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On a lifetime of being thought Jewish

Unknown Author
August 18, 2009

A few Septembers ago, my friend Rebecca emailed to ask about Rosh Hashanah dinner. She had relatives coming to town, and needed to know where to buy something. (Rugelach, I think.) I’m always getting questions like this, partly because of my job, which at the time involved editing a lot of shopping-and-service coverage. As it happened, I’d just edited a story on that very subject, and I sent Rebecca a copy. But this wasn’t a professional question; it was a personal one, it turned out. “Where do you go for this stuff?” she asked. I told her, and then I added my usual follow-up. “You know I’m not Jewish, right?” She didn’t.

My first name is Christopher, which is Greek for “Christ-bearer.” My surname, also Greek, might be mistaken for Spanish but never for Sephardic. Even so, this happens all the time. Everyone thinks I’m a Jew.

I’m not the only one who’s ever been mistaken for a member of the tribe, of course. The actress Valerie Harper (who is Irish Catholic) has noted that, after a few years of playing Rhoda Morgenstern, she had, in the public eye, converted. She even played Golda Meir a couple of years ago, replacing Tovah Feldshuh for the national tour of the Broadway hit Golda’s Balcony. Joy Behar (who’s Italian) used to do a whole standup routine about being mistaken for Jewish.

I certainly don’t mind. (Or, to put it another way, not that there’s anything wrong with that.) But it confuses the hell out of people. A college pal, straight out of Midwest corn country, once confided to me that he’d been stunned at how many Jews he’d encountered once he came East, having met none previously. Yet none of his new acquaintances looked the part to him: over and over, he explained, someone’s background would come up in conversation, and his reaction would be “Really? You too?” Only one person he’d met, he further explained, had been recognizably Semitic from the get-go. That person was me.

It all gets a person to thinking. What is it that reads as “Jewish”?

Some of it is probably just snap judgment based on looks. Greeks and Jews come from the same general Mediterranean turf. As casting directors all seem to know, an actor with origins anywhere in that wide belt running from, say, Portugal to Afghanistan can pass for “ethnic.” (Mexicans will do in a pinch.) Dark shaggy curls and olive skin tones, even if they’ve turned pasty under the fluorescent office lights, are one big undifferentiated cultural signifier to the blonder portions of America. Greeks also—and I realize this is a loaded thing to discuss, because it is bound up with a lot of anti-Semitic imagery—tend to be gifted in the nose department.

Hellenes also have a certain historical consonance with Jews. I think we understand each other better than many cultures. Both cultures embrace a tradition of political argument, possibly because both have been overrun by one invader after another. (In our case, it was the Romans, the Venetians, and the Turks before, of course, the Nazis.) And both populations feel the long shadow of their history. The Greeks, in particular, seem to have trouble with this one. Periclean Athens more or less invented democracy, theater, and mathematics; nowadays, the Greek government can’t even persuade the Brits to give a few statues back, and has been reduced to passive-aggressively building an empty museum gallery to point up their absence.

What really makes me Jewish-by-observation, though, is a curious accident of assimilation. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb surrounded by Jewish families. My parents, too, were raised in heavily Jewish areas of south Brooklyn. (These are the neighborhoods that, unlike Park Slope or Cobble Hill, don’t have charming names that make good real-estate chatter. It’s the Brooklyn you leave, not the Brooklyn you move to.) My parents were close to their Greek Orthodox church groups, and they spoke Greek with their parents, but of course they were American children of immigrants, and they wanted to belong. So they, and eventually I, embraced the culture around us. Which in our case was a culture of deli-going, seltzer-sipping, Woody Allen-appreciating Jews. (Lenny Bruce was right: “In New York, even if you’re Catholic, you’re Jewish.”) In the microclimate that is Greater New York, I assimilated—but I did it by listening to Allan Sherman records and reading Philip Roth.

It wasn’t a bad deal, and I got the best of both worlds. I ended up with a taste for the choicest bits of American Jewish culture (Groucho Marx, Bob Dylan), and I’ve never had to face down anti-Semitism in all its subtle forms. That also means that I can also offer some quick advice, which you are free to bookmark for next month. The best rugelach in town come from Eli’s or Orwasher’s. And the best sable is at Russ & Daughters, on the Lower East Side. Don’t talk to me about Zabar’s. Yes, it’s very good, but the lines at the High Holidays? Oy.

Christopher Bonanos is a senior editor at New York magazine.

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