A Jew in the Northwest: Print Exile, ethnicity, and the search for the perfect futon
I was standing, like a good Northwesterner, in the produce section of my locally owned organic-food supermarket—this was a couple of years ago, not long after I had moved to Portland from the New York City area—when I heard a voice in my ear.
“Excuse me,” it said. “You’re a Jew, aren’t you?”
My sphincter clenched. There were two ways this could go, and neither one was good. Either the guy I could now sense hovering at my elbow was a Lubavitcher, doing outreach among his fallen brethren (drawing them near, in the term of art), or he was a Jew for Jesus, hoping to tell me about the Lord. In the first case, I would sling the brushback pitch that I had learned to keep at hand for such occasions, amply familiar from life in New York. Ma ha’avodah hazose lachem? I would say: What is this worship to you?—the words of the Wicked Son in the Passover story. (“To you,” the Haggadah explains, “and not to him. By excluding himself from the community, he has negated the essential.”) In the second case, I would probably just start screaming and ripping up his pamphlets, as I did to a guy in the subway once. Christian missionaries tend to transform me into a kind of Semitic Incredible Hulk, a ball of ethno-historical rage. (A third possibility, that I’d been teleported back to Poland, circa 1941, and was about to be invited into a cattle car, I discounted as unlikely.)
As it turned out, the guy beside me wasn’t a Chassid or a Jesus freak. He was a typical 40ish Portlander—full beard, big sweater, innocent face. But his eyes were shining beatifically, and that’s what tipped me off to what was going on. I had come across this sort of thing before, back in my Israeli folk dance days. There was a certain kind of Gentile, a sort of earnest, clueless Jew-groupie, who would show up at the workshops just to soak up all the exotic yid energy. That’s what this guy clearly was, because he was gazing at me as if he’d finally seen a unicorn.Really, I thought, you’ve never met a Jew before? Well, this was Portland. Maybe he hadn’t, at least not consciously. Just being out as a Jew in this town, as someone once remarked, amounts to a political statement. But me—big nose, Levantine complexion, a certain sardonic set to the lips—I was out whether I liked it or not. So here we were, playing through a version of the classic scene that’s right up there in the tribal imagination with Lot’s Wife and the Burning Bush, the one where the camera pans around Annie Hall’s family dinner table to reveal Woody Allen in full Chassidic regalia.