I want to get close to Laney, to hear her say my name slo-wly. She is petite but taut-bodied in a yellow sundress, fabric so invitingly thin and wispy I wonder if I could blow it off her torso with a well-timed breath. She is telling me her fingers tremble when she drinks coffee, and that is why she has tiny green glops on the skin between the toenails she’s painted. Her small blue eyes twinkle, and I hold her gaze as if I’m spinning plates on my index finger: the longer I do it, the more likely she might be to applaud, take my hand, and invite me to rest my palm on the small of her back.
“Have you ever eaten at Belle Luna?” she asks me as we stroll the streets of downtown Knoxville, Tennessee. We’ve just eaten crepes at a French café: it’s our first date. “Nope,” I say, walking a little behind her to admire her bronzed legs. “Have you ever had a drink at Sapphire?” she asks. “No, but I’d like to, sometime,” I say. “Have you ever gone inside Sterchi Lofts?” “Well,” I say, laughing. “What?” she asks. “No,” I say, “I haven’t been there either.”
Outside of us both being law students and laughing at Will Ferrell movies, Laney and I don’t have much in common: it’s not just that we haven’t frequented the same bars or restaurants; it’s that we don’t like to visit the same regions of human experience. I love reading novels; she doesn’t care for them. She loves shopping; I get headaches at T.J. Maxx. But she’s a sweet girl, and that body…
I sit her on a bench and tell her I can read palms—“because my parents are Russian”—and she either buys my line of reasoning (Russian parents = metaphysical insight) or she accepts that I’m inventing a way to get my hands on hers. I disclose to her a future of three children, a husband, and good health. “Cool,” she says. “Oh, did you see the Christmas lights all along this street last year?”
“Yeah,” I say. “They were really cool.”
“Did you decorate your house for Christmas?”
“No,” I said. “I’m Jewish.”
“Seriously?” Laney registers my Jewishness with a squirrely wiggle of her nose.
“Yep,” I say. “So no Christmas.”
“Are you joking?”
I laugh aloud. “Why would I joke about that?”
“Okay,” she says. “Okay.”
“Have you ever met a Jewish person before?”
Laney is from a tiny Tennessee town where controversy can break out if a Baptist considers going to a Methodist church. She thinks to herself and answers no, she’s never met a Jew before. “Do you go to church?”
“Sometimes I go to synagogue.”
“Is that Jewish church?”
“Basically, but it’s called synagogue. Sometimes I’ll go on Friday nights.”
“So you don’t go to Jewish church all the time?”
“Synagogue,” I say.
“Oh, sorry!” she says. “Do you eat special foods?”
And that’s when it hit me: I, a man who has never fasted on Yom Kippur, who has not read the Torah since his bar mitzvah, and who has eaten pork and assorted trayf by the boatload throughout his life, is to be the Spokesman of the Jews for an inquisitive girl from Small Town, Tennessee. Her curiosities and judgments about the whole of the Jewish people will likely be filtered through me in the future; me, the first Jew she’s ever known. I feel underqualified for the job and eerily aware of its weight: I can picture Laney at a dinner party, maybe five years from now, and the talk shifting to something or other related to Jews and Laney saying, “Ya’ll, I know one.”
In my life, I have been cocooned: I went to Jewish Sunday school until my bar mitzvah, I went to a private high school that, while not predominantly Jewish, had its fair share of them, and then I attended a university with a largely Jewish student body. Though I lived in places where Jews were the minority, I had never before been put into a position where I was to be quizzed (in the nicest possible way, of course, because Laney’s smile was very nice) about my faith, identity, culture, and religion. I even feel presumptuous using the possessive “my”: who I am to feign expertise on such a rich, complicated people, for the very word Jew unfurls into thousands of connotations depending on what books you read, who you talk to, and what you experience.
“Some people eat special foods,” I tell Laney. “Kosher.”
“Well, you can’t eat pork…and certain foods have to be treated a certain way.”
God. It was as if I’d sped-read Judaism for Dummies.
Even though I tell Laney that holidays like Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are more significant in the Jewish calendar, Laney wants to know about Hanukkah. “Is it like Christmas?” she asks.
My Sunday school education, long warehoused and growing musty with disuse, was suddenly called upon. I deliver what I know in fragments: the story of the noble Maccabee warriors, how they thought they had oil to help them survive one cold night, only to discover that the oil, miraculously, would last them eight. “So that’s why we light the candles on eight nights,” I tell Laney. “On this candelabra-looking thing.” I forget to tell her the candelabra-looking thing is called a menorah. “Have you ever eaten potato pancakes?”
“No…” she says, as if she thinks I might offer her one from my pocket.
I am lucky Laney is asking me about Hanukkah, because if she had asked me a broader question like, “What is a Jew?”, I would be flummoxed. The History of the Jews: a history of faith and strength and perseverance over oppression, of tradition and literature and art and family and. And and and. I wasn’t getting to the ands: I was only talking about Hanukkah. But then again, what else could I tell her if she did ask? Where would I start?
Talking about some of the basics of Judaism made me keenly aware of the scattershot knowledge I had of my own Jewish identity, and how difficult it would be for me to explain to a person who had no familiarity with it. My Jewishness has been passed down from my parents, Russian Jews who came to the United States as political refugees in 1979. On their Soviet passports, their nationality was listed not as RUSSIAN, but as JEW. They fled to America for the reasons so many flee: opportunity, freedom, both economic and religious.
In my family, I was a first-generation American Jew, born in Omaha, Nebraska and raised in Memphis, Tennessee on the soothing storyteller sermons of my Reform rabbi and the sing-song cadence of my cantor. However, my day-to-day Jewishness, especially past my bar mitzvah, was molded more by cultural than religious forces: Jerry Seinfeld’s nasal twang, Adam Sandler’s “The Hanukkah Song.”
Hanukkah again. “The potato pancakes are called latkes,” I tell Laney.
I don’t ask Laney if she’s ever heard of Moshe Dayan or Philip Roth or Larry David. I don’t try to present and flatten the contusions of the word Jew itself: is it a signifier of identity? Race? Religion? Culture? All of the above? How much do such distinctions matter when, in the dark pages of history, those who hate don’t care if you’re Orthodox or Reform or Conservative or culturally Jewish, or a Jew for Jesus, or an atheist Jew, or a Jewish Neurotic. For those who hate them, a Jew is a Jew—period. And while many Jews may be reluctant to define their people, even in defiant pride, with the same vocabulary that their enemies use, I am reminded of an Israeli speaker who hated the word “Jewish.” “Why,” he said to me and my fellow Birthright trip travelers in a hotel conference room in Jerusalem, “are you Jew…ISH?” He stressed the palms-raised-in-the-air nebbishness of the ISH. “No, you’re not Jewish,” he scolded us. “You can’t ish your way out of our family. You’re a JEW!”
I am a Jew. This is what I had told Laney, the shiksa goddess from the Tennessee country, and she had asked me if I was kidding. If I had been kidding, what was the joke? What was its set-up, its punchline? What comic ammunition would I have gotten out of pretending to be a Jew?
With the fearlessness of an Israeli commando and the calm dignity of Moses, I ask Laney, “How would your dad feel if you, say, married a Jew?”
She turns her pillowy lips to me. “I think he’d be okay,” she says. “But he’d be mad if I married a black guy.”
(image via Shutterstock)