Jewish? Oh, so you're rich, right?"
I was a college freshman the first time anyone asked me this. Sure,
I knew the stereotype, but in my working-class hometown I was lucky
if people even knew what Jews were, save an occasional question
like, "Where are your horns?" or "You mean you don't
city had its Jewish pockets, but I lived on the outskirts, and usually
felt like a wayward extra in Goyz In The Hood. Aside from
a handful of Jewish families, most residents were either Black,
white or Arab. We stood outmy American-Jewish mom, and my
dad, the Israeli landscaper who hired me to cut lawns, shovel topsoil
and trim shrubs for 10 years.
"Eh, you will say how I taught you to hustle," my father
commands when I tell him I'm writing this article. "I showed
you the meaning of hard work, nu?"
My dad, who came to America right before I was born, could be the
poster model for bootstrapping immigrants. He met my mom in Jerusalem.
They wed, she got pregnant and they came to America. Although they
intended to return to Israel, they ended up buying an aluminum-sided
two bedroom in Oak Park, MI. My mom juggled school, parenting and
part-time work. My dad started "Shimon's Landscaping"--him,
his pickup truck, and any assistant who can tough out the 13-hour
So when the
occasional campus "fortune teller" pegs me as a wealthy
pre-med Manhattanite, I flex my biceps and laugh. When I tell them
the deal, the reaction isn't always flattering. "Then you're
not like those Jews," they say.
who are those Jews? "Oh, those Saab-driving sorority
girls from the East Coast--you know, JAPS!" a former roommate
once explained. "Don't be offended, you're not like that at
all. I don't even think of you as Jewish."
Excuse me? Since when did my bank account become the divine yardstick
of my Jewishness? I resent the assumption. What do I have to do
to cross this imaginary Jewish line in people's eyes? Like if I
gross a million, I'm in the door like Eliyahu on Pesach?
was conceived in Eretz Yisrael, dammit. My family ate hummous, not
Hamburger Helper. Friday nights were spent celebrating Erev Shabbat,
not bowling in a league. Is there some special Jewish pheromone
I should be emitting?
I may not have been raised in a Jewish neighborhood, but I was
raised in a Jewish environment. My fondest family memories involve
our Jewish holiday celebrations, which often had a distinctive working-class
twist. For instance, we never had the means to erect an authentic
Sukkah. So every year, we cleared the garden tools out of our small
aluminum shed, dragged in the picnic table, and decorated with paper
lulavs and etrogs. Then we ate dinner in the shed we'd proudly transformed.
junior year of college,
Hillel held a dialogue for Jewish students to gather and talk amongst
ourselves. Out of the 30 or so who showed up, I was the only working-class
As introductions began, my uncertainty about fitting in fell away.
People in the circle complained that they only grew up around other
Jews and felt so sheltered on our diverse campus. Others had angst
about parents who wanted them to pursue the Jewish "Big Three"--law,
medicine or business.
I felt like the Jew with the Golden Ticket. Since my parents were
in non-traditional careers, they couldn't exactly tell me not to
go to art school or start my own business. Growing up in a multiethnic
neighborhood taught me how to navigate comfortably between classes,
cultures and languages.
I was surprised to discover that I had a lot in common with the
group. Our Jewishness shaped our values and identities. It was sort
of like finding the Afikoman. My ties as a working-class Jew have
been broken from mainstream Judaism, cloaked and hidden like that
prophetic Matzoh half. In my case, I guess the Afikoman had to find
The experience showed me that there are many ways to be Jewish.
Therefore, I won't be told I'm "less than" Jewish because
I run a lawnmower instead of a law firm.
Besides, Jews have always been a working people. We are a resilient
group--look at the atrocities we've outlived. It's taken both brains
and brawn. When I break the soil in someone's garden, I relate to
my ancestors who broke the rocky soil of Palestine. When I pull
an all-nighter, I relate to those same ancestors who studied Talmud
in the wee hours.
So I guess I'm like a secret Jewish candy bar. My wrapper isn't
marked "kosher" and my shell can be hard, but surpriseI
have a creamy Jewish center. And if you don't believe it, bite me.
longer version of this article originally appeared in Bridges:
A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends