Three Jewish women walked into a nail salon….
This is not a joke, just what I did with two of my friends last weekend. These tired working moms needed a pedicure, stat! I have been to this salon countless times and am always my usual talkative friendly self to the unlucky soldier charged with trying to make my runner’s feet look presentable.
The nail technician that I am paired up with the most is Daniel, a young African American man who is married to one of the other workers, who happens to be Vietnamese. Daniel and I have chatted for hours over the time I have known him, about nothing and everything. I usually come in with a friend or two, and you can tell that he finds our banter amusing. We might even be on the list of his favorite customers.
On our last visit, my girlfriends and I relaxed and started chatting about something, and we must have mentioned something Jewish. At this, Daniel’s eyes grew big and he said, “Are you Jewish? I had no idea. You don’t look Jewish.”
There it was, the comment that no matter how many times you hear it is just puzzling. You don’t look Jewish.
This notion of “looking Jewish” perpetuates so many Jewish stereotypes and yet also seems harmless enough when asked by sincerely uninformed and curious people. My friends waited for my answer, and I playfully responded that I actually do look pretty darn Jewish (as long as we are talking about stereotypes).
Daniel continued, “No, seriously. Tell me… how I would know if someone was Jewish? What do Jews look like?”
It was such an innocent question and yet so powerful, as it reminded me that there are still many people who know nothing about Judaism and have never met a Jew (even though San Antonio has over 9,000 Jews). Those of us living in southern small towns know this scenario well, and are often the token Jew of our classroom, or school, and almost every group of which we are a part. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s like being signed up to be a group’s representative without being asked if you wanted the job. Some of us readily accept the charge of being the face of the Jewish community, while others are extremely uncomfortable.
While Daniel’s question was innocent, many of the questions that face us lonely Jews can be quite unpleasant. We are repeatedly asked questions such as: Why did the Jews kill Jesus? Are you OK knowing that you are going to hell? and even, Don’t Jews have horns on their heads? Sometimes these questions are like Daniel’s, from a combination of ignorance and interest, and other times they have a hurtful agenda attached.
To complicate matters, Judaism is something that is not always visible to others. I can conceal my Jewish identity if I want to, which perpetuates the situation of people not knowing many Jews. The more this happens, the more people are uninformed about Jews and the more uncomfortable I may feel exposing my Judaism to others in the future. It’s a cycle that can only change with non Jews educating themselves and with Jews being proud of being Jewish even when its not easy. These are both tall orders, and yet we have to start somewhere.
So I took a deep breath, and asked Daniel what else he wanted to know about Jews.
Have you been in a situation like this? What would you say?
Along with the rest of the world, particularly, the interconnected collective family known as “the Jewish community,” our hearts broke when we heard that the 8-year-old boy known as Superman Sam had died.
Our prayers are with his family.
Our anger at cancer is shared with all.
And some of the concrete actions we can take, even from down here in the Deep South, will be personal and direct.
Two rabbis connected to the ISJL – Rabbi Matt Dreffin, our current Assistant Director of Education, and Rabbi Debra Kassoff, our first-ever itinerant rabbi, will be participating in 36Rabbis Shave for the Brave.
As the 36Rabbis Shave for the Brave fundraising website describes, Rabbis Phyllis Sommer and Rebecca Schorr had a crazy idea: what if 36 Reform rabbis would shave their heads to bring attention to the fact that only 4% of United States federal funding for cancer research is earmarked for all childhood cancers as well as raise $180,000 for this essential research? Two weeks after this conversation, Phyllis and her husband, Michael, learned that their son, Sam, had relapsed with AML (acute myelogenous leukemia) and that there are no other treatment options for him. And just this past Shabbat, as my Rabbis Without Borders colleague told us, Sam left this world.
36 Rabbis Shave for the Brave. That’s who we are. Thirty-six slightly-meshugene, but very devoted rabbis who are yearning to do something. We can’t save Sammy; perhaps, though, we can save others like him. And spare other parents like Phyllis and Michael from the pain of telling their child that there is nothing that the doctors can do to save his life.
Rabbi Kassoff has already shared an initial post on her participation; both Rabbi Dreffin and Rabbi Kassoff’s journey to raise awareness, raise money for children’s cancer research, and share hope by shaving their heads will be chronicled here. We applaud all of the #36Rabbis taking this on, and encourage you to support them.
L’shalom – to peace, and to the end of childhood cancer and all cancers. Amen.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
What do you do when you have a mission to promote Southern Jewish history, but you have no physical place in which to do it?
Well, I think it’s a good idea to make friends… with benefits!
Specifically, friends with access to a beautiful art gallery, who want to team up and host a photograph exhibit about an important historical event that happens to have an interesting Jewish connection.
As I previously mentioned on this blog, Scottsboro Boys: Outside the Circle of Humanity is a powerful exhibit curated by the Morgan County Archives. The ISJL helped bring this exhibition to Jackson though a collaborative partnership with the Margaret Walker Center at Jackson State University.
These types of collaborative connections are the standard for Jewish programming in the this region. Small populations and limited resources inspire communities to look outside the box for new “friends with benefits,” creating partnerships to make programs possible. Whether it’s a new congregation using a church space for services, or an academic institution sponsoring a Jewish scholar, outreach is a strong and important tool for our communities.
And the results can be pretty fabulous. In my case, we were able to plan three unique events that attracted diverse audiences from across the city. I’m partial to the party that we managed to throw on the last day of Hanukkah in conjunction with a lecture on Jewish lawyers and activists involved with the Scottsboro case. I have yet to check the official university records but I’m pretty sure it was the first Hanukkah party ever thrown at Jackson State. Even though the latkes were a little mushy (had to prep them the night before!), we were able to pull of a successful cultural exchange that may not have happened if we were within a traditionally “Jewish” space.
Have you ever partnered with a non-Jewish entity to create a shared space where Jewish programs can be enjoyed by all? We’d love to hear about it!