Hi. I’m a goy from Alaska who just moved to Borough Park. Before I moved here, I may have been the only logger/fisherman who read Isaac Singer, Martin Buber, Rabbi Nachman, Potok, Ansky and others. Now, I guess I expected my Hasidic neighbors to be Gimpels, thieves, louts, dipsomaniacs or kabbalistic meshugene. But I’m ignored by them. I love Yiddish and Jewish culture! Could it be the tattoos on my neck and head that keep my Hasidic neighbors at arms length? If so, how to approach them? I’m a nice fella; I just don’t look it.
Goy in the Hood
The Mamele replies:
Tunngasugit, my goyish friend! Wait, you speak English? You’re not Inuit? Oops. I forgot the old adage: When we assume, we make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” Assuming all Alaskans speak Inuit is like assuming all people with neck tattoos are thugs or that all Hasidim are constantly breaking into deep-knee-bend-oriented kicky dances.
Seriously, here’s the deal: It’s awesome that you appreciate Jewish culture. But your romanticized Chagall-meets-Yentl visions are butting up against the actual real world. Dude, you aren’t Jewish; the ultra-Orthodox aren’t gonna rush over and tongue-kiss you, tattoos or no tattoos. (Maybe you’ve seen the episode of “Sex and the City” in which Charlotte seeks to study with a rebbe who keeps rebuffing her, because he wants her to return three times to prove she’s serious, as prescribed in the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch? But maybe you missed that episode because, what with your lack of ovaries and all, why would you be watching “Sex and the City” Even though you’re clearly an enlightened guy, dayenu.)
Rather than yearning for your idealized Tevyes to embrace you as the righteous gentile you know yourself to be, seek a more proactive, natural entree into Jewish culture. Go to a klezmer concert, an Israeli film, a lecture about Jewish literature, an evening of Jewish comedy. Check out the offerings of the JCC, the 92nd and 14th Street Y’s (I see there’s a shlemiel vs. shlimazl* lecture coming up!), the Jewish Museum, the Center for Jewish History. Stop mythologizing the Other, and stop blaming your tattoos (as opposed to your overarching goyishness) for the Other’s lack of interest. And while I’m dispensing the tough love, think about whether you’re interested in Judaism as well as your old-skool vision of Jews. You could try attending services or taking a class in Torah or Hebrew to see whether the religion itself intrigues you. In any case, I give you the same advice I’d give my girlfriends without suitors: Get out there and enjoy your city rather than waiting for the phone to ring. Have fun.
Marjorie Ingall writes The East Village Mamele column for the Forward and is a contributing writer at Self magazine. She has written for many other magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Ms., Glamour, Parents, Budget Travel, Food & Wine, Wired and the late, lamented Sassy, where she was the senior writer and health editor. She is the author of a humor book, “The Field Guild to North American Males” (Owl Books, 1997), the co-author of a sex-ed book for teenagers, “Smart Sex” (Simon & Schuster, 1998) and a former writer/producer at the Oxygen TV network.