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Being a Minority in a Topical Blogosphere

As much as you were surprised that their counselor didn’t know the term “kosher,” I was shocked by how many who said they did.  Well… not exactly.  I mean, I’ve written about kashrut enough times on this blog that I expect anyone who frequents here knows the term, but my general life experience has ranged from people who have never heard the term to people who only know it as a section in the grocery store and something pertaining somehow to Jews (to obviously people who know a great deal about kashrut or who keep kosher themselves).

I grew up in an area that had a substantial Jewish population, with kosher grocery stores and a wide range of shul options.  College was the first time I met someone who had never met a Jew.  The girl was in my dormitory, from a relatively large midwestern town. (A quick Google search just confirmed that her town had 37,000 people.)  And yet, she had never met someone Jewish.  It was like Napoleon Chagnon meeting the Yanomamö; she was my pesky bee.

Two things she couldn’t get over was my comfort in not being baptized; she was very concerned about my soul and couldn’t understand how I wasn’t equally worried.  And she couldn’t wrap her mind around the idea that I didn’t have horns since her priest told her that all Jews have horns.  One night, she offered to cut my hair; and being at an age when people make poor choices and regret it once they look in the mirror, I thought this was a dandy idea.  I wet my hair and sat down in a chair in her dorm room.  She combed out the knots in my curls, but after a while, I realized that she was detangling already untangled areas of my skull, and I realized that SHE WAS SEARCHING FOR MY HORNS.  She was patting my skull, feeling to see if there were any telltale lumps.  And when I called her on it, she burst into tears and said, “why would my priest lie to me?”

When I was eighteen, I laughed hysterically about this with my friends from back home, but in retrospect, it really isn’t funny.  The girl had a true crisis of faith, questioning the truthfulness of her priest.  And for me, it kicked off the first time that I was really and truly the “other.”  Back home, there were obviously many non-Jewish people around me — more non-Jews than Jews — but this was the first time that I felt as if someone was noting the otherness; was looking at me as odd and really didn’t understand this huge part of who I am.

This otherness is a strange beast because on one hand, being Jewish in a non-Jewish world is a source of pride.  I love the religion, love the language, love the culture, love the history, the identity, the ideas.  I am grateful for this otherness.  And on the other hand, it is a source of loneliness when you are surrounded by people who are mentally noting your otherness.  This type of otherness is very different from how I feel when I’m overseas and I’m the only American.  Or how I feel when I’m the only vegetarian.  Or how I feel when I am the only infertile woman in a sea of pregnant bellies.  All of those feelings of otherness are not pleasant, but they lack this key element that drives my reaction to being Jewish in the greater non-Jewish world.

Race, colour, religion, sex — these are protected classes based on their history of discrimination.  We didn’t arbitrarily decide the definition of anti-discrimination law; we created the laws to protect groups that have a history of harassment.  Where grotesque and unfair stereotypes exist that create a skewed and dangerous public perception of a group.  I know the majority of Americans know that Jews exist.  They know we have a holiday called Chanukkah in the winter.  They know we don’t eat certain things, and this is called keeping kosher.  They know there is some tie between Jews and the country of Israel.  And on one hand, do you really need to know much more?  I mean, there are plenty of things that are probably very important to you, and I know basically the same level of information on those topics.  But I’d answer that yes, people need to know more, and that moreness is based on that history of discrimination.  Because the discrimination is based on the stereotypes and stereotypes only exist when there is a dearth of factual information and our brains are trying to fill in the blanks.  If there was no history of harassment, would I still say that people need to know more than the basics?  No.  But there is a history of harassment, and that history comes with me every time I stand up and say that I’m Jewish.

I’ll continue to say I’m Jewish… mostly because I am Jewish.  And I’ll continue to write about Judaism here because this is my space and it’s on my mind.  But every time I write about Judaism, when I smile and tell someone in the winter that I’m actually not stressed out about preparing for Christmas because we don’t celebrate Christmas, when I tell people that we keep kosher or we don’t send the kids to school on chag or that I have to prep for Shabbat, it comes with this little niggle in the back of my head, this little twinge that comes from the otherness.

There has been more than one time that someone has told me that I’m the first Jew they’ve met.  I even once had it happen online — that the person told me I was the first Jew they emailed with (meaning; they still haven’t actually met someone Jewish face-to-face)!  Which is why I wasn’t surprised by the counselor who didn’t know the word “kosher.”

I just want to end this by making it clear that I’m in no way stating any shame over being Jewish.  I love being Jewish, and I’m fine shouting it loud and proud.  But I know I’m not the only blogger who brings their minority with them into a greater topical blogosphere.  I’ve heard this before from GLBT bloggers who write about infertility, from an African-American blogger who writes about parenting.  There are topical blogospheres where we bond over common experiences or interests: ALI, parenting, cancer, cooking, travel, crafts, DIY.  And in all those topical blogospheres, there exists minorities.

Most of the time, our minority status is a footnote, a coda.  I write most frequently about infertility.   But sometimes, that minority factor gets pushed to the forefront of a post.  And I love it when people face it head-on rather than pretending this element to my being doesn’t exist or isn’t important.  It’s just as much the lens through which I see the world as infertility.  And I’m really freakin’ in love with that Jewish lens.


Like all times that I bring up Judaism (or rift off a Hebrew word), I had Josh read this beforehand and sat on it for a few hours to think about it before posting.  With infertility topics, I hit publish upon completion and with Judaism topics, I wait.  It’s indicative of what I discussed above, but beyond the thought that you might judge me, with this post, it was also that worry that I’m going to make someone else uncomfortable.  That I’m going to offend people by pointing out the truth: that people who are in the minority (especially when that minority comes with a history of discrimination) sometimes feel uncomfortable when their otherness moves to the forefront when they’re in a topical community.  When they stray from writing about the main reason they’re in the community — whether that is infertility or cooking or craft projects — and they write about their otherness.  I never worry about what you’ll think about my thoughts on infertility, but I’ve often wondered how something about Judaism, Hebrew, or Israel is going to be received.

If it were the other way around, if I was primarily a Jewish blogger operating inside the Jewish blogosphere, I may worry about writing about infertility.  But I am trying to explain the difference with this post: it can be nerve-wracking to come out about infertility, but infertility doesn’t carry with it the same history of discrimination.  Were there infertile women who were called witches and burned at the stake?  Yes — but even so, I don’t think infertility brings with it quite the same history as being Jewish, black, or gay in America.  And that’s okay — two things don’t have to be the same, and I’m not saying one is easier or harder than the other; just different.  It is an explanation for why it may be uncomfortable to be a Jewish blogger mentioning your infertility and it may be uncomfortable to be an infertility blogger mentioning your Judaism, but those two discomforts are different since they bring with them different baggage, different history.

I almost didn’t post this because I didn’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable, but that’s sort of the crux of the situation – we’re so worried to speak frankly about race, ethnicity, sexuality, religion that we politely don’t talk about it, and that’s how situations like this exist: the discomfort comes from the silence.

Even though I grew up in a major metropolitan area, and I can’t say there is any race, ethnicity, sexuality, or religion I didn’t encounter prior to adulthood, I still don’t feel I have a true grasp on other groups beyond my own.  We’re a product of our upbringing, and while I have been exposed to more of Christianity than you have probably been exposed to Judaism due to the fact that Christianity is the majority religion in this country, I still can’t say I understand large chunks of what it means to be Christian even though I’ve read all four Gospels, attended church numerous times, and celebrated a slew of Christian holidays with friends.  I think it’s okay to admit that we don’t know groups other than our own; and I’m just always grateful any of you stick around and read my blatherings about Judaism.  I take it as a sign that you want to learn, want to move closer to understanding.  The reality is that the people who my mind conjures up that make me pause before hitting publish aren’t going to read this post anyway.  Those who discriminate rarely stick around to actually participate in a conversation.

Which is a long way of saying that I love all of you who not only take the time to read, but who admit that they don’t know, that I’m maybe the first person they’ve met, and they’re happy to hear more.


1 HereWeGoAJen { 07.12.12 at 7:48 am }

You know, I really do wonder at how much my non-surprise at any kind of difference is because of how much I moved around. I mean, I’ve lived in different countries, vastly different countries. I had one girl in college argue with me when I said something about kids from international schools being different (she said that kids are the same everywhere) and I pointed out that I was the only one she had ever met. So I guess that it makes sense that a lot of people would have a lot less experience with Judaism than I do. Thinking about it, I only have one friend here who is Jewish so I bet lots of my friends here don’t have any. I still think people ought to know the term kosher just from general human exposure to the world though. 😉

2 Meghan { 07.12.12 at 8:26 am }

I wasn’t so much surprised that someone out there didn’t know what kosher met but more surprised that someone in this area didn’t know. But then again, we had Jewish kids at my catholic high school because the public schools were so bad. So our priests could never have gotten away with mentioning horns or anything like that.

3 loribeth { 07.12.12 at 8:37 am }

This is a fascinating topic, and I think so much really does depend on your life experiences. I grew up in small Prairie towns full of WASPs & Scandinavians & German Mennonites and Poles & Ukrainians. There might have been one Chinese family who ran the only Chinese restaurant for miles & miles around. And there was usually an Indian reservation nearby (that’s a story in itself). Very, very few black people. In the summertime, there would be migrant Mexican workers around my grandmother’s town, who came north each year to hoe sugar beets, and they seemed pretty exotic to us.

One of the small towns we lived in (albeit near Winnipeg, which had & still has a substantial Jewish population) had a small Jewish community, whose members included the owners of the corner store and the mens & ladies wear shops on the main street. There was a tiny little synagogue just down the street from us — it was rarely open, but apparently they would bring a rabbi out from the city for things like weddings & bar mitzvahs.

Toronto is a very multicultural, multiracial city, and while we have our problems and misunderstandings and “aha” moments here, I think it’s safe to say most kids here grow up in a much more diverse milieu than I did. My mother & I were waiting for a bus here one time, & she looked around & then whispered to me, slightly shocked, “We’re the only white people here!!” She was right. It hadn’t even dawned on me; I guess I’m just used to it.

Of course, everyone has their own stereotypes & preconceptions about people different from themselves. I had encountered very few Italians before meeting dh, so (even though I’d seen Italian families on TV & in the movies), meeting his family was a bit of a culture shock — and I think they felt the same too. I met both sides of his family — aunts, uncles & cousins — all at once. Supposedly they were there to celebrate his brother’s 21st birthday, but I had a sneaking suspicion they were really there to check out the mangiacake (“cake eater,” a term they use for Anglo non-Italians). I later asked dh what his aunts were saying about me & he told me they were marvelling that I had pierced ears — “just like an Italian girl!!” I called my mother when I got home and told her I had a whole new appreciation for what it must have been like for her, an Irish-Swedish American, meeting my father’s Ukrainian-Canadian family for the first time. 30 years later, I am still the only non-Italian to marry into dh’s mom’s side of the family.

4 Erica { 07.12.12 at 8:49 am }

I was surprised that the counselor didn’t know the word kosher. I learned that word growing up in my ver small western farming town. I am horrified about that poor girl searching for your horns, though – I didn’t know that the brand of anti-semitism her priest had been spewing made it out of the 1600s.

I appreciate your Jewish lens. It’s one of the things that makes you who you are & that shapes your voice & perspective. And maybe it’s especially relevant here because people forced to cope with infertility & loss make up a different kind of minority.

5 sushigirl { 07.12.12 at 8:56 am }

I’ve never met any Jewish people, although my old boss was married to a Jewish woman. There just aren’t very many of you here!

That horns thing was hilarious.

Sadly (and it’s marching season for the Orange Order over here so I’m very conscious of this!), living in close proximately to a lot of people from another culture or religion doesn’t stop anyone being ignorant about them. I’ve heard some bizarre things about Protestants from Catholics, and vice versa.

6 Rebecca { 07.12.12 at 9:02 am }

Here in Britain even non-Jews tend to say something’s “kosher” meaning it’s alright, it’s good to go, it’s good for use, etc.

7 Io { 07.12.12 at 9:18 am }

Horns?! Seriously?! You would think I wouldn’t be surprised by how backwards some people are (I live in a state with a LOT of backwards people) but that is seriously…damn.

8 N { 07.12.12 at 9:27 am }

I have to say, from what you write, I’m not surprised about it in general – I was mostly surprised yesterday (though didn’t comment at the time) that it was somebody *in this area* who had never heard the word, or at least didn’t know what it means. Because, I mean, c’mon. (I say that, assuming you’re sending them to camp nearby, since you picked them up and all.) If it was somewhere else, I’d have been much less surprised.

I mean, there were but a very (VERY) small number of Jews where I grew up (I still knew them and were friends with them, so I know they existed), but my brother’s group of friends (which was a bit less… diverse, let’s say) still knew and used the word. It’s pretty well settled into slang “that’s not kosher” (like what Rebecca said above, only backwards) for meaning something’s not good about something. At least most places I’ve gone on the East Coast…

9 tigger62077 { 07.12.12 at 9:28 am }

You were likewise the first Jewish person I met, that I know of. I mean, there may be others that aren’t as…proud? as you are, and I just didn’t know it upon sight (why would I?). I have since “met” another one online and…I have to say that I LOVE the “otherness”. It’s fascinating to me. I’ve learned more reading your posts and talking to my other friend than I ever did before. I grew up in a very small rural town – 670 people, 20 miles from the nearest town, farming community. There were no blacks or Asians (the only Mexicans were farm workers), no “alternate lifestyles”, no drugs, no crime. These were things that existed in big cities, like NYC or LA. 95% of the town population is the same religion (I was in the 5%). Imagine my shock when I moved to a city of (then) 150K to find out that hey, these things exist!!

Just down the street from me is a synagogue. There are a few others in town as well, but the presence just isn’t big in this state. I sorta wish it was, just so I could learn more. It really is absolutely fascinating to me, and I like challenging the stereotypes I grew up with. I was always taught that the Jews were just “wrong” for their beliefs and…while I have no idea who is “right” or “wrong”, I’ve grown to believe that it really doesn’t matter to ME. You are who you are, I am who I am, we have beliefs, and it only matters in the end. Your beliefs aren’t hurting me, and the whole lifestyle is interesting, so…yeah. Long way of saying: I love your posts. I love the fact that you are proud of who you are – not many are. I love the otherness, because it makes you relatively unique in my world.

10 mrs spock { 07.12.12 at 9:57 am }

I didn’t even know that I knew any Protestants until I was in college. I just assumed everyone was catholic, like I had been raised. I didn’t know any Jewish people until college, though I had seen enough movies and read enough books to get a few of the basics. It’s weird, because I grew up on the west side of Cincinnati, which is extremely Catholic. I never knew the strong feelings non-Catholic Christians feel towards Catholics until college. I was shocked, because, even though I had rejected Christianity when I was 14, I was very insulated from any other kind of Christian experience.

I ended up getting my first nursing job at the local Jewish Hospital, and that’s where I picked up saying Oy. A lot of my patients said it. I had very orthodox patients who would walk to the hospital on the Sabbath. I ended up working with a Jewish family as a second job and remember being fascinated by their tiny second dishwasher to wash the milk-touched dishes separately. I had always thought kosher meant picking the kosher beef hot dogs at the store.

11 EC { 07.12.12 at 10:05 am }

I find this so fascinating. I was raised Catholic, but went to a Jewish camp in the summer (and was later a counselor at that camp), so I knew and was friends with a lot of Jewish people. Until I went to college, I only knew people who were Catholic or Jewish, so I guess my experience is the opposite of some others. In college, there was also a large Jewish student population. Maybe my experience is so different because I grew up in upstate New York.

I’m always shocked when I hear things – like the story you told about the horns – and it makes me kind of sad. Even though I went to a Catholic school, learning about Judaism was part of our education. I’ve always been fascinated by religion and still am, but it makes me sad when people perceive any religion as “right” or “wrong” – or that the people practicing it would wear horns.

12 EC { 07.12.12 at 10:13 am }

I just read Mrs. Spock’s post – and it reminded me that I also didn’t realize there was any anti-Catholic sentiment among Christians until I moved to the midwest and a coworker (at work!) told me I was going to hell for being Catholic. It was more shocking than upsetting – because I just didn’t know that sentiment existed. I don’t know if that means I was lucky or naive.

13 Lollipop Goldstein { 07.12.12 at 10:13 am }

I think the horns story is more common than people think; many Jews I know have a similar tale of being on the receiving end of someone testing one of the stereotypes they believe about Jews.

But my most uncomfortable time came when some friends brought me to Mass while I was visiting them. They told me they loved their church and wanted me to experience it. I said, “cool, let’s go.” The service was lovely. And then we got to the sermon, and the priest was speaking that day about how Jews are a blight on the community and how we are responsible for all the problems occurring in the Christian world. I felt terrible for my friends as they sank down in the pew, completely embarrassed. You have never seen two people want to melt into wood more than my friends. It led to a wonderful conversation with them; and no, I didn’t confront the priest because I didn’t feel safe/comfortable confronting the priest.

14 Gail { 07.12.12 at 10:21 am }

I enjoy learning new terms and phrases. I have had many Jewish friends, but the terms “treyf” and “chag” were new to me and I had to look them up. Have you considered starting a glossary of Jewish terms as a part of your blog? I know that you define ALI terms, but since you often reference Judaism, it might make sense.

Also, I think the added layer that you and your family are vegetarians might confuse a lot of people. All of the Jewish people that I’ve known are not vegetarians, so their diets aren’t as restrictive as yours. However, I’ve also known a number of Jewish people who do not follow the Kosher rules and eat whatever they want and are only “Jewish” for holidays and family traditions much like my husband is only “Christian” for holidays and family traditions, but does not attend church with me or follow the rules set forth in the Bible.

15 Mud Hut Mama { 07.12.12 at 10:27 am }

Interesting post. I am surprised, but not shocked, at a counselor that doesn’t have any idea what kosher is. However, I am shocked, and absolutely horrified, by the story of someone looking for horns when you were in college. That is terrible and I’m sorry you had that experience even though you could laugh at it.

On a lighter note, I still remember the day I found out what keeping kosher means. My best friend at the time (I think we were 14 or 15) who is Jewish but who didn’t keep kosher invited me to celebrate passover at her aunt’s house and I brought a box of chocolate. The aunt did keep kosher and I was so embarrassed when I found out my gift couldn’t come into the house – it was send down to the basement! It ended up being a great learning experience for me and her family really took the time to explain everything that was happening as they were going through their traditions – I ended up returning for the next few passovers – minus the chocolates!

16 Alicia { 07.12.12 at 10:46 am }

So glad you posted this. Horns??? Wow. This is funny, for sure, but makes me sad at the level of ignorance that exists amongst us humans. Keep on keeping on with your topical posts… You bring awareness of relevant issues to all of your posts. You rock.

17 Sharon { 07.12.12 at 10:58 am }

I grew up in a small town (population <5000) in the American Southwest. To my knowledge, there were no Jews who lived in my hometown. (Obviously, there was no synagogue there either.) I never met anyone who identified him/herself to me as Jewish until college.

And yet, I would've known at 16 that "kosher" had something to do with what Jewish people can and cannot eat, just from watching television. That's what makes the camp counselor's lack of knowledge so surprising to me: I didn't think one would have to be well-read or experienced of the world to have a basic understanding of "kosher."

(Oh, and the horns story? I'm sorry. That is appalling.)

18 Jendeis { 07.12.12 at 11:13 am }

While I never experienced the horns treatment, my sister did in college. I always attributed it to ignorance — not ignorance in a bad way, just that the person didn’t know about that specific “other” and was never learned how to be polite/sensitive to differences because they did not grow up with differences or were never taught of differences.

19 Denver Laura { 07.12.12 at 11:26 am }

When I was lactose intolerant (turned out to be a very large gall stone) I sought out Kosher products, and specifically “Pareve.” Other than that, I hadn’t given it much thought.

I like you posting about Seder and other traditions. I have a friend who sends me Eid cards each year. It’s a reminder to me that Christmas and Easter aren’t the only holidays out there regardless of what the connercials say.

I went to a gathering at a friend’s house who were Orthodox but not vegetarian. She had three sets of china and even had a couple of different china cabinets. They were installing a second dishwasher so they could keep the dishes separate. I’m not sure I could have that kind of dedication.

I heard recently that the more strongly you hold a belief, even when told the truth, you still believe the falsehood.

20 Angie { 07.12.12 at 11:27 am }

Thank you for this. I struggled with Otherness. Always have. I’m an identical twin half Panamanian babylost mother with a living child. Now two. I love the things that make me Other, but I also cling to my sameness. I stress my humanity. Recently, my sister and I started doing our family tree and discovered that we are directly related to Chaucer and Charlemagne. I overheard my MIL ask my husband how that can be. “Her people don’t come from royalty if they’re from the Third World.” It was strange to think that she saw me as not her people…I don’t know, because my cousins in Panama treat me like a gringa and my MIL treats me like Cesar Chavez. I don’t know what I’m trying to say, but I get it. She also raised my husband to believe that Catholics aren’t Christian. I do wonder if I grew up with Mrs. Spock. Only Catholics and Jews for me too.

21 KeAnne { 07.12.12 at 11:30 am }

Horns? How barbaric and horrifying. As I mentioned yesterday, I grew up in a fairly rural area that was very white and protestant. To me, it was exotic meeting a Catholic and a major goal I had was to attend a Catholic mass (I finally did in high school). I’ve always been fascinated by Judaism because of its contribution to western culture and history. Oddly, I’ve played a lot of Jewish characters when I did theater.

While you are not the first Jewish person I’ve met, you are the one I feel I know the best, and I really enjoy your writing on Judaism.

22 KeAnne { 07.12.12 at 11:40 am }

More thoughts on “otherness.” My in-laws are European: French, Scottish and German with all of the customs and experiences that entails. I’m a white, (non-practicing) protestant whose family has been in the United States since the 17th century. I feel so boring! I’m fascinated by anyone’s Otherness.

23 Angie { 07.12.12 at 11:44 am }

I also want to say that I’m Irish/German. See, I always define myself by what makes me Other than the majority not the Same.

24 Bea { 07.12.12 at 11:49 am }

Ok, so if admitting you don’t know is going to earn points, let me be the first to admit: I’m not sure I’m really grasping this post. The horns story is just… really really strange to me, and that’s just for one thing.

I grew up in what I thought of as a pretty homogenous suburb. I remember there was one guy at our school and I only knew him by this racial epithet until our last year of high school. One day one of the more bleeding-heart (I’m a bleeding heart – I don’t use the description as an insult, just a description) teachers heard someone call him that and sat the students in question down and gave them a long speech about racism and names and so forth. The students all listened politely. And then at the end the boy piped up and said, “But… that’s my name, Miss.” And she said, “No it’s not, your name is [his real name here – this is actually how I learnt his real name].” And he said, “Well, yes, officially, yes, but [racial epithet] is what I’m called.” Everyone blinked at each other for about a minute and then the teacher said, “Oh,ok…” and sort of let it drop.

This story conveys a lot about the attitude to racism I grew up with. If a boy introduces himself as [racial epithet] you just kind of say, “Ok, well hello then. Wanna play cricket?”

Someone said, “Oy vey,” to me the other week and I didn’t think twice about saying, “I think that’s the first time I’ve heard someone say that outside an American TV show.” And she said, “Really?” And I said, “I think so. Ok so let’s finish up here and move on to this next thing.” And it’s only just occurring to me that she may have in fact been Jewish. It didn’t really seem relevant at the time. As far as I know it may have equally been a verbal tick she picked up off American TV. She was, in fact, American.

How do people go around using the phrase “not quite kosher” without knowing what kosher means? No, don’t answer that one. Thousands of misuses of the English language have answered that one long ago. I myself can’t answer most of PB’s questions on etymology.

25 Lollipop Goldstein { 07.12.12 at 11:55 am }

I think people use the term “not quite kosher” without knowing what kosher means because the term “not quite kosher” doesn’t actually make sense in the context of kashrut. Meaning, it’s something people say that doesn’t actually mean anything close to the actual meaning of the world, much in the same way people misuse “karma” (as in “I have great parking karma”) and they don’t actually know anything about the concept of karma.

26 oliviacw { 07.12.12 at 12:18 pm }

Reading fiction has a fabulous way of introducing you to other ways of living and being. I grew up as an Episcopalian in the Seattle area, which isn’t exactly a hotbed of Judaism. But there was Judy Blume and “Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret”, and later the books of Chaim Potok and Harry Kemelman and Faye Kellerman and oh, quite a few others. I certainly knew roughly what keeping kosher meant well before I was 18.

27 loribeth { 07.12.12 at 1:11 pm }

@Angie: Henry Louis Gates has had a fabulous series on PBS the past few seasons called “Finding Your Roots,” in which he traces the family trees of celebrities, & uses their stories to illustrate broader points about America’s history. (The latest episodes just wrapped up a few weeks ago.) He takes DNA samples from all of his guests & can tell them what percentage of their lineage is caucasian, black or Asian (which incluces native American), and approximately what areas of the world their ancestors came from. He can also tell them if they’re related to anyone else whose DNA he has tested — it turned out that Kyra Sedgewick is actually a cousin to her husband, Kevin Bacon (lol) — and (the one that sticks with me) that YoYo Ma and Eva Longoria share a common ancestor somewhere way back (!). I love the show, because it really brings home the point of our common humanity, & what we share vs what separates us.

28 knottedfingers { 07.12.12 at 1:21 pm }

Ok I admit the horns story totally horrified me. I feel awful that the girl was having a crisis of faith but at the same time I’m boggled that someone could believe such a thing. And more so that a Priest would say such a thing.

You are not the first Jewish person I’ve met. I actually have gone to a local synagogue numerous times while searching for a path that is for me.

But I do understand the otherness you feel. I believe in God and Jesus Christ. But at the same time…. a lot of my beliefs are Buddhist. I am as weird as it sounds a Buddhist Christian. It’s so hard to explain to people that it is possible to be such a thing. People think Buddhists worship idols and all kinds of things.

It’s through meditation at our local Monastery that I’m finally, after being years of crippled with anxiety, getting a hold on my mental well being.

So yes…I understand the ‘otherness’

29 Tara Dawes { 07.12.12 at 1:41 pm }

I think there is a huge amount of the populace who “thinks” they know what kosher means but doesn’t actually know what it means. I remember growing up my mother thought that it meant food that was “better” for you and more “pure”.

I am currently in the middle of going through the conversion process with my local Rabbi (who is amazing by the way). It amazes me the number of friends I have who think that doing this must mean that I married someone who was Jewish (I didn’t) or that I am having a crisis of faith and they need to lead me back to Jesus (I am not and do not). I made the decision to convert after about a decade of serious thought on the subject, I didn’t grow up in a large Jewish community (or even a community that had Jews). I grew up in a midwest town with 6300 people in it. I have wrote a few times on my blog in regards to my conversion and my faith, however it has always been in passing. Your blog entry has spurred me a bit to think about delving into the topic a little deeper. Especially considering that it seems like the majority of the resources out there for people who are converting are in regards to people who are marrying into a Jewish family. I thought I was rare but according to my Rabbi, I’m not – the majority of the people who have come in to meet with her in the last five years about it are people who have come into the religion on their own.

I just hope that if I am blessed with a child and the day comes that she goes off to school that the world has grown up enough to know that she doesn’t have horns, or if they haven’t that I have at least given her the strength to deal with peoples idiocy.

30 Tara Dawes { 07.12.12 at 1:49 pm }

I would also like to point out that every Friday when I go to temple I get to pass the Phleps clan – they have a standing appointment to protest us. I live in Topeka, KS their home base, so I should know better than to be bothered by it, as they will protest anything that gives them attention. But still it bothers me, it bothers me that there are people walking the Earth that are that hateful, vile and stupid. So I guess while a part of me was surprised by the horns experience, I really shouldn’t have been.

31 Pam/Wordgirl { 07.12.12 at 1:55 pm }


As always this is a really interesting conversation. I just wanted to add that I was raised in a post-vatican II Catholic milleu — a very liberal, socially conscious, Dorothy Day kind of Catholicism — and in my Catholic high school we were required to take a very rigorous world religions course — one that perhaps paved the way for my love of scholars like Karen Armstrong. If anyone is interested in what Pope John Paul & Vatican II had to say about the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism there’s a great article here: http://www.interfaithfamily.com/spirituality/spirituality/Teaching_About_Judaism_within_the_Roman_Catholic_Tradition.shtml I’m horrified to hear that any modern Catholic would attribute her racism to her religious community. Awful. (I don’t align myself with the Catholic church much anymore — for various reasons — my identification with the GLBT community being just one of the many — but I’ve had the opportunity in my life to have lived in an academic community in a large-ish city- and so my experience has been really varied across religious/cultural lines. )

That said, living in a large-ish city in the Midwest I will say that a kind of blindness to anti-semitism still exists. One of my best friends is a relatively well-known writer who writes about many things but has recently focused on more memoir-ish/jewish topics (Neal Karlen) and he told me more than once about how at his first marriage to a non-jew his soon-to-be father -in-law, at the wedding reception no less, made the comment about how someone tried to “jew him down” — a phrase that is more common than you’d suppose in the midwest still among a varied and supposedly educated populace — Neal always says that St.Paul, though a great city in many respects, was voted the most anti-semitic place in the US back in the 20s(?) and talks about how the suburb of Minneapolis where he grew up (and I too just on the border) was the only Jewish neighborhood — and come to think of of it, now that I’m musing on it — even when I was in high school people thought it was okay to refer to it not as St. Louis Park — but rather St. ‘Jewish’ Park — and these epithets still come out of young people’s mouths unquestioned and speak to the larger question of how uneducated people are yet about the history of the Jewish people/persecution — just as you point out here — there need to be more awareness, more dialogue — more knowledge…

When I was teaching I would press my students (young adults/college age) on these phrases — and they honestly wouldn’t even connect them to racism — in many cases they’d never even heard the term anti-semitism — and yet they were so clearly parroting anti-semitic sentiments… and so, yes, we need education, voices, knowledge, awareness. I whole-heartedly agree with you.

Another great link:http://charterforcompassion.org/

32 loribeth { 07.12.12 at 2:43 pm }

I wrote a long comment & am not sure what happened to it? Anyway, especially after reading Angie’s post, I wanted to ask if anyone else was a fan of Henry Louis Gates’s PBS series, “Finding Your Roots.” (The latest season just concluded a few weeks ago.) He traces the family histories for a number of celebrities, and also does genetic testing that reveals what percentage of each person’s background is Caucasian, black or Asian (which includes native American), and what areas of the world their ancestors came from. He also reveals which, if any of his celebrity guests are related to each other — my favourite example here was YoYo Ma and Eva Longoria (!). The point being that we are all much more interconnected and have much more in common than we might think.

33 Amy { 07.12.12 at 3:00 pm }

Can I ask a totally dumb question? I will be honest when I say that I haven’t entertained a Jewish person before. I know some through work…but never had to worry about preparing a kosher meal. I was reading on jewfaq.org (and tell me if this is not a good place to get info) that if a pan touches non kosher food, then that pan is non kosher. My dumb question is…even after it’s washed? I can’t afford to buy new pans to make a kosher meal.

I don’t want to offend…but I’m honestly curious. There are work collegues I’d like to have over for dinner…some are Jewish.

34 a { 07.12.12 at 3:51 pm }

Apparently, General Grant did some work in running the Jews out of my area of the midwest. Just heard that little tidbit of history a couple weeks ago.

I grew up in Chicago, where every culture, race, religion, you-name-it, is subject to segregation. People live in their areas and those areas don’t mix much. I mean, the Polish, Italians, and Irish might all live in the same area, but they didn’t mix with the WASPs (unless they happened to be Irish). And it’s still somewhat that way today. I was lucky to have been exposed to lots of different cultures – through my schooling, not necessarily through my family. My aunts were very progressive and widely travelled, so they had a better view of the world than my parents or grandparents.

I belong to a FB political discussion group, where the topic of racism comes up frequently. And what I’ve learned is that progress in tolerance and acceptance of others has been made, but there is still much work to be done. My initial reaction was “Why would you worry about posting this?” and then I thought that there is good historical basis for being concerned. And so, I will say that you are very brave – and have helped the cause of appreciating diversity.

(Horns?! I swear, sometimes people are ridiculous.)

35 JustHeather { 07.12.12 at 4:17 pm }

I grew up in a small west coast town where the only racially different kid I can remember (besides native Americans) was an adopted half “white” and half “black” kid (and his much younger sister). This didn’t change much until I was in college, and even then, it truly took more years after that before I really saw bigger changes.

I can’t remember when I learned the word kosher. It is just something that was learned either from books or tv. (Even my Finnish husband knows it.)

I hope you’ll continue to share your otherness with us. As there is a big difference between preaching and teaching/sharing and I find it is the latter we get from you and I love it.

36 Stupid Stork { 07.12.12 at 4:19 pm }

Okay, I was having a hard time getting over the idea that there were people who had never met a Jewish person (wtf?) and then I got to the part about the horns and nearly had a heart attack.

And to think yesterday I was having trouble accepting that there were people who didn’t know what kosher was. I miss yesterday. It was a simpler time, really…

37 Chickenpig { 07.12.12 at 6:17 pm }

Wow….someone was feeling your head for horns? GAH!

I went to college with an orthodox Jewish girl, and I used to ask her questions all the time. And sometimes she would be stumped and would ask her brother for me (he was studying to be a rabbi). There were many Jewish students there, but she was the only one who only wore skirts and etc along with keeping kosher. Being able to learn about different cultures is jut another reason why being able to go away to college is such a wonderful experience.

38 Guera { 07.12.12 at 9:07 pm }

The horn story…that’s so far out there I had a really hard time believing it was true until I kept reading. I was in high school before I met a Catholic. I was in college before I met a Lesbian, I was in college before I met any foreigner at all. I had to move to Mexico City before I met anyone Jewish. And then I was surrounded by them. I worked in a predominately Jewish area teaching English. My classes were small and most of them were made up of only Jewish students. For the advanced conversational classes I would read up on anything happening in Israel and then ask the class questions to get a debate going. One night one of the students said “Wow for someone who’s not Jewish you sure know a lot about Israel”. I was so proud and didn’t let on that I crammed before class. My Jewish students, like my lesbian college friends and my Catholic high school boyfriend and the many foreigners I was so privileged to meet and development friendships with in college gave me an education that was and still is priceless. I asked my Jewish students lots of questions and was fascinated by all they were willing to tell me. I am a Christian and Christians do a great disservice to their own faith by not embracing the Jewish faith. (Why in God’s name would a priest, an educated priest of all people tell someone that Jews have horns!)

39 Justine { 07.12.12 at 9:36 pm }

Like many others, I’m glad you write about your other-ness here. Because I think it’s important for us to understand, too, that even if we *do* share a common topical interest, we are still a diaspora, with different perspectives on the topic that are informed by the different lenses we use to view the world.

I missed yesterday’s post, but loved the marshmallow story … I didn’t have many Jewish friends when I was growing up, but in college I dated three Jewish guys, and ended up marrying one who ought to have been Jewish but got lost in the religious shuffle.

I write with minor trepidation about being Unitarian sometimes, because we’re even more of an unknown than Jews, it seems … and yet, that perspective both informs and is useful context for the person I am and the values I hold dear.

40 Robin (noteverstill) { 07.13.12 at 12:06 am }

I grew up in a small town and I wore the Otherness of being Jewish so publicly. And for a shy/anxious girl like me, that was just awful. There were four Jews in my high school of about 1500 students; my brother and I were two of them. It’s one of the reasons we live here now in the DC suburbs, so our kids can be Jewish easily and not have to feel their Otherness every day.

41 St. Elsewhere { 07.13.12 at 2:01 am }

She was searching for your horns?

Well, atleast she would be pretty disillusioned with her priest and his horn theory, maybe she got cured of all ignorant stupidity.

The only Jewish people I have interacted with are all here (that is the blogosphere)…I have never met any Jews in real life.

And I am thankful. If not for technology, the possibility for that to have happened would be pretty low.

And I understand the word ‘kosher’ because I googled it after hearing/reading it around in the blogosphere….

42 Kimberly { 07.13.12 at 2:27 am }

I come from a small town on a small island off of mainland Nova Scotia in Canada. I grew up in a mostly white/catholic area. But I don’t think it really stunted me in the department of embracing other cultures. Atlantic Canada is still steeped with immigrant families that can still be traced back to family lines overseas and we still carry many of those traditions that traveled over with previous generations (the Celtic Colours International Festival is a great example of it).

Saying that, I was raised to always be respectful of everyone, regardless of their culture, religion, race or sexual orientation. But I was also encouraged to ask questions, just to approach it politely. And when I couldn’t get answers from my spoken questions, I was encouraged to seek out the information in books. I always had a healthy appetite for knowledge so I was always open to everything, as long as I was able to absorb. So when I met my first Jew when I was a child, I asked what kosher meant and the person was willing to explain and her answer brought more questions and more answers. So things like this were never really a sensitive topic, but rather a chance to learn that I carried with me through my life. People are sometimes shocked that I can so easily look past a physical disability or any kind of difference to see the person for who they are free of anything else. I never really knew that my practices were out of the norm.

My husband says its because I grew up with a disabled aunt and I still have regular interactions with her that I can see everyone on such a basic level free of judgement. To me she was never a disabled aunt but rather Aunt P who I loved and treated like a normal person who also happens to be in a wheelchair. It bugs me that my husband can sometimes get uncomfortable around her because he doesn’t know how to act but I have to remind myself that he hasn’t grown up with her like I have. I don’t know. I’m just me. I never really thought of you as “The Jew Mel”, but rather Mel the awesome blogger (who, oh yeah, happens to be Jewish).

43 JustHeather { 07.13.12 at 3:46 am }

Ditto what Kimbery said: “I never really thought of you as “The Jew Mel”, but rather Mel the awesome blogger (who, oh yeah, happens to be Jewish).”

44 Persnickety { 07.13.12 at 8:19 am }

Wow. You learn new things every day. My husband had to look up treyf( and he has a much better grasp on kosher concepts than I).

As an American who now lives in Oz, and family mostly inEurope, I should know better, but I never cease to. Be amazed at the great gaping holes in people’s knowledge. The idea that the other hemisphere has seasons in the reverse order surprises everyone ( really). There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and they are hard to shift.
Everyone has their own mental general knowledge concepts, and it is a struggle to recognize that others have a different arena of knowledge.
So much more to say, but typing on the iPad= frustration

45 Bea { 07.13.12 at 11:01 am }

You answered anyway!

I’ve just had a lively discussion with Mr Bea about the phrase, “it is/is not kosher”. I won’t go into most of it here (no room). However, I am after some feedback from your view as a Juddhist and MFA.

See, in your reply you said the use of the word kosher in that phrase didn’t make sense in the context of kashrut. My understanding is that it’s not exactly a different meaning, but it works as an idiomatic reference to a particular quality of keeping kosher (rather than a literal reference).

(So it’s like saying, “It’s just not cricket” in that everyone knows you are not literally pointing out that the subject isn’t a team sport using a bat and ball played on a pitch with a set of stumps at each end, but you are trying to evoke certain supposed qualities of the game, namely, its gentlemanliness and associated tendency towards fair play. Hence the joke made by commentators of various sports that the episode of foul play on the (eg soccer) field down there was “just not cricket” chortle chortle ah, the wit and hilarity. Part of our lively discussion was about the actual qualities of cricket and gentlemen… but I won’t go into that.)

So in the case of keeping kosher, you are referencing the prescriptive nature of kosher, rather than the literal set of rules. (We had a very lengthy discussion about the subtext of this reference, but I would be here all day.) So first question: would that be a correct understanding?

So then you can compare this with talking about having “good parking karma” which to me is more of a straight misuse of the term, because rather than making a non-literal reference to a quality of karma, you are just substituting the word “karma” to mean “luck” – which is, in a sort of way, the opposite of karma, as karma is an orderly, balancing force of the universe. I haven’t really come across the good (parking) karma phrase before, so second question is this the right interpretation? Or are we talking about someone who has built up good karma by doing parking favours? (That sounds a bit saucy… do you get karma for that kind of thing?)

Now, the practical point is that most people only know these phrases by rote, and don’t really understand them, as such. But from my interpretations, if you understand the phrase “is/is not kosher” then you understand at least something very basic about keeping kosher (that it is a defined set of religious rules about food and eating). Whereas the parking karma phrase is actually just nonsense (or, more charitably, a complete appropriation of the word karma for entirely new and only tenuously related purposes). Mr Bea and I both want to clarify this point in case it is all pretty much just nonsense, which will take our lively discussion completely on to a new set of tracks.

46 Bea { 07.13.12 at 11:04 am }

“Lawful” would have been a better word than “prescriptive”. I just put my finger on the word I was really looking for.

47 battynurse { 07.13.12 at 1:39 pm }

I think a lot of the stuff your write about Judaism is fascinating and I like to read about a lot of different cultures and groups etc. In reading your blog it’s something that has always come through that being Jewish is a very big part of your life and you live it honestly which I admire. As someone who struggles with the whole God, religion, faith thing and what do I really believe in I do admire those who truly live their beliefs and not just pretend to. Also those who don’t insist that everyone believe as they do.
I’m a bit appalled at your college room mate looking for your horns and even more appalled at her priest for saying all Jewish people had horns. Then I remember a while ago when I was doing home care with a patient whose family was very devout Christian and they had some Christian radio station on that was talking about praying for Jewish people etc because they didn’t believe in Christ or whatever. I don’t even remember exactly what it was but I remember wanting to chuck the radio out the window since it made me so mad.

48 Keiko { 07.13.12 at 1:53 pm }

Swinging by to nod, smile and wish you a good Shabbos. As a former outside who embraced the in – I still marvel at the beauty that soaks into every aspect of this religion. It’s still new for me, despite living Jewishly for 7 years before converting and I’m grateful for that. And I’m grateful for this post too.

49 Shana { 07.13.12 at 2:30 pm }

My mother told me stories about how she was searched for horns during college. I never was, and thought the whole horns thing was old fashioned and that society had grown out of that particular stereotype. But, sheesh, you and I are about the same age, so yikes that it actually happened to you!

My discomfort from writing about my Jewishness comes less from the twinge of otherness, although I suppose it is related, or maybe a more extreme version, than a fear of ‘outing’ myself and my family knowing that hatred and craziness exist in abundance and fearing that my family could somehow become a target. I lived in the south for about a year and was the only Jewish person I knew of in the middle of born-again Christian evangelical-land. I was never fearful there and was pretty open about the fact that I was Jewish. But there’s something about talking about it online, where anybody and everybody has access to words that are permanently out there that causes me infinitely more unease than when everyone I met would ask me (very well-meaning) if I’ve found a church yet, or talk to me about the state of my soul and hell and soforth.

50 Stinky { 07.13.12 at 6:36 pm }

OK, this is my experience. I grew up in the UK, in smallish town, and never encountered a single Jewish person. Obviously was aware of Jews in the Bible from churchdaze, and that there was a country called Israel (at war with Palestine over the Gaza strip) and that there were Jewish people/culture in the USA from the fiction I read.
When I went travelling round the world, I was aware of an undercurrent towards travelling Israelis (‘fine on their own, a bit obnoxious in groups’ – I did see that first hand, but thats not necessarily “Jewish people” if you know what I mean?). When I got to LA, Venice Beach, I got talking to some guy who was handing out leaflets which I later realised were pretty anti-semitic. I had no idea that there was this movement against Jewish people and it wasn’t until Mel Gibson had his drunken tirade that this was really brought home.

For a while I went round talking to family/friends about their perception of this ‘ism’ against jewish people – a few different answers but nothing that really felt like it explained it. I’m aware of a Jewish school where I live, and that this tiny subculture exists, but otherwise have no dealings with anything Jewish. So yeah, pretty ignorant. Maybe if I had been born in the US I might have more knowledge about this.

I will say though that it sounds like there’s a strong cultural identity and this can be ‘threatening’ to people who have not grown up with this. I hear about the bris and it fills me with horror. I know this is partly because I am not part of this culture and so am viewing purely from the ‘OMG cutting into a babies penis’. I know there are way more aspects to being Jewish than this, but if I am honest, it does make me feel squeamish.

But Mel, I am always REALLY interested to read what you (and others) have to write on your Jewish identity, I think its really important to try and understand other cultures rather than just seeing the differences.

Thats unreal about the horns

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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