Boxed In

by Francine Zorn Trachtenberg

Many of our modern cities are designed according to an organized pattern. Washington is such a town. L’Enfant’s diagonal radii emanate from the U.S. Capitol (like Copernicus’ heliocentric universe) and the spaces in between are filled with a rectilinear grid of streets, sequentially numbered and lettered. Every once in a while there is an exception to this layout, but for the most part, navigation moves along according to plan. The Washington DCJCC sits on the corner of Q and 16th Streets, with a clear view to the White House. Prime real estate.

Much of Washington’s political sociology is also pushed into grids: House or Senate, Democrat, Independent, Republican or the Rainbow Coalition; Pro-choice, Anti-abortion, or Taxation without Representation; City Slicker, Country Bumpkin, Red-State or Blue-State. We label positions, people and places into neat (and sometimes messy) categories.

The Jewish community and the Washington DCJCC are no exceptions to this container-mania. Reform, Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstruction, Unaffiliated, Atheist, non-Jewish; Male, Female, Heterosexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Intersex; Infant, Youth, Adult, Senior, Elderly; Health & Fitness, Arts, Children and Family, Judaic Studies, Community Service; DC, Maryland, Virginia; not to mention sports, hobbies, talents, academic majors, countries of ancestral heritage, professional affiliation and food fetishes.

Hannah Higgins has written a book that explores some of the governing principles about how we view / interpret / organize / conceptualize / discuss the world around us. Her work, The Grid Book analyzes ten forms she believes altered the world: the brick, the tablet, the gridiron city plan, the map, musical notation, the ledger, the screen, moveable type, the manufactured box, and the net.

While there is nothing inherently Jewish in Higgins’ content, her book got me thinking about the various ways “the chosen people” depict themselves – some serious and some less so.

Is Jewish cuisine the same as kosher cooking? After the Second World War, Jewish cooking was synonymous with Eastern European food: matzo balls, flanken, chopped liver, kasha with varnishke, potato latkes. But by the 1960s Israeli foods, most with a Middle Eastern twist, appear on the table alongside the Ashkenazi, including: falafel, hummus, sufganiot, couscous, and shish kebabs. Sephardic Jews serve bourekas as hors d’oeuvres, add dates and cardamom to charoset, use more cinnamon and cumin than paprika and parsley and eat rice on Passover. Even with all these mouthfuls, it has been suggested that putting the words, “Jewish, kosher or Israeli” alongside the word “cuisine” creates a series of oxymoron’s, but that is a digression.

In a recent New York Times article, food writer, Julia Moskin, reports that, “Since the fall of Communism and the breakup of Yugoslavia, many young people from the region have arrived in New York seeking work, education and adventure. Charcoal-grilled pljeskavica and cevapi… have become common in neighborhoods like Astoria and Ridgewood in Queens, where Bosnians and Croatians, Serbs and Montenegrins now open businesses side by side. ‘As long as no one talks about politics, we can live together here,’ …”

Our nation was once described as a melting pot, an amalgam of immigrants surrendering their ethnic culture into the term, “American.” But today we are similar to a smorgasbord of distinct tastes, preserving the individuality of numerous heritages and identities. Go to a Nationals baseball game and you can nosh on Kosher Grill’s hot dogs and knishes, chow down on Ben’s Chili Bowl half-smokes, Ballpen’s burritos or Senator’s Sausage – Italian spicy style. Not only to each his own, but your taste is now my taste.

A work colleague once described me as “religious.” I demurred, and she added, “But you’re so openly Jewish.”

“I’m culturally Jewish, not religious. There is a difference.”

“But you celebrate Jewish holidays.”

Our conversation never quite came to closure. The label given to us by others comes with its own set of preconceptions and is often difficult to modify.

Many years ago I asked to serve on the board of a non-profit organization in order to represent “suburban young motherhood.” Now, I’m a not-so-young grandmother and that category no longer fits. As politically incorrect as it may sound, an organization in DC told me that they were looking for “more Asian women from Ward 4” to participate in a new program.

How do you separate this type of descriptive text from stereotypes? How easy is it to move from stereotyping to profiling, or then from profiling to acts of discrimination?

Is it a fence, wall, barrier, an act of self-protection or of mild aggression?

To many people, the lines of the grid are strongest when they become wobbly and provide for flexibility and interpretation. Then again, others say that the confining rigidity gives organization to the otherwise chaotic world.

And you, how many boxes do you fit into, Jewish and otherwise?

Ms. Trachtenberg is the immediate past-president of the Washington DC Jewish Community Center. She is a former Senior Vice President at WETA and adjunct faculty member at the George Washington University’s art department, teaching the history of photography.

Interview with a Coastie

Although it has been on MySpace since October, this past week has seen a flood of articles and posts about the satirical song by two University of Wisconsin undergrads who rap about longing after a stereotyped Jewish woman, called a Coastie — basically a JAP by another name. There have been a lot of thoughtful posts on this topic and what it says about class, geography, ethnic stereotypes and even the opportunity it provides for real conversation about all of the above. But, since the clock is winding down on this internet phenomenon (the story hit the Times on December 15th which means it has about five minutes left) I figured I would interview my wife, a real-live Jewish woman graduate of the University of Wisconsin about the song. This is the conversation we had (sorta) after she gave it a listen.

You went to Wisconsin?
Yes I did.

Did you like the song?
No. Just because they were mumbling so it was difficult to understand them and it was so repetitive that it became boring. I appreciate rap music, but it was like someone who didn’t truly get the genre trying their hand at it.

Were you offended?
Sure. As a Jew to have all Jews lumped-in with this stereotype of a person. I wouldn’t say all Christians are ham-sandwich eating, bible thumping, non-masturbating Christians. Yet you could certainly find them in Madison.

Would you call yourself a Coastie?
I don’t fit that bill from the fashion sense, but I am from the East Coast and went to a Midwestern state school.

Tell me about your daddy’s money?
I was on a Stafford Loan. My parents helped with my rent, but I worked for food money.

So, you had to buy your own sunglasses?
I’m still wearing the same sunglasses from high school. They still work as long as you tighten the screws each day or the lenses pop out.

When you were at Wisconsin, did you act like you were better than everybody else, or did you keep it to yourself?
Because people from Wisconsin got priority at the public dorms that meant most out-of-staters (not just Jews) ended up in the more expensive private dorms like the Statesider.  It was an embarrassing thing for  Wisconsinites to end up in the private dorms because it meant they were admitted later to the college and hadn’t made the public dorm lottery.  And this insult sort of carried over to the whole set of public dorms.  They were farther from campus, had fewer amenities (at least when I was there) and tended to carry an assortment of later admittance Wisconsinites, Minnesotans, and then the rest of the out-of-staters.  In addition to being farther from campus, they were also more expensive.  So they sort of sucked on multiple levels. Right from the beginning there’s a divide between the publics and the privates. But I also went there before there were cellphones, or iPods or Starbucks, so there was probably a lesser divide.

So that means you didn’t tell them you were better?
[I took her annoyed silence as agreement.]

Would you say that Jewish girls from the East Coast stood out even way back in the 90s?
No. But there was a divide between those from the Midwest and those from the coasts.  It wasn’t based in religion and certainly there were many more Christian out-of-staters than Jewish out-of-staters.  I ended up bringing a lot of friends home with me on vacations because it was an opportunity to travel out of the Midwest and a lot of people I met had never been to Washington, D.C.

Do you think some of this animosity comes from the fact that Wisconsinites are known as cheeseheads and most Jewish girls are at least a little-bit lactose intolerant?

What was the strangest thing anyone ever said to you at Wisconsin when they learned you were Jewish?
Beyond the girl who cried when she couldn’t find my horns and couldn’t believe that her priest had lied to her? It was my Junior year roomate’s mother who came to visit once, and as she greeted me said, “I just want you to know that I think Hitler was a wonderful man.” It was a long visit.

Are you sure your daddy’s money isn’t for the spending?
Pretty sure.

Anything else?
I think those guys seem really proud of themselves and I am glad their Wisconsin education has instilled such undeserved pride in their mental prowess. Wisconsin builds self-esteem, and even people who should be embarrassed for themselves have high self-esteem.

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