When I was a young girl, say 11 or so, growing up Greek Orthodox in Worcester, Massachusetts, my friend Maxine taught me a catchy little ditty she learned in Hebrew School. It went a little something like this:
Wherever you go, there’s always someone…Jewish
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew!
So when you’re not home
And you’re somewhere kind of…newish
The odds are-, don’t look far
‘Cause they’re Jewish, too!
I was fascinated by this song for many reasons. First, it has a really catchy tune. Second, some of the verses get really showboaty in an Ethel Merman kind of way, like these next two lines:
Some Jews live in tents and some live in pagodas
And some Jews pay rent, ’cause the city ain’t free!
Now, technically, a pagoda is a temple or other building sacred to Hindus or Buddhists, so unless there’s something the Buddha isn’t telling us, I don’t know of many–or any–Jews who live in pagodas. But I’m here to tell you that the city ain’t free. And I have to forgive the pagoda, because look at what it rhymes with:
Some Jews live on farms in the hills of Minnesota
And some Jews wear no shoes and sleep by the sea.
All of the above may be true, although when my mom grew up in the suburbs of Minnesota, her neighborhood was restricted–no Jews allowed. Which, in a roundabout way, may have led to the genesis of this song. Once I had committed the words to memory (the better to impress friends and colleagues for decades to come), I complained to Maxine, “we don’t sing songs about how it’s great to be Greek in Sunday School.” She said that she thought the song was leftover from an era–say, Joanie’s childhood–when Jews were often made to feel that it wasn’t great to be one of the chosen. The song is meant to foster a feeling of togetherness for a people of the diaspora, as evinced by the next verse (which slows things down, bringing the room down a little bit):
Amsterdam, Disneyland, Tel-Aviv,
Oh, they’re miles apart
But when we light the candles on Sabbath eve
We share in the prayer in each one of our hearts*
(*in case you’re trying to follow along and sing this at home, you should know to elide this words–so “share in,” and “prayer in” should come out sounding like Karen.)
But then Maxine turned to me and said, “You know what the worst part of the song is? It’s not true.” She paused for effect. “Sometimes, you go somewhere and nobody’s Jewish.” (Hmm, like in a pagoda, maybe?)
This song came to mind last week when I got an email from what pregnancy websites refer to as my “dh” (that’s “dear husband”, I guess because on pregnancy websites we all are possessed by the spirit of Elizabeth Montgomery on Bewitched or some other housewife of yore whose dear husband managed to get her pregnant despite the pesky, everpresent night table between their twin beds). Anyway, DH, you’ll recall, is a Catholic from Nicaragua, and we were wed on 10.10.10 on the Greek island of Corfu in two Christian ceremonies, Catholic and Greek Orthodox. He had always been told that his ancestors emigrated to Nicaragua from Italy.
So, it was something of a surprise when dh’s email, instead of weighing in on what we should eat for dinner or do that weekend said, “One of my cousins worked on this website, which is pretty cool. I think the whole Italian heritage is wrong. It appears we were Spanish Jews.” In fact, dh’s last name, and mine if I ever get around to slapping it on to my existing names (joined by a de) means “God our Grace” in Hebrew.
It’s not super surprising that we’re ethnically Jewish, at least on dh’s side. It just sort of confirms that all is well with the world, as I’ve always felt an affinity for Jewish culture, despite my deep attachment to my own religion. It’s not even that surprising that dh’s family lost their religion somewhere along the way and gained a new one, given that Judaism, technically, is passed through the mother, and these early emigrants were men who married local (Catholic) women. What is surprising to me is that no one noticed before that the family might be Jewish, especially given that dh’s great grandfather’s name is Moises. Or, as I like to call him, Zade Moshe.
Nevertheless, the news was pretty exciting. It didn’t cause any crises of spirituality; religiously, we’re sticking with what we’ve got. But ethnically, our new family just got a little more interesting.
Still, while the news of Judaism is mainly a delightful addition to the mix of cultures that are now spicing up the baby Amalia, still cooking in utero, this development is troubling on one level–our neighborhood has a significant Orthodox Jewish community, and the teenagers often patrol Lincoln Rd, the pedestrian mall near our house, with a clipboard; dh and I have been stopped at least five times by sweet girls in long denim skirts asking, “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” (I think there’s something about a pregnant woman that makes her a particularly juicy target for proselytizing.) Until now, I’ve always shaken my head sadly and said, “no, sorry,” and the girls leave us alone politely, to go buy the frozen yogurt that is my main source of nutrients. Now, when they ask, what am I supposed to do? Borrow a page from so many Facebook statuses and say, “it’s complicated?”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about all of this is that Maxine, one of my most intelligent and straight-shooting friends, steered me wrong, even if she was only 11 or 12 at the time she belittled this song. The last few verses of the song in question go:
And some Jews wear hats
And some Jews wear sombreros
And some wear k’fiahs to keep out the sun
Some Jews live on rice, and some live on potatoes
Or waffles, falafels, or hamburger buns.
Wherever you go there’s always someone Jewish
You’re never alone when you say you’re a Jew
So when you’re not home
And you’re somewhere kind of ‘newish’
The odds are–don’t look far–
‘Cause they’re Jewish, too.
(Then here comes the big finish)
The odds are–don’t look far–
They’re Jews just like you!
I’m older and wiser than I was when I first learned this song. I have eaten all of the above foods. And as it turns out, Maxine, wherever you go, there probably is someone Jewish. Even if they’re only Jewish just like me.