Thursday, May 13, 2010

Funny, You Do Look Jewish

Yesterday morning finds me where it often finds me, sitting in a subway car, heading off to work. And since I'm sitting in a subway car heading off to work, I'm doing what I always do when so situated, I'm reading a book. Just now I'm reading Hooray For Yiddish! by Leo Rosten. It's an interesting, funny book and I'm enjoying it greatly. As the train is clicking along and my pages are turning, I see that a man is approaching from the other side of the car. He's looking at my book. I know what's coming.

He wants to know where I found the book, which is long out of print. I tell him that I bought it years ago. I had read Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish, picked up this follow-up somewhere, and sort of forgot about it until I ran across it the other day. He introduces himself. He's an attorney. He tells me what temple he belongs to and begins to mention things I know little or nothing of. I have to interrupt him.

“The thing is,” I tell him, “I'm not a Jewish guy.”

He's surprised. I understand. The thing is, I do look Jewish. Something about my face. My beard, certainly, but there seems to be more to it. I just look, I don't know, Semitic.

It's happened to me before. Sometimes it's funny. Years ago I was sitting in a Denny's, eating ham and eggs. I was reading a book about Judaism. Why was I reading a book about Judaism? Because it's interesting and I'm ignorant. I find that when I read about something I become slightly less ignorant while the subject becomes yet more interesting. So there I am, Beardy Ben-Beardface, eating my ham and reading my book, when my waiter stops, sits down, and asks me some polite questions about my faith. Since it wasn't my faith and since I had only just started the book, there really wasn't much I could do but commend him on his curiosity.

That was kind of fun. Having kids sing Hava Nagila as I walked by was less pleasant, but still kind of funny. Having a drunk start talking about how greedy “the Jews” are while looking at me in a crowded subway car was not funny at all.

But this particular subway ride wasn't too bad at all. My new friend asked me why I was reading a book that would seem to be of limited interest to a gentile. I told him that the subject is fascinating and Rosten is a heck of a writer. He agreed. I also told him that it wasn't the first time someone had made his mistake and alluded to one of the more unpleasant encounters. He shook his head knowingly. He knew.

“Anybody who is different, people will pick on,” he said. He told me about a girl in his office. She's Asian. He heard people giving her a hard time because of it, making fun of her. “Makes me sick,” he said.

I understood. We've seen that aspect of humanity. Me the Christian. He the Jew. But right then we were both of the same tribe.

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