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Goys in the 'Hood

Posted: 08/30/2007 12:20 pm

A couple of weeks ago, I published a memoir that I'd been working on for years. I'd written draft after draft, making conscious decisions about what to include. So you'd think I'd be comfortable having people read it. You'd think I'd be urging everybody, every single one of you, to buy the book, talk it up and urge your friends to buy copies for themselves and everybody they know. And, mostly, I am. Hey, what are you waiting for?

Only thing is, I'm nervous about how folks will react. It's not so much that I worry they'll know my intimate gynecological details since the book, Embryo Culture, Making Babies in the Twenty-First Century, is a memoir about going through in vitro fertilization. Nor do I care much about the bright light I shine all over my husband's mandatory masturbation or how bitchy I can get.

Rather, just as the book came out, I realized there were things in it that might surprise some people, particularly those who've made assumptions about me, some of them even going so far as to entrust me with their bigotry, letting me know, for example, that there's a wonderful pediatrician in town, if one doesn't mind that she is a Jew. While it is true that we chose to move to a quintessentially WASPy Chicago suburb, that my husband wears tortoiseshell frames, and that I think a bare midriff on an otherwise dressed person is just plain tacky, we're not ourselves WASPs. Rather, we, like our forebears, like the denizens of the suburb just down the road, are big ol' Jews. I've not tried to fool anybody, not tried to look or act like something I'm not, not tried to muffle the instinctive oys I sometimes mutter, I've just never volunteered that we're Jewish, although we did hang a lovely and discreet mezuzah upon the doorpost of our home, the mezuzah that I inherited from my immigrant grandparents, the one that once hung on their Wisconsin front door after they'd been chased out of Eastern Europe for being Jewish.

But as much of a religious symbol as that mezuzah is, it is teeny tiny, not the sort of thing one could spy from the street, not even something you'd necessarily see if you were looking straight at our front door. It's not that I'm ashamed of being Jewish or embarrassed by its trappings -- except for those giant Chai necklaces dangling around the necks of hairy-chested men. I mean, come on. It's just that I think religious difference can make for strange bedfellows and this here is where I lay my head.

Growing up, my parents' made a big deal about being Jewish, at least inside our own house. But they built that house in a Wisconsin town populated not only by gentiles, but by gentiles whose parents and grandparents had lived in that same town. They enrolled my two brothers and me at the local prep school where we comprised the diversity bloc. (Actually, there was a girl in my class with a Jewish father, which disqualified her, in my parents' eyes, from bona fide Jewdom, religion being transmitted on the maternal side as if it were a chromosomal abnormality rather than a cultural inheritance).

It was a good school and a safe town and I'm still friends with many, many of my schoolmates. But I also know what it feels like to look down at one's desk and see "Beth Kohl is a kike" whittled into its surface. I know how it feels to have a fight with a friend, something prompted by normal junior high crap, and have it devolve into her calling me a dirty Jew. I overheard parents' telling Jewish jokes and tried my hardest to prove another friend's mother wrong by not leaving grease marks on the guest pillows when I'd sleep over (as she explained it, Jews put grease in their hair to keep it from kinking up). It also didn't help my psyche that the headmaster's son came to Halloween at our school wearing the S.S. uniform he found in a trunk in his attic.

Still, we were the ones who chose to settle with our children in a largely gentile suburb. The public schools here are great, it's right on Lake Michigan, and the town itself is just plain charming. I also didn't want to move someplace just because it was "Jewish." Don't get me wrong, I am neither self-hating nor an anti-Semite. Hey, some of my best friends are Jews! I married a Jew! Our pediatrician is a Jew!

I realize that times have changed, that I may be the only person in town, besides the ones who object to seeing a Jewish doctor (idiots!), who thinks it matters that we're Jewish. It could be, in fact, that if I only talked about it, people would express not just their acceptance, but their enthusiasm. Best case, they'd tell me they really couldn't give half a fuck. Or, perhaps, I'd learn that they, too, were Jewish or half-Jewish, whether on their mother's or father's side. But being a person who has always hated branded things, not wanting to ever be judged by appearances or taken for the kind of person who thinks a Burberry plaid will connote my classiness, I don't advertise my identity, except to just try to be my essential self.

We've also joined a local congregation that, lacking an actual building, meets at the town's Community House. True, I often wish the rabbi would consider turning down the amplification system, the one cranked up too high while Israeli folk tunes spin, Hebrew words and Semitic riffs blasting down the hallways, the ones with the slate floors and plaster moldings like something out of Philips Exeter. Third and fourth generation villagers meet in rooms along those halls, discussing plans for the town or playing bridge or planning the weddings of their sons to their daughters, while we Jews gather in our rented space, dancing and singing and, perhaps, disturbing the cultivated peace.