“Is anyone here Jewish?”
My ears perked up. I was sitting in the courtyard of Café Mazal, a restaurant serving Jewish-themed food in what was once the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba, Spain. That Monday afternoon, the restaurant was mostly empty except for my husband, me, a waiter, and the gregarious manager, whose English was a bit shaky, so he asked for the question to be repeated.
The middle-aged man asking the question stood by the door next to a silent, petite young woman with a dark ponytail. “Is anyone around here Jewish?” he asked again. “We have traveled all the way here from India to see the synagogue, but it is closed. We want to find someone here who is Jewish who can open it for us. Just for a few minutes.”
“I’m sorry,” the manager explained. “Mondays the synagogue is closed. It will open tomorrow.”
“But we are only here today,” said the man. “That’s why we were hoping to find someone here who is Jewish who can open it for us.”
The manager shrugged helplessly, then explained that though his restaurant served Jewish food, no one there was actually Jewish. In fact, unless there was something I didn’t know about the man and the young woman I presumed was his daughter, I was the only Jew anywhere in the vicinity, and I could not help. I too had come to Cordoba for the day and was disappointed to find the synagogue closed.
“Six hundred years ago, Isabelle and Ferdinand, send all the Jews out from Spain. Since then, no more,” said the manager, waving his hands to illustrate the expulsion of Spain’s Jews in 1492. He suggested seeking aid at the tourist information.
The two Indian tourists, appearing dissatisfied with that answer, departed.
Walking through the narrow white lanes of Cordoba that day, I’d been struck by the degree of general interest in reclaiming that city’s long lost Jewish past. There were Jewish-themed souvenirs for sale. There was a plaza named for Maimonides with a statue of the great doctor-philosopher, beside which I watched a group of Japanese tourists take turns posing for photos. There were books on the subject, and records of Sephardic Jewish music for sale.
That fascination was all the more surprising to me because while growing up in a Jewish suburb of Detroit, I had never felt there was anything very fascinating or exotic about my ethnic-religious identity. In fact, most of my life, I have felt as if being Jewish was something I’ve admitted to rather than broadcasted to strangers.
I suppose it did not help that the images and role models of Jews I was exposed to growing up were often pious (any number of prophets), intelligent (the great rabbis, plus Einstein and Freud), cultured (numerous great authors, artists, directors), funny (the Marx Brothers, Woody Allen), and of course victims of prejudice and genocide. But to my recollection, Jews were rarely sexy, alluring, or cool.
And then there was something else. “Remember what happened in the Holocaust,” was something I heard very often as a child. I was taught to be careful, that there were still neo-Nazis out there. I was reminded that the history of Jews in Christian lands until very recently has been a precarious one. In fact, my father taught me that unless I had good reason to believe otherwise, I should assume that most non-Jews were anti-Semitic.
I remember once as a teenager in synagogue hearing our rabbi wonder aloud during a sermon why it was Jews were more likely to say “I am Jewish” rather than “I am a Jew,” as if the second version had the tang of a slur. Though none of us raised our hands to answer his rhetorical question, I had a pretty good idea that we in the audience knew what he was talking about and why.
Today I am a mostly non-practicing Jewish adult who nonetheless takes great pride in my heritage. I am happy to be part of a culture that has given the world so much in terms of spirituality, art, science, philosophy, and so much more.
And yet there’s still that unfortunate residue of my growing up years that quivers in the middle of my chest, that sticks at the back of my throat, that catches at the tip of my tongue, so that when I’m mixed company, in unfamiliar surroundings, and I hear the question “Is anyone here Jewish?”
I do not spring up from my table to answer:
“Yes, I am. I am a Jew.”