Jew on the Train

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Judaism is one of those cultural identities that, for most people, is able to be turned on or off. Matt Bar has an awesome song about it (“I’m Not White, I’m Jewish”) and we have an awesome video about it. But for some of us — those of us who wear turbans on their heads or have big, puffy beards and bigger, puffier sidelocks — it’s an all-the-time sort of thing. (Ironically*, these people who insist most loudly that Judaism is a religion and not a culture are the ones who look most culturally Jewish.)

people on the subway

On the subway most mornings, people are in as bad a mood as it gets. They elbow old ladies and pregnant people out of the way for seats. They play their music loud and their iPod TV shows even louder. They sneeze and cough on you. And once people do sit down, they make sure to spread their legs as wide as they can, protecting their territory, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since the serf & vassal systems back in 9th-grade Medieval English History.

And this entire time, everyone is ready, eager, even, to be the one to catch the odd-looking Jewish kid doing something untoward. Taking up two seats, maybe, or squashing some baby beneath the seat so that he can make notes for a new blog entry. Suddenly, the stakes seem much higher. Instead of being just some potentially-rude punk kid, I’m a potentially-rude ambassador of an entire culture.

We have a special sort of term for it, because this is Judaism and we seem to have special terms for everything. It’s called a hilul Hashem, or a desecration of the name of God, when someone who’s obviously Jewish does something that’s not befitting someone who looks obviously Jewish.

Well, I’ve got the better hand — in the almost-a-year since I started working here, I have mastered the art of writing while standing up. I don’t even need a pole or a door to prop against. I sometimes wobble during the treacherous zig-zag beneath the East River, but for the most part, I’m solid.

And this all came about through the canniest of ways: J.K. Rowling (or, as we at Scholastic like to call her, J-Ro). Shortly before I started working here, I was reading an interview with her in which she was talking about people who don’t have time to read. Paraphrased, she basically said: “I don’t get those people. I read in the bathtub. I read waiting for appointments, and while I’m on hold on the phone. I read walking down the street, and I generally trust that, even if the other person’s reading, one of us will fortuitously steer clear of the other.”

I realized, I have a lot of empty time on my hands. Every day, I’m at work 8 hours, and riding the subway for another 2. (Which leaves me with almost no time with my daughter…but that’s another story.) I’m pretty sure Rebbe Nachman says something about taking advantage of time and making every moment count, too, but, well, nobody says it like J-Ro.

* — I say ironically because, at (ahem) certain Jewish websites, we tend to stigmatize ourselves into a common battle of pitting the culture of Judaism against the religion of Judaism, as though the two were opposites. And, culturally, it isn’t the bagels-and-lox Jews who are most commonly identified visually as Jews, like other people are identified visually as black or Asian or Martian — it’s the religious Jews.

Posted on April 28, 2009

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