The Play-It-Down Jew

1985. United Airlines flight 80, SFO to JFK, seat 4B. I am a child of divorce, en route to visit my father for the summer. I’m unwrapping my third Fruit Roll-Up and humming along to the Xanadu soundtrack when Gargamel … Read More

By / June 4, 2007

1985. United Airlines flight 80, SFO to JFK, seat 4B. I am a child of divorce, en route to visit my father for the summer. I’m unwrapping my third Fruit Roll-Up and humming along to the Xanadu soundtrack when Gargamel and Zorro appear in the aisles, holding AK47’s and wearing dishdashas. “All Jewish children, please come to the front of the airplane,” one screams, “It is time for us to eat you in the name of Allah!” I think of my passport. American. My last name. DiLiberto, Italian. My blue eyes. My light hair. They’ll never guess I’m Jewish. I can pass. I can live. I tighten my seatbelt as all the good little Jews march, silent and stoic, to the front of the plane. Even at ten years old, I know I am a coward. Those little Jewish children will go to heaven and I will languish here on Earth listening to my conscience. Wait, do we—Jews, I mean—have heaven? 1985 was the year Uli Derickson saved a bunch of Jewish passengers on TWA flight 847 by hiding their passports. I became obsessed with the news story and spent hours contemplating what I would do if I found myself in a stand-up-and-be-counted situation. I used my mother as a sounding board.

“There’s no way they would know unless I told them, right? Think about it. My eyes. My name. I don’t seem Jewish.”

My mother would roll her own blue eyes at me. “There are plenty of Italian Jews. With blue eyes.” “Yes, but it’s less obvious. That they’re Jewish.” “This is a ridiculous conversation.” “What I want to know is do I have to tell them? The hijackers? Do I have a moral obligation?” I have always loved catchphrases. “While I hope you’re proud to be who you are, I don’t think any rabbi would argue with using any means necessary to preserve your life in an extraordinary situation.” “But during the Holocaust—“ “This conversation is over. I’ll be on the airplane with you, and I’ll decide what we do.” If only my mother could come with me on dates. Here’s the dirty truth: I am a play-it-down Jew. Recently, I was on my first date with a sleepy-eyed patrician lawyer. We were swapping tales of our childhoods. After I told him about growing up in San Francisco among hippies and crab mongers, he told me about his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. I said I had heard it had the highest concentration of Arabs of any American city.
“And it’s no coincidence,” he chortled. “It’s the most antisemitic place in the world! Because of Henry Ford.” I nodded. Ford was on my Jewish stepfather’s list of famous Jew-haters, along with Vanessa Redgrave and Louis Farrakhan. Never would our family buy a Ford or rent “Blow Up” or attend a Nation of Islam rally. “I had a friend when I was growing up in Dearborn whose house had a tile floor, and inlaid in the floor was a huge swastika mosaic! Can you believe that?” My lawyer laughed and took a swig of his martini. I snorted uncomfortably. Why was he telling me this? He had no reason to suspect I was Jewish, did he? And was he outraged—or amused?—by his neighbors’ antisemitic interior decorating? I needed to make an interception before one or both of us were humiliated. “Whoa, you don’t have anything against Jews, right? I mean, I’m part Jewish.” Part Jewish? My mother’s mother is Jewish, but her father is a Southern Baptist. My own father was Catholic, and although he didn’t protest when my mother insisted on raising her children as Jews, he loved to tease her by claiming he’d had me baptized while she was at the beauty parlor (better safe than sorry). So I’m actually only a quarter Jewish, but the right quarter. When we were young, my father’s three Catholic sons from his first marriage all found it hilarious to refer to me, their only sister, as “the JAP.” On the other hand, I started getting “You don’t seem Jewish” in second grade at my Waspy all-girls school—from both the Wasps and the other Jewish girl. In Hebrew school, the principal snickered every time she had to say my Italian name. In college, the first and last time I ate dinner at Hillel House during Passover, two girls I knew socially whispered to me, with a giggle, “What are you doing here? You’re not really Jewish.” It was confusing. To gentiles, my quarter-Jewishness defined me, the way just one drop of food coloring turns a gallon of water bright blue. But Jews rarely accepted me as one of their own. I was stuck, and reasoned my way out, moseying down the path of least resistance. There was no question which identity was easier to take on. Certainly not the one who was supposed to know thousands of prayers in an ancient language, or actually enjoy gefilte fish, or trade stories about a drunken confirmation trip to Israel I hadn’t gone on. When it came to the Jewish experience, I could never measure up.
Still, I squirm if I find myself at a church service, whether at a wedding, a funeral, Midnight Mass, or on a trip to a foreign country. Private prayers buzz about inside my head: I do not accept Jesus as my savior, just because I’m here or anything. He was a really stellar citizen, not a savior. Well, some people’s savior, obviously, just not mine, per se. Shema, Y’israel… At my own father’s funeral: Do I kneel when the priest says to, like all the good Catholics? What am I supposed to do when my brothers take communion? Is it more disrespectful if I eat the wafer, or if I don’t? Will it affect my father’s ascent? Because if yes, I’m opening my mouth right now. Oddly, I’ve always felt I belonged in synagogue. Not in youth groups or classes or that terrible post-service lox-stinking brunch room, but invisible in the sanctuary, listening to ancient prayers whose meaning I don’t necessarily know, but which still resonate in some place inaccessible to my rational mind. Part Jewish? Everyone knows that Judaism is a matrilineal religion—if you bloom in a Jewish womb, like me, you‘re a Jew. Entirely, not “part.” Why hadn’t I just told Mr. O’Lawyer , “I’m Jewish?” Because I actually liked this guy, and I didn’t want to risk nipping our nascent relationship in the bud. I figured I’d let him fall in love with me first, then drop the J-bomb. I am deeply ashamed to admit it, but I fear that my Judaism is something a potential suitor might hold against me. Family lore has it that a dashing Princeton boy fell in love with my mother while she was still in high school. She says that after he found out she was Jewish, as they nibbled roast pork at his parents’ manor, he never called her again. When I was a prepubescent, this story felt like a cautionary tale. My mother was perfect! Her Jewishness had to be the reason this guy dropped her! It didn’t occur to me that she might have used the wrong fork at dinner, or that he might have been seeing an older girl at Princeton, or that—heaven forbid—he just wasn’t that into her. My ten-year-old take-away was this: Gallant, rich, important men don’t like Jewish girls. So, some forty-odd years later, I took the implied lesson to heart: Keep the religion thing close to your chest. But come on—how long could I stay on the Down Low if this guy and I actually got into a real thing? (Well, for quite a while, come to think of it, seeing as how I’ve pretty much abstained from religious holidays since my bat mitzvah, and there’s the Italian name thing, and the Southern Baptist grandpa thing, and the fact that the only Jewish food I can stomach are those little chocolate-covered jellies you get on Passover…)
But—aristocratic suitors aside—how could I live with myself without full disclosure? It scares me to think that I might compromise my identity—Jewish or otherwise—to snag a husband. Or that I think so little of the men I go out with that I assume they’re antisemitic. But I am ashamed to admit that I don’t want to seem “other,” part of some creepy, horn-hiding, baby sacrificing cult. Do I really think anyone still harbors these ridiculous ideas of Jewishness in 2007? Come on! Beyond all the Jewbilation ale, Kabbalah bracelets, and VHI specials, we all know that Jews remain the warty fairytale villains of the global subconscious. I don’t need to tell you that “The Passion of the Christ” grossed more, domestically, than any other R-rated film in history, or that “The Protocols of Zion” is reportedly a bestseller at countless bodegas, or that many liberals and conservatives alike blame the United States’ Israel obsession for this horrible war we’re in. No wonder little Noni Horowitz changed her name to Winona Ryder. My impulse to pass has less to do with self-loathing than an obsessive need to be loved. I’m sure if I were to date more Jewish guys, I would be belting out Dayenu at Passover, and not only at the table. But for some reason I rarely find myself breaking bread with a lantsman. They just don’t seem to go for me, whether it’s that I’m not Jewish enough or simply that I’m voluptuous (everyone knows that Jewish guys, no matter how robust themselves, are weight Nazis). Besides, am I even allowed to call myself a Jew? My looks, paired with my nonobservant background, have contributed to a lifelong sense of cognitive dissonance: At once, I feel too Jewish and not Jewish enough. My Jewish self turns her nose up at my gentile side, and vice versa. On vacation alone last year, I became friends with a burly, married Italian named Tony. In the first five minutes of our acquaintance, we bonded over our last names (which both end in the classic “o”) and our identical philosophies on the cooking of Sunday red sauce (pork being the crucial ingredient). We took long daily walks, during which he expressed unhappiness over the state of his loveless marriage. I nodded sympathetically when he told me he had decided, as a Catholic, never to divorce, but to have clandestine affairs instead (he felt a strong sense of “duty” toward the institution of marriage). He had assumed that, as a DiLiberto, I was Catholic too, and I didn’t correct his assumption. (I mean, I am a little bit Catholic, right?) In this case, I wasn’t interested in romance, just acceptance—a sense of kinship with another lonely stranger. And I was afraid that, like many members of my own Italian family, my Italian buddy harbored deep-seated anti-Semitism. It’s my pesky pathological need to be loved: if I sense someone might be uncomfortable around a member of the tribe, I play my Jewishness down. The converse works, too: In the company of observant Jews, I suddenly find myself making comments like, “I wish I could keep kosher!” or “There’s something so sexy about a well-placed yarmulke.” And I should say that this see, we’re just alike! proclivity extends beyond religious affiliation. * * *
Needless to say, Mr. Swastika Mosaic and I went nowhere—things fizzled after a few dates. It would be convenient to say he stopped calling when he found out I was Jewish (which was my mom’s belief, of course—this from a woman who erects a 1000-piece miniature Christmas village every November), or to explain that the swastika comment was enough to send me packing—but we made out after both revelations, so the burnout had nothing to do with principles. And there’s no question I am more ambivalent about my own Jewishness than he was. I realized after things were over the absurdity of my tendency to play the Jew thing down: I could end up married to an antisemite. What would my unsuspecting hubby think when my mom insisted he watch my bat mitzvah video, or when my Yiddish-speaking Grandma attacked his cheeks? More important, how would I feel lying next to this man in the middle of the night, knowing I had cheated both of us out of the best thing marriage has to offer: total honesty without judgment? Probably the worst feeling would be the lifelong shudder of self-betrayal, shouldering the guilt of lying to terrorists on an airplane every day for the rest of my life. Thank God Judaism has a built-in honesty clause: even if I were to marry a bigot, his children would be, officially, Jewish. An eighth, but the right eighth.

Tagged with: