I don’t look Jewish. And we all know that everyone knows what I mean! I was lucky enough to have been adopted by a lovely and adoring Jewish couple and converted under rabbinic supervision within the first ten days of my life. I do not set off anyone’s Jewdar on sight. I do not have the look of one who was born to a woman named Horwitz from Chicago but rather one born to a woman named Reynolds from Campobello, South Carolina, and I can pass so easily that I can pass whether I want to or not. Many a gentile has brought to me their unsolicited opinion about The Jews for as long as I could sit at a bar, legally or otherwise, and I quit drinking nearly 30 years ago. So, thus and therefore, I have gained some legitimate insight into how Jews still do not fit easily into American culture.
Of course, beyond stereotypes, Jews don’t necessarily have one particular “look” and my identity has never significantly been called into question at Hebrew school or in a synagogue minyan. And I am quite comfortable in my Jewish identity, secular as it may be. While I can still hold my own in a traditional service, I personally get more out of the culture, history and ethical traditions the way that the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism Rabbi Mordechai Kaplan explained as an evolving religious civilization. There is an old saying that goes, “Berkowitz goes to shul to talk to God. I go to shul to talk to Berkowitz.” That is my mishegoss.
Jews are an old people and we have inevitably, individually and collectively made some mistakes in our long history; like all peoples, sometimes with the best of intentions and other times out of purely cynical corruption, because we are ultimately made out of humanity and that dynamic is universal. But perhaps our biggest mistake, innocent as it may have been at its source, was our huge investment in messianic redemption theology. Romans will be Romans but Emperor Constantine arguably had a particularly profound impact on the course of human civilization when he found Jesus. From that moment on, Jews were an enemy to Christendom.
I don’t try to start fights. I’m not stupid. I don’t want to have to get my ass kicked. But I can navigate situations and, if sensing any whiff of civility, who and what I am will be revealed with a potentially vain attempt to expand consciousness. Like the old Black guy and a fellow Monk’s Pub regular whose name I no longer remember but who replied so many years ago to my casual self-outing at the time by telling me that since I am Jewish and not rich, then I must be stupid. But that was his mishegoss. It says alot about American mainstream culture (whatever that may be!) that antisemitic stereotypes are less threatening when coming from Black folks. It tells me who is really in charge, anyway.
Some years later, during a winter holiday season when I was a newspaper guy covering suburban village board meetings, the trustees voted to take a recess. Out in the lobby, as the officials, staff and the audience made their way back into the board room, the village president caught my eye and wished me a happy Chanukah. A nearby trustee heard the exchange and reacted with an incredulous “Chanukah?!” I regret to say that I was not quick enough in that moment to reply with an “All holidays matter,” nor any other snappy comeback worthy of Al Jaffe.
I should have been old enough and wise enough by then not to have been surprised by that, but there you go. An elected official well within the third largest metropolitan area in these United States was outwardly triggered by a cordial greeting for a holiday that was not of his familiar tradition. Hardly a pogrom but still a demarcation of turf where there ought not to be any; not if we take any of that stuff “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity” seriously, anyway.
It can be a blessing or a curse. If I couldn’t pass, I would have much less personal access to such a reservoir of ugliness in mainstream society and awareness that there is a tyranny of normality that drives our social navigation. I don’t have to pretend to agree with the ubiquitous cultural din of racist, sexist and antisemitic whining but I can keep my mouth shut, or otherwise simply not give myself away and move along. I can hide in plain sight, if I find it prudent to do so. I am blessed and cursed to go through this life with the luxury of a choice like that.