What are you?

Note: One of the reasons I started writing these memoir-stories was to explore different aspects of identity. I have struggled with notions of femininity and masculinity, as well as issues of social justice with respect to race and class for as long as I can remember. Some of the stories I have posted have touched on these topics. The essay that follows is intended to be one of several on race and ethnicity – it is a big topic! And, I have a couple of experiences I want to share. I welcome your contributions to the conversation – please feel free to share your perspective by commenting or sending an email.

“What are you?”

When I was growing up in Brooklyn in the late 60s, it was one of the first things we asked each other. It was a way of sorting ourselves out. I wonder if kids still ask each other that. As adults we tiptoe around those questions.

When we asked, in that place and time, we were usually asking whether the other person was Jewish, Italian-Catholic or Irish-Catholic. There really weren’t that many other possibilities in my neighborhood. I’m embarrassed to say that I was a young adult before I realized that there were many other possibilities – and how small a minority I was part of.

I’m not writing nostalgically of that time – I don’t think those were the good old days. I have been reflecting on why we asked each other that question and what it meant. I think we need to figure out how to talk about our identities in a way that doesn’t stir up suspicion, insinuate judgment or assume superiority. We are, after all, curious about each other.

As kids we were figuring out our identities and where we fit in. In asking the question ‘what are you?’ it felt to me like we were looking for connection, searching for commonality. The question was a shortcut to understanding something about each other and the answer could help seal a bond. And if it didn’t create a bond, it gave a point of reference.

We talk about prejudice being learned and in part I think that is true. Certainly we don’t come into this world thinking that a particular group is cheap or dirty or dangerous. All of that is learned. But, I think there is a hard-wired discomfort or suspicion of those who are different from us and that makes fertile ground for prejudice. We are born into a family or culture that defines what is comfortable and known to us.

I was born into a second-generation Jewish-American family. Actually both of my grandmothers were American born, which would make me third generation, and my grandmothers were high school educated. Both of these facts made my family a bit unusual in my neighborhood. My parents were not only college graduates, but my Dad had one master’s degree in education and another in economics. My mom was going back to school while I was growing up and earned her master’s in reading. Education was a value in and of itself.

We took great pride in being Jewish, though we weren’t religious at all. I recall Nana lighting Shabbos candles on Friday nights. I have a mental picture of her moving her hands forward and back over the candles as if to invite the flame into her heart, her white hair covered by a white doily. Then she put her hands over her eyes as she completed the prayer silently. That was the extent of our ritual. We didn’t go to synagogue and we enjoyed ham, among other treyf (unkosher) items. Judaism was a culture to me, a sense of humor, and a way of looking at the world. It meant asking questions. It included certain foods at certain times of the year. It didn’t include God.

I was and am ethnically Jewish. My grandparents liberally sprinkled Yiddish in their speech. Shana madela (pretty girl), lay keppe (lay your head down), meshuganah (crazy), and schnorer (a moocher) and many other words were part of our lexicon.

One Yiddish word confused me. I grew up hearing blacks referred to as “schvartzes” by my grandparent’s generation. It wasn’t the equivalent of using the n-word, but it was a pejorative. When I sat at Nana’s kitchen table listening to her conversation with friends and family and the word was used, it sounded wrong to my ears, it was a discordant note. When I was older Aunt Simma shared a story of being told that she couldn’t go to a black classmate’s house to play when she was a child, though she was welcome to invite the girl to her own home.

I never had to face that issue, though I can’t imagine my parents issuing such an edict. There weren’t any black families on my block. There were only one or two black kids in my elementary school classes and neither of them were girls. Even in high school, my life was pretty segregated. My path crossed with black kids in gym and on the basketball team. The relationships didn’t extend beyond the court.

I’m 56 years old and still trying to sort out the different aspects of my identity and what it means for my relationships with family, friends and the larger community. In some ways it has gotten even harder to talk about.

9 thoughts on “What are you?

  1. It was the same in Rosedale. I thought there were only Catholics, Jews and blacks. I didn’t realize America was a majority Protestant country until years later. And conflict along these lines of demarcation was commonplace. Frankly, I remember those days as violent and scary. People who you had never met already hated you, if not for your religion, then for your race. Thank you for bringing up this very important topic.


    1. Gary, you and I have had many conversations about our respective experiences. I invite you to write something up – I would be happy to have you be a guest blogger. You are a wonderful writer! Growing up in Rosedale, I know you had some very poignant experiences. I hope you will take me up on the offer.


  2. As always, your blog inspires reflection. Here are my three deep (for me) thoughts:

    First: You have written, “I never had to face that issue, though I can’t imagine my parents issuing such an edict” with respect to Aunt Simma not being allowed to go to a house of a person of color. That our NANA (the person who both you and I have used as a model to guide us in how to live our lives) was prejudiced was also a shock to me. Here is how our father handled it. Prior to my Bar Mitzvah I modeled for Nana my grey suit. Her response included that it made me look like a Puerto Rican. I was saddened as I detected (correctly) that this was not a compliment. I returned downstairs and Dad (the perceptive parent that he was) noticed I was not as ebullient as I had been when I went upstairs. He asked what was the matter. I told him. He had to work at not exploding. He then calmly said, “your Nana is a wonderful person, but not perfect. You are NOT to emulate this particular behavior. Do you understand me, Mark? He then reiterated that persons can be good, loving, yet flawed nevertheless, and we need to learn from the positive aspects and reject the negative aspects.” Linda, my memory of how “calm” Dad was during this exchange may be impacted by the passing of four and half decades, but, time has not altered my conclusion that you, Steven and I were truly blessed to have Dad as our father. What a parent; what a teacher!!!!!!

    Second: You seem to be ending some of your sentences with prepositions.

    Third: Intriguingly, you write:. “We are born into a family or culture that defines what is comfortable and what is known to us.” Agreed. You recognize that we do not come into this world as bigots (ageed), but, you also surmise that we may be “hardwired” to be suspicious of those who are different than us (not sure if I completely agree). Are we hardwired to be suspicious or, perhaps, are we hardwired to be curious? Or is it both- and they may or may not conflict?

    Were we encouraged, or discouraged, to seek out the Italian, Catholic, African-American friends? Do we have the mentors to point out to us the errors/flaws (and not just the positives) of the family/culture into which we are born? If yes- do we shed the bigotry or keep the bigotry? Based on my (non-existent) insight into neuroscience- my supposition is that we are not hard wired toward staying part of the clan and finding those different as being dangerous. Or perhaps that is just my hope?

    If our family could only seek out the opinion of a renowned (and highly talented and delightful) neuro-scientist, perhaps we could become a bit more enlightened.


    1. Thanks, Mark, for recounting that experience. Also, I appreciate your thoughts about whether we are hardwired to be uncomfortable or suspicious of “others.” It inspired an interesting conversation with Leah about the subject. Suffice it to say that we didn’t come up with an answer, but she made several important points: (1) the brain is quite plastic and can be changed, so even if there is some predisposition, it can be altered; (2) that human beings are imprinted with conflicting impulses (as you note) to be both seeking better circumstances and to be afraid of change/cautious about difference. Hopefully I have not misrepresented her thoughts. Happily you can feel free to discuss in future visits with your niece.


  3. What an interesting piece, Linda! I would be very interested to hear others’ experiences with this subject.
    I am the same age you are, but the city in which I grew up (Peabody, MA) was very culturally and ethnically diverse – as in we had large Irish-Catholic, Portuguese, Greek, Jewish, German, Latino, Black you name it. My Father was one of 10 children. He was born in 1920, which should have consigned him to old world prejudices (like some of his siblings), but maybe because he served in WW II in New Guinea and Australia, his mantra to my brother and I was never to judge anyone by how they look or sound, but to “take people as you find them, because we are all members of the human race.” It was an important lesson and one that has served me well all my life. We were free to bring home anyone we wished and visit anyone’s home no matter their color, creed or ethnicity. In 1960, my aunt and uncle, who lived in the nearby town of Danvers, took in two Nigerian exchange students. They came to our family gatherings and were treated as part of the family. I do remember years later my cousin MaryAnn telling me about the hateful phone calls they sometimes received, as well as the remarks she heard as a high school student.
    My street, Buttonwood Lane, was a mix of cultures. One of my neighbors later moved to Atlantis, a few doors down from Simma. I vividly remember going across the street to celebrate Passover with my neighbors the Finegolds when their grandchildren came to visit in the 70s.
    Thanks so much for starting this conversation!


    1. Mary, I love your father’s mantra! I want to adopt it. Thank you for sharing this. Since a lot of people don’t get to see the comments, I am wondering if you would be interested in writing this up and I could share it as part of the blog. I will be sharing a piece Gary wrote on this topic on the blog shortly. I would love it if you would consider it – there is so much here worth sharing. If not, that’s okay, too. I appreciate you taking the time to comment.


  4. Linda you are more than welcome to share anything you wish that I’ve written, I just didn’t want to be a “Blog Hog” on your FB page since the post was so long. I also love the story Mark told about your Nana and your Dad and how you don’t have to emulate certain kinds of behavior, even though you love the person.


  5. I know I’m late to the party, but I have a couple or three thoughts about this blog entry and the comments. First, I remember Mom telling me the story you related about how Nana would not let her visit a black friend’s home. It was surprising to me that Nana felt that way because in my child’s view, I thought that Nana had a lot of affection for Jessie, her black housekeeper (I know I did). I couldn’t reconcile in my child’s mind how Nana could prohibit Mom to visit a black child’s home, yet treat Jessie with so much humanity. I never discussed this with my mother. Race was a topic that came up in our home only when my father aired his multiple prejudices and I fought with him about it. I could never understand how he could hate a whole race of people without considering them as individuals. Mom did not participate in these “discussions”. Because I never talked about race with Mom, I always thought my liberal views on people was something I was born with or it was “hard-wired” in me. Maybe there were subtle cues from Mom that I never realized. Second, I remember the summer we drove out to Champagne-Urbana to visit you (where the picture in your “Hippie!!!” blog was taken). We stopped at a motel somewhere in the Midwest. Ira and I went to the pool to cool off. There was a girl around my age in the pool and we started playing together. At some point, she asked me what I was. I said I was Jewish. She held her two pointer fingers straight up on either side of her head. I did not understand what this meant or why the girl immediately refused to continue playing with me. Later, in the motel room, I asked Mom. She explained that the gesture was the sign of the devil’s horns and some Christians believed that all Jews were devils because they thought the Jews had killed Jesus. I was very upset by this. It was the first time I had ever encountered prejudice directed towards me. Again, I did not understand how a person could label me as a devil without even knowing me. Third, I am so happy to see Mary’s comments. Her father Wally was an amazing guy, who was so warm and loving to me, Mom, and Ira. He welcomed us with open arms into his family despite the differences in our backgrounds. It was my impression that he never had a problem with his Irish-Catholic daughter marrying a Jewish man and that he grew to love Ira. I hope Mary adds her perspective on future blogs. Lastly, I laughed out loud when I read Mark’s comment about ending sentences with a preposition. I was surprised that Mark knows what a preposition is, could recognize it’s use, and had the nerve to call you out on it when your writing is so beautiful!!!!


    1. Laurie, thanks for sharing that story, though it must’ve been a rude awakening. My mother had a similar experience in Illinois (or maybe it was Texas) with someone looking for her horns. I also shared your difficulty reconciling the conflicting messages of acceptance and prejudice on Nana’s part. And, finally, thank you for defending me on my use of prepositions. I was ignoring Mark’s tweak, as you know he does that to me all the time.


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