Excuse Me, Are You Jewish?

Posted by mwallach on October 10, 2011 in My Kids, New To You |

Dear That’s Life,

There is often a comfort in numbers – a benefit to having shared the same experience with others. While I appreciate that my kids are not the only children to engage in the following behavior, it does not make me feel better to know that your child does this, too. And though I appreciate their curiosity and the general inquisitiveness with which they approach life, it would be nice if they would sometimes function as silent observers rather than the world’s constant commentators.

Often while in public forums, some of my children tend to question people about their own religious beliefs. Could be a stranger or someone they know peripherally, but the youngest in my crew feel the need to poll others around them at inopportune times. I am not sure when a good time would be for my son to take a head count of Jews in a room, or a department store or a crowded elevator. Nevertheless, it undoubtedly causes a rather uncomfortable situation that I wish had been avoided.

Getting a haircut on a Friday afternoon, running quickly out of time, my son plopped himself down in the barber’s chair. Although this was not the store we usually frequented, we were going to take what we could get, appreciating this location was open. Quickly doing a head count – and I mean that literally – my son piped up. “Is this store going to be open tomorrow?” he asked, knowing full well he was inquiring as to whether it would be open on shabbos. “Yes,” I answered, knowing where this was going, afraid of what was coming next. “You mean no one here is Jewish?!” he said loudly. “No,” I answered, hoping this was the end of the interrogation, momentarily relieved when it was.

It does not occur to my son that he, in fact, is often the odd man out. With the soup-bowl like kippah covering his head in truly skullcap fashion, it does not take much to notice him as a Jewish child. His flowing tzizit confirm his identity. We teach our children to be proud Jews and I often shudder when my husband insists they don baseball caps instead of kippot before arriving at a particular destination. It seems I don’t appreciate what it feels like to wear a kippah in public, or so I’ve been told. Apparently, my daily hair covering can be viewed as stylish while the statement being made by a yarmulka is never confused with fashion. 99 out of 100 times, however, my son is dressed exactly how I described. Although he is actually the one who stands out, it is those with no fringes or enormous head covering, in his opinion, who are the strange ones. The irony makes me smile.

That is, until, we are on line in a store and my little pollster is out and about. To clarify: my son cannot be found walking up and down aisles with a clip board, asking, “Are you Jewish?” of every person he sees. It is not as calculated as that but it often seems close. Knowing that check out would not be swift, a full shopping cart in tow, I lifted him onto the counter so he could sit while I kept him within reach. The pleasant staff behind the counter was mostly Indian, my son in his headgear sticking out like a sore thumb. We were certainly not the first Jews they had ever seen or that had been customers. They smiled at my son and I exchanged pleasantries with the woman who began scanning my items. Never to miss an opportunity, my son began a scanning of his own.

“These people aren’t Jewish,” he said to me in a voice more audible than I would have preferred. “No, they’re not,” I said, only to add, “and what difference does it make?” He did not answer, not because he had not heard me, but because he was still mid-thought. Turning his attention to the cashier, he then asked her, “Are you Jewish?” She smiled but did not answer. He is cute and inquisitive – but I would rather he had been cute, inquisitive and silent.

“It’s enough,” I sternly whispered in his ear. “You need to keep your voice down and you’re being rude.” He pursed his lips as if about to motion that he was locking his mouth shut. “It is not polite to ask people questions like that and you don’t need to comment on everything and everyone you see,” I said. “Sometimes you just look and notice – that is all.” Very observant, he heard the ‘noticing’ part of my comment while the ‘don’t comment’ part fell on deaf ears. And like a torpedo that loses its initial target, he continues seeking a new one to destroy. My son needed something else to observe and on which to comment, and he honed in on me.

“What’s that on your neck?” he asked, as if making a complete 180 degree turn with a slight edge of horror in his (again) too audible tone. “It is a beauty mark,” I explained. “We’ve discussed it before.” He gave me one quick nod. “Right,” he said, “All ladies get them when they get old.” The nice cashier burst out in laughter. There was no need for any further uncomfortable comments about religion. I had been a successful detonation.

Struck by his comment, I stared straight ahead. “That’s NOT what I said about beauty marks,” I told him, annoyed that I had just loudly been declared an old lady. “No,” he said, “That’s what I say about them.”

I rolled my eyes. There was nothing left to say. If nothing else, at least his search for a minyan was over. For that, I thanked G-d.

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