When I tell someone I work for Jewish United Fund, I receive one of two responses:
- "So! You're Jewish!" or
- "Oh. You're Jewish?"
The thing is—I'm not. You may have guessed that by reading the title of this blog or my name, or, if you met me in person, you would be certain I was not when I interrupted a lively verbal exchange to request the definition of a Hebrew or Yiddish word or phrase. Learning these expressions has given my speech new color and texture—I love words and enjoy peppering conversations with my new vocabulary.
When I started working here last year, I immediately sought out common values and ideas, which on the surface might seem challenging. My religious background is Christian, my ethnic background is Irish and Polish, split evenly down the middle. My mom's parents immigrated from the Emerald Isle to the South Side. On my dad's side, his mother's parents came to Chicago's west side from Poland via Milwaukee (the city, not the street); his father's parents came from Poland straight to Chicago, first settling near Division and Milwaukee Avenue, and then in Bucktown in the mid-1940s—in the same house they and later, his parents lived until the end of their days.
I grew up and spent the first decade of married life around the suburbs. I lived in seriously cold north central Minnesota for another decade or so until we landed just north of the Cheddar Curtain, where we still live. I commute to Chicago by car and then train each day.
So, what does an Irish/Polish Cheesehead have in common with her Jewish cohorts?
We all love Chicago, which leads to the next most obvious commonality: our love of food. The cuisines may differ, but we all love to eat! Food brings people together, whatever the occasion—holidays, birthdays, weddings or funerals. As far as Jewish food goes—let me have latke! I first tasted it when I was a kid, during a Chanukah celebration at the home of family friends. And, though Wisconsinites call latke, "potato pancakes" at their Friday Night fish fries, I know the real name. I taste the connection to our Jewish friends every time that crispy, greasy goodness rolls over my tongue.
A reliable Jewish source (my supervisor) told me that I have an almost-Jewish home because we have books in our living room—and no TV. I like having a separate space for the television. Always have, even when our kids lived at home. The television was too distracting to have in such a main area of the house. Whenever my husband and I sat in the living room to talk after dinner, like magic, the kids would appear to sit—and I treasure those memories. I observed that in a room with a TV generally had the opposite effect. There was no conversation or interaction, and after a short time, the kids retreated to their rooms.
Family—and community as an extension of family—is incredibly important to me, and clearly, this is important to my adopted Jewish family as well. I love that the Chicago Jewish community—through JUF—takes care of its own people. Feeding the hungry, providing shelter for the homeless, helping people find jobs so they can support themselves. Those things barely scratch the surface of what we do, but meeting basic needs is what captured my heart. There is a sense of responsibility to community that is difficult to explain; it is overwhelming and wonderful at the same time.
So, while technically, I am not Jewish, I wonder—is it possible to learn and grow a Jewish heart?