- Jews worry about continuity, even though Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz prohibited even that: “All worrying is forbidden, except to worry that one is worried.”
- Kvell-worthy fact: About 75 percent of American Jews give to charity versus 63 percent of Americans as a whole.
- Since reciting Kaddish brought secular Jews to synagogue, the rabbis, aware of their captive audience, moved the prayer to the end of the service.
- Who’s Jewish? About a quarter of Nobel Prize winners, an estimated 80 percent of comedians at one point, and the winner of Nazi Germany’s Most Perfect Aryan Child Contest.
Readers will enjoy learning about how Jews feel, think, act, love, and live. They’ll also schmooze as they use the book’s “Typically Jewish, Atypically Fun” discussion guide.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
You don't need to be Jewish to be a worrier, but it helps. As Dan Greenburg notes in that classic joke book How to Be a Jewish Mother, an Irish waitress or an Italian barber could qualify. Worry is the definition of what a Jewish mother is not doing when she hears you will be driving home from the airport at midnight and says, "Don't give it a thought. I'm not worried or anything." It takes just three minutes for her to shout "Are you okay?" at an occupied bathroom door. Joyce Antler titled her book on the history of the Jewish mother, You Never Call! You Never Write! and an Elaine May and Mike Nichols skit (both Jews) features a telephone exchange with a mother calling her son.
"It's your mother. Remember me?"
"I feel awful for not calling," says the sheepish son.
"If only I could believe that, I'd be the happiest woman in the world."
It's not just the females among us who worry. In a Forward essay, Moshe Schulman attributes his ever-present state of apprehension to his Orthodox upbringing. Someday he expects his epitaph will read, "Dead. But still worried."
Jews, of course, are not the only ethnic/religious group whose members suffer from what could gently be called a tendency to fret. Several of my non-Jewish friends can match me dread for dread. I took a road trip with one who became uncharacteristically quiet whenever we approached a bridge. After traversing our third concrete span, I asked her about it. "Yeah," she admitted. "I can't talk when I pass over water. I have to concentrate on staying upright."
The Impending Catastrophe
The average adult spends 12 percent of the day thinking about the future, but I'll bet my average is twice that. I'm especially adept at envisioning disasters involving my daughter. Whenever she travels, I tell her, "Don't forget to send me your flight schedule; I need to know what time I can stop worrying." Like a Charlie Brown comic, I picture a rain cloud above her, filled with disasters that make the Ten Plagues look like minor annoyances. Like my friend, I'm obligated to concentrate on these calamities to prevent them from happening.
Not all Jews are so obsessed. Gloria Steinem wrote in her autobiography that her Jewish father had a carefree, laid-back approach to life. Her non-Jewish mother was attracted by this attitude, though later came to regret being tethered to someone who refused to worry. "It left my mother to worry alone."
According to the Talmud, Jews should be more like Steinem's dad. We're advised, "Do not worry about tomorrow's trouble, for you do not know what the day may bring." Maimonides expanded on the futility of future-angst: "Whatever a man fears may happen to him is only a matter of probability — either it will happen or it will not happen." And here's my personal rabbinic favorite, courtesy of Rabbi Mordechai of Lechovitz: "All worrying is forbidden, except to worry that one is worried."
Despite these rabbinic exhortations, the majority of Jews I know — and probably the majority of Jews everywhere — are big worriers like me. The song "Don't Worry, Be Happy" is definitely not a Jewish tune. Quite the contrary, the song's composer Bobby McFerrin credits Indian guru Meher Baba with inspiring his lyrics. If a Jew had written it, the song would have been lamented in a minor key: "Do Worry, You're Jewish." Or, as Albert Vorspan wrote in his book thus titled: Start Worrying: Details to Follow.
As evidence, I submit for consideration some of our Jewish superstitions to supposedly ward off evil. There is our all-purpose Yiddish term kine-ahora, a contraction of the Yiddish words kayn (not), ha-ra (evil), and ayin (eye), in essence an incantation to fend off possible misfortune when speaking about something positive that has or will occur. Some liken it to the English equivalent of "knock on wood," but with more of a Yiddishe punch. Telling someone that my mother turns ninety this year or hearing that a new baby was nine pounds requires the exclamation of kine-ahora within seconds. When I rode in a car with my father, my saying "Looks like we're making good time" led to his invariable rejoinder: "Please. Don't give me any kine-ahoras." Even Clint Eastwood knew enough to borrow the word from us. When asked about his chances of being awarded an Oscar, he said, "Kine-ahora! I'll win." (As far as I know, Eastwood didn't employ my mother's favorite bad-luck prevention tactic: repeating "pooh, pooh, pooh," which her mother's mother would probably have augmented by spitting on her fingers.)
Stuffy Nose? I Must Be Dying
Jews are not the only people who attempt to derail dire events from happening. And yet, there is something typically Jewish about being apprehensive, especially where our health is concerned. Comic Howie Mandel has noted that even if things are good, Jews will question it: "'Fabulous' is not in the Jewish lexicon. No Jew ever answers, 'How are you?' using that word. The correct response is 'How should I be?'" As a Jewish therapist blogged in the Huffington Post: "I'm Not a Hypochondriac, I'm Just a Jew."
I can think of three reasons Jews are particularly prone to excessive health concerns. The first can be explained through theology — or doubt thereof. Author and self-proclaimed Jewish hypochondriac Jennifer Traig explains it this way: "You can make yourself safe and you can make yourself financially secure, but health, God decides that one." The problem is, how can you calmly accept that God will decree whether or not you are inscribed in the Book of Life this year — if you don't believe in the Almighty? Here, Jews have it tough. As the Pew Research Center's 2014 Religious Landscape Study reveals, a smaller percentage of Jews — 37 percent — report they believe in God, as compared to 88 percent of evangelical Protestants, 76 percent of Christians, 64 percent of Catholics, 86 percent of Mormons, and 84 percent of Muslims.
Second, a Jew feeling ill is unsurprising because Jews always expect the worst. As the Yiddish proverb puts it, "Your health comes first — you can always hang yourself later." Some academics posit that hypochondriacs view good health as a neutral void, a hole waiting to be filled with disease. Likewise, many Jews see good times as precarious and fleeting — any moment might be supplanted by tsuris (strife).
The third explanation could be that Jewish sekhel (intelligence) fosters inventive imaginations (something else to kvell about in chapter 2). For instance, the tiny nation of Israel has produced more start-up companies per capita than any other country and is number three globally in patents per person. Approximately 25 percent of Nobel Prize winners have been Jewish, which demonstrates creative minds — as does interpreting an outbreak of chapped lips as a possible brain tumor, which Woody Allen did in the New York Times.
My Bags Are Packed
Speaking of Jewish comics, I proudly share one of my worries about the future security of Jews in America with none other than Jon Stewart. On the Larry King show he admitted, "I'm a Jew. I always have my bags packed. ... I never know when they're going to knock on my door and [tell me to leave]. There are very few countries that don't have at least one museum going, 'And this is when we chased you out.'"
I, too, have made preparations to flee. My nightgown and toothbrush aren't tucked into a suitcase — yet — but I like knowing my exit visa is in order. I insisted that my family's passports be renewed far in advance of their expiration dates. My husband countered that this service was costly and we had no imminent travel plans. When I wouldn't back down, he acquiesced, chalking up my obstinacy to my "nervous disposition." I know what he was really thinking: You're nuts. Nope, I'm just Jewish.
Even Jews who never attended Hebrew school and have zero Jewish education know this history of Jewish persecution on a gut level. There is a reason why Jews joke that nine words describe all Jewish holidays: "They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat." Starting with the original Exodus story ("Every boy that is born to the Hebrews, you shall throw into the Nile"), to the royal vizier Haman's edict ("Let an order be made in writing for them to be exterminated"), to the Final Solution, Jews have known massacres. That knowledge, I contend, predisposes Jews to Mount Sinai–size states of anxiety.
The comedian Judy Gold tells the childhood story of having brought a new non-Jewish friend to her home for the first time. "Ma, I want you to meet my new friend, Beth." Her mother's immediate response: "What? Do you think she would hide you?"
I don't actually believe I will be awakened by a knock on the door in the middle of the night and told, "Get out." On the other hand, I sort of think I might. I can experience feeling "I'm perfectly safe" simultaneously with "Well, maybe not." Jews may be uniquely adept at keeping two contradictory thoughts in mind at once (see chapter 5, "Laughing").
If I Don't Fast, I Won't Last
When enacting religious rituals, many of us "wink at ourselves," knowing the action is baseless, yet doing it anyway. I admit that much of my religious observance is largely based in what could be called magical thinking. In theology school we would often repeat the joke "What's the difference between a religion and a superstition? Mine is a religion, yours is a superstition." For instance, I know intellectually that fasting on Yom Kippur will not guarantee me a good year. I am also well aware that touching the Torah paraded around the room during services is irrational, in the sense that it won't keep my daughter or me from getting cancer — but at the same time, you had better get out of my way when that Torah comes down the aisle. I always give my chest solid thumps while reciting the High Holiday Ashamnu prayer confessing the sins we committed and quiver as I contemplate the haunting words of the U-netaneh Tokef: "Who shall live and who shall die? Who by sword and who by wild beast?" As for the "who by famine" part, I do make a valiant effort to refrain from eating on Yom Kippur until somewhere around dinnertime (though I usually only make it to lunchtime, if you must know).
You don't have to be Jewish to both believe and not believe religious rituals simultaneously. Many non-Jews perform their own mental gymnastics. I remember during a course I took on the Eucharist (Last Supper), one of our assignments was to compose and present to the class a version of the prayer traditionally said during Mass to bless the bread and wine. The day of our presentations, most of us just stood and recited our prayers. One student, hoping to add dramatic flair to his prayer, brought in a loaf of Publix whole wheat bread. He unwrapped the bread, held it aloft, and intoned his version of a Eucharistic prayer. Jokingly, he half-bowed when finished, gathered up the bread and wrapper and tossed them into the trash can. The woman next to me immediately burst into tears. Several students rushed to comfort her as the professor dismissed the class. I shook my head in bafflement as I left the classroom.
A fellow student caught up to me in the hallway. "You have no idea what just happened, do you?"
"You got that right," I admitted.
"She was upset because once those words were said over the bread, it became sanctified," my classmate explained. Evidently, though it was simply a class exercise, the bread had been made holy. My crying classmate knew intellectually that at the bottom of the wastebasket lay an ordinary loaf of bread. But then again, it wasn't.
Public Displays of Judaism
When I recounted this incident to my Catholic friend Julie, she understood the emotions that had evoked the student's sobs. She, too, knew that the bread could be holy and not holy simultaneously. But she did not comprehend how I could feel both safe and not safe as a Jew in this country. She was astounded to learn that I kept my passport up to date, so I refrained from commenting that I won't take Jewish-related reading material on a plane, and I never leave anything with Hebrew or the word "Jew" or "Jewish" visible in my car.
Like me, many Jews feel squeamish about public displays of Judaism. One of this book's Jewish jurors (see the introduction) admitted she was reluctant to hang her mezuzah on the doorframe of her new home in rural Florida. "I had no problem with it being outside when I lived in South Florida," she said, "but now that I live out here in the boonies, well ..."
Rich Enough Today, But What about Tomorrow?
Typically Jewish fretting also extends to that tricky topic of Jews and money. I admit I worry a lot about that one. Kine-ahora, I have enough to cover the necessities — mortgage, car payments, and the like — with enough left over to spring for the expensive brand of coffee and an occasional theater ticket. But I take to heart the Talmudic wisdom "He who is rich today may not be so tomorrow." I never have enough money to cover all of the "what-ifs": the encyclopedic volumes-full of wretched situations that would require me to have more money than I do. I can't be more specific; if I said them, they could actually happen.
Many people, Jewish or otherwise, have money anxieties. But if there is such a thing as a money-worry gene, I contend it is predominantly found among my coreligionists. From our long history of persecution, Jews have learned the valuable lesson that all immigrants come to know: money equals survival. Some people believe the truth will set you free. Others claim Jesus saves. But Jews know that when forced to escape in the middle of the night, cold hard cash paves the way to freedom. One of the Jewish jurors told me that jewels sewn into her grandmother's coat lining saved the family. It's a potent and common Jewish story.
Shanda for the Goyim
The Yiddish phrase shanda far di goyim translates literally as "a scandal performed before non-Jews," but it embodies a deep, intense sense of embarrassment and shame. As one Jewish pundit explained, it's how you feel when a fellow Jew does something REALLY BAD in front of non-Jews. Far more intense than simply "washing dirty linen," this kind of shanda makes you cringe and want to crawl under a table out of the worry that this disaster will confirm what antisemites think about Jews and wreak havoc upon us all.
For instance, there is a name, Bernie Madoff, whose utterance makes 100 percent of my Jewish jurors wince. It doesn't matter that many of his victims were Jewish. As one juror noted, the "money-relatedness" of Madoff's crime worried her. It hits a nerve.
Notably, the revelation that the mass murderer Son of Sam, a.k.a. David Berkowitz, was Jewish didn't have the same effect. One juror reminded me of the joke "No one locks their doors when they drive through a Jewish neighborhood." "That's funny," she said, "because Jews aren't associated with violent crime."
The association of Jews and money has a long history. In the Middle Ages Jews were allowed to lend money, while Christians were not. This allowed Jews to prosper, though they were seen to benefit at the borrower's expense. Because of prohibitions against owning land, Jews were forced to pursue opportunities in commodities and retailing, the modern-day equivalents of being forced to go into computers. The result, according to Catholic University economic history professor Jerry Muller, was that Jews "did well disproportionately" in almost every society in which they lived. In many times and places, enraged non-Jewish neighbors made undeserved accusations against the Jews, inciting dire consequences. Money maligning, including myths of Jewish bankers running the world, became perhaps the most ubiquitous antisemitic trope in modern times.
So, here's the truth: yes, many Jews are rich. Some are really rich. But many Jews are poor. According to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey, one in five Jewish households earn less than $30,000; for Jews under thirty that number grows to nearly 40 percent. The New York Times reported that the poorest place in the United States is "not a dusty Texas border town, or a hollow in Appalachia," but the haredi Orthodox community Kiryas Joel in Monroe, New York, where 70 percent of residents live below the poverty level and the median family income is less than $18,000.
Still, money and Jews is a taboo subject for many of us, including yours truly. Can't we talk about something else, like shtupping (fornicating)?
Three sex scandals involving prominent Jewish men provoked plenty of worrying. Former New York congressman Anthony Weiner was caught texting photos of his eponymous body part to various women around the same time that former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was accused of sexually assaulting a hotel maid. Then Harvey Weinstein confirmed that the Hollywood casting couch continues to this day. While the list of bawdy men behaving badly has included those of all faiths, we Jews do tend to flinch over our own, overly conscious that such perpetrators represent "all of us" to the outside world when their offending part has been ritually circumcised by a mohel.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Typically Jewish"
Copyright © 2019 Nancy Kalikow Maxwell.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Acknowledgments Introduction: Why Is This Book Different from All Other Books? 1. Worrying 2. Kvelling 3. Dying 4. Noshing 5. Laughing 6. Detecting 7. Dwelling 8. Joining Conclusion: What It Means to Be Typically Jewish Appendix: Typically Jewish, Atypically Fun Discussion Guide Notes