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Shiksa Means “Awesome,” Right?

When I read Rachel Shukert’s description of “Wasp Cove” I couldn’t help feeling that she had secretly observed my hometown. There, we wear madras with no sense of irony, and drink scotch until we can almost, haltingly, express our feelings. … Read More

By / January 26, 2009

When I read Rachel Shukert’s description of “Wasp Cove” I couldn’t help feeling that she had secretly observed my hometown. There, we wear madras with no sense of irony, and drink scotch until we can almost, haltingly, express our feelings. I spent my youth subsisting on a steady diet of club food, like peanut butter and banana sandwiches (in case you are thinking of making them, they taste like plaster). One of my best childhood friends is still referred to as “Bitsy.” I spent a lot of time in tennis whites with Bitsy scraping peanut butter and banana residue off the roof of my mouth, while men in pink and green pants decorated with tiny cockatoos passed by. To my credit, I did realize that having a smattering of cockatoos across one’s crotch was not a brilliant fashion statement.

But it wasn’t until high school that I dated my first Jewish boy. He was intellectual, but not nerdy. He was interested in politics. He was funny. He had very curly brown hair. He was the perfect model for any smart-brooding-handsome-boy-with-lots-of-feelings on any teen drama.

He pretty much won me over the first time drove me out to an authentic deli. It was the first time I’d ever had a genuine bagel. True, I’d had “bagels” in the past, but they weren’t really bagels, they were just round bread with a stupid hole in the middle. There were latkes, too. Latkes with applesauce and sour cream are what heaven tastes like. And there were blintzes. And rugelach. Have you had rugelach? Of course you have. Did you know you can make like five different kinds? And if you have a peanut butter and banana fed stomach, those heaping helpings of rugelach will make it scream with joy? And then you will confuse being too full with “stomach screaming with joy.” Ultimately, I got sick to my stomach, but not right in front of him, so that was fine.

If I had vomited on him, he probably wouldn’t have invited me out to meet his parents. For Shabbat.

“Is that a food?” I asked.

“It’s dinner. On Friday. It’s a Jewish thing,” he replied. Since I’d experienced deli food, I decided that I was fairly worldly and down with the whole “Jewish thing” anyway. And maybe it would have gone fine if I had just excitedly explained to his mother that you can make rugelach with almost anything.

However, since I was 14 years old, I decided that the best way to impress my new boyfriend’s parents would be to speak to them in Yiddish.

Again, maybe it would have been fine if I’d just started exclaiming, I don’t know, “oy”, halfway through the meal. They might have thought that I just had Tourette’s. Instead, I watched Fiddler on the Roof about six times beforehand to prepare, and showed up to dinner dressed like an extra out of Yentl (with a dash of Fran Drescher thrown in).

Here are words I recall using and largely mispronouncing within the first five minutes of meeting his parents which caused everyone’s eyes to widen with horror “kibbitz, goyim, bupkes, tref, mensch, putz, chutzpah, mitzvah.” If I could have found a way to incorporate all of those words into one sentence, I would have. I also proposed a toast “to Israel” which caused my boyfriend’s very unorthodox family to pretty much universally roll their eyes. I find it nothing short of a mitzvah that I refrained from mentioning the holocaust that evening.

I think the general idea was to show them that I admired and appreciated their culture. The actual effect was that I sounded completely insane.

Afterwards, as I was about to leave, I heard his father mutter to his mother “who the hell was the shiksa?” It occurred to me that it was the first time someone other than me had used Yiddish that evening. This realization was distressing. In the car on the way home I mentioned to my boyfriend that his father thought I was a shiksa, and that was awful.

“No, no,” he said, “shiksa means awesome. Like, a person of awesomeness.”

To this day, whenever I hear women talk about how Jewish men make better husbands, I think of that moment, and decide that they are probably 100% correct. I refrain from expressing that sentiment in anything but lock-jawed, Kennedy-esque accented English, though. But Bitsy and I? We still go out for rugelach.

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