Thursday, December 19, 2013

What is a dreidel?

On our first official day in Birmingham, Marc and I picked up our keys, bought some cleaning supplies, and cleaned our new apartment. Late the same afternoon, the moving truck arrived with 54 boxes and our furniture. After a couple hours unloading the truck and another few hours unpacking, Marc and I went out for a much deserved drink.

As it happens, we moved in on the day of the Iron Bowl (University of Alabama vs. Auburn), which ended this year in a 109-yard missed field goal return for Auburn to win the game. Though the game had been over for hours, a few unhappy Alabama fans had stayed at the bar to drown their sorrows. One of these fans was a young woman who, when we sat down, informed us that her grandfather is Jewish and then proceeded to ask me, "So what is a dreidel?"

The question seemed innocent enough at first. I wear a Mogen David necklace, so I am asked about Judaism from time to time and I'm happy to talk about it! Marc and I explained the extreme basics of how to play dreidel, which is essentially a gambling game. At that, she made a few jokes about Jews and money, which she assured us and the other man at the bar that she could do, because her grandfather is Jewish. At the time, I wasn't sure how to take her questions and comments and now I'm still not sure what to make of her. On one hand, she seemed genuinely curious about Judaism and even said that she had tried to ask her 92-year-old grandfather about his religion, but he refused to discuss it. On the other hand, her casual Jewish stereotyping, to say the least, and made me uncomfortable.

Is this anti-Semitism? Ignorance? A mix of both?

Ignorance is no excuse for prejudice. Despite Brad Paisley's assertions, I do not believe that one can be an "accidental racist." In fact, this conversation is not the first I have had in the south about Judaism. Southerners seem much more open to talking about religion than Northerners. In the north, it is rude to ask someone about their religious beliefs, but in the south, it is a fairly common topic of conversation. It is perfectly reasonable in the south to be asked to what denomination you adhere or where you go to church. When I lived in Nashville a few years ago, I had some great comparative religion discussions with co-workers and friends who were curious about my Jewish beliefs and practices and seemed excited just to share a belief in God, even though our religions differed. Those conversations never made me uncomfortable the way the dreidel question did.

In the past, I have always taken pride in leaving people with a better understanding of Judaism after being asked about some aspect or other. I seek out opportunities to educate others or invite questions about Judaism (wearing my Mogen David is one of those ways). I remain uneasy about the dreidel conversation not only because of the young woman's casual anti-Semitism, but because I don't feel that I succeeded in expanding her understanding of Jewish people at all. In the moment, I uneasily laughed off her remarks and turned my attention elsewhere. I felt, perhaps rightly, that her question and inebriated state did not really invite education. I hope that in the future, maybe when she is not drunk and lamenting a huge football upset, she will ask someone about Judaism again and actually listen to what they have to say. The south already has the open dialogue in place to support this informal education between acquaintances if only we can use it when opportunities arise.