Friday, August 22, 2008

Surface versus heart

Looks can be deceiving, as Robert J. Avrech rediscovered at a restaurant in Israel (see second half of the post). The comments so far are pretty interesting, too.

Now, ladies, I'm all for dressing modestly (by all means, let us support and promote ladylike dress and manners, especially amongst godly women), but he possibly has a point, don't you think?

OK, so in my life I've misjudged people based on how they dress, so I know he has a point. And for those of you who think that by linking to Mr. Avrech's post I'm campaigning for ritual, I'm not. But, I've learned the hard way that it's as easy to misjudge somebody because he engages in ritual as it is to misjudge him because of how he dresses. Ritual can shove aside honest faith, to be sure - but it doesn't have to, and often doesn't, as far as I've seen.

In the full disclosure department, and while we're kind of on the subject, I spent about half of my childhood believing I was half-Jew, on my mother's side. It turned out that I was the victim of a disinformation campaign run by my then teen aged cousin Harvey. Harvey, it seems, got sick and tired of certain anti-Semitic relatives, and thought he'd hoist them by their own petard, by convincing very young (read: gullible, excitable, ignorant) visiting out-of-state cousins that they were part Jew, and sending them out to babble this extremely cool information far and wide. (Hey, we were all related to Anne Frank! We were descendants of oppressed people! We were survivors! We had reasons for our big noses!) To make it more fun, Harvey insisted that we were Polish Jew. Polack jokes were all the rage then, you see, and so it was doubly cool to be the butt of jokes but keep our heads held high. (Did I mention we fancied we were survivors?)

The grown-ups all feigned surprise at our claims (which irritated us, as I recall - it seemed so dishonest of them), and then denied the Jewish heritage, but Harvey convinced some of us kids that the grown-ups were afraid of being thought Jewish. Us, though, we were too brave and smart to fall for, or go along with, cowardly lies denying our heritage...

(What? None of your cousins or brothers fed you stories that you swallowed, hook, line and sinker when you were a kid? Never? Ah, c'mon...)

Harvey's hope, as I understand it, was that the anti-Semitic friends of the anti-Semitic relatives would hear that they had been lunching with closet Jews, and kick the supposedly tainted people out of their too-cozy little cliques, thereby making the anti-Semitic relatives get what they'd dished out. I never heard if the campaign worked. And I've never quite decided whether to be proud of Harvey's efforts, or mortified, or a combination thereof. Usually, I feel like it's a combination thereof, with a heavy leaning toward mortified whenever I stop to think how he kept me duped and defending him for years and years.

Anyway, for years I thought I was part Jewish, and I've never quite gotten over my fascination with the more charming of the Jewish traditions. I don't subscribe to them, or practice them, but I still like learning about them.

Years after Harvey shamelessly misled us in the name of a good cause, my mother took me to Tennessee to meet the woman for whom I'd been named.

Actually, I was given my mother's name, and she had been named for this woman, but at the time I was adamantly against having been named for my mother (no other woman or girl where I grew up was named for her mother - It Simply Was Not Done - and besides which it was embarrassing to be named for a woman who had a knack, or so I thought, for causing me embarrassment with my friends), so my parents were riding out my rebellion by claiming that I'd really been named for this woman, despite what they'd told me when I was younger.

Anyway, I met this woman, and she was a remarkable sight to see. She was poised and polished, well dressed, every inch the picture of a southern lady, and she had a voice to die for, liquid, mellow, clear, with a gorgeous accent. We went out to eat, my mother, my aunt, this remarkable creature for whom I'd been named (I was honored beyond words to be her namesake now that I'd seen her), and me. When the waitress came, I quite naturally said please and thank you and looked the waitress in the eye and otherwise treated her like a human being. What else are you supposed to do, confronted with another human being, I ask you?

"We do not talk to people like that," the gorgeous creature for whom I'd been named said, dispensing instruction, dripping scorn.

Long story short, the woman for whom my mother was named, and then for whom I was named, was not prepared to regard waitresses as anything other than subhuman, nor were blacks fully human in her book, and therefore our black waitress was doubly beneath notice. My mother and my aunt were loath to ruffle the revered elder Kathryn's feathers, all the more so because she was the guest of honor at this little dinner, and so they sat there cooing at me not to disagree with her, at least in public.

I wished I could become invisible, and afterwards I briefly tried to switch to my middle name.

I'm over it now.

But it took some getting over, I tell you.

A few years after The Dinner of The Incompatible Kathryns, I considered marrying a black man - not because he was black, but because he was himself - and in the back of my mind, while I was mulling the pros and cons of the match, I treasured the idea of inviting Kathryn Mine Elder to such a wedding.

I think Harvey, at least, would have approved of the gesture.

Anyway, looks can be deceiving.

As if you didn't know that already... :)

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