We cannot help it. As a minority, we wonder either silently or out loud how many of the people around us are members of The Tribe.
I became fully aware of my own habit of counting Jews two years ago in, of all places, Brown’s Hotel in London. Founded in 1837 by James Brown (butler to Lord Byron) and his wife, Sarah (maid to Lady Byron), Brown’s is the most elegant of places.
A group of friends and I had stopped there for its famed high tea. As we sat and sipped, we not only marveled at the fragrant teas and yummy treats, but also thought of the many luminaries who had stayed and taken tea there. Rudyard Kipling wrote “The Jungle Book” at Brown’s. Oscar Wilde, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson and Bram Stoker were regular visitors.
As we talked, it occurred to several of us Jews that not too long ago we would not have been allowed inside this tony establishment. And so, it began … the count. Of our group of seven, five of us were Jewish.
Why did it matter? Why did we do the tally? Did anything or anyone make us feel out of place? No. Did we feel out of place? No. Yet, for some reason, we did the count and had the conversation.
As a middle-age woman, my connection to Judaism has deepened.
Growing up, I always was in the minority. Even in New York City, most of my friends were Irish or Italian Catholics. In Las Vegas, it was the same, although the mix included a number of kids who were LDS (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). I didn’t intentionally not hang out with Jews; the mix of my friends’ religious and ethnic backgrounds was pure chance.
My husband was reared in the Catholic faith, but we were married by a rabbi and our son had a bar mitzvah. Religious affiliation was not a primary driver in our lives.
Now, however, as a middle-age woman, my connection to Judaism has deepened in inexplicable ways, and as part of it, this counting Jews has become “a thing,” a habit, something I do but cannot quite fathom why.
Counting Jewish Nobel Prize winners is easy to explain. That’s about pride and identification. But counting Jewish friends? Why do that?
None of my non-Jewish friends, when gathered in a group, ever counts gentiles. I know this for a fact. I’ve asked. They think my question and the idea itself quite odd.
Yet my non-observant Catholic husband thinks this habit of mine and my other Jewish friends is understandable, given the centuries of persecution, expulsions and extermination Jews have faced. He says the simple need to keep track of one another is reasonable.
That may be part of it. But I think it has more to do with getting older. With so many of my generation’s parents and grandparents gone, I think we look to other Jews as our pseudo-family — people who share our ancestral stories, our culinary tastes and, also, the very real sense of being a discriminated-against group. We want to be among our own, protected against prejudice, warmed by the familiar and comforted by a most primitive belief that there is some strength in numbers.
And so, I admit it: I do it. I count Jews.