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Jewish Like Me

"There's a … man here to see you."

I couldn't see our receptionist's face, since she was at the front desk and I was sitting in my cubicle, but even over the phone I could tell she looked quizzical.

Image of Phoenix, Ariz. by Lorenzana777.

I'd been working at Phoenix's Jewish newspaper for a couple of years, and I knew we sometimes got unexpected visitors. There was the elderly man who wanted to share his story of surviving Auschwitz with our readers (we published it), and the advertiser who handed us an article he'd written about his own business and expected us to run it (we didn't). That's part of what I love about working at the paper--each day brings a new and interesting story, and the possibility of meeting equally new and interesting people.

The man waiting at the front desk wore a black hat and a long black coat, in spite of the Phoenix summer heat. His bushy grey beard extended far below his chin. He looked up at me expectantly.

A year before, the idea of having to talk to this man would have made me very nervous, and not because he'd arrived unannounced.

The truth is that while I have always been able to "pass" as Jewish, my mother was not. And even though she and my German-Jewish father raised my brothers and me as Jews, and even though I'd grown up thinking of myself as Jewish, not half-Jewish, I had encountered enough people who told me flat out that I wasn't that for a time I wondered if maybe they were right. Maybe all those years of lighting the Shabbat candles together on Friday night, all the seders at which we retold the story of slavery to liberation and were grateful my father had survived the Nazis, were meaningless. I would always be an outsider, a wanna-be--not an authentic Jew. I was Jewish in my family and in my heart, but not in the real world.

The change came shortly after I began working at Jewish News of Greater Phoenix. It was gradual, but profound, and it was the result of several factors.

The first factor is that because I'm the employee of a Jewish company, people assume that I am Jewish. Now, that's a little misguided, since many of the people who work at Jewish News are not, in fact, Members of the Tribe. But since I not only work there but look the part and have the name, people don't even ask. That means that if I interview somebody on a Friday afternoon, he may very well say, "Shabbat shalom" at the end of the conversation. And I, in turn, have grown comfortable wishing him a peaceful sabbath as well.

The second factor is my job as a reporter. I meet with and interview every possible flavor of Jew you can think of. I talk to atheist Jews, ultra Orthodox Jews, crunchy granola spiritual Jews, Buddhist Jews and Jews by choice. And over time, I have learned that the customs and concerns of these various groups can be very different from each other. I know not to try to shake the hand of an ultra-Orthodox man. I know that someone who is Jewish by choice may not be the best person to talk to about childhood memories of the Jewish holidays. I know a person with Jewish heritage may not identify as such. (My half-Jewish colleague Jennifer Goldberg attends a fundamentalist Christian church.)

Most important, I learned this piece of wisdom: two Jews, three opinions.

In other words, just because somebody Jewish announced that I was not didn't mean more than the word of my father or my rabbi--or, for that matter, me--who had no doubts about my Jewishness.

And I learned that I was not alone.

The first inkling came early on in my career at Jewish News, when I wrote an op-ed piece about being raised Jewish by a non-Jewish mother. We ran it in the paper, and I also recorded it for the local NPR affiliate.

I've never had so many letters in response to a story. All but one were positive, and even the negative letter was relatively nice; the writer just said she felt sorry for me. For the most part, the letter writers wanted to tell me that they couldn't believe how clueless and cruel some people could be, and to applaud my mother, and me. That felt pretty good.

One letter stood out. A man wrote to say that he was a member in good standing of the organized Jewish community in Phoenix: belonged to a shul, was married to a Jewish woman, had children who were being raised Jewish. But, he confessed, his mother was not Jewish, a fact that those around him were not privy to. In effect, this man had been passing for years, living a life he feared was a lie. I finally understood: The idea that someone like me wasn't a real Jew was not only hurtful but destructive. Most of all, it was just plain wrong.

Which is why I felt fine inviting the mysterious black-garbed stranger into our office that summer day. He was there, he explained, because he was driving a van cross-country on a mission to alert Jewish communities to the danger of intermarriage. He sat across from me at the table in the conference room and described the horrors of mixing religions and the sad result for the Jewish people. He had pamphlets and pictures to give me.

"What's your name?" he asked.

I told him.

"So you're Jewish?" he prompted.

"Yes," I said. "I am."

"Then you know what I am talking about," he said, leaning in conspiratorially.

I let him finish his pitch, then walked him out to the parking lot to see his "No-interfaith-marriage" mobile. It was a rickety old ambulance he'd covered with writing, mostly quotations from Torah, and driven all the way from Brooklyn.

I had to admit, I kind of liked the guy. He had guts and determination and the courage of his convictions. He was Jewish, like me. And I knew not to shake his hand goodbye.

Hebrew for "Sabbath [of] peace," a greeting on the Jewish Sabbath. The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them. Yiddish for "synagogue."
Deborah Susser

Deborah Susser is the associate editor of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix and a regular contributor to KJZZ, the Phoenix NPR affiliate.

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