Sunday, June 01, 2008

Back to Shul

A friend from Swarthmore College days sent me a link to this Vanity Fair article by Amy Fine Collins, a classmate, about rediscovering her inner nice Jewish girl in time for her daughter's Bat Mitzvah in Israel:
For a small fee, anybody in town could join the Jewish Community Center. But this did not stop some hoodlums from scaling a high fence at night—twice during the years we lived in Tennessee—and pouring acid into the J.C.C. swimming pool. At one point I opened our mailbox to find a hand-delivered hate note, addressed to the “dirty jews.” The anonymous correspondent also smashed our mailbox and scrawled on its crumpled side the word “Jew.” Growing up at a remove from Jewish epicenters, in places where bagels were unknown, and where pork chops were as common in our neighbors’ freezer as in our own, I became better acquainted with the ways—hostile or not—of the gentiles than those of the Jews. I never went out with a Jewish man—not because they were scarce, but because I was not attracted, except maybe in a sisterly, incestuous fashion. Even when, at 17, I fled Tennessee for Swarthmore College, selected because it was the antithesis of where I had just spent seven years—politically radical, academically intense, near blood relatives, and 20 percent Jewish—I ended up with few close Jewish friends. I took up with a darkly handsome Southern Wasp, with a taste for “Jewesses,” English literature, and Freudian psychoanalysis. He forced me to lose my adopted Tennessee twang, because he couldn’t bear any reminder of his own Dixie upbringing.

I still cringe when I recall the weekend, during junior year, that I accompanied my new best friend home. Her parents (Swarthmore educated themselves), after we were seated for dinner and commanded to say grace, posed a question that they’d been burning to know the answer to—why do Jews, after all these years, still carry a grudge about the Holocaust? This, by the way, felt less like a question than an accusation. At 19, the best I could muster was that blacks were still nursing a grievance about having been slaves, and even more time had elapsed since the Civil War than World War II. I realize now that these grown-ups really were not assaulting me, but raising what they considered to be a suitable topic of conversation for a Jewish guest, the first, apparently, to enter their home. This was not so shocking; we constitute only about 2 percent of the nation’s population.