I Was 21 When I Made My First Non-Jewish Friend by the Forward

I Was 21 When I Made My First Non-Jewish Friend

I was 21 years old when I made my first non-Jewish friend.

It was the first day of the spring semester of my junior year, and I was settling into the newsroom where I would be interning for the next three months. After some introductions and a brief tour, I met my fellow intern, a student from Maharashtra, India and the least Jewish person I had ever met.

For better or worse, the two of us would share a small, windowless office in the editorial department of a local Manhattan newsweekly every Thursday until May.

I couldn’t hide my Jewishness for very long. This became abundantly clear when my co-worker asked me where I was studying.

“Yeshiva University. It’s a Jewish University,” I announced a little too naturally, as if the latter sentence was a necessary, built-in qualifier. “I’m Jewish,” I added, in case it wasn’t already clear.

After hand shaking and some small talk, he smiled and turned back to his computer. A regular occurrence for him, I thought, but for me, a new world. Until then, my life had been a vignette of Jewish private schools, Jewish summer camps, and college at the singular University created for Jews. For the most part, all of my friends ate only kosher, kept the Sabbath, and were unequivocally Zionist.

During our first day on the job, between researching and calling possible leads, my new desk neighbor suggested we get lunch from a nearby Middle-Eastern food truck. I explained that I kept kosher and could not eat anything without the proper certification.

“But isn’t it all the same meat?” he asked me earnestly.

After the fourth innocent food offer from him, I decided to keep it simple. “Just assume I can’t eat anything,” I said. He still offered me his gelatin-laden gum the next day.

Pretty soon, for the first time in my life, I was explaining Judaism from scratch to someone else.

Naturally, I started with the basics: kosher, Sabbath, Passover. And even that was jolting. Until then, my religion was as obvious to me as my eye color or name; it didn’t require explanation and forcing one out felt redundant.

Eventually, while we ate our lunches in the break room – mine wrapped in plastic and his purchased from the eatery next door – we discussed more complex subjects like faith and modesty.

“A Sheitel is kind of like a hijab,” I said, to his amazement. “A married woman’s hair is considered nakedness so it needs to be covered.”

My fellow intern was learning about Jews. And in a way, I was as well. I probed my previously unquestioned beliefs, engaging in complicated discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the existence of God.

When he invited me to a Students for Justice in Palestine event at his university, I knew I was no longer in my Orthodox Jewish bubble. My coworker didn’t let me take my beliefs for granted; he pushed back and forced me to support my arguments with facts. Our weekly back-and-forth in the office was my first exposure to political debate about Israel; until that moment, studying in modern Orthodox schools my whole life, there was always only one side to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

Our relationship was reciprocal. My new friend, I learned, is a secular Hindu Sikh, an accomplished squash player, and a lover of wine and cheese parties. His family has visited Israel before and he has a Jewish aunt. We were both college juniors with a knack for reading texts from right to left. We both liked Middle Eastern food and karaoke. As far as I was concerned, we were friends.

At some point, we decided to exchange papers with our names written in our respective, non-English tongues.

“Hey!” he exclaimed, at seeing his name spelled out in my carefully practiced Hebrew. “It kind of looks like Hindi!”

Glancing at the paper that held my name spelled out in his language, I could have sworn a part of me recognized the curviness of his neatly written characters as well. It was certainly a brother to my native Hebrew, I thought with a smile. Or at least a distant cousin.

Shoshy Ciment is a journalist in NYC. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, Playbill, Our Town, and more. Follow her @shoshanaciment.

This story "I Was 21 When I Made My First Non-Jewish Friend" was written by Shoshy Ciment.


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