues did not like her, on the contrary.  Rather, the government placed obstacles to importing the scientific equipment she needed.  They even tried to prevent the acquisition of air conditioning equipment for her laboratory.  After three years she quit and immigrated to America to teach at Cornell, her alma matter.  So I was basing my decision on learned experience, I also knew that I would always be looked upon as “different”.  So I self-imposed my own exile from the land of mañana.

Princeton was a great experience.  It not only was my first point of contact with my new nation, but it also offered me a great postgraduate education.  Nonetheless, I also had a minor rub with my Jewishness.  One of the most famous professors in the Psychology Department, the man that autographed for me his book, The Human Senses: “To Saul who makes good sense of his senses”, could not bring himself to refer to Israel as Israel, he called it Palestine, and this during the 1967 war!  So I realized that my new country, at least in this respect, was probably not different to my old country.

The following years offered to me possibilities that were unimaginable.  After all, this indeed was the country of opportunities.  But once in a while I got a whiff at the old anti-Semitism.  In fact, I lost my job as a Neurosurgeon at a famous clinic because I was a Jew.  They had hired me probably as a token Latino or Hispanic, making the mistake to assume that people from South America were Catholic, and not realizing that a small fraction, less than half a per cent, were Jewish.

Looking back at things and events, it is not even the cloaked anti-Semitism that has bothered me through all these years.  It was something deeper.  Standing in the present I would look at the past, but not at my past, but my parents past.  The landscapes I saw were not the landscapes of my youth but of their youth.  It was not I in my city that I saw, but they in their village.  I was not even looking, but rather sensing.  It was not a sensory memory but rather, a sensual memory, an emotional memory.  My Jewish feet were walking on the mud of the stetl streets in Bessarabia.  I was smelling the garlic and onions as their mother and then my mother used to cook with.  What touched me was not the present in my new country but my past in a country I never lived in, a country that my parents despised.  Kletzmer music rings in my ears and yet I never heard the groups my parents told me about.  Yiddish theater was deep in my veins and I don’t speak Yiddish.  And that, if you can imagine, is really an experience.

During my youth I went to Temple, often on Friday nights, but definitely on High Holidays.  Then, for years my wife and I did not go to Temple.  When we finally decided to go, we did not feel comfortable.  The service was mostly in English with some Hebrew interspersed.  We do not know Hebrew and yet we felt somewhat betrayed that the service was in English.  The melodies that I listened to in my childhood resonated in my head and were dissonant with the melodies sung in my adoptive country.  Gone was that minor key and ancient cry to God. The translations of the Hebrew text were so politically correct that they lost part of the original message. So I, who hardly understand Hebrew, am missing a more conservative approach to religion.  Not to say that I would be satisfied with an all-Hebrew religious service –an apparent contradiction.

Well, here I am, a Jew, living amidst the second largest Jewish population in the world.  And yet, my fears are not the same than the fears of most American born Jews.  My longings are different.  Israel is not the same, does not mean the same for me and for them.  American Jews tend to be pragmatic and incapable to comprehend the real geographical size of Israel.  To add salt to the wound, American Jews tend to think that peoples in other parts of the world and of other cultures, think and can be reasoned with like if they were Americans.  This creates a deep gap between those that surround me and I.   Americans see Israel as another country.  I see Israel like a magical kingdom.  In general American Jews see Israeli earth as the substrate to grow fruit trees or build tenements, I see that same earth as a silent witness to all my history.

America has been a great country to live in these last few decades of my life and I anticipate that it will remain my home for the last years of my life as well.  But I am not perceived by others as an equal.  There is always a distinction between me and them, be it Jew or not. Unlike any kid growing up in this magnificent country of almost infinite opportunities, I cannot even aspire to be President.

So, in the final analysis, I can say that I am not a religious Jew, I am not fully accepted by Colombians as a Colombian, I am not perceived fully as an American, I am not a Holocaust survivor so I cannot be a witness to the horrors of anti-Semitism.  When I feel deeply the pain of Holocaust victims I am perceived as some kind of weirdo.  Because I see the differences between me and others so well defined, I feel like a plant grown in water.  And like a tomato grown in water I have extensive roots, but no ground to grow them into.  I am not an Israeli.  In the eyes of some orthodox Jew I am probably not even a Jew, given all the sins and transgressions I have committed against the commandments of our Torah.  I am also not discontent with my position.  I would not know how to live otherwise.  I just feel a little bit sad.  Now, for what I am, that is an altogether other matter.

Saul Balagura. 2003