I’m not an Orthodox Jew who stands on street corners playing “spot the Jew” in an attempt to bring secular Jewish people back into the religious fold. I’m the secular Jew. I don’t go to synagogue, I don’t pray, I don’t believe. I don’t ascribe to the idea that you’re not Jewish unless your mother is. My cousins–my mother’s brother’s daughters–have a mother, my Aunt Sarah Doolittle, who has a Christian background, but they are Jews, or half Jews, despite what certain religious Jews say. They’re also half other. Intermarriage in my family isn’t only tolerated, it’s encouraged. So I don’t tend to tell other people if they are or are not Jewish. (My own test, personally, is “are you Jewish enough for Hitler?” If the answer is yes, you’re Jewish.) But sometimes you have to help a Jewish brother, or half brother, out. On Friday’s very funny episode of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill and one of his guests, Martin Short, reflected on how much they had in common. Reading Short’s new book, I Must Say: My Life as Humble Comedy Legend, Bill had discovered that that both had fathers who didn’t eat dinner with the family (Maher’s father was working and Short’s father was there but at a separate table in the same room!). Both spent time as kids imagining that they had their own TV show (though Short’s show was every other week so he could balance his movie career). And, as Maher explained, “the third thing I think we have in common is that people think we’re Jewish and we’re not. We were both raised Catholic.” I waited for Maher to say something along the lines of, “I mean my mother’s Jewish but I wasn’t raised Jewish.” Because, though he was, indeed raised Catholic, his mother, Julie Berman, was born and raised Jewish. But Maher didn’t mention any of that. Instead, the conversation went on as follows:
Short: I had a lot of Jewish friends. All my friends were Jewish. Maher: Sure we know Jews. We’re not disowning the Jews. Why do you think they think we’re Jewish? Short: Cuz I think we’re thrifty… I don’t know. Why do people think you’re Jewish? Maher: The nose, my nose. I think it’s the nose. I think they think my nose is Jewish. They do. I’m funny and I have a big nose. Short: My nose isn’t like a pug here. Maher: But you don’t have a Jew nose like me.
When discussing the way people assume you belong to a group to which you do not belong, the fact that one of your two parents belonged to said group is kind of relevant. I don’t care whether Maher defines himself as a Jew or not. But I don’t understand why he thinks it’s peculiar that people think he’s a Jew. When people tell Bill Maher, or anyone, “I thought you were Jewish,” they are not saying, “I thought you were Jewish because you have such an air of Talmudic authority” or “You have to be Jewish! You totally give off that ‘I know the Torah like the back of my hand’ vibe.” It has nothing to do with the religion in which the suspected Jew is raised. They mean, “you look, talk and/or act in a way that I perceive as Jewish.”
OK, in interviews and on another Real Time episode, Bill explains that in his Catholic home, he didn’t learn until he was in his teens that his mother was Jewish. But clearly, without his awareness, something rubbed off. One of the benefits of being a Jew is that I can say the following without being labeled an anti-Semite (though I am often labeled a self-loathing Jew): Bill, you look and sound Jewy. The way you move your hands, “Jewsticulate,” especially when they’re up by your face– Jewy. The nose–Jewy. By all means, identify however you want. But why the how-silly laugh that your nose is taken for Jewish? It is Jewish. Your mother’s Jewish background doesn’t define you. But your mother’s Jewish nose. like it or not, is with you for life. Unless, of course, you go through that Jewish rite of passage that is rhinoplasty, AKA a nose job. Though I’m in no way considering that you do that because I love the schnoz. And you should, too. Embrace the schnoz!
Discussion begins at 1:48.