Jewish?

On an ordinary Saturday night, my wife and I were having dinner with another couple at our favorite nice place in downtown Wheaton, Suzette’s Creperie. My Wheaton, home of Wheaton College, a liberal arts college known as the evangelical Harvard. We’ve lived in Wheaton for more than 25 years. I’ll pause here for those of you unfamiliar with Wheaton: close your eyes, relax your shoulders, relax your arms, and float. Eyes closed? Good. Got it there in focus? Well… All I can say is that yes, the streets are very clean. We like it.  

Hipsters that we are, we knew that Judy Roberts was playing at Suzette’s that night. Judy has been a mainstay pianist/vocalist on the Chicago jazz scene for decades: an institution like the late Von Freeman. Some fans remember her from the Lincoln Ave. scene; some before, some after. These days, I think she spends a lot of the year in Arizona, with her husband, saxophonist (and vibist) Greg Fishman, who comprise tonight’s duo. The atmosphere was casual. The “bandstand” is a couple of feet in front of the front tables. But that’s ok with the folks nearby, it’s all kind of clubby. Judy’s talking to the audience between numbers. She’s been doing this for years, so she feels at ease. Before she and Greg take a break she asked for requests. Her exit path was just past our table, so I raised one finger to get her attention. She came over and looked at me, and before I could speak, she said, “Wait! You’re Jewish, right?” I was speechless. Then I laughed at her audacity, we chatted for a bit, and I asked her sing “Lush Life.” (She did.) For the record, I think Judy’s Jewish. “Roberts?” “Rabinowitz?” Huh? Huh?

I was born into a Conservative Jewish family (in today’s parlance, would that be “cis-Jewish,” or DJAB, i.e.,”designated Jewish at birth”). As a kid, almost everyone I knew was Jewish. For the last five years or so, Susan and I have been Unitarian-Universalists (or “UUs”). UU is a non-creedal religion that emphasizes freedom, logic, science, curiosity, respect, liberalism, democracy, morality, fairness, and inclusion. Manifestations of spirituality are many and varied; God(s) is optional. UU churches get a lot of refugees suffering from PTSD-like existential ennui caused by other traditional churches. Besides the lifelong and long-time UUs and the refugees are the truth seekers from the Church of None: agnostics, atheists, Humanists, Theists, and Pagans. All and all, an interesting bunch of folks.

I lost my faith around the time of my Bar Mitzvah. I did well in Hebrew school, I soaked up the language at that early age. The school people wanted to show me off by having me chant an extra- large portion of the Torah at my Bar Mitzvah. (“Dilgent boy!” [sic]; “A-level student!”)  The rabbi told me to concentrate on learning the passage; don’t worry about your speech. I’ll write it for you.

How lucky! I’d pawn off the work of expressing my deep thoughts on becoming a man on somebody else (“Dolly, get me speech #34b, please.”) and all I had to do was pull my performing seal number—beach-ball, unicycle, horns, the works. Shortly thereafter, I discovered Sartre.

At some point in the preparations, my parents hauled me in to see the rabbi: “Tell him what you said! Tell him what you said!”

“Uh, that I don’t believe in God?”

The charlatan wouldn’t defend himself. There’s the proof of my mature manhood at 13!

We went through with the Bar Mitzvah anyway, and my parents’ friends and relatives were so overjoyed that to mark my elevation to manhood and responsibility, they gave me money, an introduction to my dad’s bookie, and tips on the 4th race at Arlington. An older cousin gave me a package of condoms.

 I don’t think I appear particularly “Jewish.” My nose isn’t distinctive. Did I have my hanky in the wrong pocket? My voice, while distinctive (I know), doesn’t indicate its geography or heritage. I imagine it as vanilla as David Letterman’s or some newscaster from Ohio or Ted Knight. Maybe it’s the way I pronounce words like “schmuck” with the genetically-imprinted integrity of the chosen people. With a sigh or an eyebrow or an attitude. Not that I know German or Yiddish at all. (Just the swear words and a few for which there’s no English equivalent.)

I was outed a few years earlier by two shrink/friends I had to dinner. Carol is a brainy old traditional therapist who works for a vast bureaucracy. A small woman, she reminds me of Linda Hunt. Jenny, a graduate of Wheaton College, is more of a new-age therapist than evangelist. She was, however, a gifted child evangelist in upstate New York. She lived two houses down and we liked to talk about philosophy and kids and stuff. She told me about some exorcisms she had performed. Both are fun people to talk to.

We were talking and laughing and drinking wine. I can’t remember the context, but the two women decided and agreed that my sensibility and my sense of humor were definitely Jewish. Was my body language or inflection a giveaway?

The answers really don’t matter to me. I’m a secular Jew, a JewUU. I don’t believe. Culturally, I’m a product of the Jewish Petri dish I grew up in in ways I realize and in ways I don’t. It’s the problem of the overly self-conscious assimilated Jew in the post-World War II epoch: it’s an apparently inexhaustible trope.  As a baby boomer, I inherited the world of Philip Roth. Other ethnicities have their own stories of integration, The big-city Jewish version–full of neuroses, competitive achievement, and tsoris (Woody Allen movies, episodes of Seinfeld) just got more exposure..

The whole issue of secular Jews and assimilation came to me serendipitously today from two sources: a newspaper essay and a short story.

Today’s Chicago Tribune carries an excellent essay by longtime Chicago journalist Ron Grossman. Read it here.  It’s a great description of the lost-and-found of faith, tradition, and culture in America. I’m not sure how applicable it is to Gen X’ers or later. Their experience of the diaspora has been watered down by a generation or two. But it’s a great piece worth reading.

I can’t link you to the second source directly. It’s the third story in Deborah Eisenberg’s latest book of short stories Your Duck is My Duck.  Deborah Eisenberg is one of today’s greatest short story writers. It’s such a pleasure to read her finely crafted stories, each one a complete world. Pretty damned funny, too.  “Cross Off and Move On” is about class and class-consciousness. It made me think about my mother. I had read Eisenberg’s other collections, so I was waiting for this one. If you don’t already know her, what are you waiting for?


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