Tribal Recognition

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This essay appeared in JEW-ISH: True Stories of Love, Latkes and L’Chaim, from READ 650.

One Saturday some years ago, while visiting Toronto with my husband and mother-in-law, I saw a group of Orthodox Jews, two bearded men and roughly 12 boys of various ages, about a block away. They were dressed identically in white shirts and black pants, yarmulkes and payes, but no hats. As they approached, the patriarch looked from my Cuban husband to my Cuban mother-in-law, and then said to me, “Good Shabbes.”

I nodded cordially. People outside the tribe often ask me if I’m Italian, Lebanese, Greek, Indian, but Jews always know otherwise. 

“Shabbat Shalom,” the patriarch insisted, and I nodded again. It took me a block and a half to realize that he’d been waiting for me to say “Shabbat Shalom” back to him, and that I had been rude. I should say that what passes for a Sabbath statement among my lapsed Jewish relatives is more akin to, “Would you like some more Mu Shu Pork?” My parents, grandchildren of Jewish immigrants from all over Eastern Europe, have always kept in touch with Jewish culture, ideas, history and politics. They avoid Jewish observance almost… religiously. I do the same. 

My mother-in-law was impressed that Jews could identify each other at such a distance. But I’ve seen her son play “Spot the Cuban” in the swirling chaos of Penn Station at rush hour, and he can pinpoint which decade the Cuban came to the US. He’s always right; we know this because he goes right up to the Cuban to verify his intuition. Kind of like saying “Shabbat Shalom,” but everyone is so gregarious, it’s astonishing that anyone makes their trains on time. 

Does some kind of vestigial recognition of cave affiliation survive in contemporary humans? We’d just seen a thoughtful exhibit on Darwin at the Royal Ontario Museum, and I wondered: in this time of ideological separatism and tribal carnage, are human beings a single species anymore? And what about the Jews? Jews may be few and far between, numerically, but we are hardly together in our minority. Was the patriarch saying, “Go ahead, marry a shvartze. You should still celebrate the Sabbath.” 

My fellow Jews were clearly not going to the Darwin exhibit. A pity: the patriarch might have noted that in evolutionary terms, he had won. He’d been fruitful and multiplied, in the way of good Jews and successful species. At that time, in my secular corner, with zero offspring, we were looking at extinction. 

My husband and I have since become parents to one energetic, charming child that we’re raising Juban. Once, my then 6-year-old froze in his tracks as we crossed paths with two Hassidic men at Newark Airport. “Are they magicians?!” he asked with excitement. I realized that I’ve neglected his Jewish education. I want to give him the strong dose of secular Judaism that I had growing up in a Reformed Jewish home in New York City, a very Jewish metropolis. Can this be done in a suburb of intermarriages, without setting foot in a synagogue, I wonder?

The train of thought that started in Toronto is still on my mind all these years later. Are the Jews a single species with wide variations —Judaeus pius antiquus and Judaea femina libera, for example —or are we now two different species, Judaeus exactus canadiensis and PostJudaea scriptora obstinata? If we’re to survive, our species must adapt. But if there are any Jews around in a few centuries, it won’t be because of adaptors like me. I now realize that being recognizably Jewish to everyone —not just to other Jews— can be a dangerous thing, and a lonely one. Perhaps the patriarch’s gesture was one of inclusion and adaptation, not ownership and disapproval. I probably should have taken a page from my extroverted Cuban husband, and stopped to chat for a while.