Jewish Journal


April 4, 2002

Will the Real Jew Please Stand Up?


I thought I could tell the difference between Jews and gentiles, and not just by using Lenny Bruce's criteria: chocolate is Jewish and fudge is goyish.

Granted, people are individuals -- and particularly post-Sept. 11, stereotyping seems gauche if not utterly narrow-minded -- but still, I believed Jews and gentiles operate on intrinsically different levels.

Consider: "I hate my family." My friend Linda Rothstein says this means: "My family calls 10 times a day and drives me nuts, but I love them more than life itself." My friend Ashley Edwards' interpretation? "We have no contact, and my trust fund's been frozen."

The only gentile I dated seriously was a blond actor with chiseled cheekbones, who, in deference to me -- his ultraneurotic, petite, curly haired girlfriend -- removed the cross hanging above his childhood bed when we visited his parents in Wisconsin for "the holidays." But after his mother welcomed me downstairs Christmas morning with, "Don't you think dear that our tree looks far lovelier than the stunted bush you people have?" -- propelling me into a shame-spiral rivaling that of Charlie Brown in his Christmas special -- I decided to date only Jews.

Then I met a fabulous one. Or so I thought.

"You have shmutz on your punim," I heard someone say while waiting for the restroom at Cantor's one Saturday night. When I looked up, a sexy, curly haired stranger lifted his index finger to my cheek, wiped off a piece of black rye, checked my face for more shmutz and finally declared, "Beautiful." His name: Noah. His doppelganger: Ben Stiller. His affect: Woody Allen.

"So, Lorela," Noah began on the phone the next morning. The only people who ever called me Lorela were my great-aunts with hair on their chins and their bubelah bridge partners. "Wanna grab some lunch?"

Chatting at Nathan's Famous on Pico, we laughed at our addiction to kosher hot dogs, despite our craving for cheeseburgers. We played Jewish geography and found connections ranging from our shrinks in Santa Monica to the Goldbergs on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. We gesticulated so wildly that our hands collided in midair. .

"Oy vey!" Noah exclaimed back at my duplex, eyeing the plugged sink that looked like a large petri dish from a high school science experiment.

"Do you think it's the pipes or that I need a new disposal?" I asked, to which he gave me the frightened look of a "Jeopardy" contestant blindsided by a difficult question in the final round. "Don't worry," I teased, "Jewish guys never know how to fix anything."

"Jewish?" he replied. "I'm not Jewish."

I tilted my head questioningly, certain I'd misheard him. Or misunderstood. Maybe, I thought, he means he's "not religious." Or that by some technicality -- say, his mother isn't Jewish -- he was actually half-Jewish. After all, he ate pumpernickel bagels for breakfast each morning and knew more Yiddish than I did. He must be joking, right?

Wrong. Turned out he had "a lot of Jewish friends" and "sort of adopted the culture." From then on, I couldn't shake the feeling that Noah was speaking the equivalent of Jewish ebonics, as if I'd never really understand his universe of "mummy" and "father" and bacon sandwiches with mayonnaise on crustless Wonder Bread were he to speak in his native tongue. And truth be told, I wouldn't.

"You're Jewish, right?" I asked Michael -- the guy I met at a dinner party of a Pasadena preppy straight from pages of a Ralph Lauren catalogue -- 10 minutes into our first date. Wary of goyim posing as Jews, I wanted to be sure up front.

Michael was Jewish, all right, but the kind who went to Exeter, had horses and looked more Ben Affleck than Ben Stiller. He rowed crew and "summered" in the Hamptons instead of on Fire Island or Maui.

He invited me to his home not for Chanukah, but for "the holidays," tree and all. When we played Jewish geography, he knew the Cartwrights not the Cohens, the Sanfords not the Sheinbergs. He bought 7-Up instead of Snapple, watched "Six Feet Under" instead of "The Sopranos."

Sleeping late one Sunday morning, he joked, "Oh, no, we're supposed to be in church!" -- not a reference that would have occurred to any Jew I knew. "You have a sleeper on your face," he continued, pointing to his own right eye so that I could remove the shmutz myself. I'd never seen anything like it: did he have a mutation on the gene that programs all Jews to invasively wipe the shmutz off other people's faces, usually with their own saliva?

One night, when Michael had the remote control, Jon Stewart came on, and Michael flipped right by. "Wait!" I practically screamed. "Don't you like Jon Stewart"?

"He's very, uh, New York," Michael shrugged. New York? Wasn't that goyim code for Jewish?

Still, Michael insisted he was Jewish, and I gave him the benefit of the doubt, even if he'd never been to a single therapy session or owned a book by Philip Roth. But when, during our first fight, he uttered a phrase straight from the WASP-fest flick "Ordinary People" -- "I don't want to discuss it" -- I knew we could never work out.

Jews always want to discuss it. We're loud, analytical, emotional talkers. We long to engage in Alan Dershowitz-style verbal sparring, devolving into the dissonant mayhem of the dinner tables at which we grew up.

Nostalgically, I remembered my first argument with Noah: "You're just like your mother!" "But you haven't even met my mother yet!" "I can tell what she's like already" "Putz!" "Princess!" Then we stuck our tongues out at each other and laughed like hyenas. End of argument.

Michael, on the other hand, had chosen the Christian credo of "turn the other cheek" -- or, to us Jews hip to psychological jargon, "suppression." I tried cheering him up with a chopstick full of my cashew chicken, but he looked at it as though it were kryptonite. I'd forgotten that Michael didn't like to share food, even at a Chinese restaurant.

"You say you're Jewish?" I asked, waving a dumpling in exasperation.

"I don't want to discuss it," Michael repeated. At that point, neither did I.

Thing is, I was looking to date a regular ol' Jew, not a faux Jew or a self-loathing Jew. I was tired of people in Los Angeles pretending to be something they're not: yuppies posing as bohemians, waiters posing as actors, gentiles posing as Jews, Jews posing as gentiles. Had the Marx Brothers come back from the dead for one last film?

Fortunately, a few weeks later, I met Daniel, as real a Jew as the Marlboro man was male. Sure, he may be assimilated, but he always wipes the shmutz off my face. Now, if only I can convince him to listen to my Richard Belzer CDs.

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