Antiquated Words Like Mamzer and Bastard Should Be Forgotten
A bastard is a child born out of wedlock or from an adulterous affair. Under the common law, a bastard in England was considered “no one’s” child and therefore could not make any claim for support from their parents. While some were acknowledged by their biological father, this did not lessen the stigma of the label which followed the colonialists to America. “Illegitimate” children were taught they were inferior, lesser than their “legitimate” counterparts. Legal reforms in the UK in the early part of the twentieth-century ended this archaic and sexist practice. In the early 70s, a series of Supreme Court rulings made illegal the different treatment of bastards here in the U.S. With the end of a separate legal status for bastards, slowly society has condemned the shameful practice of treating such kids as outcasts.
I am a bastard but not a mamzer. My biological father is not the man my mother was married to when I was born. The primary difference between being a bastard and a Jewish mamzer is a child born out of wedlock isn’t necessarily the later. A mamzer is conceived through a forbidden relationship. This includes a child resulting from incestuous relations (close-blood relatives) or relations between a married woman and a man who is not her husband, regardless of whether or not he’s married. Although, the Greek and Latin translations of the word refer only to a child of a prostitute. In my mind, just like the term Bastard, it’s pretty much a sexist concept.
Today, the issue of mamzer usually occurs if a Jewish woman doesn’t receive a proper Get, a divorce under Halachah (Jewish) law, before she conceives a child. It can be a huge problem if her husband refuses to grant her a Get. This practice makes women vulnerable to the demands of a husband she wishes to leave. To learn more about the serious modern-day issues associated with the implications of mamzer on both mothers and children, read this article, https://jewishweek.timesofisrael.com/doomed-at-birth/.
What’s so bad about being labeled a mamzer? A mamzer must follow all Jewish practices but may only marry other mamzerim or converts for ten generations. Yes, that’s right, Deuteronomy 23:2 says for ten generations. I suppose I should feel grateful that under Halachah law a mamzer can only be produced by two Jews. Since my mother isn’t a Jew, that means technically I’m not a mamzer. Then again, under Halachah law, I’m not even considered a Jew either. (Look for future posts on the complex concept of who is a Jew). Bastard and mamzer invoke feelings of shame, being an outcast, and loss of identity and should be abolished from our lexicon. All children should have the same rights and be treated with love regardless of how they were conceived (an affair, donor-conceived, assault, or a love child).
Thank goodness Reform Jews have fully repudiated the concept of mamzerness. However, I think the idea of mamzer and bastardly taint is overshadowing my attempt to learn about my biological father. I am grateful for my gem of a cousin Ava who helped me connect the dots to confirm Sam Rubinstein was indeed my biological father, but the idea of people learning of my shameful existence seems to be a stumbling block for her and others.
As I mentioned in my blog post before (https://unexpectedlyjewish.com/american-jewish-committee/), Ava did share the little bits of medical history and stories she knew about Sam and a couple of photos; but, this did little to satiate my appetite to learn about my new family. I have so many questions about Sam and my brother (and I really wanted one good photograph). So I started reaching out to people who knew him and the organizations he interacted with.
While at the AJC dinner to honor past presidents, a woman approached Ava and shared she was a good friend of Sam’s son, growing up and how much she’d admired Sam. I took note of her name and a few weeks later I reached out to her. However, I’d remembered her name incorrectly and called the wrong person. I am pretty sure the woman I called let Ava know I was looking to talk to people about Sam.
Not long after this, Ava called to let me know she thought I was tarnishing Sam’s reputation by letting people know I existed. She also implied I did not have all of the facts related to my conception; that perhaps my mom wasn’t fully innocent in the encounter. My mother was 18 years old and Sam was 55. She was at the bar at the Canlis drinking because her husband had left her. I don’t know if Sam was imbibing as well. I do know he was probably having dinner at the restaurant. Tears silently streamed down my face as I told Ava it didn’t really matter what happened 45 years ago. Pushing my sharp nails into the flesh of my palms to prevent any audible sobs, I quietly told her goodbye.
I felt sucker-punched by the phone call. This was the only member of my biological family who was willing to speak with me and she’d just called me a tarnish on Sam’s memory. In trying to understand Ava’s point-of-view, I told Zoey about the telephone conversation. Zoey told me she could understand Ava’s position. Sam was a prominent member of the tight-knight Seattle Jewish community. Learning he’d fathered a child while being married to Gladys for 66 years may make people question who he was she explained. I can understand the idea but can’t agree. Sam was a human being like everyone with strengths and weakness. Regardless of my birth, he will be remembered as a savvy, fair, and shrewd businessman who gave generously to the arts in Seattle.
I will likely never know why Sam decided to have a one-night stand with my mother. Perhaps he was celebrating the sale of his company, Whitney Fidalgo Seafoods to Kyokuko Company, Ltd of Japan which was announced in the papers a short time after I was conceived. Maybe he’d had a bad day. Whatever the reasons for his and my mother’s actions, I will not feel shame for the sexual acts of my parents. The fact is, I exist and that is all that really matters now. I will not be a dirty secret. A fellow NPE told me I should be proud of who I am — I burnish Sam’s reputation.