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Flying Under the Jewish Radar, in Pastel Colors

When the Hasidim at sidewalk mitzvah tanks ask passersby if they’re Jewish, my madras pants and boat shoes render me invisible

by
Ross Kenneth Urken
October 08, 2014
(Erik Mace)

(Erik Mace)

One Friday this summer while darting back to my office from lunch, I encountered a familiar sight on Wall Street: the Shabbos squad of Hasidim asking passersby if they were Jewish. If you answer “yes,” the presumption is you’ll be beckoned to say a prayer or two, maybe wrap tefillin. Not a huge time-suck, sure, but certainly an imposition.

I held my breath, waiting for the question. But as usual, they never even asked me.

I am, to most eyes, clearly Jewish, with a profile sharper than my wit and reddish Ashkenazi hints in my hair. But in a stand-off such as this—where people, however well-intentioned, could potentially delay my busy day—I pride myself on a particular talent: the ability to go incog-hebro.

I can camouflage my Semitism, it seems, with this or that pastel sartorial choice. To look at me during such times, you might think I have an unreasonably high Roman numeral affixed to the end of my name. My butler could well be named Farnsworth.

Don’t get me wrong; I am proud of my heritage and observant in my own way. I grew up and became a bar mitzvah in a Conservative synagogue in Princeton, N.J., but I feel more comfortable practicing alone or in a sanctuary—not in front of colleagues outside my office with this ritual or that foisted upon me. Walks get particularly treacherous now during the High Holidays, and I have to counter with a loud pocket square or a fake family coat of arms patch. It pays to be an impostor.

But while my undetectable Judaism proved a welcome relief on that Friday lunch hour, it was also a cause for concern. The process by which Black Hats identify fellow Members of the Tribe has been dubbed bageling, but in my disguise, I had successfully employed a Lox Block. This put me in quite the Catch-22: I didn’t want to be singled out in the first place but felt offended that the Orthodox Jews lying in wait hadn’t stopped me. Perhaps in added allegiance to my roots, this pickle left me with a familiar combination of anxiety and fear.

Was it the powder blue Brooks Brothers pants that threw them off the trail or the critter-pattern belt? Did my monogrammed cuffs serve as an effective decoy? Or had my hair lost its curl?

“Dress British, Think Yiddish,” the famous slogan espoused by Hollywood talent agent Lew Wasserman, extols the virtues of blending in outwardly but operating with an unconventional approach. Some of this instinct derives from a fear of anti-Semitism and its ramifications—a strategy to avoid any negative judgment or biases based on stereotype. Salomon Brothers, where former Mayor Michael Bloomberg began his career in the 1970s, also espoused this motto, whereby homogenization was encouraged along with unusual thought.

Evidently, I was operating under this credo, but why exactly? Was I really just trying to save myself time, or was I trying to repress my ethnicity?

Perhaps my sensitivity to this evasion is all the more fraught, because at the age of 26—my double bar mitzvah, mind you—I did what might be deemed uncouth in certain Semitic circles: I married a Catholic girl, from Oklahoma no less. She of the straw-blonde hair and the mint julep green eyes would seem out of turn were I to present her to my Hebrew-school teachers at the synagogue my grandparents helped to found in the 1920s. In that Conservative congregation, we learned there were few words worse than “assimilation.” So, was I being a continued Benedict Arnoldowitz?

Despite running interference in the form of seersucker, I am confident I have embraced and valued my roots. My antagonism toward these sidewalk are-you-Jewish inquiries, I determined, might just stem from my dislike of being clearly labeled. In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer projects his insecurities with his shiksa girlfriend’s family and imagines himself perceived as a be-payosed Hasid at the dinner table. Here Woody Allen hits at the discomfort with being exoticized. Cultural diversity is a beautiful part of life, particularly in New York City, but I don’t want to have my religion be my defining characteristic for strangers.

That’s why I take pride in my ability to walk undetected past Chabadniks, fly under the J-dar. In New York, I’m a Jew of ethical culture, and on the Upper West Side or Wall Street, possibly the least be-yarmulked, the treyfest Ross there is. I can blend in more easily on the subway or on the street. And so I prefer it.

In Oklahoma, by contrast, I’m likely to be identified as an “other” when attending Mass, with people who will cross-reference my visage (gaunt, bearded) with that of the guy hanging on the crucifix at the front of the sanctuary. If I raise my hands a little, they may assume it’s the Second Coming.

There is a certain beauty in being unique elsewhere, but I’d rather have my identity taken as a whole rather than having one aspect of it singled out in public.

Leopold Bloom in Ulysses, perhaps the most famous fictional instance of dressing British and thinking Yiddish, has to negotiate his Irish-Semitic duality. In the novel’s Cyclops chapter, the Citizen character, a vehement Irish nationalist against so-called “strangers” in the country, asks Bloom, a middle aged advertising salesman, what his “nation” is. “Ireland,” Bloom replies. “I was born here. Ireland … And I belong to a race too… that is hated and persecuted. Also now. This very moment. This very instant.”

Bloom’s instinct toward minimizing the focus on religion and Semitic identity here is in line with my constitution and workday constitutionals.

Of course, that’s all the more necessary in an environment tainted with prejudice. Elsewhere in Ulysses, after Stephen Dedalus visits Headmaster Garrett Deasy, who makes some anti-Semitic remarks about the role of Jews in the economy, the young teacher and writer says “history is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake” (in dismissal of these prejudices informed by the past) and that God is “a shout in the street.”

This last bit is, perhaps, all the more appropriate for my lunchtime diversions and sometimes circumambulatory tactics. The shout is God, and it asks, “Are you Jewish?” So, as the divine addresses me from the sidewalk, I’ll counter with madras pants, bespoke suits, and boat shoes.

I respect the outreach and embrace my religion, but I won’t stop wearing my invisibility cloak in the form of gingham in this new year.

***

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Ross Kenneth Urken has published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The Paris Review. He lives in Manhattan.

Ross Kenneth Urken has published in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The Paris Review. He lives in Manhattan.

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