Thursday, December 17, 2009

Bagel With a Smear

I come from New York which, second to Israel, is the most Jew-packed place in the world. I raised my kids in Philadelphia, where neighbors go sukkah-hopping in the fall. My life as a Jew has never been closeted. I grew up worried I would be made fun of for my braces or my pimples or my father --who had a penchant for walking around the house in his tidy whities with his undershirt tucked in and his black socks pulled up nice and high. But being Jewish was never a source of angst for me. On the East Coast, no one stood out for being Jewish. Things are different on the left coast.

Birds of a feather do tend to stick together. So when we relocated to Northern California, I was careful to find a town with all the signs of a robust Jewish Community. There is a large reform synagogue and an impressive Jewish Community Center. Yet, despite these signs, finding a box of egg matzo at Passover time is like discovering the Holy Grail. Explaining to the cashier at the posh supermarket that you want a loaf of chhhalllah for Friday night dinner (not “ch”allah) is like speaking Greek.

The Jews of Northern California seem anemic if not invisible compared to the Jews I know. There is a lot less “shhhhh” in their “shmear.” In fact, the menu at Noah’s Bagels out here reads “smear of cream cheese.” This invisibility is particularly evident at holiday time when the classrooms are filled with Christmas-themed decorations; the stores are dripping with Christmas-messages, Main Street is bursting with Christmas lights, and from November 27th on, everything is “beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” Only Christmas.

It’s surprising too, because Northern California truly is a melting pot of cultures. The classrooms are more diverse with students of Chinese, Korean, Indian, Japanese and other backgrounds. But, where on the East Coast, the schools acknowledged Chanukah and Kwanza in their holiday parties, here no one seems to bother. Perhaps the Jews of Northern California have assimilated to the point of being unrecognizable (at least to me!)

Don’t misunderstand; I’m all about holiday spirit. But now I realize growing up Jewish on the East Coast was a very different experience for me than it will be for my kids here on the West Coast. This realization is a wake-up call for me. It means I will have to work harder. I have to run the Hanukah table at the classroom parties (which I did.) I have to put up extra Hanukah decorations (not one electric menorah but two!) I have to give my kids the tools to fight the self-consciousness they now feel about standing out for being Jewish. In fact, I have to take that self-consciousness and massage it into understanding and pride.

Happy Cholidays everyone!