Being Around Gentiles Brings Out the 'Jew' in Us

Wisecracks About Church Kiddush and Lobster in 'Annie Hall'

Like a Sore Thumb: In “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, feels conspicuously Jewish around Hall’s non-Jewish family.
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Like a Sore Thumb: In “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, feels conspicuously Jewish around Hall’s non-Jewish family.

By Lenore Skenazy

Published January 13, 2013, issue of January 18, 2013.
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You call that a Kiddush?” whispered my husband, referring to the spread that synagogues offer after services.

Except we were in a Catholic church.

Congregants were receiving their communion wafers — a fact not lost on my darling. But there was just something about being in a church and watching the wedding of a distant, half-Jewish cousin that made my husband and me keenly, almost aggressively, aware of just how Jewish with a capital J that rhymes with K as in Koufax and kosher and knaidlach we are. And so the jokes kept coming, sotto voce, almost compulsively:

“Where’s the rebbetzin?” “Who’s the guy above the bimah?” “I forgot my tallis!” — yada, yada, yada (an expression, you’ll note, popularized by Jerry Seinfeld, who’s a — well, no need to beat you over the head with an all-beef salami). What is it about being in an un-Jewish place that brings out every Jewish instinct, impulse and, sometimes, wisecrack?

“It’s the same way you feel very American when you’re abroad,” said Ruth Nemzoff, resident scholar at Brandeis University’s Women’s Studies Research Center, and author of the 2012 book “Don’t Roll Your Eyes: Making In-Laws Into Family.” When you’re among your own kind, you generally don’t notice the way you talk, or think, or even your core beliefs. But when you’re apart from your base, you can’t help but keep comparing what’s normal for you versus those other folks. And suddenly, everything you once took for granted (or even scorned) is very precious.

This, Nemzoff adds, is why grandparents who claim they really don’t give a fig about religion are shocked when they hear that their new grandson is not going to be circumcised. No bris?! They go nuts, and their children didn’t see it coming. It’s easy to ignore a tradition, so long as it’s being upheld.

The feeling is less alienation than amazement: People don’t realize just how non-Jewish they are! “You feel sort of like the odd man out,” said Ruta Fox, creator of the online jewelry site DivineDiamonds.com and a recent transplant to South Carolina. “It’s not like people aren’t welcoming,” she said of her new, non-Jewish neighbors. On the contrary, she finds them kind and absolutely not anti-Semitic. “But there’s a church on every corner, and it seems like that’s the first question everybody asks: ‘What church do you go to?’” At a city council meeting she attended: “They did a prayer, ‘Let us pray to Jesus,’ and I’m like what?” For her, it was less the gentile setting than the immediate assumption that “we are all in this together” — Christianity — that made her feel so markedly Jewish.

And if the South can bring that on, imagine how Tobi Kosanke, a Texas Jew, feels when she visits her husband’s family in Germany. Back home, the geologist and mom considers herself “quite secular.” But in Germany? “I feel like I’ve got a menorah on my head!”


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