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Apr 10 2012

Yes, I Live in Nashville, and Yes, I am Jewish

By at 11:44 am
electrician

"You joosh?"

Time to hide the Jew stuff: the HVAC guys are coming. HVAC is pronounced H-V-A-C, by the way. I used to say “aytchvack,” thinking I sounded cool and handy, until a technician corrected me. I’ve checked online, and authorities are mixed, but I’m sticking with the letters.

We chose a huge maintenance firm based on the assumption it would give us peace of mind. Not with prices or guarantees, but with accountability via a hierarchy of supervisors. When we had dudes from small handyman services, I never knew what would happen. I could be preached to, “witnessed” at, or told I’m going to hell. Why? Because we live in Nashville and our house is Jewish.

Evidence is everywhere: e.g. books, seder plates, Hebrew puzzles, Ketubah (wedding contract, jumbo-size, gold letters) and whatever holiday project I might be in the middle of all scream Jewiness. If my husband is home, he’s the evidence himself, what with his Ashkenazic je-ne-sais-quois and Philly dipthongs. Sometimes, I’m glad when he is, so I don’t have to deal with the weirdness alone, but sometimes his presence is what triggers the weirdness. “Are you Joosh?” the tree man asked him, “’cause you sure look Joosh.” And so on.

Me, I can pass for non-Jewish with my WASP-y genealogy and Tennessee twang. I’m a native. My camouflage usually keeps things quiet and professional, but if a repair guy is particularly observant, I can get “outed.” Especially if the service call is during a high-décor holiday. Passover and Sukkot are the worst. Not much I can do to hide a seder table or a sukkah draped with Hebrew hangings and freaky palm branches.

If it stopped there, okay (sort of), but after they ask me if I’m Jewish, it goes one of two ways. They either select from the Preach, Witness, Hell menu, or they simply don’t believe me: they tell me I’m not Jewish. It happens so fast I don’t have time to think:

Are you Jewish? Were you born Jewish? Then you’re not really Jewish, are you? Not really, you know what I mean?

Yes, I do know what you mean.

My looks (unequivocal Scots-Irish), my accent, my last name are clues to anyone paying the slightest attention. I wasn’t born Jewish. I’m Jewish now, and have been for over 20 years. I’m a Jewish educator with a Master’s in Jewish Studies and a print subscription to the Forward. I keep a kosher home, raise Jewish kids, run family programs at a Conservative synagogue, write about Jewish crafts and holidays as the Bible Belt Balabusta, and own DVDs of (almost) every Woody Allen film. I know my gribenes from my g’lilashnecken from shatnes. And I’m not Jewish?

That depends. Every authority has a different set of criteria to determine Jewishness, and I will never satisfy them all. I’ve stopped wanting to. My conversion was kosher according to the Conservative movement, which means that to any flavor of Orthodoxy or to the Israeli Ministry of Interior, I might as well be the Pope. To some friends and acquaintances, Jewish and non, I am sort of Jewish. To some strangers I am not Jewish at all, not really, because Jewishness is not a state one can just become, poof! I have been told to my face, “you can take the girl from Jesus, but you can’t take Jesus from the girl.”

I beg to differ. But I don’t want to beg at all. I don’t want to talk about it, especially with a man standing in my kitchen who has the power to actually fix stuff or not. It’s just none of his business, or indeed anyone’s. Which is why I try to keep my mouth shut. I hate to admit it, but shutting up is very in character for my pre-Jewish background. Perhaps a better defense would be to counter a question with a question and get all Talmudic, or at least all Woody Allen.

Wish me luck today with the HVAC. If opinions are mixed as to the kosher pronunciation of HVAC, imagine the opinions as to the kosher status of me.


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