They ask if I'm from New York

What they mean is, they think I'm Jewish.

Published November 22, 2000 8:30PM (EST)

"You're from New York, right?"

I wish I had a buck for every time someone had asked me that over the years. It wouldn't make me rich, but I'd definitely have enough for a nice weekend getaway -- hotel, sauna, massage, dinner, the works.

I have nothing against New York, which I visit a couple of times a year. But I wasn't born there and have never lived there; ditto for parents, grandparents and so on, straight back through the entire genetic line. I have no connection -- historical, philosophical or linguistic -- to the Big Apple. I don't look, dress or sound like a New Yorker.

What I am, though, is Jewish.

"Aren't you from New York?"

The people who've asked me this over the years would be shocked at any suggestion that they are being racist. Their vocabularies are devoid of epithets. They would fiercely contest the idea that they cherish stereotyped notions about any group of people.

"Now, you came from New York originally, didn't you?"

For the first 20 times or so, I reacted politely, smiling as I shook my head. Then I started to get annoyed. The comment came so often, always posed the same way, with the same raised eyebrows, the same knowing glint. "I've nailed you," it said; "I've got your number. I know."

"New Yorker, eh?"

I changed my response. "Why do you think that?" I'd ask. Or, "Gee, it's really interesting you would say that." And finally, "No. But I bet I know why you thought so. It's because I'm Jewish, right?"

This last response was only a good idea if I enjoyed seeing people squirm, or get hotly defensive; never the best way to liven up a party or a job interview. In recent years, I've reverted back to just saying no, eliminating the smile. Trying to respond with my own glint, which says the same thing as theirs: "I'm on to you."

None of the cultural shifts over the past 40 years have had much effect on the frequency of these comments. And no, they don't carry the same wallop as the one Peter Trelogan threw at me in sixth grade, twisting around in his chair to confront me with -- "You Jews killed Christ, didn't you?" That's not something we get much of anymore, thankfully.

But stereotyping is still alive and well. Thriving, actually. I was reminded of this recently because of another comment, one my sister has been hearing a lot of lately. Her son, my nephew, is currently attending his first year at Middlebury College, on a full scholarship.

"It's a basketball scholarship, right?" or "He got it through basketball, didn't he?"

My nephew, as it happens, is biracial. His father is black. And no, it wasn't a basketball scholarship, as a matter of fact. It was an academic scholarship. My sister, teeth clenched, puts them right. Their eyes glaze; the glint fades. You can tell they're not pleased to have their preconceptions blown away. Their fond, warm, deeply held preconceptions; those persistent barnacles attached to the brain that nothing -- no movement, shift, information, or reality -- seems capable of dislodging.

No one, at least, is going to be peppering him throughout his life with "Aren't you from New York? You're a New Yorker, right?" Which he is, by the way, born and bred. Jewish too. But he doesn't look it. If you know what I mean.

By Judy Oppenheimer

Judy Oppenheimer is the author of "Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson" and "Dreams of Glory," the tale of a high school football season. A longtime freelancer, her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Baltimore Sun and Baltimore Jewish Times. She lives in Washington DC.

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