I have a request.
If you are in a synagogue, or a JCC, or any Jewish communal setting, and you see someone sitting there who is participating along with the group, do NOT go up to them and ask if they are Jewish!
Well, for starters, it’s insensitive. A person’s religious and / or ethnic identity is actually a somewhat personal topic. Would you go up to an Asian-American and say: “So, are you Chinese or Thai?” Would you go up to a black person and say: “So, where in Africa did your slave ancestors come from?” Would you go up to a little person and say: “So, are your parents little people too, or is it just you?”
Of course you wouldn’t. That would make you a jerk.
Well, asking someone if they are Jewish – particularly when they are sitting there reading Hebrew or davenning or doing anything that exhibits facility with Jewish tradition — is actually not any different. They’re doing Jewish. What business is it of yours how they are or are not self-identifying, or what their familial history is?
Secondly, the question reveals just how clueless you kind of are. The days that all Jews in America descended from the same shtetl in Eastern Europe are loooooong over, and if you have spent any time in Israel, you would know that.
There are black African Jews. Jews with Chinese ancestry. Jews who converted from Protestants and agnostics. Jews come in all colors and sizes, and unless you have been living under a rock, this is not new information! Why, then, would you ask this question of someone who doesn’t happen to fit into the stereotypical Jewish mould?!?
If you are still struggling to understand why this question is such a big deal, try imagining this: Imagine if every time you went lingerie shopping, a sales woman came up to you and exclaimed, in surprise: “Oh! Are you a woman!?” Imagine if, every time you sat down to eat a meal, at least one stranger in the restaurant came up to you and interjected: “Oh! You’ve learned how to feed yourself!?”
Yeah, you’d be pretty darn annoyed too.
What spurs my communal plea? I make it on behalf of my friend, whom I will call Jane, who yes has blue eyes, and yes has porcelain skin, and yes is a bit thinner and taller than the rest of us. But yes she is in fact Jewish, and if she had a dollar for every time someone asked her that, she would have retired by now to some balmy island in the Pacific.
Preferably one where there aren’t any Jews asking her if she’s really Jewish.
What’s ironic is, Jane gets this question way more in Philadelphia than she ever did in the Midwestern city where she used to live. Out there, people are so happy to find another Jew, they don’t sit around challenging people on their ideology just because they don’t fit into an episode of Seinfeld. Here though, in what is supposedly the “urban, progressive East Coast,” all Jane seems to encounter is this parochial, never-been-out-of-my-neighborhood mentality.
As a native Coloradoan myself, all I can do is shake my head. Small-mindedness is the sterotype Americans usually have about people from my home terrain. We may be red states out there, but at least we have the decency and sensitivity to not constantly and unabashedly question people’s very identity.
In Philly, Jane is burdened with the “So, are you Jewish?” question literally on a weekly basis. The only person who gets more pissed off and offended than she does is me. Every time she relays yet another scenario in which some seemingly “nice” person “innocently” asks her if she’s Jewish, I come up with yet another pithy, and increasingly socially inappropriate response. I invite her to use any of these responses the next time, which of course is just around the corner.
“Uhhh, ya I’m Jewish – aren’t you!?!?” [Delivered with an utter look of incredulity.]
“Oh no I’m not Jewish. I became fluent in Hebrew and Torah leining while attending Mass!”
“I AM Jewish, but if it means I have to become a narrow-minded xenophobe just to fit in, I think I’m going to have to reconsider!”
Yeah, I admitted it: not the most constructive things to say. And don’t fret: I’m not actually saying these things. At least not outloud.
But I do think it’s a blessing to the world that Jane is getting these questions instead of me. She has a gift for keeping her cool. Me, I would probably morph into George Costanza one day, pulling a trick from his rageaholics playbook, and simply start L-o-s-i-n’ I-t!
[Scroll up, look left, to see Costanza video clip.]
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