Surprise! Youre Jewish: Book explores identity envy

For most of his 54 years, Jim Van Buskirk didn’t have a clue he was Jewish. Or did he?

Why did Van Buskirk, raised Protestant, so often find himself drawn to Holocaust museums? Why did the sound of Israeli music bring tears to his eyes? Why did he have so many Jewish ex-boyfriends?

He got answers last December when his mother divulged the family secret. She was actually Jewish, the daughter of a Holocaust refugee. That made Van Buskirk, by default, as Jewish as the Vilna Gaon.

By then Van Buskirk, the program manager at the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, had long contemplated the concept of identity envy — why so many find themselves wishing they could be something, or someone, they’re not.

Van Buskirk and his colleague Jim Tushinski co-edited “Identity Envy,” a new collection of nonfiction essays by LGBT writers. He and several essayists will appear at a public reading Sunday, March 18, at the Hormel Center.

The diversity of the essays speaks to the power of identity envy: One Texas good ol’ boy turns to the sophistication of cafe society Europe. A Korean-American longs for the bucolic simplicity of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s American plains. An African American woman identifies as both Native American and male.

The only thing the essayists have in common is their collective “queer” identity.

“Each is unique,” says Van Buskirk. “They don’t form a single tapestry. But I was amazed how people approached the idea in their own unique manner and voice, some realistic and grounded, others more ethereal and conceptual.”

One of those contributors is Joan Annsfire, 55, a fellow librarian at the Hormel Center, and a noted Berkeley poet. Annsfire is Jewish, but her essay, “The Promise of Redemption,” reveals that as a high school student in Cleveland, she had an intense fascination with Catholicism, or to be more precise, Catholic school girls.

Annsfire went so far as to create for herself a new Catholic persona — Corinne O’Donnell — complete with fake I.D. Her red hair didn’t hurt either.

Though she bought a glow-in-the-dark rosary, Annsfire was not drawn to pure Catholic doctrine. She never met with a priest or took communion. She just liked the cute girls in the short plaid skirts.

Over time, Annsfire came back to her Jewish identity, albeit on an unpredictable path. She moved to California in the 1970s, came out, and is now a librarian. Though she is a proud cultural Jew, her spiritual path is closer to Buddhism.

“I still have a close affinity with Catholics, except some Catholics will say, ‘I’m a recovered Catholic.’ I don’t feel a Jewish identity is something I can leave behind.”

Nor is it something that can be denied, as Van Buskirk learned.

His essay, “At the Museum of Jewish Heritage,” recounts a lifelong infatuation with all things Jewish. While visiting the museum, he buys a CD of Jewish music he promptly falls in love with. Yet inexplicably his CD player will no longer play the disc, even though both are in perfect condition.

The essayist turns that into a powerful metaphor for struggling to determine his own identity. “I told some people [about being Jewish] and they said, ‘We always knew you were in the tribe.'”

The idea for the anthology developed over coffee about three years ago when friends Van Buskirk and Tushinski revealed to each other their affinity for Judaism (though ultimately Tushinski chose to write about his love of the Robinson family from TV’s “Lost in Space”).

They put out a call for submissions and were surprised at the deluge of responses. Ultimately, Van Buskirk hopes “Identity Envy” will spark further conversation. “It’s a pretty provocative idea,” he said. “I’m hoping people will enjoy reading the stories and reflecting on their own identities they might not have seriously considered.”

As for his pursuing Judaism, Van Buskirk says he’s not inclined to join a synagogue, but that doesn’t mean he won’t get involved somehow. “I’m in the process of tracing my lineage,” he says. “Wouldn’t it be funny if it turns out my grandfather, who I thought was a Scotsman named Burns, was a Jew named Bernstein?”

A reading of selections from “Identity Envy” takes place 2 p.m. Sunday, March 18, at the James C. Hormel Gay & Lesbian Center at the San Francisco Public Library, 100 Larkin St., S.F. Info: (415) 557-4400.

“Identity Envy: Wanting to Be Who We’re Not,” edited by Jim Tushinski and Jim Van Buskirk (267 pages, Harrington Park Press, $19.95).

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Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.