For Miley Cyrus and Jenny McCarthy: I am Jew- “ish”

Me with a tiny man, outside a tiny synagogue, outside the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Jerusalem.

Me in 1990 with a tiny man, outside a tiny synagogue, outside the Orthodox Jewish quarter of Jerusalem.

Author’s Note: Recently, Miley Cyrus claimed she wouldn’t let a “70-year-old Jewish man” tell her how to run her career. The hosts of The View defended her, citing the folly of youth, though newly-minted co-host Jenny McCarthy questioned it only to make the point, “I would always trust any Jew ‘cuz they know how to make money.”  This point of view is not only problematic, but frightening. In light of  Cyrus’ comments, and The View’s recent “discussions” on Judaism, I wanted to share my thoughts on being Jewish that I wrote a couple of years ago.

“Ish” is the perfect way to describe me!!

I thought of this about a month or so ago as a way to describe my religious life/beliefs, such as they are. Jew-ish.  “Ish!”  It’s right there in the name! I’m a Jew. Ish. Kinda in the middle – sorta…

That helped me crystallize some of the ways in which I am a full-fledged Jew, and ways in which I am kinda, sorta – you know, Jew-ish. For those of you in a similar religious boat, I thought I’d share how I am Jewish vs. Jew-ish:

Some ways in which I am JEWISH:

– Genetically. Both of my parents, all four of their parents, and many previous generations going back to Odessa, Russia, and somewhere in Poland in the 1800s, are and were Jews.

–  I attended synagogue many Friday nights as a child.

–  I consider it a big loss that I don’t know how to speak and read Hebrew and Yiddish.

–  Dancing the Hora and to the song Mayim, even if I don’t know or like the dancer next to me, gives me unspeakable joy and makes me feel like it is possible to bridge any and all gaps.

–  I know that in Judaism, Chanukah is not one of the holiest celebrations. In fact, it is far less holy than the celebration of the weekly Sabbath. Politics aside, my admiration for the way Joe Lieberman does the Sabbath borders on envy.

–  My reaction to visiting the Wailing Wall in Israel? Overwhelmed with emotion and history and the sudden, physical impulse to cry. People of other religions have this reaction, too, but they don’t have it as a result of their being Jewish.

–  I feel fiercely protective of Israel and its right to exist, and deeply, almost personally ashamed when I hear of any misconduct towards Palestinians.

–  My biggest motivation to give blood regularly was taught to me by a more religious boyfriend from my college days. He told me that giving blood is one of the highest forms of mitzvah (good deed) there is.  You are giving others a chance to live, regardless of how deserving of it those people may be. You have no idea who will receive your blood, and it doesn’t matter. You are giving it anonymously, without any expectation of being thanked or recognized by the recipient.

–  In a larger sense, I am Jewish in that I’m proud of Judaism’s focus on life here on earth.  Judaism doesn’t promise Heavenly rewards for performing good deeds, but prizes good deeds because they are life-sustaining.

Some ways in which I am JEW-“ISH”:

–  The main reason I attended synagogue regularly as a child was to hang out with my dad, who played organ there.

–  I’ve never really done anything to learn Hebrew or Yiddish.

–  While I am aware of the importance of the Sabbath in Judaism, I don’t do anything as an adult to honor it.  In fact, the only Jewish holiday we celebrate in our house?  You guessed it — Chanukah.  Feel free to call me a hypocrite.

–  I married a Catholic, partly because he and I were much more in line religiously than I was with any of my previous Jewish boyfriends.

–  Even though we decided long ago we’d raise the kids as Jews, my 14-year-old daughter declared recently that she was not Jewish, but half-Jewish and half-Catholic. While at first I was bothered by this, (and curious about how that actually works), it didn’t take me long to shrug my shoulders and say, “Well, I guess that’s fair,” especially since we did virtually nothing as parents to infuse Judaism into their lives. I mean, for crying out loud, last Passover my 12-year-old son looked in the pantry and asked with a puzzled look on his face, “What’s Mmmmaht-zoooohhhhh?”

–  I don’t feel the need to surround myself with other Jews, though I do enjoy being so surrounded. I live in Catonsville, Maryland.  I think I’m one of seven Jews in this here town.

There is, however, one aspect of my deep connection to Judaism that is not up for debate. It involves humor and stereotype.  Here is an example:

Q:  How did the rabbi cope with an infestation of mice in the synagogue?

A:  He bar mitzvahed them all, and they never came back.


Q:  Why do Jews make good football players?

A:  They are always trying to get the quarter back.

Not funny.  Not funny to me at all.

Why not?  I’ve been trying for many, many years to figure out why I find the “Jews = cheap” stereotype so much more offensive and upsetting than the others. I know it isn’t true.  Some Jews are tightwads, but so are some people of every religion on earth. Most Jewish people I know, though, are generous to a fault, and not just with their families.

So, why am I so sensitive about this in particular?  I can laugh at other jokes and stereotypes about Jews with the best of them.  “The 2000-Year-Old Man” continues to leave me breathless with laughter even 30 years after I first heard it.

I finally realized that the stereotype of Jews being cheap feels almost threatening to me.  It’s right up there with “Christ-killer” in the way it has been used to demonize Jewish people. It’s been used to galvanize contempt among non-Jews and in the worst cases, as a justification for murder.

I’m fairly sure medieval anti-semitism wasn’t fueled by hatred of the Jews for not continuing their religious education past the age of 13.  And, while widely used to portray Jews as hideous, I know big noses weren’t the real impetus behind Hitler’s Final Solution. Perception of Jews as money-grubbing, greedy and financially powerful, though?  Much more frequently exploited to stir the pots of hatred, sometimes to horrific end.

This may not be rational, and by no means do I think my view represents or speaks for others. All feelings about religion are intensely personal and personalized, as are mine. But it does help me understand why, no matter how loving a relationship I have with you, a joke or comment like this will make me feel uneasy at best, and at worst, at least a small part of me will feel unsafe.  In that way, I am Jewish to my core.

Yad Vashem - Israel's official Memorial to Holocaust victims.

Yad Vashem – Israel’s official Memorial to Holocaust victims

Aliza Worthington grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and now lives in Baltimore. She began writing in 2009 at the age of 40. Sometimes her writing follows The Seinfeld Model of “no learning, no hugging.” Other times it involves lots of both. She blogs about Life, Liberty and Happiness at “The Worthington Post.” Her work also appears in Catonsville PatchKveller, and has been featured in the Community Spotlight section of Daily Kos under the username “Horque.” Her writing has also landed in the “Winner’s Circle” on Midlife Collage twice.  Aliza’s piece, Leaving Gender At The Door, earned her a BlogHer 2013 Voices of the Year award.  Follow her on Twitter at @AlizaWrites.

Photos courtesy of Aliza Worthington.

  • I loved this piece. Thank you!

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thank YOU, Jennifer!

  • Brian Bowman

    And how do you feel about Jack Benny. I love listening to his old radio programs. So much of his humor was related to his (mythical) stinginess.

    Does that bother you as well?


    • Aliza Worthington

      Honestly, I have never been a Jack Benny fan, having nothing to do with that. That’s a really interesting question, though. While I don’t necessarily fear or dread a fellow Jew joking about this stereotype, I do cringe and wish they wouldn’t do it. When a powerful NON-Jew speaks such things to millions of people, it does give me a knot in the pit of my stomach, and I actually do feel a twinge of fear. Rational or not.

      Thank you so much, Brian, for that thoughtful reply. 🙂

  • Anne Born

    You reminded me of the scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen keeps saying “Jew eat?”

    It pays to keep that sense of humor.

    Thanks for posting this!

    • Aliza Worthington

      And, here’s where I get my Jew card revoked. I’ve never seen Annie Hall. 😮

      • You’re kidding! Rent it next rainy day. It’s one of my all time favorites.

      • Anne Born

        Annie Hall is required – Diane Keaton is splendid, the photography/cinematography is some of Allen’s best. I love New York! La-di-da, la-di-da.

  • Marti Teitelbaum

    In my case, the “ish” part is well integrated into the Jew part. I was brought up with a rather intense Judaism, my 3 daughters were all Bat Mitzvahed (as I was), and I can read Hebrew and understand a little. But I’m with you on the reactions to jokes or comments.
    I don’t watch or listen or even think about The View. The only thing I’ve heard about it recently was about Jenny McCarthy being part of it and I only heard about it because of her foolish and false claims about vaccines. (My background is public health and I view vaccines as not only life-saving but also one of the most natural things you can do to prevent illness). So imagine my shock in seeing her name linked to another ugly/stupid (can’t decide which is most prominent) point of view. I also have no idea what good ol’ Miley Cyrus was referring too, but they obviously are both idiots. I’m not oversensitive or constantly accusing people of antisemitism (in fact, because of my criticisms of Israel, I’ve been accused of being antisemitic), but those comments are antisemitic. Jenny McCarthy shouldn’t be given the fame & fortune associated with The View in any case, but that’s even more clear now.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thank you for that comment, Marti – it’s validating and re-assuring. 🙂

  • Wow. You nailed it once again my friend. Love you.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Love you, too. 🙂 xo

  • Jewish to the core – that’s me in a nutshell, too. Fabulous piece.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Thanks, girlie. 🙂

  • Pamela

    Hi Aliza – I enjoyed the piece and have to say that where I sit, when a 70 year old Jewish man tells me how to run my career, I say “thanks Dad”. And I am grateful that my 12 year old former Hannah Montana fan thinks that today’s Miley is pretty ichsa.

    • Aliza Worthington

      Ha! “Thanks, Dad.” I love it. 🙂

  • Such a great piece Aliza and I can relate on just about every level. I actually write “jokes” for my rabbi to tell at the high holiday services (he leads off each sermon with a funny story), so believe me, I’m right there with you in making fun of our religion. However, I am also deeply offended and really angered by the cheap jew jokes. They are mean-spirited and come from a place of ignorance and prejudice. Thanks for speaking out on this. More of us need to say, “No, it’s not funny!”

    • Aliza Worthington

      “They are mean-spirited and come from a place of ignorance and prejudice.”

      YES! That is why I hate them! Thank you, Tracy – and it sounds like yours is a synagogue I’d enjoy attending. You know. If it wasn’t 150 miles away.

  • I really enjoyed this post, refreshing, honest, to the point and well written. Thank you!

  • Perfectly done!!! XO

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