(Originally published in the November 2013 issue of Elle magazine.)
Some time ago, I was ruining my day trying to accomplish something simple at my bank when the manager, a very nice guy, came up to talk to me. As we concluded our conversation, he recommended I open a few savings accounts so I could move my money around and earn a bit of interest. He has a customer who does that a lot, he said. “A Jew, of course.”
I almost burst out laughing. How casual the remark was. So earnest. So matter-of-fact. What a look of pleasant innocence he had. And yes, how incredibly ignorant. Indeed, it was such a surprising and dumb thing to say that I simply found it funny.
You see, what he did not know was that I’m half-Jewish. At least I was until I became all Eastern Orthodox a few years ago. And despite the offensive thought underlying it, the comment did not offend. It should have, I suppose. But I was not upset. I’ve certainly heard worse. No, the fact is it seemed so incongruous. So anachronistic. And so utterly stupid that it struck me as funny.
It also confused me. For a split second I thought: where the hell am I? Because, except for the fact that he was clearly not Jewish, it reminded me of the way most of the Jews I know in New York will make fun of themselves.
(How about this one? Two old Jews are walking down the street and they pass a church with a sign out front that says “$2000 to anyone who converts.” “What’s that all about?” one of the old guys says. “Wait here,” his friend replies. So the first man stays outside and waits for hours and hours and hours. Finally, his friend comes out. “So?” the first man asks. “What happened? What did they say? What did you do? Did you get the $2000?” His friend looks at him. “Money,” he says. “That’s all you people care about.”)
Yes, that’s funny. But this bank manager was not joking. There was no humor involved. His comment was genuine and simple. Like something the village idiot might say. Yet here this guy was, young and educated, successful and smart, tossing out a little thought about Jews in a way that was intended to be not just helpful, but explanatory.
Now, I’m not here to moralize. Prejudice is ugly. Prejudice is wrong. Prejudice is evil. Prejudice should stop. Yes, yes. We all know that.
No. What struck me then, and what has stayed with me for these many months, is just how well he personified one of the oddest things about Romania.
This is a beautiful country that’s now all dressed up, has a good education, is blessed with attractive people, drives expensive cars, enjoys all the newest technology, attends the best parties, and has been accepted into one of the world’s richest clubs.
Yet still, for all that, it is also a country that seems to insist every chance it gets in flaunting the fact that it remains unnecessarily prosaic and sorely out of touch with modern thinking and worldly perspectives.
Look at your politics, your businesses, the media, health care. Look at most any aspect of life here. Of course, there is much that is quaint and charming as you drive two minutes outside a city and witness farming with horses, sowing with hoes, reaping with scythes, distilling strong brandy, heating with wood, pulling water from wells. And that’s terrific for postcards.
But it’s not all right to carry this attitude when you want to be considered an equal participant on the world stage or export your businesses to other large markets.
No, for that you need to recognize how the rest of the world works (at least, in those parts of the world where you want to be taken seriously).
The fact is almost all the damage that gets done to this country gets done by the people who live here. Your businesses think they can sell the public anything no matter how they treat their customers. Your politicians insult everybody’s intelligence, both here and abroad, by proclaiming the ridiculous and insisting it’s the truth. And your day-to-day policies effectively treat an entire class of people with neglect (at best), or with outright disdain (at worst). And when anyone tells a story, there is a casual prevalence here, even among the well-educated, to nonchalantly describe someone as a jew, a gypsy, or even a nigger. Yes, your society is homogenous so everyone from elsewhere is different and other. But the world doesn’t care what reasons you have. To us (to use a wonderful Old World-type expression) you simply sound as if you all just fell off the back of a turnip truck.
Which takes us back to the bank manager. In this case, I’m not naïve. I know what he meant when he told me the other customer was Jewish, “of course”. We’ve known for thousands of years what a comment like that means.
And we know that everyone uses labels – adjectives to draw a picture of the person being discussed. It’s nothing new. We categorize people by their ethnic background or their nationality or their religion in much the same way (we think) that we use skin color or eye color or hair color as descriptors.
Yes, I know, we Americans are very sensitive to that – even overly sensitive to that. Almost all of us are from families who at some point in the past were subject to ugly names as immigrants. Germans, Chinese, Italians, Irish, Jews, Poles, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, (not to mention our dark-skinned former slaves, whether they are called Coloreds, Negroes, Afro-Americans, Blacks, African-Americans, or whatever label they choose to assert their demand for respect). We have all known terrible prejudice.
Indeed, my little experience came when I was nine and a classmate named Ray would shout “Jew!” on the playground at anyone who did something he did not like. At the time, I felt like hiding. I went home and asked my mother why people did not like Jews and what religion I was. Trying to be helpful, she told me that when asked, I should just tell people I was “nothing.” That way, I suppose, I would be let off the hook.
She was right, of course. Like many Americans, I was “nothing.” My father, a child of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, did what many of those first-generation, depression-era children did. He got out of New York City, deliberately lost his accent, and fought to assimilate into the world of gentiles around him. It was the 1950s, and being known as a Jew still carried a real stigma. So he sought to escape New York, escape his past, escape his jewishness. Growing up, we never went to synagogue. We celebrated a secular Christmas and Easter. And despite the fact he enjoyed professional success, he always suspected why he – the only Jew in the senior levels of the Associated Press – was chosen to be business editor and not something else.
So to me – and millions of others – labels are recognized as increasingly superfluous, meaningless, and fundamentally dangerous. You become more sensitive to their presence and you recognize their emptiness and you slowly – slowly – begin to feel shame. The shame that you categorize. The shame that you generalize. Even the shame that you notice – that you remain so limited in your view that you still find some comfort by separating those who are different from you by naming them with labels. And you begin to see that this type of thinking does not keep others out of your world as much as it isolates you from the world as it is – politically, economically, socially, spiritually.
Until incredibly enough (similar to what we did in the US), you finally elect a Roma man or woman as your president here.
You think that I’m joking? I hope so. Because that’s a good sign, when the use of these categories, these labels, these identifiers, begin to sound more like the start of a joke than as part of a serious discussion.
Speaking of jokes, I like the one about the Roma who sold his house for twice the price of the identical house of his non-Roma neighbor. Why? Because he did not live next door to a gypsy. Now to me, that is a very funny joke, but only because I imagine it being told by a Roma comedian in the very same way the Woody Allens and Jerry Seinfelds tell jokes about Jews. In other words, making fun of the stereotypes, and shouting a little “fuck you” to the rest of the world because it thinks you are different.
In fact, you might know how that feels. Remember a couple years ago when the French comedian, Jamel Debouzze, said it would be better if the French football team had a Romanian coach because then he could cry, “I beg you please give me the ball. It’s for my poor children?” Or when Jeremy Clarkson of the TV show Top Gear came to Romania and said he felt he was entering “Borat country?”
Yes, to some, this was funny. Even justified, maybe, as these outsiders watch, for example, when you select only Roma houses to tear down in Eforie. Or when they see thousands of people march against gold mining or to help some stray dogs, but then nothing is done to respect gay rights among your neighbors or to ensure every child in this country goes to school.
And then the tables are turned. Then your ambassador to England has to come out and defend all his countrymen by saying the majority of Romanians “work hard, pay taxes and are valued by their employers.” How unfair, he complained, this “scaremongering” that occurred because of the actions of a few.
Unfair, you mean, to label and generalize about a whole class of people? Oh yes, I agree.
Because I would hate to think that someone who overheard that bank manager’s little comment might walk away thinking that he was one of the most ignorant, uncultured, and small-minded people they ever had met. And who knows? They might not have been surprised. Because, they might have thought, after all, he was Romanian. Of course.