There was a time when if someone said you don’t look Jewish, I took it as a compliment. It was the 1950s and our parents spent every ounce of their energy working to assimilate, to get a teeny corner of the American dream. Their parents, the ones who survived the holocaust, sprinkled the mantra never forget all over our Wheaties, the breakfast of champions.
When I was nine, five boys in my neighborhood made me eat a worm because I killed their savior. A few years later after my parents scrimped and saved, we moved from the inner city to the next town over, doing the upward mobility dance, (as so many Jewish immigrants did in those days) to give their kids better opportunities, better schools, better everything. It was fancier and safer and prettier and the streets had names like Mulberry Meadow and Old Oak Lane.
I ran as far away as I could from my Jewishness. I went to the University of Virginia where on my first night in the dorm the petite blonde southern belles pictured in the catalogue in organdy pastel gowns with pageboys and tiaras, (the thing that had drawn me to apply in the first place) sat on their pink matching chenille bedspreads and told stories and jokes late into the night. And then one of the gals told an anti-Semitic joke. And everyone laughed. And I laughed too. When I got back to my room, I remember looking into the mirror and thinking, okay, now what? Should I transfer? Should I stick it out and not tell anyone? Should I admit to the crime of being Jewish and risk having no friends? I stayed, I told and I blended, but little yiddishisms crept into my everyday speech. I found myself talking about things being “bishaert” (meant to be) and I told my new friends how when I worked in my grandfather’s toy store and someone came in and asked for a toboggan that he said “everyting’s a bargain, take your time, look around.” They laughed. I graduated. And slowly I began to make friends with my Jewishness. Still I didn’t exactly advertise my ethnicity. In certain social situations there was still an element of hoping I could pass.
In 1967 I married a Jewish boy who made it very clear from the beginning that even though he was bar mitzvahed and knew our sons would be as well, he thought little of organized religion.
Then one night when the kids were six and eight we were guests at an Edgartown bonfire cookout. I knew only my hosts. There were about 40 of us sitting in a gigantic circle. Someone would start a song and everyone would join in. We sang Michael Row Your Boat Ashore, we sang John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt, and all of a sudden I heard a familiar voice. And it said with great gusto, “Hey Mom, how about heenay matov??? Wow! Hebrew in Edgartown, I remember thinking. The voice, of course, belonged to my eight year old. He must have seen my stricken face because as quickly as he innocently made his bold suggestion I saw him shrink and in an apologetic whisper, he said, “Oh, never mind.” Immediately I knew what my look had done and I gulped and said, you know what? That is the perfect song! Positive that I would be doing a timid shaky solo, not sure if my boy would even have reclaimed his voice after what I had done, I began singing the Hebrew words.
And the most astounding thing happened. First Josh jumped in, then five or six voices joined us, then 10 or 12 more and then within a minute the whole group, every single person there, was belting out the words to this very Jewish tune. It was as if every ugly thing I had heard as a kid, every slight, every moment of mean-spiritedness was transformed by this feeling of total acceptance and celebration.
That night I realized that trying to eliminate my roots and to co-opt someone else’s ancestors, someone else’s story, was a form of self-hatred and insanity.
So now 35 years later, try telling me I don’t look Jewish and I will give you my profile, I will point at my cacophony of curls and I will say, oh my dear, I mean oy givalt, I most assuredly am.
Nancy Slonim Aronie is the author of Writing from the Heart (Hyperion/Little Brown) and is the founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop.