Perceiving the Other

I do not own this, but I've said it.

I do not own this, but I’ve said it.

I have a question.  Well, I have several, but today I have a particular one about Jews and nonJews.  Has anyone else, anyone who lives as a minority population, noticed that many folks in the majority perceive the numbers of your minority as much, much higher than it really is?  If this sentence is too vague, let me give a specific example.
Today was my annual physical exam. I have a chatty doctor who asked me what I was working on. When I mentioned essays about Jewish identity and what it is like to be Jewish in Nashville, she started talking about the enormous Jewish population here. She said she had “so many” Jewish patients and she knows they are Jewish because they tell her, and wasn’t it odd that only Jews seem to need to declare their religion in the examination room, that the Christians never tell her they are Christian, and why is that, exactly? Exactly.

I told her I had no idea why all her Jewish patients “confessed” their religion, but that in fact, Nashville still has about .02 percent Jewish population. “Really?” she said, “I’m from New Jersey, so I’m used to a huge Jewish presence, and I sensed one here, too. But this one is more…cohesive, more religious. You know what I mean.” I wish I did know what she meant.

I just keep thinking of a nickname I heard applied to my daughter’s school. One letter in the school’s abbreviation is U, and the nickname changes the U to Jew, meaning that the school is full of Jews. Hmmmmmmm. My daughter and her buddies, Jewish and notJewish, thought it was funny, but I, being fresh from a Masters in Jewish Studies and quick to examine any Jewish-y neologism with caution, wondered. I asked the head of Admissions what the numbers really were. Maybe we did have a large percentage of Jewish kids? She said the school does not keep track of religion, just race, but based on the number of students absent on Yom Kippur every year, the figure seems to hover around 14%. I asked about kids of color, and the numbers are around 25%. So why isn’t the school nickname to do about color? If it was, would that be funny, too? Why Jews?

The perception is that the Jewish population is far higher than it actually is.
When I told my doctor how small Nashville’s Jewish population was, she explained the discrepancy between real numbers and false impressions by saying, “Well, Jews are always more visible, aren’t they? Highly educated, coming from other places…”

Should I be okay with this? As with every stereotype, there is always that grain of truth. Yes, Jews tend to educate themselves and their children, and yes, Jews come from “other” places ever since the Diaspora was invented.  But it feels weird to hear from a successful, wildly busy internist in the heart of Green Hills that Nashville is chock full o’ Jews.  Were this true, I’d have to find a new gig.  Here I am, writing in the buckle of the Bible Belt about swimming against the culture current, and I just got told Jewishness is a mighty big tributary of that stream. How big? Well, first of all, there is never just one stream, and the size of whichever one you are looking at depends on where you are when you look. And, for that matter, who you are when you look.

I’ll be looking into this some more….

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