© 1999 Tilia Klebenov
Code: a system of communication that simultaneously conceals its meaning while revealing it to those in the know.
Jews are excellent cryptographers.
We spend our days proffering and receiving a vast melange of shibboleths as a way of announcing our existence to one another, but not to the rest of the world. One of the joys of being a minority is that we are all dancing to this culturally syncopated beat--which often no one else can hear. We all get to play this game, and so we do. In social, professional, and religious situations, Jews love to discover other Jews. But there are rules by which to play.
Here is how it works. You are chatting with someone. He or she seems nice. Also seems Jewish; but you can't be sure just yet. So you slip in an encrypted statement to see how it is received. The following scenario then unfolds:
You: "I work at the Schechter School in Stoughton."
Gentile Respondent: "The what?"
Jewish Respondent (to him or herself; imagine a thought balloon): Schechter is a Jewish day school. That means...holy smokes, I think we've got a live one!
The Jewish respondent, having received and cracked the encoded message, now has a job, viz., to send out a reply that says, in effect, "Message received; contents acknowledged; and hey, I'm one too," without overplaying his or her hand. In other words, he or she is not allowed to blurt out, "Hey! You a Jew too?" While not inaccurate, such a response is considered hopelessly gauche. No; instead, one must respond to code with code, giving out a message whose subtext, like the first, says, "I am also a Jew, and I know you know what I know."
As my friend Fred puts it, "You never want to look like you're looking. It's a tacky question. You don't ask."
Why do Jews do this? Simply to find others like ourselves. "One of the things that drives it is being members of a minority," says Rabbi Kraus of Beth El Temple in Belmont, MA. "Folks in the majority know there are others like them all around." When a Jew finds another Jew, "You say to yourself, 'This person knows what the world feels like to me.'"
Generally speaking, such exchanges, or at least their import, go unnoticed by non-Jews. This is not to say that Gentiles are a bunch of dummies; it's just that they are generally external to the nuances of Jewish culture. They don't know the signals. The code works; it conceals and reveals. Names, jewelry, personal geography, and overall behavior, especially in speech patterns, can be vital signals for the cognescetti.
Fred puts it this way: "The Jew Game is a useful way of finding other Jews. Jews know Jews."
Like most of us, Fred has certain things he looks for. "Names are a useful indicator," he maintains.
I agree, but with a caveat: In these assimilated times, surnames are darned close to useless. Young Rosenblatt in the cubicle next to yours may be an evangelical Christian with a Jewish grandfather; the Ericksons down the street (he converted to marry her) may be prominent members of the shulgoing community.
First names, however--now, there's something to work with. Hebrew names are especially declarative; and nonbiblical ones, in particular, make me perk up. They are a loud Jewish signal. Last February, for example, I was traveling and met an American family. From the way they were eying my Magen David (see "jewelry," below), I thought I might be onto something. Instantly, my antennae Hebraicae emerged and swung into action. The family wore no distinctly Jewish ornamentation; their place of origin (Upstate New York) was inconclusive. Next step: nomenclature.
Dad's name: Bob. No help there.
Daughter's name: Sarah. That could go either way.
Mom's name: Tovah.
Or, as Fred puts it, "When I'm chatting with someone and she mentions that her name's Tovah, I'm a very happy person."
Now, about that jewelry. Religious trinkets are a fabulous way to adorn oneself with cultural identity. Rabbi Finestone of Harvard Hillel in Cambridge, MA, sees this as the single most effective means to connect Jews to Jews. "Think of a star necklace, mezuzot, a star in a ring, or a Hebrew letter necklace," she says. "That's the easiest and most obvious way to do it: go to a singles party, and make sure you're wearing Jewish jewelry. Anyone who begins a conversation with you is either Jewish or really doesn't care."
"I knew a woman once who had her right ear triple-pierced," muses Fred when we talk about this. "The third earring up was this tiny little chai. It was so subtle. I love that."
Personally, I usually wear a gold Magen David, or did until the chain broke; nowadays I use a chamsah (the mystical charm against the evil eye) that I bought in Jerusalem. Like the tiny chai earring, it's subtle. Most people know that the six-pointed star means Jewish; but how many realize that that funny little hand doohickey wards off the evil eye? Generally, it's only co-religionists; and several times during conversations with strangers I have noticed the other person's eyes shift slightly at the sight of my necklace. A few seconds later, the conversation takes a new twist.
"I was over at the JCC the other day, and...."
"When I went to Camp Ramah...."
"So she figures she's doing a mitzvah, which is why...."
The game's afoot!
Geography, especially geography of origin, can be another indicator of Jewishness, though it is by no means as potent as some of the others. My boss, Maureen, puts it this way: "Jews not only live in cities, they congregate in parts of cities. If people tell me they're from Bethesda [MD], I'd probably ask where in Bethesda. If I say I'm from Sharon [MA; heavily Jewish], that's an indicator, too."
Single Jews do sometimes use geography as a target for their Jewish radar. "If I meet a woman with Jewish looks, I may ask a geographical question," says Fred. "If she says she's from New Jersey, that doesn't help; northern New Jersey helps." With an almost searing honesty, he adds, "If she's got the nose, her name is Rachel, and she's from Long Island, you've got a 90% chance."
Of course, Jewishness doesn't end (or begin, for that matter) with your name, your nose, or your place of birth; it has to do with how you live your life. Specifically, with when you live it. I'm talking scheduling here; we do things differently from our nonjewish neighbors, and we do them at different times, because our calendrical concerns are separate from theirs.
For many years I was a park naturalist in the Washington, D.C. area, and the only non-Christian on staff. Our nature center was open on weekends, so I always volunteered to work on Easter. My coworkers were always ecstatically grateful for this, as though I had done something extraordinarily self-sacrificing and generous. I hadn't. The day meant a great deal to them and was, for me, undifferentiated from any other Sunday. My working then only made sense.
Similarly, my friend Stefan, a doctor in the Boston area, generally offers to work on Christmas. It's a familiar pattern: Jews usually don't mind working on holidays other than their own. Again, for those in the know, there is a distinct pattern of when Jews are where. "They're not there for the Friday office party, or Jewish holidays," says Rabbi Finestone. "There are certain times they're around and not around."
Seasonal questions can be quite potent in this regard. A casual, "What are your plans for the holidays?" if uttered in September, may be the encoded statement par excellence. A Jew will reply with visions of round challah, fasting, and freshly decorated sukkot dancing in her head; a Gentile would probably answer, "I don't know yet--that's not till December."
Despite being a minority, Jews have clout; and our influence has pervaded the culture around us to a remarkable extent. This is very handy for code-writers, because it means we can use non-religious references from the culture at large to find others of our ilk. "When you know someone's Jewish, you assume, rightly or wrongly, that there values and experiences in common," says Rabbi Kraus. "Those things are what drive it."
Maureen, no slouch at cryptography herself, agrees. "I might bring up a movie or an art exhibit," she says. "Right now it might be The Governess. In the way a person talks about it, you can get an idea of how they think and feel. I've professed an interest in Woody Allen. I might say, 'He uses a lot of stereotypes,' and see how they respond. So you head down a path and define it more and more narrowly till someone reveals their secret identity."
Communion at last.
Much of the Semitic semaphore we send and receive is verbal; and Hebrew is probably the single most brutally effective way of discovering fellow Jews. This is chiefly because it is an area where non-Jews are utterly clueless. Why would anyone except a Jew or a seminary student know Hebrew?
"The use of Hebrew or Yiddish terms in ordinary language is a real indicator," agrees Rabbi Finestone. "Maybe not so much Yiddish--everyone says schlep and schlemiel these days; I call it the Seinfeld effect. But Hebrew isn't part of the vernacular. So you use it in a sentence, and the speaker just assumes everyone knows what it is. It's all unexplained. You might say, 'I have to go to my nephew's bris.' Or tzedaka. Or tallis. See? you just drop something like that in, and keep going. You never explain what they are."
In other words, the adroit use of Hebrew requires a certain je ne sais quoi. It's all in the wrist.
The fascinating thing to me is that such Semitic semantics not only identify Jews; sometimes, they even identify the degree of observance of an individual, simply because very often equivalent terms do not exist in English.
Typically, my friend Fred has an illustrative anecdote. "I was driving with some friends, all guys, and we stopped to pick up an Asian woman. The front of the car had bucket seats, and the front person offered to change seats, saying to the woman, 'I thought you were shomer negiah,'" one who stays physically separate from members of the opposite sex. But for this phrase, Fred would never have guessed the woman was Jewish--and, as he says admiringly, hard core at that.
Similarly, several weeks ago I walked into my apartment on a Friday evening with a friend. "I'm not shomer Shabbat," I remarked as I blithely switched on the lights. How on earth would you say that in English? "I'm of a more liberal persuasion than some Jews, so it's okay for me to turn on the lights; but traditionally, I would have set them on a timer or taken other measures out of respect for the Sabbath." Now, that's a mouthful. Hebrew, by definition the language of the Jews, speaks to a cultural context that does not exist elsewhere.
Ultimately, then, what do we derive from the code, the dance, the symphonic poem for many voices? Why do we do this? It is, I would suggest, out of love for our Jewishness.
"There's a certain joy in making the connection," agrees Maureen. "Sometimes it takes more than one round to get there. When you do, there's this feeling of happiness that you've found a member of your tribe."
We love our Jewishness enough to share it with each other, and too much to share it with everyone. We pass it around as a precious, though not fragile, commodity, with boisterous joy and genuine delight at its existence. This, then, is the ultimate message of the code: to show ourselves to each other in a moment of pure revelation that is concealed from the culture at large. It connects us to each other as perhaps nothing else could.
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Tilia Klebenov has a Bachelor of Arts from Oberlin College and a Master's in Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School. She teaches seventh grade at the Schechter School in Stoughton, Massachusetts.
from the February 2000 Edition of the Jewish Magazine