Being Around Gentiles Brings Out the 'Jew' in Us

Wisecracks About Church Kiddush and Lobster in 'Annie Hall'

By Lenore Skenazy

Published January 13, 2013, issue of January 18, 2013.
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It’s not just that she feels like the only Jew for 1,000 miles around, it’s that she thinks about why there are so few Jews: They’re all gone, so she’s representin’. “We survived,” Kosanke said. “And not only did we survive, but here we are with this Jewish child.” Visiting Germany with her family — including her husband, who converted — is like a trip-long taunt to the Holocaust: Obliterate this. She and Judaism are one.

And yet, Kosanke adds, she also feels particularly Jewish back home, in her very gentile town, whenever she runs into a fellow member of the tribe. “You’ve heard of ‘Jewbiliation’ — when you get excited to find out someone’s Jewish?” she asked. Kosanke had this feeling just the other day, upon learning that her daughter’s dance teacher is a Jew. So for her, the key to feeling the most Jewish seems to be connecting to Jews, dead or alive, wherever there are very few.

This makes sense to Daniel Rothner, founder and director of the youth social action organization Areyvut. It’s why a student who might ignore Hillel at Brooklyn College just might join if she’s at Utah State. “People are often more engaged when they are the only ones or in a smaller Jewish environment, because their involvement matters and makes a difference,” he said.

Ironically, once in a Jewish environment, it’s easy to start feeling a little less Jewish. New Hampshire journalist Leah Carey was the only one of her cousins to go to Brandeis University. “Talk about feeling not Jewish!” Surrounded by students who’d grown up in more observant homes, Carey felt like an anthropologist as they danced through the streets on a holiday she’d never even heard of, Shemini Atzeret.

So maybe there is no Goldilocks’ “just right” level of Jewish-ness, at least among secular Jews. We are always comparing ourselves and trying to figure out where we fit in and, more often, where we don’t.

If you’re Jewish, chances are you feel out of place at church. But chances are you have also felt a little out of place at some Jewish thing, too. Maybe it was too Jewish. Maybe it wasn’t quite Jewish enough. And of course wherever it was, they probably didn’t serve the perfect Kiddush; no one does.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and author of the book “Free-Range Kids” and of a blog of the same name. Her show, “World’s Worst Mom,” airs on Discovery/TLC International.


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