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Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Funny, they don't _______ Jewish!

Back when we had unfettered access to the print edition of the weekend New York Times, one of my wife's somewhat masochistic practices was to turn to the wedding announcements and try to suss out how many of the nuptials, where one of the parties had a Jewish-sounding name, actually involved the union of two Jews.

I never liked this little game because in most cases, even when both halves of the happy couple had names like 'Greenberg' or ''Sussman', a few lines into the announcement would come the jarring mention that the ceremony was performed jointly by both a Rabbi and an Episcopal Rector, or the couple were joined in matrimony by a Wiccan Shaman or Buddhist monk.

But something that has only recently occurred to me is the inherent arrogance of our reliance on an exclusively European/Ashkenazi-centric mental codex of 'Jewish-sounding' names to play the wedding pages game. 

For example, I'd bet money that many Sephardic surnames would ring vaguely hispanic in my ears (as well they should!).  And with a gun to my head, I'd be hard pressed to to pick most Yemenite, Afghani, Libyan or Ethiopian Jewish surnames out of a weekend wedding blotter.

I mention this because my lovely wife attended a moving Israeli Army ceremony last night (I was off with foreign guests and couldn''t attend), where the 'Lone Soldier' who has been living with us for the past three years was named outstanding soldier of his unit... and Zahava came home with an interesting story.

It seems that this ceremony was a very big deal, with top brass in attendance, many officers being given promotions and a soldier from each of the units currently serving in the Gaza theater being singled out as 'outstanding'.

Zahava was seated next to a lovely Ethiopian family at the ceremony whose son was being given the outstanding soldier award for the elite 'Oketz' (K-9) unit.  As his award was being read aloud, a larger than life picture of the young man and his faithful dog was put on display, and everyone cheered heartily. 

But what came next was interesting:

An officer whose first name is 'Moustafa' was called to the stage for a promotion.  Then a soldier named 'Jameel' was called up for an excellence award.

At this point, the Ethiopian mother leaned towards Zahava and whispered, "Moustafa?  Jameel?  Strange, those don't sound like Jewish names!"

Zahava explained that if she had to guess, Moustafa was probably a Druse, and Jameel was likely a Bedouin.  Sudden understanding flashed across the Ethiopian woman's face as she nodded and said, "Oh, that makes sense"... and nothing more was said on the matter.

But for Zahava, it was an interesting lesson in the relativity of cultural assumptions.

With the exception of the Ashkenazi members (and their descendants) of the first - fifth aliyahs, pretty much every other immigrant community has served time at the bottom of the social-economic Israeli pecking order... with the Ethiopian Jewish community currently riding low man on Israel's cultural totem pole.

So it was actually a little reassuring that the Ethiopians have acclimated to such an extent that this woman's cultural ear was already finely attuned to the fact that something didn't 'sound Jewish' about the names she was hearing at the IDF ceremony. 

In short, even though in this case she happened to have been right (the soldiers in question weren't, in fact, Jewish), it was still worthy of a private smile hearing a black, Israeli, Ethiopian Jew delivering a variation on the time-honored "Funny, he doesn't look Jewish!" line.

At least until the next wave of Jewish immigrants lands here to assume their 'rightful' place at the bottom of the Israeli cultural heap, this tiny indication of progress gives me hope that our Ethiopian brothers and sisters may have finally turned a corner of sorts, secure in their place among the sometimes-arrogant Jewish community which, for better or worse, can't help but play at trying to pick one another out of a crowd.

Posted by David Bogner on September 11, 2012 | Permalink


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The Geula unfolding right before our eyes. Awesome, right???

Posted by: Leora Hyman | Sep 11, 2012 3:55:29 PM

Your post reminded me of this clip "http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yAeWyGGTdEE"

Posted by: Aharon Fischman | Sep 11, 2012 4:01:28 PM

I had a Christian colleague at work (until eleven years ago today exactly) who told me of his nephew's wedding.
The groom was Jewish carrying his (converted to Judaism) fathers hispanic surname. The bride carried her Fathers very Jewish sounding surname however her Mother was not Jewish.
The bride "sounded Jewish" but wasn't.....The groom didn't "sound Jewish", but was.
Congrats to you and your (OK shared with his parents) outstanding soldier!

Posted by: shmiel | Sep 11, 2012 4:51:56 PM

wait a minute-- you're JEWISH?!

Posted by: wry mouth | Sep 12, 2012 5:43:12 AM

What made this extra ironic for me is that as a platinum-haired, blue-eyed child, the most common thing I ever heard my extended family murmur about ME was that I didn't look Jewish....

Posted by: zahava | Sep 12, 2012 8:17:36 AM

Zahava, same for me! I grew up my whole life hearing that I didn't look Jewish because of my blonde hair and blue eyes.
So true, David. That's what kibbutz galuyot is all about.

Posted by: SaraK | Sep 12, 2012 1:11:32 PM

I, on the other hand, have been asked numerous times if I'm Jewish. Which I'm not. Go figure.

Posted by: Karl Newman | Sep 13, 2012 7:26:12 PM

I guess everyone who reads this blog has
a refined sense of humor.

The first thing that came to my mind
regarding the Druse soldier, was the lame
Mel Brooks joke about how the person
does look Druse-ish (Druidish in the
Mel Brooks version).

Posted by: Jonathan | Sep 24, 2012 8:04:07 AM

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