Saturday, March 14, 2009

A friend writes: On Being Jewish

The friend writes:

"A barber, after cutting my hair, said, 'Happy holidays.' Jewish holidays were approaching. "Christmas isn't for quite a while yet," I said, genuinely puzzled. "No," he said, "I meant the Jewish holidays."

"I was upset. When non-Jews mention that I'm Jewish, I'm uncomfortable. Although my wife sees nothing wrong with the barber, an Italian, identifying me as Jewish.

"Why am I upset?

"1. The barber was saying, 'I can identify Jews. All Jews are alike.' Maybe I should have responded, I guess my big nose gave me away. Or was it my odeur Judaica? (In the Middle Ages, Jews were said to smell differently. Thos. Jefferson actually wrote that blacks smelled differently.) Or I might have responded: 'Actually, I'm a wop. A guinea. But I'm unusually smart for being a greaseball.' (I suspect he knew I was Jewish because I talk literarily, being an editor.)

Thinking about it, I can recall two other occurrences where people started talking about my Jewishness:

Recently, someone at a club I belong to said to me, I suppose you know German because you know Yiddish. I responded, angrily, I studied German in college. (True.) He noticed my anger--and has since avoided me. (I must have pronounced a few German words in his vicinity.)

In college, I wrote a paper on Chaucer's anti-Semitism. A fellow student, Michael Goldman, sidled up to me and said, I read our paper and I suppose you're Jewish. I froze. And I walked away. (I've been puzzled, over the years, why I had done that.)

to be continued


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