“Excuse me, but are you Jewish?”
He asked me this with the tone of someone inquiring whether this chair was taken. On instinct, I re-doubled my efforts to read my book and pay him no mind.
“Excuse me sir,” he was insistent, “I was just wondering if you were Jewish.”
With great reluctance, I looked at my inquisitor. He sat in a seat directly to my right on the other side of the train. The man had on black trousers, a black jacket, a white button up shirt with a tie, and a copy of the Wall Street Journal rested in his lap.
“Were you talking to me?” I asked
“Yes. Oh I didn’t mean to interrupt your book,” said the man hastily.
“Well reading can make the train ride a little less painful.”
“No I mean why do you ask whether I’m Jewish.”
“Oh right,” the man laughed and shrugged, “I really don’t know. Guess I was just curious. Is that wrong?”
I studied him closely. He sported a thin moustache and there were several wrinkles under his eyes. His smile was suspiciously cheery for a morning commute.
“It’s a peculiar question,” I replied.
The man nodded absently, “Not too many people ask you then.”
“No, I’m quite used to being asked this question. It’s just the nature behind it that always intrigues me.”
The man did not follow where I was going. I continued.
“When was the last time someone asked you whether you were a Catholic? ‘Excuse me but I couldn’t help wondering, are you a Presbyterian. You’ve got a very Presby type of nose so I merely was wondering.”
The man was confused, “Is there such a thing as a Presbyterian nose?”
“Who knows? But those questions are rarely if ever said to a stranger, no?”
“This is what I’m saying.”
He furrowed his brow, attempting to understand. “I’m sorry sir, I still don’t follow.”
I looked at him and understood how far apart we were from understanding each other.
I got up and walked to his row, “May I?”
“But of course,” he said while moving his briefcase in order for me to sit.
He looked unprepared to continue our conversation but I continued anyway, needing to make my point.
“Nobody asks whether you’re Methodist, Christian, Buddhist, or anything. But ‘are you Jewish?’ It is asked in such a manner because, in these people’s minds, there is obviously no other answer, right?”
I smiled at the man to let him know he was among friends. He smiled back, “Well I don’t know about that.”
“No, no let’s be honest.” I began gesticulating comically, “They have seen this man, with a schnoz out to here and his curly brown hair and have determined that he without a doubt, is a Jew.”
The man, fidgeting with his paper timidly asked, “But they are so what’s the harm? What’s wrong with being right?”
I laughed more out of the incredulous nature of his statement than because I found him amusing. The man interpreted incorrectly and laughed with me.
“Look I don’t know you from anyone else and I don’t know where you came from or what your relatives were like but what I know is that that question. That question that so many other people, some like you and some not so much like you, have asked can be very harmful to answer. You have to understand that some people come from a place where answering this question meant they could either continue grocery shopping or they could go up like smoke.”
He flinched and I saw anger rise inside himself but before he could talk I pressed on.
“And I can see that you didn’t like that comparison. Why would you? I made a snap judgment based on a small question you posed to determine the type of person I believe you to be.” I dug in, “Isn’t that awful? Isn’t that low of me?”
“Are you Jewish?” I asked him.
The man laughed, “No, no I’m not a Jew.”
I looked at him quizzically, “What’s so funny?”
The man gave me a knowing look that I did not understand, “Do I look Jewish to you?”
“Do I look like a Kike to you?”
The man crumpled his newspaper in his fist, “Hey now that is not what I meant!”
I titled my head, “I’m sorry, have I offended you?”
“I can’t imagine what that’s like,” I replied, holding his gaze with fire in my eyes and soul.
The man had nowhere else for our conversation to go and so he turned for comfort out the moving train window. I got up to return to my seat.
“The next time you see someone like me and wish to ask whether they’re jewish?” I said as flat as I could.
“Do yourself a favor and bite your fucking tongue."