July 18, 2013
Not long ago, a magazine article caught my eye. The writer, who was Jewish, and his wife, who wasn’t, were sunning themselves on the beach when a woman raced past them and plunged into the surf.
“She’s obviously not Jewish,” the husband remarked. His wife asked what he meant.
“Jewish women don’t dive into the water head-first,” he said, “because they just had their hair done.” His wife nodded, understanding her husband’s comment but reminding him that he was generalizing. Nonetheless, the man clung to his belief that since the woman was enjoying herself, riding the waves, she obviously put aquatics ahead of grooming, which, in his mind, was “un-Jewish.” With that kind of reasoning, getting a manicure probably would mean that Jewish women don’t wash dishes either.
The couple may as well have drawn a line in the sand and said, “Jews on this side; those who aren’t Jewish over here.” Had they done that, about half the country’s interfaith couples would straddle the line. Surveys show that more than half of American Jews today are in interfaith marriages. The figure has risen slightly since 2000-2001, when a National Jewish Population Survey revealed that 47 percent of couples were in interfaith marriages.
The magazine article that had captured my attention was both provocative and troubling. As I read, I wondered why, despite increased outreach to and acceptance of interfaith couples, we’ve made so little progress in educating people. Are we still cubby-holing people using ridiculous stereotypes? Are we using wet hair as a yardstick for determining religious preference?
I encountered all sorts of “yardsticks” during my childhood, as did my father before me. He once told me that a woman he was dating in college invited him to spend the weekend at her home with her family that wasn’t Jewish. When the two arrived, after introductions were made, my father was greeted with a surprised look from his friend’s mother, who had been told he was Jewish.
“I’ve always heard that Jews have horns!” she said, surreptitiously sneaking looks at my father’s head. He said that at that moment, he realized how complicated marriage to his girlfriend would be if they continued the relationship. Of course, he didn’t write off all potential spouses who weren’t Jewish, but the experience, for him, was a wake-up call. He didn’t want a marriage that included uneducated and possibly anti-Semitic in-laws.
I grew up in the 1950s, when stereotypes were rampant, especially in our neighborhood, where nearly everyone was either Catholic or Protestant. We all played together, but somehow, the topic of religion always came up. When I met a friend’s mother for the first time, she looked as though a spaceship full of aliens had landed in her front yard.
“We’ve never met a Jewish person before,” she said. I expected her to look for horns too.
I think the adults in the neighborhood had more trouble with my religion than my playmates did. They knew Jews were “different.” My friend Sally, undoubtedly brainwashed by her parents, thought all Jews were rich and stingy. Still, I was able to deal with the ignorance in favor of having a good playmate. Sally and I were inseparable. I went to summer bible school at the Methodist church as her guest. Most of the time, we sat coloring pictures of Jesus. In the winter, Sally came to our house to join in a Hanukkah celebration.
I always helped decorate her family’s Christmas tree, an event I looked forward to all year. As soon as her mother took the box of ornaments down from a shelf, I was in their living room faster than Grant took Richmond. And when an older neighbor made each of us a yarn octopus, we named them “Chris-a-Han” and “Han-a-Chris” after both holidays.
By then, Sally’s parents had elevated my status. I was like other kids, except for having a more expensive winter coat, which was good for at least a couple of hours of gossip between housewives on our party line. I doubt they ever stopped believing that Jews were wealthy and money-grubbing, and that we all had big noses and what my mother’s former hair stylist (who wasn’t Jewish) had called “frizzy Jewish hair.” And no one ever grasped my reason for not eating pork chops.
Eventually, I told my religious school teacher about my new friend, Sally. My teacher could have said, “That’s nice. I’m happy that you’re making friends in your new neighborhood.” Instead, she said, “Jews don’t name their kids Sally.” Another stereotype. I told her my friend wasn’t Jewish.
“Well, that explains it,” she said. It was a sort of reverse cubby-holing.
It didn’t stop there. At sleep-away camp, Mary, a Catholic bunkmate blurted out, “You killed our Jesus!” I had been accused of that many times over the years.
“I wasn’t even there,” I shot back. “Besides, Jesus was originally Jewish.”
While Mary was explaining why I could plan on going straight to Hell, our counselor cut off the escalating discourse on comparative religion and told us to go brush our teeth.
Since childhood, I've encountered people who use the expression “I Jewed him down,” referring to a bargain on a purchase. I never said anything. I never came forward and said, “I’m Jewish.” Maybe I was afraid to rock the boat since they obviously thought Jews were money-hungry. In my mind, Jews couldn’t win. If a Jew had lunch with a friend and offered to pay the tab, he was “rich.” If they allowed the other person to treat, they were “cheap.” I’m embarrassed to say that such comments, instead of inspiring me to say something, caused me to fear blowing my cover. My Jewish friends admitted to having the same hesitation to challenge such remarks. Better to let things go than to risk hostility.
My own hesitation to reveal my religion accompanied me to my small college, which had only four Jews. One morning I was pushing my tray through the breakfast line when one of the servers, slinging oatmeal into bowls, told a “joke” to a girl ahead of me. It was based on the Superman theme.
“What’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Look! Up in the sky! It’s SUPER JEW! He can make more money faster than everyone else!”
I was seething, but said nothing. By the time I reached the milk machine, she had been placed on my black list. I still regret not having said, "I'm Jewish and I don't have a lot of money."
Years later, I decided I’d had enough of being awash in a sea of bigoted people. I blamed the messages I had gotten as a child, having been told by relatives and religious school teachers that Jews were smarter, cleaner and more educated than everyone else. Those messages had become part of my belief system, but now I was ready to discard them and trade irrational embarrassment for the challenge of setting the record straight.
I got a chance to test-drive my newfound courage while visiting my sister-in-law in the hospital. One of her friends, also visiting, mentioned that she and her husband were looking for a house and had considered a certain neighborhood – my neighborhood.
“But there are a lot of Jewish people there,” she said. I stepped up to the plate.
“That’s why we live there. It’s close to our temple,” I said, and she turned red, backed toward the door, mumbled a hasty goodbye and departed.
Since then, it’s been easy to speak up. Maybe it’s partly the thrill of embarrassing idiots, but it’s also something more. I’m Jewish and I have no reason to hide it. I want people to see that I have no horns.