How To Bridge The Culture Gap
And where do you work?” the lady sitting next to me in church asked.
“At Jews for Jesus,” I responded.
“I didn’t know you were Jewish!” Her eyes registered astonishment.
“I’m not,” I said. “I’m as Gentile as they come.”
That woman’s reaction typifies the response I get when I first tell someone where I work. Maybe it’s my tall, thin frame topped with sort-of-blonde hair over sort-of-blue eyes that brings puzzlement to those I meet and makes them question my identity as part of the Jews for Jesus personnel.
To “I didn’t know you were Jewish” I sometimes respond, “Nope, Gentile.” Or if I want to explain my heritage more specifically, “I’m a Dutch Gentile.”
In a musical number called “Tradition” the Liberated Wailing Wall—one of our mobile evangelistic teams—portrays the difficulties of a Jewish person who breaks tradition by becoming a Jew for Jesus. I certainly wouldn’t claim that being a Gentile for Jesus carries the same tsuris (troubles), but it does hold hidden difficulties—particularly if you join an organization like Jews for Jesus and you have as much Yiddishkeit as there are kosher meat markets at the South Pole.
Have you ever had to look a Jewish person in the eye and ask, “What’s a bagel?” Or have you ever been offered a bagel with lox on it and remarked innocently, “What a great idea to use pink food coloring on tuna fish!”?
In the interest of sparing my fellow Gentiles such embarrassment should you ever find yourselves in a situation where you might encounter Jewish culture for the first time, I’d like to schmooze (have a chat) with you and offer a few simple helps.
First, a bagel is a donut-shaped hard roll. The lox that sometimes accompanies the traditional cream cheese spread used with it is smoked salmon. And now on to language helps.
Probably the first expression you should learn is, “Oy, vey!” While “Oh, my!” conveys a somewhat similar, although milder and much diluted, feeling of exasperation or helplessness, it just doesn’t carry the same oomph. “Oh, woe!” would be closer. This must never be confused with “Oh, wow!” You would never want to say, “Oy, vey! I got straight A’s last semester,” or “Oy, vey! My tax refund was twice as much as I thought.”
Also watch out for Yiddish words that may sound alike the first time they fall on Goyish (Gentile) ears. Take, for example, “chuppah,” pronounced with the same “u” sound as “put” and begun with a sudden but gentle guttural clearing of the throat. A chuppah is the wedding canopy under which a Jewish bride and groom are married. Then there is “chutzpah,” which is nerve or an aggressive attitude. You can easily understand why it would not be a good idea to congratulate a Jewish mother of the bride on how beautiful her daughter looked under the chutzpah!
Likewise, “mitzvah” means a good deed or the fulfilling of a divine commandment. Never confuse this word with “mikveh,” ritual cleansing by immersion. For example, never say, “I heard that your son gave up his school vacation to paint poor old Mrs. Morgenstern’s house. What a mikveh!” Use “mitzvah.”
Perhaps you already know that meshuggeh means “crazy,” or a little off the sanity track. You will understand, then, why you would not want to confuse meshuggeh with megillah, which is a Scripture scroll, usually the book of Esther which is read during Purim. “Megillah” is used as a colloquialism meaning complicated, boring or overly extended. Thus, the next time Uncle Louie starts in on one of his “why a nice boy/girl like you should go to college,” don’t sigh, “Oh, Uncle Louie, I don’t have time for the whole meshuggeh right now.” Use “megillah.”
So, have I helped you? I hope so. If you’re still not sure you understand, don’t worry. You don’t have to be a linguist to relate to Jewish people or to work on the Jews for Jesus administrative staff. It’s amazing how quickly you can become acculturated. Still, the safest way for Gentiles to enjoy conversations with their Jewish friends is the simplest way: stick to the words you know. Problems you have enough of already! …Oy, vey! Look at the time. I know I haven’t given you the whole megillah in this little schmooze, but if I’ve helped you at all, I’ve earned a mitzvah. Now it’s time for this meshuggeh Goy to get back to Jews for Jesus. I don’t have the chutzpah to show up late for work!
Nancy Boerman has been on the Jews for Jesus administrative staff since August of 1983. She has performed secretarial duties and is currently working in our executory department in San Francisco as an editorial assistant.