1. YOGA TEACHER
We met in 2011 when I happened into her small yoga studio in the mountains. I liked her immediately. Great teachers are hard to come by. And sometimes even pretty good ones have their egos way out in front of them, which renders them essentially useless at best. But she was a great, great teacher: slow, calm, grounded, humble, soft, and exquisitely knowledgeable. After class she asked if I’d like to chat for a minute. It was a hard time; I was spiritually sunk. We sat together, she looked into my eyes, I cried and told her all the things I was carrying. She didn’t flinch.
I spent years studying with her, even invested in her studio. We travelled to Central America. She saw me through grief and trauma. I quite literally held her in my arms while she gave birth to her son.
After she became a mother she sort of let teaching go; handed over the reins of the studio to this other teacher, Rick. He was very intense, masculine, and competitive. He had a way of making you feel like you had to push yourself farther than you really wanted to go. I was always borderline injured after a class with Rick. This made me angry with myself, angry with him, angry with yoga, angry with the patriarchy. I always swore I wouldn’t let it happen again, but I let it happen again and again and again. Something about how he approached you on your mat, the way he would get a little too close, adjust a little too much, stare a little too hard, kind of dare you. I grew up with an abusive older brother; it was all so familiar, and I wasn’t going to let him win, you know? Invariably I held his gaze, did as he said, hated myself later. He wasn’t a bad guy; he was just a bad teacher. More often than not, we’d all meet up at the café for breakfast after practice.
Post-class one morning I went to my first teacher’s house to hang. I could already feel some shit screaming in my neck and shoulders and hamstrings and what have you. We smoked a bowl and lay around giggling with the baby. I bitched about Rick’s aggressive teaching, and about my own complicity and helplessness. We had discussed this many times before.
“Yeah,” she said, “I don’t know why he has to be so, like… aggressive… and intense… and… like… Jewy.”
I closed my eyes, took a breath, let it out, opened my eyes.
Really? Really?? Really!?
She wore an embarrassed little smile.
“Oh shit,” she said. “Did I just make a mistake?”
I looked at her sadly. My friend. My teacher. Mi Hermana.
“What the fuck,” I said.
“Look,” she said. “I just…before I moved here I was just never around these kinds of… intense… New York… people.”
I chose sadness over anger. I became the teacher. I just sat there looking at her. I told her in an exceedingly calm tone that she might want to examine the roots of that kind of thinking, find out what exactly she was carrying, where she got it, and ask herself if she really wanted to continue carrying it, if she really wanted to pass it on. Her sweet baby son pulled himself up to stand, and grinned.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Are we okay?”
“We’re okay,” I told her.
It wasn’t true.
Her father is Jewish; her mother is not Jewish. She wasn’t raised Jewish but she now keeps a menorah alongside to her Christmas tree. She finished college fifteen years ago, built a family, and is now on her way to becoming a nurse. She is at community college getting prerequisites done. She has to take all these science courses. They’re challenging. She gets along really well with her lab partner. She sends a group text to a bunch of us, her friends: You guys, I am in love with my lab partner! The other day he goes ‘oh, you’re Jewish? No wonder you’re so smart!’
I write back pls tell your lab partner that ethnic stereotypes are never cool even when they happen to be complimentary.
(I neglect to add: …even though many of us are guilty of promoting these very stereotypes ourselves so that we can feel superior and somehow powerful in the face of so much historical and everpresent bigotry and oppression and the fact of being so pitifully outnumbered in the world at large! This is so boring and obvious! There are smart Jews and dumb Jews and rich Jews and poor Jews and tall Jews and short Jews and pretty Jews and ugly Jews and fat Jews and thin Jews! Please get a fucking clue!)
She sends an embarrassed emoji, and we do not speak of it again.
3. LYLE LOVETT
He and Shawn Colvin are in concert at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. Class acts, both of them. Lyle especially: what an amazing performer and songwriter. We’re big fans. Seen him three times in the past five years.
The show is a sort of storytelling night, the two of them in chairs onstage with their guitars, trading songs and stories. Very cool, very chill, very much an audience full of elderly white people.
Lyle gets to talking about his Lutheran upbringing: “Martin Luther, now there was complicated feller! He wasn’t the greatest guy, but a lot of good came from his work. Like Hitler and the Autobahn.”
The audience half laughs half groans. Lyle turns scarlet, but that famous grin of his is wide as can be. The show goes on. Later, he asks Shawn about her tattoos. She tells him some stories about her tattoos and asks him if he has any.
He goes: “No… no tattoos… I always wanted to be buried in a Jewish cemetery… A Jewish cemetery right in a cozy corner near the Autobahn.”
4. MONTESSORI TEACHER
A progressive, excellent, deeply self-satisfied private school in the boonies. Are we the only Jewish family here? As in: raised Jewish, educated Jewish, married Jewish, keep kosher, remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy, plus a bunch of other esoteric shit I don’t want to get into just now? Yes, I believe we are the only Jewish family here.
A teacher with a thick Southern accent once told me her maternal grandmother was Jewish “but didn’t want anyone to know it, so she would never admit to it.”
“So that means you’re technically Jewish,” I told her. She laughed a polite Southern laugh and said, “Oh no, honey! I don’t think so!”
“See you on the trains,” I muttered whenever I saw her.
It’s a lovely school; I don’t want to be sour about it. Officially it’s very inclusive and whatnot. Overwhelmingly white and suburban, though hard not to notice how the promotional materials and billboards (yes: billboards) often heavily feature the like 11 black/brown/Asian kids. One (white) mom runs a book club featuring exclusively African-American literature.
They’re always nice about welcoming me to come in and talk about Jewish holidays. Who doesn’t love ethnic snacks? I bring apples and honey for Rosh Hashanah, doughnuts and dreidels for Hanukkah, matzah and plague puppets for Pesach.
One spring morning I go observe the fourth grade classes to see which classroom we might prefer next year. (They let parents rank preferences. Rule number one: keep the customers happy.) A teacher is doing a lesson on the rug in the corner with six or seven kids. He’s written World Religions on a white board. Hinduism, he writes. Islam. Buddhism. Christianity. Animism.
“What else,” he asks.
“Judaism,” one girl offers.
The teacher writes Other.
“There are a lot of other religions,” he says. Then he writes percentages next to each group and instructs the kids to use the info to draw a graph, because the lesson is ostensibly about learning to draw graphs.
5. NEIGHBOR #2
Ran into her crossing the street and we stopped to chat. She’s just back from a trip halfway around the world. I’m just done hosting a ton of people for Passover seder.
She says: “You’re really into all the Jewish stuff, aren’t you.”
I say: “Well… we’re Jewish.”
She says: “But you’re more like one of those cultural Jews, like it’s not your whole identity or anything.
I don’t say anything.
She goes on: “I mean, you don’t like wear a wig or anything.”
I don’t say anything.
She goes on: “There were some of those people on my flight, and those people are so interesting aren’t they?” She says this with a face like she just got dog shit smeared on her shoes. “I mean like you’re not like one of those people.”
“Actually,” I say, “I am a lot like those people.”
Elisa Albert is the author of the story collection How This Night is Different and the novels The Book of Dahlia and After Birth.