Deep thoughts, random insights, and musings by Susan Jacobs

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Jewish clothes and other illusions

For your reading pleasure, I present my latest column from The Jewish Chronicle:

Funny, you don’t dress Jewish

A couple of years ago, while visiting a friend in New York, she remarked that my Shabbat outfit – a pastel cardigan and conservative pastel skirt – was very goyish. She, at that moment, was wearing a fitted charcoal gray sweater, black skirt and knee-high black boots.

“And what you’re wearing is Jewish?” I replied.

We both laughed.

Upon further discussion, we concluded that my look was unpretentious Midwestern while hers was New York sophisticated. Neither look, in fact, had anything to do with being Jewish. But the conversation is illustrative of the characteristics that people associate with being Jewish.

Thanks in part to the influence of television and movies, many people assume that Jews are smart, urbane, fast talking and funny, not to mention wealthy, large-nosed, dark-haired and more than a little neurotic. As in all stereotypes, there is a core of truth embedded within the myth. But there are smart, funny, neurotic, dark-haired people in this world who are not Jewish, and a fair share of well-adjusted, natural blondes of average intelligence in this world who happen to be Jewish. (Not to knock the intelligence of blondes, of course.)

The point is, being Jewish is more than being the walking embodiment of a “Seinfeld” character. (Which, incidentally, had a lot more to do with being a New Yorker than with being a Jew.)

On the other hand, there is no denying that Jews share certain cultural tendencies that are unique to us. Another friend of mine attended college in North Carolina. A classmate who was an exchange student from Ethiopia once asked him if he were Jewish.

“Yes,” he answered. “How did you know?”

“You remind me of other Jews I’ve met,” he said.

Those other Jews were Ethiopian.

Something about the mannerisms or speech patterns of this nice Jewish boy in North Carolina were strikingly similar to his very distant, and otherwise very dissimilar, Jewish cousins in Ethiopia.

Which isn't all that surprising.

Meet a Jew in the middle of nowhere and you are sure to feel a special bond that you don’t share with non-Jewish compatriots. This stems not just from a shared love of pastrami or potato latkes, but from a shared vocabulary of life and a set of cultural experiences that are unique to Jews.

American Jews tend to be nostalgic about Yiddish culture and the quirky speech pattern of turning almost any statement into a question. (And how else should we talk?)

But, even Jews of Sephardic, Yemenite and Ethiopian descent -- who have never met a shmendrick or a shlemazel -- share the self-effacing inquisitiveness of their Ashkenazi cousins.

Some of these similarities stem from knowledge of the Hebrew language, whose application is rife with its own sarcasm and tendency toward unanswerable questions.

But, more importantly, our similarities come from the values imparted by Jewish tradition.

The Jewish legal tradition is founded upon an ongoing Hebrew and Aramaic dialogue that has as many rhetorical questions as practical ones.

This rhythm has been so utterly absorbed in Jewish culture that even Jews who have never studied a page of Talmud seem genetically programmed for critical thinking and spirited debate. As a people, we see life as the impetus for ongoing intellectual wrestling. The cerebral struggling is not a mere exercise, but an effort to understand how to behave ethically in the world.

This outlook -- along with a shared familiarity and comfort with Jewish language and rituals -- are part of what make Jews seem Jewish.

So, whether we are trendy or out of style, cosmopolitan or countrified, being identifiably Jewish is about extracting important values and mannerisms from our tradition, and not about fitting into a superficial mold.

Would we want it any other way?


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