Looking for the Jew in Every Crowd

I often wonder what the catalyst was that sparked my return to Judaism. I mean the real catalyst. I can name you the month and the year when I took the first step to where I am right now — mitzvos observant, Shomer Shabbos, a baalas teshuvah just out of the nest. It was June 2001 to be exact, just four months before the defining moment of 9/11, when our whole world changed.

Oh, I know what crashed open the door for me. A Jewish forum like this one was my gateway to frumkeit, having conversations with people like my now-husband Eliahu about Judaism and what it really meant.

It all started with an argument. Don’t many beginnings? I was adamant I was just as much a Jew as any Torah observant Jew. I used the argument I’ve often heard from other Jews determined to defend their secular way of living. You know the one — “Hey! I’m just as much a Jew as you are. They would have made me wear a yellow star just like you.” As if Hitler was the arbiter of who is a Jew. Interesting that we do that — use fiendish Nazi policies to defend our Jewishness.

But I think my journey started long before those internet conversations that fascinated and ultimately ensnared me.

I graduated from my predominantly-Jewish public high school and forayed out into the world carrying a massive block of Jewish granite on my shoulder. Was it guilt? Was it fear? Was it defiance? Was it self-protection?

Virtually the first words out of my mouth at college were, “Hi! My name is Melanie and I’m Jewish, so there. If you don’t like me, I understand.”

I was expecting rejection, and made it easy for them.

I was always very worried I wouldn’t be accepted out in the real world, having gone to a Jewish but secular parochial school and then public schools that were 80-90 per cent Jewish. Pretty well all my pals growing up were Jewish, although I did have one good Catholic friend. The black rosary beads on her dresser and the crucifixes on her wall were repugnant and fearsome to me, yet we were great buddies.

This “I’m Jewish, so there” attitude was understandable. I grew up knowing about the horrors of the Holocaust and was fully indoctrinated into the “we Jews are different” worldview. I was well aware we were the object of much hatred and derision. And so I maintained this attitude, always fearful that I would be rejected because I’m Jewish.

This attitude underscored and permeated all of my friendships and my conversations. I’d stridently argue for Israel and rail against anti-Semitism. I ended friendships if they hinted at anything less than total support and empathy. I stopped talking for years to a friend when, during a conversation he said to me, “Oh you Jews and your Holocaust hobby horse. Why don’t you get over it already.”

I realize now that, as immersed as I was in the secular world, I never felt comfortable. I was always holding my breath, waiting to be found out.

I once had a summer job during college packing schoolbooks in a warehouse. I turned myself into a pretzel trying not to appear Jewish to this warehouse full of uneducated goyim. One day, I got busted. It was the year of my sister’s wedding and I was so excited. I was blathering on about her Sunday wedding and suddenly there was dead silence. “Sunday? She’s getting married on Sunday?” someone asked.

Stammering, I said, “Oh well, yeah, Saturday and Sunday. It’s a whole weekend thing.”

Not one person was convinced.

Sometime later that summer, the same lady piped up and said, “I always knew you were Jewish.”

“How?” I asked. “Your nose,” she said.

Over the years, I came to realize that everywhere I went, no matter what the situation, I always looked for the Jew in every crowd. And found them.

I had a GPS System for spotting them. I kept a mental roster, a who’s who of Jews in any particular situation. At my college. At my tennis club. At work. Everywhere I went.

And I think that is what really has kept the pilot light burning in me, waiting for the right trigger to turn me on. This cultural identification. The knowledge that out there are people like me with a connection dating back 3319 years to Har Sinai.

I first struck out on my own when I was 21. It was 1978 and I had taken a summer internship on a newspaper in the northern Ontario city of Sault Ste. Marie, just across the St. Mary’s River from Sault, Michigan.

There were less than 15 Jewish families in a population of 40,000, and it was all pretty well French, Italian and Indian. A most Catholic city.

Here I was, all alone for the first time, far from home. I was so green you could have planted me.

I had been given the name of a woman to call so she could show me around and have me over for a meal with her family. I was too shy to call, and so I went out hoping to find the one synagogue in the city.

I found it, with Hashem as always guiding the way. It happened that all of the Jewish women in the community were there that day preparing for their Hadassah bazaar. I was very homesick, and it was wonderful to run into these 10 or so Yiddische mamas. It gave me the boost I needed to settle into the job that would launch my career. Sitting in Helen’s kitchen, looking at Manischewitz matzoh meal in her cupboard, was just like sitting in my mother’s kitchen.

I puttered along for the summer, and one day, I stumbled on a plaque near a small church. The plaque said, “Ezekiel Solomons, the First Jewish Settler in Sault Ste. Marie-Among-the-Hurons.” I just about fell down in astonishment.

A Jewish fur trader? Here? Yep.

It just goes to show you how small and connected the Jewish world is. You can find us anywhere. In every crowd

15 comments on “Looking for the Jew in Every Crowd

  1. Count me too Laura — if this is how Indiana University treats the Patinkin family, I won’t give those anti-semites another dime. Why doesn’t someone write an open letter to the University demanding an explanation?

  2. I am an alumna of Indiana University — and also from Chicago. I know the Patinkin clan — they are a very prominent family from the North Shore. I want to learn more before I open my pocketbook for the Indiana University Foundation! I am sure other alumni would share my feelings on this point.

  3. Actually the overt anti-semitism relates specifically and originally to the actions and words of two municipal housing inspector: Kevin Bowlen and Carol Jack. Let’s not forget the KKK was started a few miles from Bloomington. Note the affidavit of Patinkin’s Jewish tenant Moshe Berman included in the pleading. What is not mentioned in the lawsuit is that Patinkin’s fledgling rental business accounted for fully 5 of the 18 “over-occupancy” investigations in the past two years. The fact that there were only 18 investigations among thousands of rental homes is textbook selective enforcement! The discrimination is clarified further by the choice of “human rights director” Barbara McKinney to investigate this selective enforcement and to conclude after just ten calendar days that Patinkin’s grievances were unjustified. I also understand there are *numerous* email messages between Indiana University “Student Legal Services” Staff Attorney Stacee Evans and the Mayor of the City of Bloomington which discuss in plain language a conspiracy to “sic” the Legal Department on all of Patinkin’s interests in the town. Apparently City Councilman Chris Sturbaum told Patinkin he was being targeted because he is “different”. City of Bloomington attorney Patricia Mulvihill apparently has called numerous of Patinkin’s valid and legal lease agreements “fictitious”, moreover.

  4. Thanks I.J. I get the sense of the story now, and it is a disgusting example of blatant anti-Semitism.

    What’s missing (or what I didn’t see) were the references in Myra’s post (#5) about it being because “he looked Jewish.” I was wondering if there was more on that aspect. I had to scroll through the legal briefs (too much detail right now!) so it might have been there, but I didn’t see it on a cursory reading.

    The other aspect I was interested in was the reference to him being an Indiana U alumnus, and I wondered if the university had any role in this as well, vis a vis, he was renting to students.

    Again, it might be in the legal text, but I scrolled pretty quickly to get more a sense of the story.

    Was his business enterprise connected to the university? Did he have some kind of standing with the university and lose it as a result of this legal battle? And the other thing I wonder is, what was the overall reaction of the community to the story? Were media accounts favourable or unfavourable to him, etc.? Was he villified in the community as a result, or was the whole battle primarily waged in the court room?


  5. I’m Jewish,

    Strangely, this exact text can be found in the comment sections of various, unrelated blogs. It seems to come from a filing by Patinkin’s lawyer, but I wonder how/why it was distributed like this.

  6. On a more serious note, the fact that we as Jews are easy to recognize also reveals the latent anti-semitism in our world. Even in Indiana, in this 21st century, City of Bloomington officials deprived a well-known alumnus of Indiana University the fruits of his labor simply because he looked Jewish. Rabbi Sue Laikin Shifron related the story of Seth Patinkin to me the other day. I would be happy to share it with anyone.

  7. Could be that…

    Or it could be that frum Jews “incognito” are the only ones they see out there whose cloths cover them from head to toe in August!

    -Dixie Yid

  8. I was walking with my wife down a sidewalk in Venice just as we’d gotten there a few years ago. We were smartly disguised for our European vacation. I was wearing khaki pants (in August – tzitzis tucked in), a short-sleeved shirt and a baseball cap. My wife was wearing a denim skirt and a handkerchief to cover her hair. The first waiter we we happened to pass by on the way to the hotel stopped us and asked in English, “Are you looking for the Synagogue?”

    Who did we think we were fooling?

    -Dixie Yid

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