Funny, you look Jewish

I updated my status yesterday on Facebook to include a trip I am planning to Panama. Within hours, I had re-allied with a college friend who lives there, who, after an offer to shepherd my husband and me and find us whatever we needed, added, “As for the Jewish geography, the family names you want to know are: Btesh, Heskey, Malca, Bachtel…”

I thought to tell him my history of being taken for Jewish, but realized it would never fit in a Status Update, starting as it did in kindergarten, when the teacher went around the circle asking each child whether he or she would be celebrating Hanukkah or Christmas. When I said the latter, she said, “No, Nancy, you’ll be celebrating Hanukkah,” after which (according to my mother) I came home crying because we wouldn’t be having Christmas.

Because I grew up in New York, I was under the impression half of America was Jewish. This, because half my friends were Jewish, probably more than half, probably ninety percent, but this was the secular Seventies and none of the families I knew celebrated holidays with much more than booze. Tory might have been Jewish, but she had a Christmas tree. Sarah was half-Jewish, which meant they hid the matzo under a bust of the Pope. (I’m not kidding.) There were no Seders, no Bar Mitzvahs; no one asked my religious background, and if they had, I’d have said I’d been baptized Catholic and had gone through religious instruction long enough to make First Communion, which also turned out to be my last.

But they didn’t ask; why would they? The last name, the New York-i-ness, the lots of brown hair, the opinions, I looked and sounded like everybody else. In college, I was not only thought to be Jewish but told by one girl exactly what part of Israel my people were from.

“You have green eyes,” she said. “That means you're Sabra.”

I could tell by the happiness it gave her to tell me this that she wanted me to be Sabra. Let me make clear I never told anyone I was Jewish, and if the subject came up, said I was not. But it didn’t come up, and I think it didn’t because my friends who were Jewish just assumed I was. Sometimes this went on for years, especially after I moved to Los Angeles. My screenwriter friend Loren, whom I met while working on a film in 1984, invited me to Passover dinner in 1989. I told her I’d love to; that I’d never been to one.

“What do you mean, you never went to Passover?” she asked. “Not even at your grandmother’s?” I told her, my grandmother had been Italian, that I wasn’t Jewish…

“Wait,” she said, placed a hand on her chest, closed her eyes for about ten seconds, and then said, “Okay.” She needed to process the information that one of her closest friends, someone who looked nearly identical to her and had a near-identical past, was not of the tribe. I was pregnant at the time and welcomed heartily by her family; at the end of the meal, her father took me aside and slipped me a Haggadah, “for the baby.” A few years later at a baby shower, I ate a fantastic casserole the pregnant woman’s mother had made. What was it?

“You never ate a kugel?” the woman’s mother asked, and when I said no, called to the other attendees, “She never ate a kugel!” Then she sat me in the kitchen and had me write down the recipe, for macaroni and cheese with Frosted Flakes on top. What’s not to like?

When I moved to Portland, Oregon, I found myself missing something I could not quite lay a finger on. Of course, it was the Jews, the quickness, the sharpness, the cadence of speech, the getting the joke without explaining the joke. None of my friends in New York or LA would ever say, in the midst of a heated conversation, “Calm down, don’t get so excited!” the way people sometimes do here. Not get excited? I live to get excited.

Today, I ran into a chef whose restaurant is in the same complex as my husband’s business, a little spitfire who’s always hustling and yakking and smiling. I congratulated her on her recent lauding in the press for a holiday dish she’s got on the menu: an apple pie with a lattice crust made of bacon. She laughed, explaining how when her rabbi had seen it, even he said it was tempting.

“And you know how rabbis are!” she said, clapping me on the shoulder. I did not correct her.

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