The Chosen Few
When the holiday season hit this year, I found myself not thinking about how to be a good Christian, but how to be a good Jew. You see, every December I end up at this decadent Hanukkah party, and this year I want to pass for the real thing. I'm tired of being the outsider while the chosen few schmooze over latkes.
It’s not hard to be an Honorary Jew by pop culture standards: you just need five Jewish friends, and you're in. With over 80,000 Jews in San Francisco (almost 10% of the city’s population), it goes without saying that I meet the prerequisite.
Besides, I've been training for this for ages. I’ve circle danced at Jewish weddings, eaten the matzah at countless Passover seders, partied at the Jew Mu with a He'Brew Beer (or two) and probably even hugged your Jewish grandmother at some point or another.
After kvetching over nuances and so on with some of the most discerning Jews in the city, I found the keys to the kingdom to be surprisingly, disappointingly and conclusively, elusive. Here’s my story.
When I arrive at Absinthe five minutes late, Michael Moskowitz is already on his second dry martini. He describes himself as a "Torah Jew, but failing on a daily basis." He doesn’t belong to a synagogue, but he does have a Master’s degree in Middle East Studies from the London School of Economics.
He's far from encouraging when I tell him about my mission. "Nicole, the closest you can get to being an Honorary Jew is being a shabbas goy" – someone who helps Jews by performing duties that are forbidden to them on Shabbat, such as switching on a light. He's joking, I think.
"Seriously, there's a simple, standing rule: if your mother's Jewish, you're Jewish. If she's not, you're not. That's it. It doesn't matter how Jewish or Jew-ish you may look, act, or feel – or how polished and lyrical your sense of irony may be. The notion of an honorary Jew is a fallacy." Apparently, San Francisco is full of people who think they're Jews. Michael reminds me that Judaism was first a peoplehood, not a religion. Bloodline is the only real determinant, unless you choose to convert.
And Jews in San Francisco aren't really all that Jew-y. "African Americans in New York are more Jewish than Jews in San Francisco." Guffaw. Seriously? "Trust me," Michael says. "Lenny Bruce was spot on. The gentile living across from Crowne Heights can tell you more about Yom Kippur than the average yid can in Pac Heights."
Maybe the numbers explain it. San Francisco just can't compare to a city like New York, the world's second largest Jewish city after Tel Aviv. When you don't have as many Jews, you don't have as many temples; when you don't have as many temples, you don't have as many kosher food stores; and when you don't have as many kosher food stores, you just don't have as many practicing Jews.
So who are these San Francisco Jews, anyway? I know just who can tell me.
Peter and Denise Goldstein are two of the most connected Jews in the city, so I drop by to help them make latkes for their upcoming Hanukkah party and get the skinny on the SF Jew scene. They call themselves “east coast reform” to set themselves apart from the more liberal west coast version of Judaism, which is more relaxed.
"We've got a great name for Jews in San Francisco, actually – Buddhists." Peter's joking, but I'm reminded of a flyer I recently came across for weekly Makor Or meditation classes at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The new age hippie dippie types and mystic Kabbalah practitioners tend to stay in Berkeley, leaving whole lotta High Holiday Jews here in the city – mostly going to temple for Hanukkah, Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
And keeping kosher? Fuggetaboutit. "The closest we get to dietary rules is Chinese food on Christmas," Peter jokes, and Denise's childhood rabbi didn't keep kosher at all. Those who are determined to keep kosher have to look high and low for the basics – it took Denise months to find her kosher salami at Mollie Stone's.
I’m a little surprised by how lackadaisical it all sounds, because the Jews I know are family people, community people, intellectual people, discerning people – the kind of folks who keep and value traditions, even more than your average philosoph. We conclude that, at least in San Francisco, the spiritual has taken over the traditional. Maybe that’s okay?
As we're talking, the potatoes have been peeled, worked over into pancakes and then browned to a crispy golden perfection on the stove top. Here's Denise's recipe:
Prep: Peel and grate 6 medium potatoes into a colander. Chop up a 1 onion and add it to the potatoes. Wring out the grated potatoes and chopped onion in a kitchen towel and then transfer them to a bowl. Add 2 beaten eggs , ½ cup of flour and a 1 teaspoon of salt.
Cook: Heat ¼ cup of olive oil over medium heat (until hot but not smoking). Spoon 2 TB of latke mixture into the skillet at a time, smashing down into 3 inch rounds.
Cook until brown (about 5 minutes on each side). Transfer to paper towels to drain and season with salt to taste.
Serve: Slather with applesauce and sour cream. Serve: Slather with applesauce and sour cream. Serve: Slather with applesauce and sour cream.
Mmm, delish. I can now make a drool-worthy latke and tell you a little something about San Francisco Jews. But am I any closer to the path of righteousness? I decide to ask a Rabbi.
I catch Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller of Congregation Sherith Israel between Hanukkah festivities, and she sounds tired on the phone, making me wonder how many Honorary Jew requests she gets around this time of year. Serith Israel is a reform congregation, and she has practiced there for 6 years.
She’s quick to tell me that Honorary Jew is not a phrase she uses, and in fact, is inclined to think that one who does use it may be taking a whole culture lightly unless they are participating in Jewish life actively. That said, there is a Hebrew term for people like me, who hang out with the Jews – “ger toshav” (the resident sojourner) – and we've had a respected place in the Jewish community through the ages.
The only way to become a true Jew is to convert, and it turns out it's quite a process. First, you take your intro to Judaism class. Fine. Second, you study with a rabbi or mentor to learn Jewish practice, Hebrew, philosophy and history. No biggie. Finally, you’re ready for the mikveh bath – your ritual immersion and conversion.
No sweat, right? Umm… the whole process takes between one and seven years. Years! I thank the Rabbi for her time.
Sad and defeated, I decide to kick things up a notch. Surely there’s a way to live vicariously through my Jew friends now that my Honorary Jewishness dream has poofed?
A gorge fest at Miller's East Coast Deli on Polk Street is in order. Robby Morganstein opened the deli in 2001, and it's quickly become a San Francisco institution. Our server, Adrienne, has lots of suggestions when we tell her what we're looking for – straight up, old school, traditional Jewish deli food.
We start out with the cheese blintzes. They are oh-my-god heavenly pockets of creamy goodness, especially when dipped in their house-made apple sauce, spiced with cinnamon. The matzah ball soup is a wonder in itself, with tender fluffed dough immersed in a simmering chicken broth. We order the pastrami sandwich "clean" – no Russian dressing and no swiss cheese, just sauerkraut and mustard – but it still manages to sends me into another orbit.
Between bites, Denise gives the dirt on what the Jews are up to these days: hanging out at The Hub at the Jewish Community Center for literary events, checking out parties at the Jew Mu (Contemporary Jewish Museum) and even attending a certain late shabbat service at Temple Emanu-El. On any given second Friday of the month, you'll find almost a thousand young professionals listening to an inspired rabbi and craning their necks to check out the set of legs down the aisle.
She’s a little less sure about sending me to JDate – the online dating site where she met her husband and both of her siblings met their fiancés. There are some Jewish women who consider it to be “sacred ground,” for Jews only. If you're considering crashing the party, you may want to put "jewlovin'gentile" as your screen name.
In the end, Denise believes that there's something about the Jewish faith that draws certain people in, and that these are the chosen few. She tells me I’m her Honorary Jew – that I’ve got the soul for it. Problem being, I don't believe her. I know too much. I sigh inwardly and take heart in the fact that I can go back to putting ketchup on my latkes.