By Doni Joszef
If you’ve seen him once, you’ve seen him a thousand times.
You saw him at the Knicks game, innocently sipping his Diet Coke as he munched on his kosher crackers with a tad too much enthusiasm. You saw him at Six Flags, with his six kids, pushing a six-seat stroller. You saw him on the subway, dipping his head in and out of his little book, sneaking intermittent scans of his surroundings, overthinking everything and nothing at the same time.
He is the Jew in the baseball cap, doing his best to go undercover, despite everything about him screaming, “I’m a Jew!” His shirt is a little disheveled, hinting to what appears to be a bad case of tzitzis scrunch. His nose is not as long as his unflattering stereotype suggests, but it’s not exactly a cute little button, either. His belt and shoes have buckles designed by some Italian company. He wears them to make his wife, his mother, or his wife’s mother happy.
He’s overly guilt-ridden, consumed with a strange sort of cultural self-consciousness in the presence of “scary goyim.” Not because he is better than them, but because he thinks they think he thinks he’s better than them, and he feels stuck in this strange trip of transference.
He is the apologetic Jew in the baseball cap who feels the need to cover up his Judaism (albeit, woefully so) in an unspoken effort to appease non-Jewish onlookers by saying, “Don’t mind me. I may be Jewish, but I’m not the type of Jewish you think. I am patient. I don’t devise Ponzi schemes. I like money, but who doesn’t? Let’s all just blend nicely and enjoy the Yankees. If I do something to annoy you, please don’t pull another Holocaust on me. I’m not in the mood for another one of those.”
This is so sick, and so common at the same time. Underneath the baseball cap is a mind ruminating with thoughts, and the nature of these thoughts is the subject of this writing.
Last week, my wife and I took a mini-vacation to Puerto Rico for my 30th birthday. Jews travel to get away from the tight-knit, social stuffiness of our enclosed communal hubs, and then we sniff each other out via some sort of subliminal Jew-detector, scanning hotel lobbies for stocky baseball-capped dads, overdressed moms, and a multitude of kids buzzing around their outnumbered parents with at least two or three Apple products per child.
If you are not Jewish, you simply see them as “Jews.” If you are Jewish, your detector is more refined. You try to decipher what “type” of Jewish they are. Secular? Modern? Ultra-Orthodox? Rich? Poor?
There are subtle hints in the wardrobes, nuances in the mannerisms. My wife and I made a senseless sport out of our Jew-detecting, and by the time we left our hotel, we knew exactly who the baseball-capped Jews were. Believe me, there were many.
We are so obvious, and, yet we insist on cover-ups. We insist on wearing baseball caps. Why? Because we are self-conscious. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. There is a healthy dose of dissonance in this discomfort. It reminds us that we walk the subtle line between healthy engagement and unhealthy enmeshment. We are a tribe in exile, and some silent, yet sacred, part of us refuses to forget this frustrating fact. It may seem like paranoia, but it’s not.
It’s just a sense of being different, and noticing other people noticing this differentness. Cultural hypersensitivity, if you will. The notion of being culturally different strikes the modern mind as outdated and unfashionable. But there is no running or hiding from our identities. Baseball cap or not, I’m a Jew, and everyone else knows it.
Exile was designed for this very purpose. My disguise is a symptom of my discomfort. So long as I feel uncomfortable, I know I’m in the right place. I’m in exile–wearing a Red Sox cap. v
Doni Joszef, LMSW, is in private practice working with individuals, families, and groups in Lawrence. Available by appointment. Call 516-316-2247 or eâ€‘mail DJoszef@gmail.com to schedule a consultation.