Friday, May 25, 2012

Jew, Jewish, Hebrew, Yid?

Bar and Bat Mitzvah gift suggestions at (a service of JSL).

This week's Table Talk comes in 3 parts, beginning and ending with a question for your table.

Question: Did you ever know someone uncomfortable identifying as "Jewish"?

I remember my first day in Mississippi, where I accepted a high school teaching job right out of college, at a rural school.

That first day, in late June, the air was so heavy that walking outside felt like you'd feel if you took a bath with your clothes on.

My boss, the inimitable Billy Joe Ferguson, took me on a tour of my new home-away-from-home, the blistery-hot, plastery-white Vaiden High School.

We bumped into the gym teacher, Coach Gant.

James Gant was a tall, muscular 30-something man, graying early but handsomely. He seemed friendly enough, but suddenly asked me a question that made my heart beat a bit faster.

Looking down on me, he drawled, real slow, "Seinfeld? What sort of name is that?"

Looking up at him, trying to discern whether there was anything remotely threatening in his voice, I piped, "German?"

"Oh. Ah din know if it was German or Jewish or what."

(I wasn't wearing a yarmulke at the time.)

I haven't thought much about this encounter with my self-ID but a conversation yesterday brought it rushing back.

Part 2:

Yesterday someone asked me, "When did the term 'Jew' become au currant? It's not in the Torah is it?"

Once upon a time, a Jew was an "Hebrew" (Ivri) or an "Israelite".

But by the 5th Century BCE, Judah was the only landed Israelite tribe left standing. So "Juda-ite" or "Judean" or "Jew" won the test of time.

Jerusalem was in Judea, so "Judean" or "Jew" persisted.

But something interesting happened in the eary history of the USA.

According to this recent article in the Atlantic, post-Civil War Jewish immigrants to the USA thought that if they could get a new ethnic name, they'd be able to diffuse the antisemitic prejudice that seems to follow us everywhere.

So they called themselves "Hebrews" or "Israelites" for a few decades, until resurgent ethnic pride made it cool - or at least cooler - to be a Jew.

Part 3:

Last week, someone I know was visiting a certain Jew who is living the good life, retired, healthy, and married to a somewhat religious Christian woman. Needless to say, this man's Jewish identity is not outwardly very strong. In fact, it would appear to be non-existent. Moreover, he is not a Jewish person who has discarded his Judaism or Jewish identity. He was raised that way, with zero Jewish education or affiliation.

In the course of this visit, the conversation turned to politics and the president's declaration about gay marriage.

Listen to what this disconnected, completely assimilated Jewish man said:

"When they want to talk about special treatment of the Jews, then we can talk about special treatment of the gays."

Question for your table: Where did that come from?

Shabbat Shalom

and Happy Feast of Weeks (what's that?)

(don't eat too much cheesecake)


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