Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
“You were my first Jew, you know,” a friend reminded me the other day.
What she meant was, I’m the first Jewish person she ever met: Her “first Jew.”
It’s a familiar refrain. As someone who has lived most her life in small towns and cities in the South and Midwest, I have been many folks’ first Jewish friend. It’s interesting not only how the subject of my identity will invariably become a conversation topic at some point, but also how very varied paths are that people take to get to that particular conversation. It’s a huge range — but over the years, I think I’ve been able to pinpoint three very common types of conversations I tend to wind up having with my “first Jew” friends.
1: The Surprise Reveal and Follow-Up Questions
(Typical Opening Line: “Wait, Beth! You’re Jewish?!”)
This is an amusing way to kick off a convo. Like the time a friend, upon asking our waiter for another gin and tonic, cracked a joke about his Baptist guilt over the drink order. I cracked back that the difference between Jewish and Baptist guilt is that I wouldn’t hesitate to order a second glass of wine, but I should probably step outside first and call my mother.
His eyes widened. Jewish?! He had no idea! We had been hanging out in the same social circle for some time by then, but it just hadn’t come up before then, and he was fascinated and almost comical in his surprise and wonder at “how he hadn’t known.” Um, how would you know? We sipped on our drinks and had a fun, casual talk about my new-to-him identity.
2. The Premeditated, Meaningful Approach
(Typical Opener: “Hi. You’re Jewish, right?”)
This one is sort of the opposite end of the spectrum. I’ve had some friendships, or at least acquaintance-ships, begin when someone got wind that I was Jewish and wanted to ask me questions. Or wanted to score a Passover seder invitation (this has happened many times; my Mississippi “urban family” seders became a thing of legend). Most often, the person approaching me was either a friend of a friend, or someone who had heard I was doing some work with an organization called the “Institute of Southern Jewish Life.” A lot of the time, it’s someone who feels quite strongly about their own religion — Christianity, the vast majority of the time — but it’s rare that they then want to convert me. More often, they see Judaism as the root of their own faith, and want to go digging around those roots to see if it resonates with the branch they now claim.
3. The Jewish-Perspective-Please
(Typical opener: “Something happened. Can we talk about it, and you can tell me the Jewish views about this Something?”)
This one often leads to the most meaningful, and occasionally most difficult, conversations. When I’m someone’s first Jewish friend, “Jewish stuff” may or may not come up here and there… but in the wake of someone’s loss, or a news-making incident of anti-Semitism, or Israel controversy, or questioning their own faith, or any other number of meta-moments, people have wanted to talk with me not only as their friend but also, quite specifically, as their Jewish friend.
What does Judaism have to say about loss? How do you feel when you hear about an anti-Semitic hate crime? Do you believe the same things I do about this issue, and is it because of your Judaism?
There are a lot of factors that contribute to whether these conversations are wonderful or off-putting. How well we know each other. How polarizing the topic at hand is, for one or the other or both of us. What they’re hoping to glean from my Jewish perspective. I don’t mind at all explaining basic Jewish ideas and responses, but I’m always swift to say things like “but remember, five Jews means seven opinions!” and strongly state that I can’t speak for all Jewish people. No one can. My opinions are almost always shaped by my Jewish identity, yes – but that doesn’t make them Official Jewish Opinions.
Remember: I might be your first Jewish friend, but your next one might be totally different from me, with opposing views, or maybe with better brisket recipes (I don’t really eat meat, so — sorry) but fewer hilarious jokes. You just never know.
At the end of the day, I’m grateful to be so many amazing peoples’ first Jewish friend. In its own way, that has become part of my own identity. I am a very proud first Jewish friend. I don’t mind being the designated-rep for the tribe in the smaller places I’ve lived. I’m very mindful that I cannot represent or speak for my entire community, but I think I’m a pretty good ambassador. And, yeah – a pretty great friend… even if I can’t eat the birthday cake at your birthday when it falls during Passover.
Don’t worry. I’ll just bust out my matzah, and yeah, sure — go ahead and send over that guest whose eyes widen when they see the box and get excited as they realize they’re about to make their first Jewish friend.