Writing from the Heart: Afraid of ‘other’

Overcoming ‘You don’t look Jewish.’


A note from Nancy: The good news is I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my new book, “Memoir as Medicine,” coming out this month. I couldn’t have asked for a better publisher, New World Library. They also publish two of my teachers: Eckert Tolle and Deepak Chopra.

The bad news is I am leaving the column because I have another piece of good news, which is that there’s another book that may get published next year. But this is a different publisher and they’ve asked for an extensive rewrite. So I really have to commit to working, and I don’t want to shortchange the column — which I have loved.

The great news is that in my place Judy Hannan, a beautiful writer, will be taking over. You will love her as I do. I will be with you in spirit!

I went to the University of Virginia to become a gentile. The minute I got the catalog and saw photographs of the beautiful blonde Southern belles in organdy gowns and tiaras, I knew that was where I needed to begin my new life. 

Like many Jewish families post–World War II, my parents worked hard to assimilate. Even though the words “never again” might as well have been emblazoned on the front door of our house, God was not mentioned, except thank God, or God forbid. My father said, We are cultural Jews, not religious Jews. But I had loved Hebrew school, and I loved the synagogue with its burgundy velvet seats, and I loved the cantor singing on the high holy days. And I loved my bat mitzvah. 

Still the biggest compliment I could get was, “You don’t look Jewish.”

I lived in contradiction. 

When I was 9, on my way home from school, Danny O’Rourke and his fellow 9-year-old henchmen threw me to the ground and forced me to eat a worm. “You killed our Savior,” they screamed. When I got home, my mother washed the mud from my mouth and dried my tears. Honey, she said, there are people in this world who just are mean and ill-informed. I remember saying, But Mommy, what does it mean? Did we kill someone? We killed no one, she assured me.

But then in seventh grade when I tried out for cheerleading and got picked, the head cheerleader asked the three newbies if there were any days we couldn’t come to practice. We need to choose two days, she said. The other girls said they could come anytime. Reluctantly I raised my hand and said I have Hebrew school on Tuesdays and Thursdays but I could come Mondays and Wednesdays or Fridays. The seniors went into a huddle and came out and announced, “Practice will be Tuesdays and Thursdays.” The way they said it, they sure seemed angry with me. 

Maybe we did kill someone.

Everyone hung out at Maxwell Drug after school when I was in junior high. There were always a bunch of scary-looking boys hanging out front. When I would walk past, some of them would throw pennies at me and yell, “Hey, look, there’s a penny. You’re a Jew. Aren’t ya’ gonna pick it up?”

In my junior year of high school, Gilbert McCarthy invited me to the Christmas Ball at the very exclusive West Hartford Club.I spent all my babysitting money on a full-length forest green satin gown. The day before the ball, Gilbert called me. He said, “My mother found out you’re Jewish, and she said Jews aren’t allowed at the club, so I’m really sorry, I have to uninvite you.” He sounded like he was going to cry, so I waited til we hung up before I let my heart break.

I was proud of being Jewish, but always worried about being hurt. Come out as a Jew or pretend? The contradiction haunted me. I finally figured out I could use humor to protect myself. So I started imitating a thick New York accent and made everyone laugh. I beat them to the punch, and now they would know what I was immediately, and I would be safe. 

The second night of freshman year at University of Virginia, I gathered in a dorm room with all the Southern belles I had coveted; someone told an anti-Semetic joke. And everyone laughed. Including me. I went back to my room and looked in the mirror and had a talk with myself. I even think I spoke out loud. “OK,” I said, “either you tell and you have no friends, or you stay and live a lie. Or you get the f___ out of here and go to Cornell, where you belong.” 

A few nights later in that same room with those same girls I actually raised my hand and then called on myself with an English accent. “Yes, Nentzeh,” I said as if I were the professor at the head of the class. I had given this no thought, so I honestly don’t know where it came from, but I told a Jewish joke with my gramma’s Yiddish inflections. And as the laughter died down, I gulped: “So I am a Jewish person and I am the only one who can tell these jokes.” 

A meditation teacher would have been envious of such delicious silence. And the first person who spoke said (and I can still hear her to this day) “Oh, Naincy I cain’t believe you’re a Jew. You’re so darlin.’” How did I know this was a compliment? But I did. And the next girl said, “I have got to bring you home to meet my Daiddy. He will not believe I have met a Jew.” Another compliment. The third girl asked me if she could touch the front of my hair. I said sure. I hadn’t realized it then, but she was looking for horns. It took years before I learned that somehow the translation of the word “light” around Moses coming down carrying the 10 Commandments was close to the word “horns.” 

Something shifted in me that night. I must have intuitively known that prejudice comes from fear of other. I think I felt some weird responsibility to help some Christians not be afraid of Jews. And I knew I had to make this other safe and even charming. I took my job seriously. In those four years if anyone had tried to say you don’t look Jewish I was ready with, Oh, but I am. I couldn’t be more Jewish.

Contradiction resolved.

But now with the rise of anti-Semitism, I feel another kind of contradiction. This time humor doesn’t cut it. On the one hand, I want to march somewhere. On the other hand, I’m tired of people being afraid of other. I want to rent a billboard that says, OMG you guys! Don’t you get it? We are all others!


  1. Fabulous, Nancy! This piece is so true. My daughter-in-law was Jewish in Texas and came across these same kinds of remarks. I was with her one day and wanted to speak out, but she wouldn’t let me.

  2. Really wonderful piece, Nance. I can’t wait for you and Joel to meet “my” Nancy. If you
    get to NYC or VT (or Westport, this summer) please give a shout so we can catch up.
    xoxo- Marc

  3. A wonderful essay! But where the hell did you grow up? In nyc we heard none of that. And are you certain anti-semitism is on the rise? Or perhaps just bigotry in general?

  4. I love you Nancy.. you are the best;i don’t care what you are.. you are so beautiful inside and out!

  5. I grew up in a middle class suberb in Arlington, Virginia. I never heard anti-semitic talk. My brother graduated from the University of Virginia so I emailed Nancy’s article. He too was not familiar with anti-semitic comments described by Nancy. Of course antisemitism does exist, but there were and are neighborhoods were it does not exist.
    I lived in Israel for five years (I am not Jewish). Often I was asked by older Israelis who had immigrated from eastern Europe if I had known any Jews in America! I was incredulous that my Israeli friends parents would ask me such a question.

  6. Excellent article, for a Jew, never ceases to amaze me how people are raised. Good luck on your book. Can’t wait.

  7. Great writing, thanks. Sounds familiar but in reverse; when my parents finally acquiesced and agreed to join a small, local country club in CT, my sisters and I were thrilled. Bike ride from our house, horses, pool, tennis, etc. It appeared to be a very modest and lovely club for young families. After an extensive application process, and multiple sponsors, the woman interviewing my mother asked “one last question- are you Jewish?” (our last name is Jacob).
    My mother said no, with a tilted head, “why do you ask?” The interviewer informed her that the club “did not allow Jews.” (This was 1980ish).
    My mother was a lovely and gracious woman- I am not sure of the words she used but the message was “oh..what…no thanks”. My young sisters and I were sad not to join, but more baffled by such a rule, and actually pretty mad.

  8. Beautiful and sad. Why with all the pain in the world are we still attacking one another?
    Looking forward to whatever you write next!!

Comments are closed.