Life My Jewish Problem
posted by December 28 at 14:06 PMon
Finally had a chance to read Eli’s fascinating feature about the history of Jews in Seattle. There is a lot of history in the piece—and there are some great historical photos—but the section that jumped out at me is the one where Eli describes what it’s like to be Jewish among friends who mostly aren’t, to go to parties and be “the Jew”:
I do frequently find myself in social situations where people say amazingly stupid things about me, or Jews in general. Often, I chalk it up to them never having known a Jew. But at times it can seem an almost willful ignorance, one that makes me wonder whether, at the root of this ignorance, there is some anti-Semitic disinterest, or perhaps disdain.
Lately, as Seattle becomes more sophisticated, and people here travel to and from bigger cities, where they learn that all the cool kids in the really big cities tend to be down with the Jews, I’ve been presented with a new type of awkward encounter. This one involves the Seattle hipster who wants to prove that he’s so down with the Jews that he’s able to make harsh fun of them, to their faces, in front of his friends. This is, of course, a variation on the white guy who wants to publicly call his black friend “my nigga,” and sometimes, in the right room, in front of the right people, or with good friends, a certain amount of post-Jewish, post-anti-Semitic humor works. There is something liberating about being able to laugh at one’s own identity, especially in the presence of people who don’t share it. But the precondition for this is a shared understanding and respect for the identity that’s being mocked. In Seattle, that precondition is rarely met. More often, I experience what happened to me at a party the other weekend: I walked up to the back stoop, where people were outside smoking, and a young hipster friend announced to the rest of the gathering that “the Jew” had arrived. Since it’s not safe to assume any random gathering in Seattle is ready for post-anything jokes, all eyes turned to me, and I was expected to provide a cue, to either get upset or laugh, so that the rest of the gathering would know whether to be silently outraged (as is the Seattle way) or ironically amused (as is the Seattle hipster way).
I like to say nothing in these types of situations, and instead just stare at the eager-to-be-down hipster, trying to achieve an expression that can be interpreted as either annoyance or diffidence, one that lets everyone marinate in the real issue: Their own clumsiness at dealing with Seattle’s Jewish problem.
This section jumped out at me because I have been the other person in this scenario, the person who says cavalier things that could be interpreted as offensive. Eli’s point is well taken—what is he supposed to feel or say?—but his take on this ironic hipster character, this guy who’s eager to prove that he’s down with the Jews, misses something: Some people are very down with the Jews.
I didn’t grow up in Seattle, I grew up in the suburbs of LA. (Eli writes that the Jewish population in 1997 in LA is equal to the entire population of Seattle. Sounds about right.) As a kid, most of my peers were Jewish. I went to public schools, but the town was so heavily Jewish that Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur were official school holidays. Which was awesome—a couple days off right at the beginning of the school year, although I had to entertain myself, since all my friends were at synagogue. My best friend from third to eighth grade, Marc, was Jewish. He introduced me to Mad magazine, had a stereo before I did, had a Gameboy before I did, and had a Bar Mitzvah (a religious service followed by a big reception that Jewish kids get on their 13th birthday) with a make-your-own-sundae buffet. My best friend in ninth and tenth grades, Melissa, was a Jewish girl whose mother, maiden name Cohen, played the piano nonstop, made epic dinners, and treated me like I was part of their family. The Cohens, the Kauffmans, the Birnbaums, the Clebanoffs, the Weisels, dozens of others—all of these families were friends of our family, and better in every way than the Frizzelles, a goyish, fast-food-eating clan of culturally mishmashed derivation. One time we were going to a Bat Mitzvah (same as a Bar Mitzvah, but for a girl) and my mom bought a Bar Mitzvah card at the grocery store. Bar Mitzvah? What an idiot! My brothers and I made fun of her for not knowing the difference. The cool kids in my town didn’t “tend to be down” with the Jewish kids. They were the Jewish kids. My problem was that I wasn’t Jewish. I desperately wanted to be Jewish.
In other words, I’ve always thought of Jewish kids as the lucky ones. To my mind, being Jewish means being popular, being talented, being loved, being comfortable with yourself, having better holidays, eating better food, and growing up knowing your own cultural history in a way I never did. Because I loved my Jewish friends as much or more than my own family—because I was, to use Eli’s formulation, so down with the Jews—I lived in constant horror of the Holocaust. I thought about it all the time. I dreaded ovens. I had a recurring nightmare involving Adolf Hitler standing in front of a chalkboard. In the only acting class I ever took, I chose a scene from The Diary of Anne Frank. My education about the Holocaust involved me imagining all my best friends—almost all the people I knew—being murdered. I am proof that there are some people who live in Seattle who aren’t Jewish but who do have a rich appreciation (or a richer appreciation than you’d expect) of matters Jewish.
Granted, I don’t know what it would feel like to have grandparents who escaped Europe. But I am not dead inside. In the letters to the editor this week, someone writes to Eli: “As far as the hipster at that party who used your entrance in the room to announce that ‘the Jew’ had arrived: Fuck hipsters and their stupid irono-sarcastic humor. Rest assured that they’re dead inside, and stop being their friend.” As someone who has been construed as a hipster before, and someone who definitely has a stupid irono-sarcastic sense of humor, I just want to point out that the conclusion that this hipster is “dead inside” is shallow and possibly a misread, because I have referred to people as Jews to their face, including Eli I think, and for me it’s a term of fondness—even a little veneration—that’s backed with disdain for anyone who’d use it with the opposite purpose in mind. And certainly people have used it with the opposite purpose in mind. The word “gay” is the same way. Some use it to denigrate gay people, while others, like my best friend, will say things to me like, “Oh, you gays,” as a term of affection, knowing full well that it wouldn’t be a term of affection coming from most people.
And on the subject of Jews and gays, let it be said (is this offensive?): Jewish boys are freakin’ hot, second only to South American soccer players. I am in love with all the guys in the pictures Eli found of old Jewish Seattle. I am in love with a letter-to-the-editor writer this week I don’t even know, Jonathan Fine, because of his name (of course) but also simply because he’s gay and Jewish. Hey Savage, is this a fetish? My formative years were spent around Jewish boys. (Confidential to Eli: What happened to the sidebar that was going to go with your article? The one we talked about in editorial meetings? The one about how Jewish guys are freakin’ hot? I know Erica C. Barnett is with me on this.)
Finally, I ask you (because help in this matter was nowhere to be found in Eli’s article): Where the hell can a person get a decent bowl of matzoh ball soup in the 206 area code? I haven’t had a decent bowl of matzoh ball soup since I was 17 years old.