It’s 9:30 on a Saturday morning and I am sitting in a conservative Jewish temple awaiting the Bar Mitzvah of my first-born. Ari’s not really my first-born; he’s the first-born of my best friend, Lisa. I’ve always laid claim to him because he was the first baby I was close to that didn’t creep me out. I’m holding the prayer book upside down and backwards because I can’t figure out which way it’s supposed to go. My husband, Tim, is sitting next to me all decked out in full Jewish regalia. With his yarmulke and tallit (little hat and knit shawl for you non-Jews), he looks more like a last minute extra in Fiddler on the Roof than the WASP that he is. So, how did a nice Christian Italian-American girl from the east side of Detroit end up here? It’s as mysterious as the Kabbalah but a lot easier to understand.
I grew up in a middle-class, all white, mostly Catholic neighborhood. My only reference to Jews was every Easter when the story of Jesus’ death and resurrection was retold in church. I didn’t really pay all that much attention to it, but I had a vague idea that the Jews weren’t all that fond of Jesus. As a kid I never understood what He did to tick them off, but considering what happened to Him, they must have been really angry. We didn’t have any Jewish neighbors or friends. Although, sometimes I overheard my parents talking about someone they knew or someone my dad worked with and it always sounded like this: “You know, Sam is…(and here my mom’s voice would drop to a barely audible whisper)…Jewish.” Cancer and divorce were the only other two words that were spoken with such caution. What was it about Jewish people that deserved the dreaded catastrophic whisper of my mother? This got my childhood brain working overtime. I now had only one mission in life. I had to find a Jew.
Not having any Jewish kids in my school or people in my neighborhood, I had no idea where to look. Then one day, I heard my brother casually mention to my mom that his math teacher was going to be gone for a couple of days to celebrate a Jewish holiday. “Mr. Finkelstein is Jewish?” I screamed. My brother just looked at me and said, “Duh! His name is Finkelstein!” I had no idea what that meant, but now I knew where I could find a real Jew and he was as close as the sixth grade hallway. After finding out about Mr. Finkelstein, I went out of my way to see him. Once I started studying him I was disappointed to find out that he looked like every other teacher. He was thin, average height; he had dark hair and black glasses. He wore a suit and tie every day and he always smiled at me when he saw me staring at him. There was nothing whisper worthy about Mr. Finkelstein and so I stopped stalking him. It would be many more years before I encountered another Jew.
My first real job was as a file clerk in a urology clinic. I was 17 and by now I had learned a little more about the Jewish culture. I learned that a name ending in “stein” or “burg” would most likely belong to a Jewish person. I heard Archie Bunker once say that all Jews were either doctors or lawyers. My dad told me that the best comedians were Jewish. While reading a television and movie magazine I found out that Sammy Davis, Jr. was Jewish and that really threw me for a loop. Just when I thought I was getting a handle on recognizing one, a black Jew comes along and blows the stereotype right out of the water. But now, I had an entire office of Jewish doctors and one friendly co-worker that I could study. Karen, the lab technician was really the only person in the office who was friendly toward me. She would let me look through her microscope while she counted swimming sperm. She made lewd jokes about “lending a hand” to the men sequestered in the bathrooms with plastic cups and Playboy magazines. And, she was the first person I knew who used words like “Oy vey!” and “schmutz”. Of course, working in the urologists office I had often heard her say “schlong” or “shvantz” and laughed when she told me those words meant penis. It was also in this office that I had my first encounter with a JAP.
One of the doctors had a teenaged daughter, Rayna, who came in after school a few days a week to “work” in the front office. She didn’t really do any work. She just sat at a desk, did her homework, brushed her hair, talked on the phone and said mean things about people – especially me. Every time I walked by she would look down her well-sculpted, refurbished nose at me like I wasn’t worthy to be on the same planet. Whenever she knew I was within earshot she would say something to one of the receptionists in a loud stage whisper criticizing my hair, my shoes or my looks in general. When I first complained about her to Karen, she told me to, “Just ignore her. She’s nothing but a big Jap.” Jap? Karen saw the puzzled look on my face. “JAP – Jewish American Princess,” Karen said. “It means she’s spoiled rotten and Dr. Daddy gives her everything she wants. In plain language, she’s a total bitch.” JAP – I had learned another new phrase. By now, my father was just ignoring my blossoming vocabulary at home. “Oy! I had to schlep files from one end of the office to the other all day. I barely had time to grab a nosh and it was so hot in there I was schvitizing like a fat man eating soup.” He was very happy when I quit that job and went to work at the Red Lobster. I was too. The chances of me running into another JAP in the Red Lobster kitchen was pretty slim. Although, it was there that I made my first real black friend. If I thought the Jewish slang was fun, I had a blast with all the jive talk Freida taught me. After I once called my father a “soul-less cracker,” he longed for the days when I would have just called him a meshugener.
A few years after leaving the Red Lobster, my career path took me to the one job I had wanted all along: radio broadcasting. And if I was still interested in making some Jewish friends, let me tell you, I hit the mother load! There were Jewish radio executives, advertising clients, local business owners and even disc jockeys. I learned early on that if you’re in radio and your name is Bobby Gold, most likely it’s short for Shlomo Goldstein. The first time the business manager asked me to hand out paychecks for the staff I handed more than half of them back to her.
“Sharon, some of these people don’t even work here,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” Sharon asked.
“That’s Austin Lowe.”
“Oh, that’s Bronco Billy the Kid,” Sharon replied. Wow, I thought. I couldn’t believe Bronco Billy the Kid, who came into the studio every day wearing a cowboy hat and spurs on his boots was some kind of kosher cowboy. It was mind-boggling. It was also in radio that I had finally made some close Jewish friends who were more than willing to educate me about more than name changes and nose jobs.
Michael was my first real Jewish friend. He was a partner in an advertising agency and one of the funniest clients we had. We developed an instant rapport and I felt like I could ask him anything. My first question had to do with the mysterious Bar Mitzvah ritual.
“How old were you when you became Bar Mitzvah?” I asked.
“13.’ Michael replied.
“Did your dad get you a hooker?”
“I wish. I just got a savings bond and a tree planted in my name in Israel.”
“I thought a Bar Mitzvah was where you became a man and that meant you had your first sexual experience.” Michael just laughed and shook his head. “Most Jewish guys don’t have their first sexual experience until about three years after they’re married,” he told me. Between being such good friends with Michael and making a lot more Jewish friends in my career, I started to feel pretty confident that my Jewish education was fairly complete: until I met Lisa.
After I had left radio, I went on to work for a large national cable TV network. Lisa was hired in after she moved here to marry her fiancé, Milton. In my opinion, Lisa was the first real deal Jew I had met – her last name was Greenberg and she was from New York! She told me all about Jewish sleep-away camps, what the holiday observances were all about, and she even took me shopping with her once when she had to get kosher food for Passover. We had a grocery store near us called Farmer Jack. It was in a highly populated Jewish neighborhood and had a very extensive kosher section. Lisa appropriately renamed it “Farmer Jew.” While we walked through the store with our respective carts, mine filled with Chips Ahoys, pasta and bread; Lisa had a sad little cart filled with matzo crackers and a bunch of bananas.
“That’s it? That’s all you can eat?” I asked.
“No,” Lisa replied, “I’m also going to get some gefilte fish.” When I first saw that pulpy white fish mess floating around in a pickle jar I clutched the gold cross around my neck, looked up to Heaven and thanked Jesus that I didn’t have to celebrate eight days of Passover.
It was during this first Passover with Lisa that I encountered my first Seder plate. We had a big project going on in the office and Lisa needed to stay late which meant she would miss the first night of the Passover Seder dinner. Our boss felt bad about it and so he sent me out to get her a Seder plate. He called one of his friends who told him I could get a pre-made plate at Esther’s Judea Shop and Deli. I went to Esther’s and asked for the Seder plate. I received it in a covered Styrofoam container and didn’t open it until I got back to the office. I just assumed since it was a dinner plate Lisa would at least get a good meal. I was wrong. When I opened that container and saw that it only had one hardboiled egg, some parsley, and some type of scrawny bird leg, my fascination for all things Jewish began to wane. Before I gave the container to Lisa, our boss pulled me aside and said that there were also four questions we needed to ask before Lisa could eat. “What four questions?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Just make something up.” And so I did. While Lisa was working hard in the conference room I brought in the sad little plate and set it in front of her. Then I started to read the four questions I made up. I didn’t know what to ask and so I thought I would make it easy on Lisa and only ask things I knew she could answer. I started with: “Who is the president of the United States?” “What is the correct spelling of Saks Fifth Avenue,” “What is the time difference between here and Miami Beach?” “Name all of the Brady Bunch kids.” Poor Lisa. She just looked at me and said, “I appreciate this, but no one actually eats the Seder plate and those questions are so far off I don’t even know where to begin.” I clearly needed more education.
When Lisa got pregnant, I was introduced to a whole new set of rules. Apparently it’s bad luck to keep baby gifts in the house before the baby is born. Suddenly, my childless home began to look like a daycare center. Then the baby naming started. Lisa and Milton spent countless hours going through names of dead relatives. “Why can’t you name the baby after someone who’s living?” I asked. With a shocked look on her face, Lisa explained that if the “Angel of Death” came looking for the older person who had the same name as the baby, it could get confused and take the baby instead. “I’m sorry I asked,” I said. “It doesn’t have to be the whole name,” Lisa said, “It could just have a letter from the same name too.” So, basically, any name will do. I came to realize there were many loopholes in these religious rules. I also couldn’t fathom why they were so protective of the baby’s name, yet had no difficulty strapping Ari to a board and having a Moyle circumcise him during a buffet lunch in the banquet room of the Townsend Hotel. Mazel tov, indeed.
It was a few years after Ari’s birth that I finally got my childhood wish: a Jewish next-door neighbor: Naomi. And, Naomi wasn’t just any Jew; she was an uber-Jew straight from New York with an accent and an attitude to boot. I was thrilled. Whereas Lisa took a more relaxed view of Judaism and its customs, e.g.: “I can only fast for about an hour-and-a-half on Yom Kippur. I get too hungry.” Naomi, on the other hand, approached it with gusto! Coming from a more conservative family, Naomi told me about the Shabbat rules for the Sabbath of not operating electrical appliances, not driving a car, no working, and no cooking, baking etc. These rules would go into effect from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. I’ve always abided by these rules too on the weekend; I just call it being lazy. Naomi also informed me about the role of the Shabbos Goy. This is a non-Jew whom you employ to take care of all the chores you are forbidden from doing. Now, even though Naomi didn’t strictly observe the Shabbat rules, she still seemed to find ways to employ me. I found myself stashing all of her non-Passover food in my kitchen for a week. I once trimmed her hedges. I did all of her sewing. I babysat. I grocery shopped. It took me a long time to realize that none of the stuff she had me doing had anything to do with custom. She just didn’t want to do those things herself. It got to the point where I didn’t even ask questions until she called me one day from the car: “I’m on my way home from a funeral. I need you to put a bowl of water on my front porch so we can wash our hands.”
“Why?” I asked. “Did you dig the grave?”
“Very funny. No. We have to make sure no dead spirits followed us home.”
“Okay. But make sure you wash out my bowl before you give it back to me. I don’t want any dead spirits stuck in my Tupperware.”
Naomi’s family also includes us every year in their Seder dinner. I’ve learned some of the prayers and love the food, but I still can’t touch that gefilte fish. I also pass on the horseradish, salted parsley water and matzo ball soup. One year, Naomi’s brother-in-law leaned over to me and whispered, “You’re the worst Jew I’ve ever met.” Lisa and Milton had us over for a Seder dinner once. Before everyone sat down in the dining room they realized they didn’t have enough chairs. Tim and I had to sit in the kitchen with Milton’s nephew (also Christian, and bi-racial). The three of us just stared at each other and Milton’s nephew, Greg, said it was the most discriminated against he’d ever felt.
Along with celebrating the Jewish holidays with my friends, I also include them in my Christian observances. The kids decorate our Christmas tree every year. They’re fascinated with the Nativity scene. After seeing a life-sized manger scene on the lawn of a church one Christmas, Ari asked Lisa what “that little house with the animals” was for. Lisa replied that it was to celebrate someone’s birthday and then she feared that Ari would ask for one on his birthday. I’ve had to distinguish the difference between the wise men and the Wisemans. Why we stick a real tree in our family room. What does coloring eggs have to do with Jesus. If Jesus was a Jew how come we’re not all Jewish. All of these various questions over the years have made me realize two things. One, there are a lot of things associated with all religions that just don’t make sense. Two, Easter should be celebrated with a good Jewish brisket instead of ham.
And this brings me back to Ari’s Bar Mitzvah. Even though we aren’t Jewish, Ari wanted us to take part in his special day. With pre-approval from the rabbi, we were able to stand alongside Ari as the ark was opened to bring out the Torah. Now, rules are rules and we weren’t allowed to actually touch anything, but the symbolism of family and unity and how we are all one under God, was evident as we proudly stood on the bema (that’s altar for you Christians). Oh, and Milton’s nephew, Greg, was also standing up with us that day and I was pleased to see how far we’d come from the Seder dinner we had had to eat in the kitchen.
Yet, no matter how secure I feel in assimilating myself into the Jewish culture, there are still some things I can’t shake. Like just the other day when someone asked me if Lisa was a friend of mine from church and I said, “Oh no.” And then I whispered, “She’s Jewish.”