By Chris O'Leary
"Listen, I told you I'm not a Jew."
"I don't give a damn what you are," he turned his half-dark eyes to me, wrenching his arm loose. "You talk like a Jew."
"What does that mean?" Some part of me wanted to laugh.
"How does a Jew talk?"
"They talk like you, buddy."
-John Berryman, "The Imaginary Jew"
The Kenyon Review, Vol. 7, No. 4, Autumn, 1945.
Although my name is Christopher Paul O’Leary and I was baptized in the Roman Catholic Church (that’s as far as it went: no communion, no confirmation), I am regularly taken for a Jew. This could be simply because I have a beard and wear glasses, or maybe whatever Irish Catholic residue I still carry reads instead as Jewish: a faulty translation.
I grew up in southwestern Virginia, where there are few Catholics, let alone Jews. My identity was fixed then. My third-grade teacher had me stand in front of the class and explain what a Catholic was. I stammered and tried to remember something from the masses I attended in the summer, when I was under the care of my grandmother in Connecticut. At last I said, “Well, we have the Pope.” The teacher, a brutal mountain-bred descendant of Covenanters, nodded. “That you do,” she said, and silently consigned me to hell.
Something changed. The Jewish confusion, let’s call it (it would be a good band name), first occurred in Boston, while I was in college. A Hasidic teenager with a clipboard (I never learned what he wanted) was approaching students on Commonwealth Avenue. He quickly appraised me: “Jewish, yes?” He startled me and I sharply replied no. He stepped back, stared at me again and said, “Well, good!”
It was a backwards curse. Once I moved to New York, the Jewish confusions multiplied. A typical example: I was walking on Eighth Avenue and ahead of me a man was passing out fliers for a strip club while he kept up a running patter. “Hey come on down. Come on down the block. Your wife don’t have to know. Your girlfriend don’t have to know.” He spun towards me. “Your rabbi don’t have to know. Come on down the block.”
I was even Jew-bashed once, in Sunnyside, Queens, while walking to the subway. As a group of teenagers passed me, the largest one nearly knocked me to the sidewalk as he sneered, “Well if it isn’t our friendly neighborhood Jew!” The rest laughed and cursed. I stewed over the encounter for days—angry at being harassed for something I wasn’t, then feeling guilty for being indignant about that factor. But there are more legitimate reasons to harass me, I countered. I was the victim of inaccurate bigots. I grew paranoid and wondered if people in the local market called me “the friendly neighborhood Jew” after I left. I stopped being friendly.
I married a half-Jew (I still have a menorah in the basement), we moved to Massachusetts, we divorced. Soon after the latter, I had to drive to Old Greenwich, Connecticut, to cover a conference. Old Greenwich is the sort of place where money goes for its retirement. Even the sewer grates look pristine. I pulled into a palatial hotel. The attendant at the gate was a West Indian man who offered me a wide smile and pointed at my chest: “Let me guess---you’re Jewish!” he boomed.
He seemed to savor the last word, drawing out the vowels. He seemed elated he had found a Jew. Was he one too? Was he grabbing at the opportunity to bond with any type of perceived outsider? Or was he just some lunatic? I denied the charge yet again, shaking my head no, took my ticket and drove past. He looked so sad. I’ve since regretted not temporarily converting for him: for a moment I finally would have been what the world wanted me to be.
"Dem Rebin's Nigun, Oy Tate (The Rabbi's Tune/That's The Way)"
by Lt. Joseph Frankel and Orchestra, 1919.
available on Klezmer Music 1910-1942: Recordings from the Yivo
top photograph: by Garry Winogrand Untitled, c. 1950s.