Neighborly


D called at noon when I was finishing up my morning sun salutations and we decided to meet for lunch at 12:30. I rushed out and got into L's car because it was closest to Clark Street and would get to Ben's Noodles faster. I'd gone about 20 feet when I noticed some noise and bumping. I pulled into the nearest alley to check it out. As I was getting out, a guy ran into the alley and told me I had a tire as flat as a pancake and to park my car on the left and he would fix it. Then he disappeared behind a gate.

It was true--the tire was flat and the guy returned and fixed it. Just like that. He was wiry and a cop. He showed me the badge to prove it. He's a detective in the organized crime division. He showed me more proof. I believed him before he showed me anything, but I think he wanted me to be street-smart and require that he show me proof. He was quick and said he owns the apartment building across the street from us, and he was doing repairs and improvements. He was fast-talking. When I told him my last name, he asked if I had good holidays, and said his wife was Jewish. I said we would have invited them to our break-fast (dinner when you break the Yom Kippur fast) but he said they go to the Standard Club. I asked if his wife was German Jewish. He said Russian. Ashkenazi. This is a standard misconception. I asked the German question because the Standard Club was started by German Jews--Jews who came to the US in early waves, were often assimilated and middle class. You used to have to be a German Jew to join, I'm told. I'm part of the unwashed masses who came over in the first quarter of the century. I mean my grandparents and great-grandparents were. We were the Eastern European Jews who were typically more religious and poorer than the (snobby) German Jews. And Yiddish speaking. And historically the Eastern Jews (Ostjuden) have embarrassed the Westjuden, because we were unassimilated and allegedly smelled of garlic and the shtetl. I grew up without being able to discern the difference between us and them, but my parents were quite aware. And in Germany, especially, in the late 19th century and early 20th, there was a big divide.

Now the misconception: Most of us from Northern Europe are Ashkenazi--those from cities as well as shtetlach (plural of shtetl, little Jewish town). That means we speak Yiddish (again, our foreparents) and eat certain holiday foods--gefilte fish, matzah balls, tsimmes (carrots), kugel (noodles), apple haroset on Passover. (Hmm, these foods seem Eastern European. What a coincidence.) We are the Jews you know, because we vastly vastly outnumber the Sephardic Jews in the US. They are generally from Arabic countries, speak Ladino instead of Yiddish, don't divide themselves up among Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox branches, and have cooler traditional clothes--shinier, for one. This is a generalization--there are Sephardic Jews in and from Spain and Italy, the former Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and other Christian countries. Many or all Sephardic Jews descend from Spain, which had a little thing called the Inqiusition where they killed all the Jews they could.

Jewish Yemenite bride

A great story about the tension between the assimilated and the unassimilated is Philip Roth's "Eli, the Fanatic."
Roth is writing about the Western Jews (assimilated Ashkenazi Jews) and Easterners (unassimilated Ashkenazi Jews who survived the Holocaust and are religious). Europe is, after all, east of the US.
And us Ashkenazim, you may recall, are more likely than the Sephardim and the general population to have the BRCA gene mutations linked to breast and ovarian cancer. Whether we're assimilated or not.
I was walking later this afternoon to L's car and it was raining. It was medium-heavy, not oppressive. A woman with a large, deep umbrella gestured for me to get under it with her. We agreed that the rain was muy frio. I said something about invierno, hoping it meant winter. When we got half-way down the block, she wanted to walk me across the street to my car but I said it wasn't necessary. After I started the car, I realized I should offer her a ride. I drove up next to her, rolled down the window, asked her, but couldn't get her attention. I turned and drove away.
I was running late. If I was a nicer person I would have made sure she saw me and understood my offer.

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