Personal Essays

Photograph by Steph Goralnick

Jewish Like Me

To be Jewish in America can be a gefilte fish served with wasabi and a dollop of paranoia. And things get even more complicated when you don’t look the part.

When I was growing up, the greatest compliment anyone could pay me was not “you’re smart” or “you’re cute” or even “you’re certainly kind to animals.”

It was, instead, “You don’t look Jewish.”

As a blond-ringleted child with a reasonable nose born into a booming, braying family of assimilated Jews in New York, I was lovingly and proudly doted on by my relatives, who enjoyed much schep nachas, or pleasure, as they stroked my shiny hair, murmuring, “Shaineh shiksa maideleh.” (Translation: “Lovely all-American WASPy girl.”)

My mother, who won kudos herself from friends and family members for looking a lot like a Ava Gardner (not a Jew) when she was young and nothing like Esther, Queen of the Jews, simply kvelled (gushed with pride). Setting aside the fact that I had not been born a boy, she had won the prize of prizes in the first-born Jewish-American baby genetics sweepstakes. The only thing better would be for me to grow up and marry, or become, a doctor or a lawyer.

None of that happened, but I was never taken for a Jew, either.

“What are you doing buying matzoh?” a friend, Lauren, who is Jewish, exclaimed when I, a grown-up now, passed her at our suburban New Jersey supermarket, our carts close to overflowing. “What do you know from matzoh?”

I wish I could say I replied, “Oy, gevalt! I’m Jewish!” Or, “Pish-posh, I am Semitic to the core!”

But the secret part of me, the part that pretends I couldn’t possibly care less about anything, when really I couldn’t possibly care more about everything, the me that cringes at letting people know who I really am, prevented me from saying that. To me, the fact that I am Jewish is great, except for the chance that people will find out about it, which could cause me to lose points in the cosmic game of Who Is the Most Enviable Person on Earth (a game possibly played by myself alone).

“Matzoh?” I said, instead, feigning innocence. “Why, it’s so crunchy and so good with peanut butter and jelly!” I somehow refrained from declaring that I like matzoh even more with ham and mayonnaise, and to this day I am proud of myself for that.

“Matzoh?” I said, instead, feigning innocence. “Why, it’s so crunchy and so good with peanut butter and jelly!”In the world of compliments for not looking Jewish, this is the best compliment of all: to be mistaken for a non-Jew not just by some oblivious gentile but by my own kind. To go unrecognized. To really pass.

Biting my tongue, I used up all my self-restraint keeping myself from telling Lauren, “Thank you.”

There, I’ve confessed. I am not proud of it, but there it is. And I compounded my deceit by repeating to my WASP husband what Lauren had said to me! I did not reveal anything further about my joy at her question. I brandished the anecdote as proof to my husband, of passing, of confirming: “Funny, I don’t look Jewish.” By not revealing my pleasure at being mistaken for a gentile, I had lied to Lauren and to my husband, but only by omission, I decided.

Since childhood, I have found myself mentally playing the role of the black maid’s daughter in a loosely Hebraic version of Imitation of Life. In the movie, the daughter breaks her mother’s heart, purposely passing for white, an act that entails abandoning, embarrassing, and ostracizing her own mother. It’s a story as old as the Torah, with the rampant tides of anti-Semitism, slavery, persecution and exile dogging us, along with a little thing known as the Holocaust. While I knew I was wrong to think this way, I felt that I was only wrongish. It was better this way, I reasoned. I think my mother might think so, too, though she would never say so, and would deny it if asked.

But why would I persist in my pride in looking non-Jewish? Am I somehow protecting myself? From what? Hitler is dead, the SS is long gone, Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan have been shunned, the Ku Klux Klan is busy with other things, and the white-supremacist skinheads are roundly hated by everybody except themselves. You would think that any downside to being Jewish or, being perceived as a Jew, is long gone. But you would think wrong. Even in 2009, as well as 5769, by way of the Hebrew calendar.


* * *

To be Jewish in America is a gefilte fish, wrapped in a matzoh ball, served with wasabi and a dollop of paranoia. There is paranoia, too often justified. Unchecked slurs: “Cheap Jew,” “Jew him down,” ”Jewish nose,” “Jewboy.”

There is, of course, the scene in Annie Hall where Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) famously tells his friend Rob, played by Tony Roberts, a Jew, too: ”You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’ And Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’ Not ‘Did you?’…JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?”

We didn’t know Shabbat from shalom, and we didn’t care.As Jews, we get it. And we chuckle. Knowingly. We’ve learned to be ever-alert to the possibility of the hints of anti-Semitism, aware of ostracism, of exclusion from certain circles, relentlessly vigilant and wary, and the habit dies hard. The fears do prove reasonable, unfortunately. Hate, resentment, disdain, and mockery are out there, kept under wraps usually until the vitriol escapes and explodes in a Mel Gibson-type rant. Prejudice, overt and covert. Yes, we are the chosen people, but chosen for what?

When I was growing up, my family was not religiously observant. We mixed meat and milk with wild abandon, devoured lobster, crunched happily on bacon, and did our own elevator-button pushing on Saturdays, not relying on a “Sabbath goy” to do it for us. We celebrated Christmas, displaying what my mother called, perhaps to appease God and her yenta relatives, a “Hanukkah bush,” which was really just a miniature fake Christmas tree with some tinsel on it. We didn’t fast for atonement on Yom Kippur—I tried it once, but then my mother’s Jewish motherness kicked in with admonitions of “Eat! Eat!” and I caved when she made me a tuna on rye.

We didn’t know Shabbat from shalom, and we didn’t care.

As Jews in America, my parents thought assimilation was better, more modern, and more advantageous. It was opportunist, but that was true to the American Dream, was it not?

My family and I said we were proud to be Jews, that we were proud of our religion and culture, but we remained fearful, as if it were bred into us by thousands of years of instinct. Worried that we would be branded by the always-suspicious goyim, penalized for our very Jewishness. If we weren’t being banned from country clubs, we were being snickered at for buying wholesale.

To be a Jew among Jews in America is in many ways as complicated as being black, with interactions governed by a similar type of complex caste system. Like lighter-complected blacks (think Barack Obama, Beyoncé and Vanessa Williams, as well as all of Michael Jackson’s sad, bad attempts at achieving “beauty”), by many accounts the not-quite-Aryan yet certainly less-Semitic-looking Jews of German heritage sit perched at the top of the status heap, well above and beyond the crass Jewishness and matzoh-ball-soup style of hoi polloi Eastern Europeans.

Sitting at the children’s table at bar mitzvahs, we learned Yiddish, and also to never, ever speak it among our non-Jewish friends and associates.Just as it’s often fine for blacks to call one another the N-word, but not for anyone else to call them that, when we Jews get together, we sometimes call one another the J-word, in all of its variations. Get us alone together and we spread Yiddishisms, those wacky nonterritorial Germanic phrases written with the Hebrew alphabet and pronounced with an abundance of enthusiasm and phlegm, spread through ordinary conversations like chopped liver on Triscuits—which happen to be kosher. How we kid one another! We kid, because we love. My uncle’s not a nut; he’s meshugenah. Our hermit neighbor’s not a loser, he’s a schlub or, better, for it is worse, he’s a schlemiel. Our doctor, who provides well for his family, and takes care of ours, is a mensch. A mensch!

Yiddish is the language of the Ashkenazim, the Jews of central and Eastern Europe. It combines German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian, Romanian, and Ukrainian. Scholars say it began in the Rhineland among Jewish settlers from France. There the Jews adapted the German language into a new vernacular, picking up German words orally, and spelling them phonetically with the Hebrew alphabet. These words were mixed with Hebrew names and phrases, which soon became our own. Hebrew was the sacred language of worship, but Yiddish was the everyday language at home, in the street and in the marketplace.

Sitting at the children’s table at bar mitzvahs, weddings, our monthly cousins’ club get-togethers, and our family bungalow-colony summers in Coney Island (at ritzy Sea Gate, lifting us a notch above the Coney Island crowd), we learned Yiddish, and also to never, ever speak it among our non-Jewish friends and associates in casual conversation.

“Act British, think Yiddish,” my mother has always advised me, touting that strategy as the one that would afford the biggest, best leg up. That was the smart thing to do, and Jews, as we all well know, are smart. We also talk in exclamatory phrases! We answer questions with questions? And why wouldn’t we? We kibitz and kvetch to our hearts’ delight. Among ourselves, we are loud!!! So what’s not to like?

But when others, when the goyim, enter the scene, we feel embarrassed by the too-muchness of it all. The images of our grandparents’ living room sofas and chairs swathed in tacky protective plastic slipcovers and the runners all along their carpeting haunt us still. Most of us learn to subdue our Jewishness to protect us like a shield or to wield it with a cocky bravado, as if brandishing a sword. (Of course, all Jews’ experiences are different. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

All Jews have been affected one way or another by the Holocaust, as well as by the daily, smaller, more covert infractions against us.Comics for generations have become expert swordsmen. Jewishness and its stereotypes have been a constant theme of Larry David’s HBO series, Curb Your Enthusiasm. When Larry, who embodies all the neuroses, tics and nuttiness of the Jewish middle-aged male, is told: “You know what you are? You’re a self-loathing Jew,” Larry replies, “Hey, I may loathe myself, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I’m Jewish.” Woody Allen said just about the same thing, in Deconstructing Harry. (His screen sister, played by Caroline Aaron, a Jew, says to him, “You’re a self-hating Jew.” He replies, “I may hate myself but not ‘cause I’m Jewish.”)

But, for Woody Allen and Larry David and millions like them, sure, that’s what it is.

If we Jews didn’t laugh, we’d cry, as is our tradition. Life for us can be a river of tears, forever plagued, chased, and worse. We are hailed as survivors and periodically reminded that we are loved, that times have changed.

Still, there is the unflattering stereotype. That’s just the way the dreidel spins.

While we are proud, we are not stupid. All Jews have been affected one way or another by the Holocaust, as well as by the daily, smaller, more covert infractions against us. Called “Jewish” behind our backs as a synonym for cheap. Snickered at or patronized for our Jewish names, Jewish noses, Jewish neuroses. Despite all our striving and proving and besting and buying and giving and philanthropizing and civil rights-demanding and peace marching and organizing and schlepping and fund-raising and poverty-fighting and inventing and improving and producing and writing and acting, we all feel or have sometimes felt like second-class citizens.

In public, we assimilated Jews still tone down the Jewishness. We improve our diction. New York Jews enunciate their words, trying to talk, not tawk. We pick up all our formerly and normally dropped syllables. We seize control of our “r’s,” fighting to the bitter end to say—”drawers,” not “draws.” We use the correct forks and hire the hottest caterers. It’s not so much a denial of our Jewishness but the fact that we count on all our very many other attributes to rise above it, to transcend, supersede, and obscure it.

So when a favored great-aunt strokes my blond hair and murmurs, “Shaineh goyishe shiksa maideleh,” I pretend to scoff, but all is well in the world once again.

We know the anti-Semitism is there. Back in 1948, after the ravages of the Holocaust, Elia Kazan (Jewish) won an Oscar for directing Gentleman’s Agreement, a novel by Laura Z. Hobson (Jewish) and screenplay by Moss Hart (Jewish) in which a reporter (Gregory Peck, Catholic) pretends to be Jewish to cover a story on anti-Semitism and uncovers deep, abiding bigotry and hatred. Surprise! The term “gentleman’s agreement” itself refers to the unwritten, unspoken discriminatory agreements in business and housing against Jews, as well as blacks. Because the code was not written, there were no grounds for legal action.

At the University of Wisconsin at Madison I thought I’d stand out among the corn-fed Midwestern youth like a yarmulke at a convention of bald men.The upward striving and yet-al so-traditional sides of Jewish culture are painfully obvious even in our names. While Jewish boys may be named Marc, with a “c” not a “k,” or Max, a winking, cool new look at the prototypical “Max,” an old Jewish guy chomping a fat, damp cigar, Jewish girls are never named Tiffany or Amber, stripper names that many gentiles, bless their hearts, think nothing about bestowing on their daughters to live up to or down as the case may be. But show me a girl named Rebecca, and I’ll show you a nice Jewish girl who knows her Talmud as well as her Neiman-Marcus, and whose parents have socked away enough money to secure a top-notch education and a firm foundation for her success in life.

My own first name, Andrea, pronounced Ondrea, with a short “O,” not AYN-drea or on-DREY-ah, is neither slutty nor particularly Jewish. The moment I was married, right after graduation, I ditched my last name—the uber-Jewish, uber-ugly ”Schwartz,” for my new husband’s last name, the WASPy, Scottish, English, and gloriously chameleonlike “Higbie.”

“At least he’s not a schvartze,” said my father (whose surname, ironically, means “black” in German, which he is not) after meeting this young man, in one of his back-handed comments. Oy, vey iz mir! (Oh, woe is me!)

My mother was nothing if not pragmatic. “It’s as easy to love a rich man as a poor man,” she counseled me on the fine points of how best to ketch me a ketch, find me a find, make me a metch.

At the University of Wisconsin at Madison—where my groom-to-be, a Wisconsin boy, and I met—I thought I’d stand out among the corn-fed Midwestern youth like a yarmulke at a convention of bald men. I thought I might wake up one morning to find a swastika spray-painted on my dorm room door. I was surprised and glad to find that such an act would have made no sense to my schoolmates.

“You’re Jewish?” the ski-nose set would ask over and over in disbelief. “We thought you were kidding.” To their charmed delight, I was Jewish but certainly didn’t seem to be. I had the blond hair, a non-New York accent, a passable nose (though I broke it several times in the years after graduation). I sprouted no horns.

Good Jewish boys who long to be bold but still want to please their mothers can eat their sponge cake and have it too by dating Jewish girls who don’t have Jewish names or look particularly Jewish. (Calling Natalie Portman, Selma Blair, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Winona Ryder.)

But for me, dating a Jewish boy, no matter how blond or blue-eyed, is like kissing a cousin: Very not kosher. To me, the schagetz, the goyim bad boy, the Italian, the Irish, the Southerner, anything but Jewish, is irresistible, my own forbidden fruit.

Jews have long sent our daughters to college and hope they will meet a nice, rich doctor or lawyer in the making, graduating with an MRS. “Andrea, you should do all your studying in the libraries at the medical and law schools,” my mother said in her closing arguments as I boarded the plane to go off to college. ”And be sure to look pretty, comb your hair and wear fresh underwear, in case, God forbid, you’re hit by a bus when you leave the library.”

My mother was not different from all the other mothers in our predominantly Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood. To be young, gifted and Jewish was all well and good, but to be young, gifted and look like a shiksa, well, that was a mitzvah. I was her shaineh shiksa maideleh, and the future looked brighter for me because of it.

Actually, she was right.

But despite her secular aspirations for me, three weeks after I was married at the First Unitarian Meeting House (by a minister! In Wisconsin! In a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, a Unitarian and son of a minister! And that, to a goy yet! Oy!) my mother demanded that I undergo a second wedding, a Jewish one with all the trappings.

In my endless attempts at blending, I became a dues-paying member of the Church of the Month Club, seeking out places of worship I thought would reflect well on my children and me.The second ceremony took place under a chuppah, the traditional Jewish wedding canopy. My husband and I each took a sip from the traditional glass of wine, which he then smashed underfoot, as per tradition. (The custom, I learned while writing this piece, symbolizes the idea of keeping the troubles of Jerusalem and Israel in our minds, even at times of our joy.)

This second wedding required a schlep to Manhattan’s Upper East Side, to Temple Emanu-El, the St. Patrick’s Cathedral of the Jewish world. While this might seem unexpected from a lobster-eating mother, I was not surprised. It was all very ungepatched (mixed up). In our Jewish culture of relentless accomplishing, achieving, and ravenous materialism, if you are Jewish, you should strive to be the very best Jew of all. We strive. Oh, yes, we strive. And this prestige, this feverishly sought well-educated, cultured classiness elevates us, in turn, to seem, well, not so very Jewish, after all. Mazel tov!

In my endless attempts at blending, I became a dues-paying member of the Church of the Month Club, seeking out places of worship I thought would reflect well on my children and me. Like any good Jew, I started with the best: Episcopalian, the patrician center of the goyim world, but even here there was too much Jesus for me and too much standing and kneeling and praying and genuflecting. Feh.

The Catholic Church was out of the question—too crazy, too tacky. (But did you know that Moses handed down to the Jewish people 613 commandments, making the Catholics’ pomp and circumstance look downright casual?) My children and I spent some Sunday mornings at the Unitarian Meeting House, but the Unitarians were way too 1960s mellow-yellow flower power, even trotting out folk singers and dancers onstage. We found that the Quakers suited us best; I could sit among gentiles and Jews alike in silent meditation, all the while indulging in the luxury of thinking about myself uninterrupted for a whole hour, without a priest or rabbi middleman telling me what to think.

Meanwhile, with all my loving and affirmative directives to my children to “be yourselves,” all the better for their integrity and self-esteem, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with my life of contradictions. Having the courage of our convictions, standing tall for what we believe, that’s what I preached and what they—but not I—practiced. Hypocrite!

Yet portraying myself as what I considered a better and (much, much) more perfect version of myself—via my representative to the world—had given me, I thought, advantages. I was afraid I would lose these, unknowingly sacrifice others that might be in the offing, and cause my sons to unnecessarily experience any downside to being Jewish.

And to think of all the places in all the world I could have chosen to come out of my closet, to act Yiddish as well as think Yiddish—in Jew York, my birthplace; at the jewspaper I worked for, The Jew York Times; in Jew Jersey, raising two sons, who, under Jewish law, because I am their mother, are Jewish and would certainly count as such in a gestapo roundup. But instead, I chose to come out, to come clean, in Texas, Red State buckle of the Bible Belt, barbecue, and Bush.

Whether it was fate or a serendipitous quirk that brought me to the Lone Star State, I don´t know. But when I saw the plaque emblazoned with the greeting “Shalom” on my friend Molly’s hallway wall, just a couple of months after arriving in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex and I asked if she was Jewish, Molly told me no, that she wasn’t Jewish (though, to me, she looked Jewish, and that “Shalom” plaque, well…) and that she had bought the plaque on a trip to Israel, which she loved. And, yes, some of her best friends are Jewish, too.

I took the leap, letting the matzoh crumbs come tumbling out. I broke the glass, and told her, “I’m Jewish.”

Molly turned to me, taking my hands.

“I wouldn’t go running ‘round sayin’ that ‘round these parts,” advised my friend, a Texan through and through. “But I do love you Jewish people.”

Next I mentioned my Jewishness to my friends Alicia and Berry Jo. I told them what Molly had said about staying hush-hush with the Hadassah. They said that was ridiculous. But I thought they could be wrong.

That very weekend we were in Coppell, Texas, helping Alicia’s sister, Annette, move to a new house. Berry Jo and Alicia had been looking forward to having Annette and me meet.

As we were talking, I said something about my now-ex-husband being relentlessly stingy in our divorce. (Yeah, Mama, you were right: I should have stuck to my own tribe; the marriage did not work out, and we would have gotten a get, the Jewish divorce, had we been orthodox about it.)

“Is he Jewish?” Annette inquired.

Alicia and Berry Jo gasped.

I said: “No, but I am. And I’m not cheap.”

(Annette later apologized, saying she was stressed by all the packing. But still.)

“You don’t look Jewish,” Annette said. “And I would never mean to imply anything negative.”

Thank Jew?

And so the dreidel spins.