Sometimes I worry that I talk about Judaism too much. As much as I use the words Jew, Jewish, or Judaism, I’m saying them in my head even more. It’s become a tic of sorts, a knee-jerk reaction to the random information that comes at me all day long. What’s more, I have this habit of looking for fellow Jews in situations where a person’s religion or heritage is irrelevant. I worry that it’s gone too far.
A friend tells me her sister met a great guy. Is he Jewish? I think, but don’t ask. My book club (where I’m always aware of being one of two Jews) will discuss a novel that takes place in New Zealand in the 1950s, and I wonder if there were any Jews in New Zealand at that point in history. My son gets placed on a soccer team in our suburb of few Jews and I automatically scan the list looking for a possible Goldberg or Cohen.
I did not grow up this way. To tell you the truth, I knew few non-Jews in the very Jewish North Shore Chicago suburb where I spent my childhood. Sure, my parents and grandparents did the typical ethnic pride maneuver of taking personal credit when a Jewish person won an Oscar or a Nobel Prize. They felt the requisite shame, too, when a Jew made the news for doing anything illegal. But on account of being surrounded by Jews most of the time, I don’t remember my family or anyone else actively looking for others like them.
Even the college I attended had a large Jewish population, which meant that until I moved to Minneapolis and started graduate school, I did not know what it felt like to be the only Jew in the room on a consistent basis. In my post graduate school job at Minnetonka High School, I was one of three Jewish people on the entire staff. I taught one Jewish student in three years. I did not experience any anti-Semitism in my graduate program or at work, but I did have a constant feeling of otherness. Around the same time, my husband (yes, he’s Jewish) and I moved to a neighborhood with only a few Jewish families. By then I found myself peering through this Jewish lens even more. I had made plenty of Jewish friends and we belonged to two synagogues where we were very involved, yet everywhere I went I seemed to have one thought on my mind: Jews.
In my curiosity to see if others could relate to scanning a room or a list looking for fellow Jews, I brought up the topic with Jewish friends around the country. Many admitted to doing the same thing. “Is it something we should try to stop doing?” I asked. I explained my worry that while on the one hand we could justify the subconscious (which it often is), search for people like us as a natural outcome of seeking a sense of community, there’s still the possibility that filtering the world this way is a sign of narcissism and a way of making every situation all about us.
One friend admitted, “Our favorite babysitter is going to college in the fall. We’ve talked about how she’s going to find a roommate using Facebook. She recently mentioned that she had found the roommate and they’re all set to live together. My first question to her was not where is she from, what is her major, etc., but is she Jewish.”
Another friend said: “My tendency is towards assuming strangers usually aren’t Jewish and then getting pleasantly surprised and excited when I find out someone is. There’s nothing wrong with seeking, admitting, and enjoying this connection because when you think about it, this bond is beautiful and truly special. It is pride and it says a lot about our culture that this connection exists.”
“The reality for me is that I feel instantly connected with people once I know they are Jewish,” a third responder shared. “There is some sort of unspoken bond. So I guess I naturally look for it in every situation. I remember when I would meet with new clients at my old job in New York and once it was clear we were both Jewish there was an instant feeling of intimacy that didn’t exist before.”
From yet another: “I think it’s an endless search for finding community, similarity and the shared collective experience. Jews stick together. That’s how we do it.”
I got a dozen more responses from men and women who more or less said the same thing. They did not need to be around other Jews, but they all acknowledged feeling instantly comfortable with a person once that common connection to Judaism was established.
Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman, Harvard sociologist explained, “The sociological research would suggest that cultural pride and positive identity push us to find people who are similar to us. But it can also lead to an in-group exclusion, which would be the dark side. I think the sense of persecution Jews have felt over time might make this more acute than for other groups, but this is why cultural events, ethnic clubs, festival, and organizations exist. It’s less about religion and more about connection.”
What are your thoughts Kveller readers? Do you find yourself looking for fellow Jews to make yourself more comfortable or on behalf of your kids? Do you think other groups do this, too? Finally, is the tendency to do so a positive symbol of community searching or simply an example of xenophobia? Now that I’ve put too much thought into the situation I’m genuinely unsure.