They ask if I'm from New York

By Judy Oppenheimer

By Letters to the Editor

Published November 28, 2000 8:33AM (EST)

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Tell Judy Oppenheimer to get over her persecution complex. She's not the only person that gets asked that question incorrectly, and it has nothing to do with being Jewish.

The first time someone asked me if I was from New York, I was 17. Born and raised on the West Coast, I had never been to New York. I was raised Catholic. I was, however, wearing all black, and, more than likely, being very aggressive. Ms. Oppenheimer's response to this question does seem to suggest a similar streak in her personality.

Yes, the question was meant as an insult, but so what? Who wouldn't want to be mistaken for a New Yorker?

-- Lisa Liberati

As an intern with the Washington office of Sen. John McCain in the summer of 1992, I was waiting for the Senator outside the Senate chambers when a security guard informed me that "your senator just left, you better catch up." I knew Sen. McCain was still on the floor so I asked the guard who he thought "my senator" was. "Well, Moynihan, of course" he answered, but just then my real senator motioned me to join him and I didn't have time to ask the guard why he had assumed I worked for Moynihan. It was only later that I realized that it was likely because of the yarmulke on my head. Who else would a Jewish college kid be working for but the Democratic senator from New York?

-- Joshua D. Goldberg

If I had a dollar for every time someone in this city asked me if I was Jewish before he or she asked me my name, I'd also be a very wealthy woman. And very often they ask me if I'm Jewish even after I've told them my name. Never mind that to my knowledge, there has never in the history of the universe been a Jew named Kathleen; people here, and especially Jewish people here, assume that if you're white, well-read, reasonably witty and don't vote Republican, you must be Jewish. This despite all evidence to the contrary -- I'm Irish-American and clearly and openly carry the indicative looks, name and nun-induced early childhood psychological trauma.

I believe Judy Oppenheimer's account, and I think she has a valid point, but what she doesn't realize, probably because she's never lived here, is that Jewish New Yorkers do an awful lot to perpetuate this myth themselves: "You've read a lot. Are you Jewish?" "You're a good writer. Are you Jewish?" and my hands-down favorite, the one I first heard in the eighth grade and have been hearing on a regular basis ever since, "You're really smart. Are you Jewish?" If the false equation is white + literary + New York = Jewish, then it only makes sense that people elsewhere assume she's Jewish if the missing variable is her hometown. The media images of New York Jews (on television shows or films written by mostly Jewish comedians) also do a lot to sustain this assumption -- I'm not sure any of the characters on Seinfeld ever actually said they were Jewish, and it makes sense that people in say, Iowa, would think that that's what all New Yorkers are like, even though that humor is specifically Jewish New York rather than general New York. Blame Jerry Seinfeld, blame Woody Allen, but don't blame the goys.

-- Kathleen Bell

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