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Thursday, December 28, 2006

My Jewish Problem

posted by on December 28 at 14:06 PM

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.

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Great post. And yes, Jewish guys are freakin’ hot.

If memory serves, there was a film out sometime in the last few years about the Israeli Army that caused much swooning.

Anyone remember the name?

Posted by Original Andrew | December 28, 2006 2:18 PM

P.S. Not Munich or another drama. I think it was a documentary.

Posted by Original Andrew | December 28, 2006 2:20 PM

Matzah queen.

That being said, go to Shabbat dinner at a Chabad rabbi's house, and you'll get decent matzah ball soup.

Posted by Gitai | December 28, 2006 2:20 PM


Are you talking about Yossi & Jagger?

Posted by Monti | December 28, 2006 2:27 PM

Jewish dudes are totally hot!

Posted by monkey | December 28, 2006 2:27 PM

If there's anything more quintessentially Seattle than hipsters and their irono-sarcastic humor, it's people who insist that anybody who makes an inappropriate joke, even accidentally, is dead inside and deserves permanent social ostracism.

Posted by flamingbanjo | December 28, 2006 2:28 PM

On a related note, why, in a city (if you include the East Side) that must have it's share of Jews, can one not find any decent Jewish delis? I grew up in San Diego, which isn't exactly crawling with Jews, and there are 3 or 4 passable delis.

Oh... the movie in question... are you thinking of Kippur?

Posted by Ari | December 28, 2006 2:29 PM

but where can you go if you don't know a Chabad rabbi (I don't know what Chabad or Shabbat means?)

I haven't had motzah ball soup since I was a kid and would love a nice bowl, especially considering the weather.

Posted by but but but | December 28, 2006 2:29 PM

And I can't spell worth beans.

Posted by but but but | December 28, 2006 2:30 PM

Wait. Jon Fine wrote to the Stranger? The guy who was in Bitch Magnet and now in Coptic Light?

Posted by matthew fisher wilder | December 28, 2006 2:40 PM

Good post. I was also left a bit uneasy about the "hipster" anecdote in Eli's story. I could very well be "that guy" too. There are a few Jews in my "Seattle" circle and it is definately intended to be a term of endearment to refer to them as such to their face. It does give me pause to considder that their outward expressions may be masking discomfort or offense. I think many kids who grew up in lily white neighborhoods with almost oppressive political correctness despite the absence of anyone of different race, religion, etc. to actually offend, moving to the city, moving in eclectic social circles and having those PC barriers smashed, can come as an enormous relief. You ever see that drunk kid at the party gush on and on to the first gay person they've ever met about how cool it is they're gay and how down they are with that and on and on? Everyone within earshot is cringing, and indeed it's awkward, puts the subject of his shpiel in an awkward position, but its probably 100% sincere. No doubt that kid is, like Eli's hipster, just trying too hard, or a bit too enthusiastic. A matter of time, exposure, experience and the same kid will be one of the ones cringing.

I think it's indicative of how underrepresented Jews are in Seattle, that Bar Mitzvah and such, had to be explained in italics.

Posted by longball | December 28, 2006 2:40 PM

roxy's has good matzoh ball soup. i have a quart of it in my fridge.

and my grandmother was jewish.

Posted by SEAN NELSON, EMERITUS | December 28, 2006 2:41 PM

Yes, great post.

I was fortunate enough to go to law school in Boston, a city with a heavily Jewish population, and I got to know a lot about Jewish culture, and made quite a few Jewish friends among my classmates. It was a great way to learn about a wonderful group of people . . .

Posted by Sachi | December 28, 2006 2:42 PM

It's possible to grow up in a Jewish bubble even in Seattle. University Prep doesn't have school on Jewish holidays; and at least when I was in middle school, the major social events were bat mitzvahs (and to a lesser extent, bar mitzvahs).

Posted by annie | December 28, 2006 2:44 PM

As for empathizing with "being that hipster", I guess this is a different-strokes-different-folks thing, but I absolutely cannot empathize with this at all.

I would never call a Jewish best friend "Jew" in any context whatsoever, unless he or she egged me on to say it. I also originally grew up in a large city with a large Jewish population.

It's easier said than done bringing to the table the argument that "words are just that -- words", to which this somewhat applies. Over time, I've learned how to catch my brain from saying something like this by instantly thinking of a coarsely delivered substitute word that applies to own my background, imagining how I feel, then deciding if I should go ahead and make the crack. Sometimes, I fumble, but -- ironically -- moving to Seattle, and experiencing "The Seattle Way", I think I've become far more sensitive and better for it than when I lived in the bigger city where throwing words at each other in this context was more widespread.

It's easy to put political correctness down, but in this case, I think political correctness a good thing.. IMHO.

Posted by matthew fisher wilder | December 28, 2006 2:50 PM

Fine matzoh ball soup can be found at Eats Market Cafe in Westwood Village in West Seattle.

and a review, too

Posted by westside matzoh | December 28, 2006 2:55 PM

Seattle Black and white problem
Lets see where do I begin oh yeah
I grew up on both sides of the track. My mom and dad split up in frisco.... I was raised by Nicaraguan family till I was 6 eating beans and rice as my mother had to work in the city.Then I was thrust out of little Italy in north beach to visit and live a little with my moms side of the family Icelanders White people etc in Bakersfield. They always thought my hair was kind of kinky and the kids wondered why I liked Jazz.
Then i got to hang out with my Dads family during a reunion visit in Palo alto and they wondered why my hair was slicked back as I was visiting from Washington state at that time and my school was mostly white kids(Kitsap county) and Native americans. Confusing yes because I learned That i've got to be both colors accepted stereo types to represent my large family Black and white..... I tend to go Black when I'm around white kids( kinky hair, sometimes I wear a beanie ) and then I change my looks to white (slick back hair baseball cap worn like a trucker-folded bill) when I'm around black kids. That was then
Now I just be who I am and I don't care what white people or Black people say I'm all of them and then some.
Like eli and the poster said I can relate to the Jewish story.
Sometimes I could pass for a skinhead back in the days and would hear some racist crap from white kids at the rock shows.Telling me that they dont like Black guys dating their girls and what not etc etc. Imagine my gut feeling -I wanted to kill them all.
Likewise vice versa I would be all Hip Hop and hear racist crap from blacks
friends abotu whitey. I was accepted because I got a nice tan from pops. Oh yeah If your Fathers Black that makes you black and all that X clan shit.
I diidn't lose any sleep about it but I was pretty peeved about these sentiments.
With that experience I've become pretty well rounded by playing both sides like Clint Eastwood in 'Fist Full of Dollars( the Rohos vs the McMasters)
I have always accepted who I am and that is human being,( or other as most forms want me to enter) ..... or because the never ending debate Black this , White that goes on I digress What the fuck am I supposed to stand by.
Oh yeah and try born in Canada from U.S. Parents. Duo citizen. Man I can't win for losing.
So in conclusion I've heard more jokes at the expense of my being (both races) that I could take yet because I'm so called thick skinned I never let it get to me. Buck up folks you got it easy being one color. You don't have to take sides whether you want it or not.Now for some Ska.

Posted by sputnik | December 28, 2006 3:26 PM

Hmmm. Do I take it, from #15, that the use of the noun "Jew" is offensive? How should one refer to a person of jewish heritage?

When I read this particular part of Eli's article I could relate to his experience well, but not at all to his reaction to it. I'm different from the majority of Seattlites too, and belong to an even smaller minority. I'm from New Zealand.

It has certainly happened to me that I'll walk into a room/party/gathering and somoone I know will say "The Kiwi's arrived!" or somesuch expression of my difference from them. Yet, I don't find it stupid or awkward or offensive, and I have a hard time understanding why Eli should find his experience any of those things.

Posted by boyd main | December 28, 2006 3:36 PM

this reminds me of growing up in spokane as an asian (well -- half-asian, but that's good enough for spokane). even my cool hipster friends would have no problem calling me out on me being asian whenever the opportunity arose -- like, say, when i entered the room or looked at one of them. the more clever ones would use pet names like 'gook' or 'chink.' some seattleites still think it's hilarious to this day.

Posted by jamie | December 28, 2006 3:41 PM

Unless you are really clever about it, it seems unnessary to call people out on their differences in a crowd like that. Basically, you're saying "Hey, Person Who Will Never Be Like Us and We'll Never Be Like You Because of Something Neither of Us Have Control Over, But Don't You Dare Forget We're Different and You Being a Little Different is REALLY BIG DEAL So Much So That Have to Say SOMETHING to Cut the Tension/Excitement Caused by Your Very Presence!" Yikes.

Posted by 123 | December 28, 2006 3:49 PM

Oh, how I love a Yemin.... or jewish boy. They are the hottest of the hot...

The nose, the hair...their mothers! Oh my mary.

I find myself using the word "fag" a lot... but really...with the best intentions... usually referring to my closest of friends or even, gasp, my brother.

Sometimes people just read too much into things....

Posted by Her | December 28, 2006 4:19 PM

Matthew Fisher Wilder: No. Different Jon Fine. This one is a nice, ultra liberal lawyer in DC/Baltimore. I also went out and got hooked with the ultimate goy boy: Amish. Kid you not.

Posted by jonathan | December 28, 2006 4:25 PM

How classically Seattle, to think that saying "Jew" is offensive. Only if saying "Catholic" or "Australian" is offensive. Sheesh. Jew, not a Jew, whatever.

Posted by Fnarf | December 28, 2006 4:27 PM

'Jewish' is preferable to 'Jew.' As in "he is jewish(black, gay, etc.)."

Doesn't that sound more cultured than "he is a jew(black, gay, etc.)"?

Posted by jew | December 28, 2006 4:39 PM

Chabad is an ultra-Orthodox sect of Chasidic Judaism. Don't let that scare you too much though. They're really quite nice, and I received many invitations to Shabbat dinner even though I'm rather gay.

Posted by Gitai | December 28, 2006 4:47 PM

Great post (I also enjoyed your shroom article). Jewish folks have played many important roles in my life, including that of neighbor, roommate, teacher, advisor, pledge master, boss, friend, posse, girlfriend, mother in law, wife, and kids.

So, here's a New Year's toast to jews and the goyim who are down with them! And to mixed marriages! And to sexy hot jewish chicks!

May our fair city get this shit sorted out in 2007.

Posted by Sean | December 28, 2006 7:34 PM

#20 got what I was getting at.

I obviously don't think "Jew" is an offensive word. It's all in context. "Australian" can be offensive if worded in a way like "Hey, You, the Australian! wanna put some shrimp on the bahbie for me? HA HA HA!"

It's really easy to make a non-offensive word offensive or at least sarcastically gratuitous. I believe this was what Eli was getting at, or worse. Eli's free to correct me, though.

Posted by matthew fisher wilder | December 28, 2006 7:48 PM

Boyd - Hey, that makes me a minority too! Suck it haters! If you disagree with me you are now officialy a racist!

Posted by Art | December 28, 2006 9:03 PM

So, you're saying that some of your best friends are Jewish?

Posted by pawtucket | December 28, 2006 9:34 PM

YES, thank you for pointing out the hotness of Jewish guys. Often I find myself intensely attracted to a guy and find out that he just happens to be jewish. There was this guy in my Human Rights Literature class that was drop dead gorgeous with his bright eyes, wavy brown hair, smooth skin, and adorable smile. He turned out to be jewish, not that it mattered, but it certainly added to my theory of jewish guy hotness.

There was a website that featured photography of hot Israeli soldiers a few years ago if anyone is interested (I think they would make a good Stranger cover):

Posted by Brandon H | December 28, 2006 10:26 PM

I love the Jews (and the gays for that matter).

Jew broads are definitely the hottest. Not sure about the guys; I can't help but think of Howard Stern when I think about Jewish guys.

Posted by Mike in MO | December 29, 2006 6:50 AM

Looking for good
Jewish-style delicatessen food in the Puget Sound region? There isn't
any. Lots have tried, none have succeeded.

In 1972, Brenner Bros. had already emigrated to Bellevue. I never
visited its prior incarnation in the Central District. The Bellevue
store was okay. It smelled right (that pickled-tomato odor), the
sandwiches were the right size, the corned beef was pretty good, but
their rye was only (and still is only) adequate.

Some years later, on Occidental Ave. in Pioneer Square, the Yiddish
Connection opened. Soup Daddy is in the place now. It was also just
okay, but it's all we had in town. It lasted a year or so and closed.

A few other places jumped in. Catskills, on the second floor of an
office building across from the Westlake Center, was very good. They
knew how to pile on meat, they knew what a "special" is (corned beef
or pastrami, cole slaw and Russian on the sandwich, rye, of course)
and made a pretty good Reuben. It was cafeteria-style with very funny
staff, although not in the East Coast sense; they just seemed to like
their work. Because it was on the second floor, it got virtually no
walk-in business, disastrous for a lunch place; for a while they hired
a hawker to stand outside on the sidewalk. I guess when the food court
opened at Westlake, it just couldn't make it.

Cohen Brothers opened on Third Avenue at about Columbia Street (it's
now a Chutney's Express or something). This one was the worst. Suffice
it to say that they bragged about their Reuben, which they zapped.
ZAPPED! Mercifully, they closed quickly.

Ajays (maybe AJs), on Madison a block or so west of Broadway, was
sincere, although they had a broader menu than just a deli. The guy
made a very good Reuben. He had a place in Belltown also, but it
wasn't a deli.

Matzoh Mamas on 15th was never very good. It's also a silly name for a
deli. They lasted a long time (evening jazz helped), but now they're
just a memory and a caterer.

A few years ago, on 45th NE in Wallingford a couple of blocks west of
the former Food Giant, a place opened called Mama Knish. Soups and
knishes. Does that make a deli? Weird that anyone thought they could
make a living. A few weeks later, the MAMA was covered up with a big
white board, so it read "_______ KNISH." Did Matzoh Mama threaten to
I admit I never was a knish fan, so any comment from me is unfair.

Roxy's? Try it yourself. I think it's just fair and the staff, when they were by the Market, was quite ignorant of their own menu. Maybe there are haimish substitutes.

I'm staying out of the bagel debate except to state that in the early
'70s, the only bagels available were Lender's frozen (very very bad)
and something bizarre from Bainbridge Island that rose so much that
there was no real hole; also, they were whole-wheaty which is as
appetizing as a whole-wheat croissant, which just isn't a croissant.

I have discovered the best Jewish-style rye bread in the region, and
it's in Kent at the Wild Wheat, a sandwich place and bakery downtown.
When you order a loaf, it doesn't look right. There are no seeds on
the outside, it looks and feels like a como-type loaf from Grand
Central, but don't be fooled. It is excellent, just the right
consistency inside and out.

Posted by r., j. | December 29, 2006 1:07 PM

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