By Nancy Slonim Aronie
There was a time when if someone said “You don’t look Jewish,” I took it as a compliment. It was the Fifties and our parents spent every ounce of their energy working to assimilate, to get a teeny corner of the American dream. Their parents, the ones who survived the Holocaust, sprinkled the mantra “never forget “all over our Wheaties…the breakfast of champions.
When I was nine, five boys in my neighborhood made me eat a worm because I killed their savior.
A few years later after my parents scrimped and saved we moved from the inner city to the next town over, doing the upward mobility dance (so many Jewish immigrants did in those days), to give their kids better opportunities, better schools, better everything. It was fancier and safer and prettier and the streets had names like Mulberry Meadow and Old Oak Lane.
I ran away from my Jewishness as far as I could go. I went to the University of Virginia where, on my first night in the dorm, the petite blonde southern belles pictured in the catalogue in organdy pastel gowns with pageboys and tiaras (the thing that had drawn me to apply in the first place), sat on their pink matching chenille bedspreads and told stories and jokes late into the night. And then one of the gals told an antisemitic joke. And everyone laughed. And I laughed too. When I got back to my room I remember looking into the mirror and thinking “Okay, now what?” Should I transfer? Should I stick it out and not tell anyone? Should I admit to the crime of being Jewish and risk having no friends? I stayed, I told, and I blended, but little Yiddishisms crept into my every day speech. I found myself talking about things being “bashert” (meant to be) and I told my new friends how, when I worked in my grandfather’s toy store and someone came in and asked for a toboggan, he said “everything’s a bargain, take your time, look around.” They laughed. I graduated. And slowly I began to make friends with my Jewishness. Still I didn’t exactly advertise my ethnicity. In certain social situations there was still an element of hoping I could “pass.”
In 1967 I married a Jewish boy who made it very clear from the beginning that even though he was bar mitzvahed and knew our sons would be as well, he thought little of organized religion.
Then one night when my kids were six and eight we were guests at an Edgartown bon fire cookout. I knew only my hosts. There were about 40 of us sitting in a gigantic circle. Someone would start a song and everyone would join in. We sang “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore,” we sang “John Jacob Jingle-heimer Schmidt,” and all of a sudden I heard a familiar voice. And it said with great gusto, “Hey Mom, how about ‘heenay matov?’” Wow! Hebrew in Edgartown, I remember thinking. The voice, of course, belonged to my eight-year-old. He must have seen my stricken face because as quickly as he innocently made his bold suggestion I saw him shrink and, in an apologetic whisper, he said, “Oh, never mind.” Immediately I knew what my look had done and I gulped and said “You know what? That is the perfect song!” Positive that I would be doing a timid shaky solo, not sure if my boy would even have reclaimed his voice after what I had done, I began singing the Hebrew words.
And the most astounding thing happened. First, Josh jumped in, then five or six voices joined us, then ten or twelve more, and then within a minute the whole group, every single person there, was belting out the words to this very Jewish tune. It was as if every ugly thing I had heard as a kid, every slight, every moment of mean-spiritedness was transformed by this feeling of total acceptance and celebration.
That night I realized that trying to eliminate my roots and co-opt someone else’s ancestors, someone else’s story, was a form of self-hatred and insanity.
So now, 35 years later, try telling me I don’t look Jewish and I will give you my profile, I will point at my cacophony of curls and I will say, “Oh, my dear, I mean oy givalt, I most assuredly am.”
Nancy Slonim Aronie is a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” author of Writing From The Heart (Hyperion/Little Brown) and founder of the Chilmark Writing Workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. Formerly of West Hartford, she now lives in Chilmark, Mass.
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