(Tevye will eventually make a guest appearance in this series)
I grew up under the misapprehension that Jews were the third-largest group in my city, after WASPs and French-Canadians. Not until I was an adult did I realise that this view was demographically impossible. Not only were Jews not disparaged in my family, they were openly admired. I was in love with Rabbi Handler’s daughter Honi in 4th grade, and more briefly, with his successor Rabbi Klein’s daughter Judy in 6th.
I was in high-track classes and a math and science guy to boot, so there were Schwartz’s, Sugarmans, and Shapiro’s all around. Cohens & Levys, Altmans and Youngers. Normal life. I greatly misunderstood some things about them, however, despite having a synagogue in the neighborhood and hanging out at the Jewish Community Center my freshman year. I thought they were all a deeply religious people, much more observant and fervent than we Christians were. This was not, in retrospect, because they did any explaining of their faith and customs to me. I believe I concluded that on my own from their attendance at Hebrew School and learning a foreign language for religious study alone. They had their own foods, and rules about them. This all seemed a worthy intensity. Furthermore, the Jews in my Bible stories were all intensely concerned with God, and as they had “only half” the Bible, it seemed reasonable that they would thus be specialists in that part.
Not until after college did I learn that many Jews were quite secular, and it came as a shock. It was my Jewish friends I spoke to about my conversion, not so much to convert them, but because I felt they would understand. Learning that Jack Schwartz had taken a class in comparative religion and been taught by a rabbi that prayer was really just mystic thought, found in all religions, seemed some great sin against the universe. Why did some Jewish hierarchy somewhere not put a stop to such things? Someone was ruining the faith of Jewish children! Such was my naivete.
Nor did I know that Jews in general tended to be politically liberal. I thought it was generational, as it was with gentiles. Rich business people were Republicans, but their wise and sensitive children were Democrats. That many of the other folksingers at our coffeehouses were Jewish seemed unsurprising. They were the smart kids, therefore they were also liberal socialists concerned with justice. Like me. I don’t know where I learned about prejudice against Jews in America. Only rarely did another child tell a Jewish joke or make slurs against them in my presence, nor did any of my Jewish friends complain about or make reference to prejudice. I conclude I must have read about it in news magazines. Just sheltered and oblivious, I guess.
I came late, well into adulthood, to this whole idea that Jews tend to be more politically liberal. That gives me both an advantage of some objectivity, but also a considerable disadvantage in not knowing some things down into my bones as others might.