"You're 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 celebrate Christmas?"

The 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 out—my 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?"

It's true. 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 workdays.

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.

And 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."

S'lichah? 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?

I 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.

My junior year of college, the campus 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 Jew.

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 itself.

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 surprise—I have a creamy Jewish center. And if you don't believe it, bite me.


A longer version of this article originally appeared in Bridges: A Journal for Jewish Feminists and Our Friends (1998).



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