Sometimes, a terrible thing happens when you have a younger sibling.
As the elder statesman, you spend your entire life learning, working hard, and creating an identity for yourself, while paving the way to make it easier for the new kid to get along.
What a mistake.
Because then, if you do that, you one day wake up and find definitive, conclusive evidence that they’re better than you. That you’re no longer the most adventurous or the most experienced or the bravest or the one with the most to share. (Or maybe, you never were.)
That day happened to me. It was March 22nd, 2016.
Before March 22nd, I’d tease about this idea to friends. I’d conjure the image of a DNA lottery draft, like the draft at recess when you picked sides for kickball. “Alyssa,” I’d say, “as the youngest of three siblings, had the last overall pick in the Petersel genetic lottery. I got music, Zach got sports, Alyssa got stuck with caring about people, having a moral compass, and wanting to save the world.”
Before March 22nd, I’d prided myself on my worldliness and my journalistic tendencies: I started and ran a music magazine. I’ve written up coverage of music festivals in strange, foreign lands. I’ve maintained this blog for over nine years.
But on March 22nd, 2016, my sister dropped a book. A full-length, edited, publisher-approved book. The culmination of almost a year abroad, and almost three years of effort. I thought I was leading the way around the track; it turns out, Alyssa’s nearly lapped me.
(For what it’s worth: Zach’s no slouch either.)
Having lived with Alyssa during her formative years, I can share some unique insight and perspective on this book in addition to the above confessions of my own nascent inferiority complex.
First: As a kid, she was ceaseless and terribly effective in lobbying for control of the TV. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to sit through the movie Spiceworld (on VHS!) as a result.
Second, and far more importantly & relevantly: I don’t think we grew up in a particularly Jewish household.
Accordingly, it was kind of strange and unsettling to me when Alyssa announced she was writing a book about “searching and belonging in Jewish Budapest.” Honestly, my most vibrant “Jewish” memories only tangentially register to me as “Jewish.”
- We got Bar and Bat Mitzvahed, but in suburban Long Island, this roughly equates to six months of extra homework, which I already did a lot of, followed by a massive birthday party. I have a far better recollection of the walk-up music I chose for my friends and family than I do of the prayer songs I actually performed at the service
- We visited Israel once as a family for New Years, but we took family trips annually to all matter of beautiful and historically significant places — to Mexico, to celebrate dad’s time spent living there; to Italy, to appreciate the history of art (and Zach’s love of pasta)
- We went to Aunt Clara’s house every year and had a big family dinner (called a “Seder”) to celebrate Passover… but this wasn’t really all that materially different from the big family dinners we had at Aunt Barbara’s house in November to celebrate Thanksgiving
Then again… on further reflection…
- We always knew our dad’s mom was an immigrant who fled Europe around the time a particular German regime was coming to power. It wasn’t until later, but Dad eventually revealed to us that our great aunt was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor, and that many of his aunts and uncles were holocaust victims
- I got bullied in high school for being jewish
- I wore a Star of David necklace for a while growing up. I stopped; I liked being jewish, but I no longer wanted my religion to be such a visible part of my identity
For whatever reason, despite all the skepticism proffered by intellectual friends and modern philosophy classes, I still identify as Jewish. I believe zealously in the power and pleasure of traditions — not just the stereotypically “Jewish” traditions like that aforementioned Passover seder, but much simpler, modern traditions, too. Like always drinking a Mountain Dew when I play video games with Matt, or checking in at the Sweet Hollow Diner, ordering a Belgian Waffle, and eating it as fast as possible every time I go out to Long Island and visit my parents and high school friends.
To me, that’s the reality of modern Judaism — if not modern religion in general. And that’s what Alyssa captures brilliantly, and beautifully, in her book. Somehow I Am Different speaks to the power of creating and celebrating spirituality in your own unique way. And I’m tremendously relieved that Alyssa’s shown me that I’m far from alone in that endeavor.
Alyssa and I briefly toyed with the idea of doing an interview for this blog post, but I think we effectively covered everything she and I both wanted to cover after just one question:
Josh: What is Judaism?
Alyssa: I wonder if we should leave it at that.