I grew up in a bubble.
It’s true. Pikesville, MD (just outside northwest Baltimore) was so predominantly Jewish that clever (non-Jewish) people called it ‘Kikesville’. Get it?
My public high schools — Pikesville Junior High & Pikesville Senior High — were so predominantly Jewish that even the non-Jewish kids took the Jewish holidays off because they knew — school was going to be a ghost town. Virtually all of my friends were Jewish (not all but close to it). We tribalized inside the bubble based on which of the major synagogues your family belonged to. Most of us were reformed or conservative Jews. The orthodox among us were the outliers. Wait — you don’t eat steamed crabs? What the hell is wrong with you?
In Baltimore, there was a strong Irish Catholic presence. Evangelicals hadn’t taken hold yet so the Mainstream Protestant pool was bigger. Most Protestants aren’t WASPS. WASPS aren’t just followers of some variation of the Protestant faith, in their minds, they’re its originators — their families go that far back. WASPS are as insulated a culture as Jews can be with one huge difference. Lots of Jews seek to assimilate. WASPS don’t ever. To them, they’re the thing everyone else wants to assimilate INTO. To them, they are the Gold Standard. They ARE White Culture.
My closest brush with WASPs & WASP culture was when I got accepted to the Gilman School — where some of Baltimore’s WASPiest WASPS sent their progeny. I begged my parents not to send me. Gilman was an all-boys school (a very, very GOOD school) and that seemed an impossibility to me. I wanted to take my chances with public school like all of my friends (fortunately for me, the Baltimore County School System was pretty good). WASPs were an alien culture to me even then.
When I arrived at Vassar College, WASPS were among the first shocks to my system. We’re not talking big, knock-you-on-your-ass shocks, we’re talking ‘the-world’s-more-complicated-than-you-thought’ shocks.
Quick sidenote: The other culture I ran into that shocked me as I had NO concept of it whatsoever was California Culture. My first college gf was from Marin County and her wild high school escapades were actual wild high school escapades with naked hot tub parties and drug dealers that made our high school escapades look… well, like high school escapades.
WASPS did everything differently. They thought about food differently for instance. If my housemates and I were throwing a party (I lived off campus most of my time at Vassar), the Jews in the house always overbought food while the WASPS always overbought liquor. Who cared if there was nothing to eat so long as the booze kept flowing. THAT was foreign.
WASPS prayed differently, of course. And they spoke differently. They stood differently and engaged with you differently. In ‘Annie Hall’, Woody Allen nailed the differences between WASP families and Jewish families perfectly with a split screen of two families (one each) at dinner. The WASPS are all very well-mannered, quiet, always speaking in turn while the Jewish family talks over each other like a tic. Something of that deep-seated English fear of embarrassment remains at the core of most WASPs.
Being an outsider, I found WASP culture fascinating — especially its latent (as opposed to its blatant) Antisemitism. The Catholic Church’s history of Jew-hating was a flashing electronic billboard of cruelty, brutality and blood lust. WASPs on the other hand — at least where I grew up — kept their Antisemitism a little cleaner. It was so hard-wired into their culture that you could miss it. But it’s there — even with your friends.
Look — we’re tribal creatures, every last one of us. Strange as it may sound, I don’t mind my friends being Antisemitic if, at least, they own that it’s there in their makeup. Jews making jokes about Jews is one thing. Someone else making jokes about Jews — just cos they can count Jews among their bff’s — that’s always going to be a dicey, ‘it was in the tone of my voice’ proposition.
After college I shared a cute little carriage house in the Cobble Hill section of Brooklyn with two dear friends, both WASPs. A few days after I moved in, we had an Easter party for lots of our friends — and I made the ham. I was genuinely touched when my two WASP friends and housemates praised my Easter ham for its authenticity.
I had assimilated successfully into them, you see — at least, as far as I was going to be allowed to assimilate…