Jew Am I?


Despite my unpronounceable surname, formidable Dukakis-level brow line and decidedly Jewtastic seasonal allergies, I've always considered myself a regular, average American. I've lived in America for all 50 of my 50 years, if we count Los Angeles as part of America. And some people do. On Friday nights, I solve Blue Bloods murders right alongside Tom Selleck's mustache. On Saturday mornings, I'll watch any college football game you place in front of me, even the traditional battle between the Devry Institute and Clown College. And on the 4th of July, I not only root for Joey Chestnutt in the Hot Dog Eating contest, but I'll often eat along with him. You know, for moral support. I like my sitcoms with three cameras and my omelettes with three cheeses. I cried at Argo, Sully, Rudy and Miracle. I complain about traffic and Mondays and my back and gridlock in Washington. See? Regular. Average. American.

And then there are occasional days, when I still feel like a guest, trying to "pass". But hey, what are you gonna do?

Not long ago, I was at the dentist when their hygienist asked if I was Persian. I answered "No, but that's funny I do get that a lot. My grandparents were Sephardic. From Turkey." Apparently, I had given the wrong answer. Apparently, I had given the most grievous answer known to man. Turns out my hygienist wasn't Persian, but Armenian. And she spent the next ten minutes holding me a little too responsible for the Armenian Genocide, while never once removing her finger from my mouth. "I guess maybe there's such a thing as a good Turk" she offered with all the resolute conviction of someone reading a ransom note with an off-camera Glock pointed at her head. She then made repeated references to "your people." My grandparents moved here a hundred years ago. My people are from Encino. As I've been known to say, the only things they committed genocide against are pound cake and my self-esteem.

I can't say I grew up in a super Jewish home. We were Reform. So reform that our temple had a swimming pool, hence it's common appellation as the "shul with a pool." I went to Nursery and Hebrew School there and had my bar mitzvah there, but we were mostly High Holiday kind of Jews. And even then, those services were frequently held in a Presbyterian Church. I did mention this was LA, didn't I?

The other thing that muddled my Jewish identity was the fact that I was half-Sephardic (from Turkey) and half-Ashkenazi (from Poland and Austria). I always thought of my parents as just two Valley Jews. Their nearly matching tennis gear didn't belie some cultural chasm to my ten year-old eye. But apparently, their union had been the Judeo equivalent of an inter-marriage. I never really considered that there was much difference between my grandparents. But looking back, one side, the Bel Air side, were close friends with Richard Nixon. On the other side, the Fairfax side, I had a grandmother so old country that she didn't drive, pronounced Seattle as "Seatt-Lee" and wouldn't buy me root beer because a kid shouldn't drink alcohol. And a grandfather who, I swear, had at least 8 brothers named "Victor."

I went to a public elementary school that was so Jewish, I didn't even realize anyone there was Jewish. I just thought all guys were as bad as me at contact sports. And all girls had frizzy hair and topped out at 5'2.

My first real understanding that not everyone celebrated Shavuot, came when I entered my Episcopalian middle school. Some of the clues included boys with blond hair, Topsiders, restricted counry clubs, tee times and a group called the Sons of Hitler that drew swastikas on our lockers. I don't believe they received course credit for their hard work. But they didn't receive suspensions either. This was back in the day, when "kike" was tossed around as casually and without consequence as "fag." And if you happened to be a sensitive Jew, you frequently received the daily double.

I always felt I was a guest at someone else's school. But by the end of my six years, I started to have fun with it. I was tasked with doing the introductions at our annual debate banquet, where I shared the dais with our school priest and English headmaster. Neither looked particularly overjoyed when I began my comments with "seated on the bima tonight" and then introduced each member of the debate team by their synagogue affiliation. Except for the one Korean guy every debate team had. He, I said, was here representing Fromin's Delicatessen.


In college in the Northeast, I definitely went through a phase where I did everything I could to pass. Not just as Gentile, but as Mayflower, old money Gentile. I had the Bean Bluchers and the Norwegian fisherman's sweater and the shiksa girlfriend from Miss Porter's. I played touch football with fraternity brothers overlooking the water in Newport while wearing an Oxford shirt. But this was always an ill-fitting costume. As they say, you can't hide the hook. That's my nose. That's what the hook is referring to.
I even once tried dying my hair blond, using a homemade brew of lemon juice, Sun-In and peroxide. Instead of blond, I spent a summer with a bright orange mane looking like the evil spawn of Danny Bonaduce, Carrot Top and Bozo the Clown.

In reality, it's hard to pass as a Jamestown colonist or a laconic Wyoming sheriff with the last name "Behar." My wife and I used to joke that if our kids ever wanted to run for the Senate, they could drop the "Behar" and run as "Samantha Robins" or "Jack Andrews." The latter could also save the State Department from an impending terrorist attack in a Michael Bay movie. Then again, this now feels like a concern from a bygone era. Things have changed so quickly in this country that no name feels more quintessentially American than "Barack Hussein Obama."

As an adult, I've embraced my Jewishness if not a deep religiosity. Both my kids attend Jewish day school, yet I've never been to Israel. "But who's watching my trees" I ask every time to repeated non-laughter. I call 1000 Island , "Russian dressing" and still see Woody Allen movies mostly out of cultural obligation. I know the V'ahavta by heart (or off-book as I call it). But then again, I still also know the Lord's Prayer--the gift of Tuesday Episcopal chapel that keeps on giving.

We consider ourselves a typical American family. Our last big trip was to Charleston. Before that, we went to Austin. Super American, right? But then, after a week of eating our way through Texas and still in a brisket coma, I was pulled out of line at the Austin airport for questioning. For no discernible reason, beyond my swarthy complexion and swarthy outlook.

It's possible I'm getting more Jewish as I age. Or the corollary, all old people seem Jewish. Last week, I smuggled a baggy of Trader Joe's lox into my local bagel store so I wouldn't have to pay full retail. When did I become everyone's grandmother?

So what is the point of all this identity navel-gazing. Two thoughts come to mind. The first is about the Jewish-American experience. And how not everyone's is the same. We've grown accustomed to seeing 20th century Jewry through the same herring-tinted filter. It's always Ashknazi. It always runs through Brooklyn. And it always seems to be narrated by the same talking heads. We get it, Larry King liked egg creams, stickball and sneaking into Ebbets Field. But my experience has just as many bumuelas and biscochos as tongue sandwiches on rye. And my experience has already been supplanted by the new Jewish immigrant stories from Iran, South Africa, Russia and Israel.

My second observation is how I/we fit into the overall tapestry of American life. Every immigrant in every group always faces the give and take of full assimilation versus holding on to precious customs. There are days when I'm well aware that I am a Jew in a non-Jewish society. Try spending a day at Disneyland. (It's also helpful if you want to feel anorexic). But on most days, I just blend in and don't think about it--a proposition I'm well aware not all groups get to achieve with equal ease. But as I write this final paragraph in the Northridge Starbucks, the only non-Asian or Latino in the room, I see that we all just want to be thought of as American.