So I got “Shalom”ed in public again. Like clockwork, it happens every month or so. This time, it was in the coffee aisle at the supermarket. Actually, it’s often at the supermarket, as if Jewish Grocery Store Bingo is a thing among Christians, which for some I’m sure it probably is. I hope the woman who said hello to me in Hebrew won something for her effort. A toaster with an Israeli plug, perhaps.
I never really know how to respond to people who say that. Would you know how to answer if a total stranger came up to you and started a conversation in a foreign language they assumed you’d understand? Because they think they know your religion? Excuse me, do I know you? Get away from you weirdo? Help! Call 911?
Actually, more than a response, I wish I knew what the motivation was in the first place for these folks–and there’s a lot of them–who aren’t Jewish but feel driven to acknowledge every person they think is Jewish by launching into a language neither of them likely speak.
I guess it’s my own fault for wearing my kippah again.
Here’s the thing. No American Jews say that to each other. Definitely no liberal Jews, who make up the majority of Jewish Americans. And the Orthodox Jews who might greet each other that way–and hear me on this America–aren’t shopping in your Kroger. Actually, even they probably wouldn’t greet each other with a random “Shalom,” but with a friendly “Shavua Tov!” or a hearty “Shalom Alechiem!” followed back by an “Aleichem Shalom!” (Please don’t share these additional Hebrew greetings with the Jewish Grocery Store Bingo players. They’ll just mispronounce them or use them incorrectly and we’ll all have to act like they didn’t just totally screw them up.)
What’s really more than likely is that even our Orthodox fellow Jews will use the super-secret Jewish greeting none of these random non-Jewish greeters ever know–but boy would they like to. It’s not a complex or hard-to-remember greeting, though. It’s not very long. It’s not even in Hebrew. In case any bingo players are reading along, I’ll share it here so they can practice before they run into their next supermarket Jew: “Hi!”
Please write it down so you won’t forget.
Besides the assumption that American Jews living in the United States would speak Hebrew beyond what we use in synagogue or otherwise for religious purposes, going up to a Jew to “Shalom” them is just weird, weird, weird. It’s like being fanboyed by the political-correctness police. Like Maude Findlay in the 1970s going up to an African-American to tell them she watches Mod Squad. Weird like that.
And kind of embarrassing too. Because the people who go around “Shalom”ing random Jews say a lot more than just “Peace” with that one Hebrew word that I’m certain they’d never actually be able to spell in Hebrew. Essentially, they’re saying, “Hey! Look at me! I’m not antisemitic! See? I love Jews! I know how to greet them! In their own language! I just did! Isn’t that awesome! Yay, Jews!”
As if some awful Old Testament OCD forces them to became temporary BFFs with every random Jew they encounter. No thanks. Please believe when I say that we really don’t need to share an International Coffee to mark the occasion.
My friends and I had a disagreement about this on Facebook. Some of them think it’s just fine to assume what someone else’s religion is, get in their face, and startle them in a foreign language. Interestingly enough, most of them weren’t Jews, Hispanics, people of color, or other minorities–all folks who know how bizarre and supremely uncomfortable it feels to be singled out by strangers for a personal Up-With-People party.
The reality is that “Shalom”ing random Jewish strangers just turns them into temporary Jews-In-The-Zoo, putting us on the spot for no reason other than that the person attempting to greet us is trying to make themselves feel better. In that one skin-crawly moment we’re meant to represent AllWorldJewryEverywhere® so they can tell us how much they like us and how much we “Judeo-Christians” religiously have in common.
I wish I could interest them in sharing their thoughts on a blog instead. Or maybe on their Facebook pages with people they actually, you know, know?
We don’t have in common what they think we do. If they’re Evangelical and out playing bingo, sometimes they want to talk about the “Old Testament,” as if it’s the same holy book in both faiths. It’s not. Christians consider the Greek Bible (their “New Testament”) to supersede the “Old Testament.” Jews recognize only the Hebrew Bible superseded by nothing else, so for us, there is nothing “Old” about Torah. We certainly don’t consider it to be a stepping stone on the road to someone else’s religion.
This is why it’s weird, folks.
If you’re one of the “Shalom”-inspired people I’m writing about and want to say hi to ask us about Judaism, that’s totally cool. We may not have an answer for you, but at least we’ll be speaking the same language. One of the best street conversations I ever had was with a lovely Christian woman I ran into at a bus stop who wanted to know the actual religious details why Jews don’t accept Jesus Christ as a messiah. (My detailed answer to her is after the link above.) For the record, she did NOT “Shalom” me, either.
But if you have other motivations for celebrating the Jew standing behind you in line at Walmart, please, hold back. Count to ten–in English or your desired language of choice that isn’t Hebrew. (Because, again, we’d just have to pretend that you didn’t just totally screw up the names of the numbers, if we even know them all, ourselves.) Do some deep-breathing. Go to your happy place. Snap a rubber band on your wrist. Whatever it takes. When you get home, it would be totally acceptable to have a tree planted in Israel to make yourself feel better.
But please, after that, go on with your life. I know you like us, you really like us. I’m sure we like you, too. Just not up in our falafel grill.
Like Bette Midler sang, that message is a lot easier to get across from a distance.
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.