“Are you a Jew?”

For some reason I seem to be a magnet for quiet eight-to-ten-year-olds in whatever library I work. (I suspect part of our camraderie stems from them knowing instinctively that I enjoy children their age and am subsequently a pushover.)

Currently I have formed an acquaintance with a very quiet African American lad, call him JJ, who always greets me when he comes in and talks to me in a voice so low that I feel like a deaf Victorian grandmother with one of those ear horns because I can never ever hear him the first time.

The other day I really thought I couldn’t hear him because after giving him a new library card (his dog ate it, true story with a trip to the vet and all) he asked me “Are you a Jew?” I had to ask him to repeat himself, maybe twice.

Technically I could be half-Jewish but I’m not really because I don’t know that side of my family and was not raised in that faith (see previous comment about family). So answering that question is always a bit of a pain for me because I can never gauge what people want from me. Do they want to know where my family is from? Do they want to know if they can send me a Christmas card?

Is it because of some other thing I can’t understand because I have no grasp of cultural differences (in class we were discussion stereotypes of Mexican immigrants in relation to a book and I did not know any–for real) because those kinds of things always elude me (I knew a girl at school from age 5 to 18 and only realized she was Jewish in my senior year of high school–true story)?

So, like, a lot of anxiety for a little question.

I tried to answer honestly because JJ is a really polite, soft-spoken young man and I knew he wasn’t trying to be mean or whatever even though I was a little thrown by being asked if I was “a Jew” instead of Jewish (legitimate, not cheating-technically-speaking Jewish people is there a difference between the two or am I the only one who would be thrown?). I told him I was half Jewish more or less and might have raised my eyebrows or something because JJ went on to tell me he was asking because he thought I looked like a Jew.

I get that all the time. I was getting my old, shitty smartphone fixed and the guy at Verizon asked if I was Jewish because I had the dates for Chanukkah in my calendar (and I think because he was looking for a nice Jewish girl which he soon realized I was not, alas). People have also thought I was Russian or Spanish (like they talked to me in Spanish and I ignored them because I knew I wasn’t Spanish). A fellow bus rider even asked if I was French when I was wearing a jaunty beret. I rarely get people asking if I’m Italian, which is funny because that’s what I most identify as after being simply an American from New York.

I’m not sure where I was going with this post, I just wanted to talk about what happened. But let’s make it into a comment discussion as well. So, dear readers, are you ever “mis-identified” by people? How do you respond to what are, essentially, totally irrelevant and prying questions from strangers*?

*Which reminds me that the same day a patron asked if one my coworkers was gay. I told her I had no idea and it had nothing to do with anything. I don’t know if she found him irritating in some way or wanted to ask him out. Welcome to the world of public service!

12 thoughts on ““Are you a Jew?”

  1. This is an interesting post and one that I think I will have to ponder and reflect on . . . the idea of identity, mis-identity, the privilege of getting to choose our identities . . . good stuff.

    I am always mis-identified. I get mailings, invites, community papers, etc erroneously based on my last name . . . I am reminded every time that not so many years ago, any child coming into our city’s schools was tested for ESL services based only on their last name.


    • I had not thought about the implications of such mis-identifications in areas like school. On the other end of the spectrum are unwilling reclassifications as with immigrants whose names were deemed “too hard” by immigration inspectors at Ellis Island and the like.


  2. I’ve gotten the Spanish bit a few times. Once, in high school, someone asked me if I was Chinese right after he asked me if I was Mexican. Perturbing.

    I’ve also been asked if I was bisexual since I wasn’t judgmental about people’s sexuality.


  3. I am often asked “What are you?” by cashiers, people on the train, and the teens I work with. I think this is because some of my features appear “non-white” but I’ve never been quite clear why strangers ask this question. Sure, the teens I work with want to know about me–that’s normal. But having an argument with a guy on the train about whether I’m mixed just seems weird. To be fair, I was asked these questions more often in Chicago. And my answer is usually something coupled with “I get that a lot.” I AM Jewish, and that sometimes comes out. But other than that, I’m a little white girl. So I say that.


    • When I was a page some of my more ethnic coworkers always enjoyed pointing out how white I was whenever things like Reggaeton or rap and hip hop entered the conversation. Fun times. People’s questions can be weird. Once a girl asked where I was from and I said New York and she kept working back through where my ancestors were until she got that I am part Russian and was like “oh I could tell.” Really?


  4. What a thoughtful post. It is always interesting the type of questions we get from the public.

    On another note, have you ever read the Nurtureshock blog (they contend that most of what we think we know about children is wrong). Anywhow, it had an interesting post on how kids view racial and ethnic differences. And your kid’s question brought it to mind.


  5. I have lived in Chicago for over 25 years, but am not originally from here. I have always been surprised over the strong need of many people to identify one’s ethnic, racial, or even neighborhood of origin here. Curiosity perhaps, or maybe a fear of diversity or a need to hang with whatever group one identifies with. Then again, maybe such info encourages some to connect with groups that are unfamiliar, foreign and mysterious.

    By the way discovered you through the link from fuse #8. I like your site and will return!


    • I think it might be all of those things. Connection is a really powerful motivator in particular either with what’s familiar or the unknown (as we all can immediately tell from the beginning of Howard’s End). I suspect when people ask me about my . . . heritage it is often from wanting to know me better or find some common ground.

      Thanks for stopping by, looking forward to more insightful comments!


  6. i get that all the time. everyone things i’m something, but i’m with you, i am just a girl from new york. i think the ethnic division of people causes half our problems. it doesn’t help that i have family all over, lived in mexico (but no mexican). i can never gauge if people are asking if i’m turkish, because they are, and they like me, or is it b/c they hate the turks.

    i also get people who ask where i’m from, i’m like NY, then where are my parents from. i know what they want, i just hate that they ask.


  7. I was just thinking about this again and realized how funny it is that I get this question all the time because I’m so oblivious to such things. To this day I cannot say whether someone I know would celebrate Christmas or Hannukah (or some other holiday therein) unless I ask directly because surnames mean nothing to me in terms or cultural identification. I always buy non-holiday specific cards to avoid the issue all together.


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