by Judith Rosner (Sarasota, FL)
Growing up Jewish in New York City, I never saw myself as different. So I was unprepared for the flat Texas landscape where a church sat on every corner and religion for many, particularly Baptists, was a way of life, not a part of life. My husband was serving his stint in the Air Force and while Texas was foreign territory for us, compared to Viet Nam where he might have been sent, it was a slice of heaven.
I busied myself as a research assistant at Texas Christian University and also took on a teaching position there — an Evening Division class in Sociology 101. I thought this job would give me an opportunity to test the teaching waters, never dreaming how rough the waves could be.
“Every week when I drop you off, I feel like I’m feeding you to the lions,” my husband said as he pulled the one car we shared over to the curb and deposited me in front of the campus building where my class was to meet. He was right. I was a brand new teacher facing students considerably older than my twenty-three years and there wasn’t a landsman among them. I landed in a Christian arena every Thursday evening. Each week I prepared ad nauseum, put on a confident and competent face, and came home to collapse from the exhaustion of it all.
I gave my class an assignment to prepare an oral report on a topic in the curriculum. One evening, a student approached me and asked, “Do y’all think I could use a Pentecostal religious sect as a topic for my report?”
“Why don’t you stay for a few minutes after class and we can talk about it?” I said. I needed a little time to ponder the question.
After class, I sat down with the student and said to him, “Well, religion is one of the social systems so you can use it as a topic. But I’d like you to present your report in the form of a social movement.” I gave him an outline to follow.
“I’ll be interested in hearing what you have to say since I know nothing about this religious sect,” I said as I began gathering up my papers and purse.
“Oh. Y’all must be Catholic.”
“Catholic? Why Catholic?”
“Y’all are from up North,” he responded.
All the students knew I was from “up North” because of the speed at which I spoke.
“Gee, I didn’t know the two went hand in hand.” I was biding time and I knew it. Running through my mind were two incidents I’d buried deep in memory hoping never to unearth them. One took place at a New Hampshire beach where a nine-year old playmate asked me my Baptismal name. When I told her I didn’t have one because I was Jewish, she started looking for my horns. The other was when my friend Elaine came home from parochial school at Easter time to tell me Jews killed Jesus. The fear, the hurt returned and I looked toward the door, judged how far it was from where I sat and how long it would take me to run to it. A whole minute passed.
“Well, then, what are you?” he asked.
Did he really think there were no other religions in the world? I took a deep breath and said, “I’m Jewish.”
His jaw dropped and he said in a whisper, “I met one of them once. She was a rich girl from Dallas.”
I was afraid he’d next be looking for my horns, but instead he asked me question after question about Judaism. I had difficulty answering many and thought, This is it! This is all this guy is going to know about Jews. The responsibility foisted on me as representative of my religion felt weighty. And yet, in another way, I sensed a lightness that came from the relief of sharing my identity and finding that the greatest consequence was curiosity, not contempt — or worse.
There will always be part of me that fears I’ll hear an anti-Semitic remark and not know how to respond, or attempt to explain something “Jewish” and not get it right. But I’m open with others about who I am and proud of my Jewish identity. In the end, I’ve decided that if I am the only Jew people meet, I’m a really nice one to get to know . . . even if I can’t answer all their questions about my religion.
Judy Rosner is a sociologist, leadership trainer, and executive coach. She has published articles in the areas of leadership and management, stress and health, and women in the professions. Her primary focus now is memoir.
For more information about Judy, you can visit her website www.therosnergroup.com.