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.

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