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Choosing the Jews
A teacher of Jewish studies comes out to his students as a Catholic ó and explains his deep interest in Jewish culture
BY MICHAEL BRONSKI

DURING THE PAST 30 years, Iíve rarely had to come out. My writing is often on queer topics. Iíve been associated publicly with gay organizations. Iíve been on television and radio shows as a spokesperson for gay rights and a commentator on AIDS issues. Even when I was younger, I rarely had to come out as a homosexual ó which is what we were called back in the 1950s ó because other people did it for me. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist when I was 11 because they thought I was gay. The other boys who attended my Catholic school certainly seemed to think ó and couldnít resist telling me ó that I was queer.

But I recently had to come out to one of my classes, and to my surprise, the prospect filled me with dread. Itís not that I thought it would be a big deal. These were sophisticated college students at an elite Northeastern university. They all prided themselves ó especially in this class ó on their urbanity and cultural savvy. Many of them were from Los Angeles or New York. Several of them grew up abroad. All had lived in educated, cosmopolitan settings and knew a wide range of people from a variety of backgrounds. So why was I so nervous?

Because I wasnít going to come out as gay. Rather, I was going to come out as Catholic to the 32 students taking my course on "The Making of American Dreams: Jews and Hollywood," which was offered by the Jewish Studies Department. Most of the students in the class were Jewish, and five classes into the semester, it had become clear to me that they believed I was, too. It was beginning to make me uncomfortable in ways I didnít quite understand. I just knew I needed to come out to them.

I had planned to casually drop the fact that I wasnít Jewish in the early part of the class. I thought I might say something like: "As we look at the career of Eddie Cantor moving from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s, we can see that social pressures both within and outside the film industry created pressure for him to appear less ethnically Jewish in his characters and language. Oh, by the way, did I mention that Iím not Jewish?" Of course, each time I inched toward such a disclosure ó which would have been forced, to say the least ó I was overcome with anxiety. But in the last minutes of one class, I finally took the plunge. A student asked what "shnorrer" ó the Yiddish word for moocher, or professional beggar ó meant. "Good question," I answered. "Letís remember in class that not everyone grew up with Yiddish in their household, or in households where anybody had ever heard Yiddish. In fact, there may be some people in class who arenít Jewish." I realized I had my opening. As if on autopilot, I continued like a nervous guest at a cocktail party who unthinkingly reveals the most personal secrets: "In fact, Iíve taught lots of classes and seminars in Jewish studies, and many people sometimes think that I am Jewish" ó even as the words came out of my mouth, I asked myself if I really wanted to do this in a some-of-my-best-students-think-Iím-Jewish sort of way, but I couldnít stop ó "but Iím not." As if that werenít bad enough, I prattled on: "In fact, the last time I taught my seminar ĎHow Jewish and Gay Culture Radicalized the 1950s,í lots of people thought that I was Jewish, but some of them didnít believe that I was gay. I mean, donít I look gay?"

At that point, I knew it was time to stop. If I had kept it up, I would have gone into my jokes about how my first relationship didnít work out because my loverís mother couldnít decide if she hated me more because I was queer or because I wasnít Jewish. Which is far more information than any student needed to know about me by the third week of class, if ever. Besides, I didnít know the answer to that question myself.

IN HINDSIGHT, itís clear to me why I was so nervous about coming out as a goy. After a few classes, the class was coalescing. Students knew each otherís names. They already felt comfortable enough to offer controversial opinions on topics such as the recent upsurge of French anti-Semitism, the effect of Vanessa Redgraveís anti-Zionist politics on her film roles, and whether Kate Hudson is actually Jewish. It was also clear that about 80 percent of them identified as Jewish, and that the class was bonding along those lines with shared anecdotes about their mothers (and whether they resembled the archetypal Jewish mother Molly Goldberg, portrayed by the great actress Gertrude Berg, who performed on radio and television as the matriarch on The Goldbergs from 1929 to 1956), family dinners (which almost always resembled a scene from Woody Allenís Radio Days, Annie Hall, or Crimes and Misdemeanors), and the male studentsí experiences with sports (which were on a continuum from John Garfield in Body and Soul to Adam Sandler in The Waterboy). What was also becoming clear was that every student thought I was Jewish as well; for while no one ever overtly asked, I was always included as "one of them."

There was no reason I had to be Jewish to teach the class. I certainly have the experience and qualifications to lecture on Jewish studies. Iíve taught numerous seminars and written more articles than I can count on Jewish popular culture. But there was no getting around the point that much of my authority in the class came not from the fact that I was an "expert" in the topic (and, by the way, knew much more Yiddish than anyone else in the class), but rather from the studentsí belief that I, too, was Jewish. Of course, I could have avoided the issue entirely by simply forging ahead with the class, hoping that my Catholic upbringing never became known. After all, it was a nonissue in academic terms. But I knew that as the class become more comfortable and those very strict boundaries between the personal and the pedagogic began to shift, as they always do, uncomfortable questions might arise: "Were you raised Conservative or Reformed?" "Did you keep kosher growing up?" "Do you want to attend Shabbat services at Hillel this week?" Answers such as "Yes. Very Reformed"; "Sort of kosher, we never ate bacon on our tuna-fish sandwiches on Friday"; and "Iíd love to, but Iím busy" would, in fact, be lies. And if I took such a tack and the truth did arise in class ó which it very well might, given that Iíve written extensively about growing up Catholic and Google has made all of oneís past writing just a click away ó I would be exposed as something far worse than a Catholic in Yiddisher clothing. I would be revealed as a trafficker in bad faith, someone who kept up a pretense to sustain a relationship. Such a revelation, I was afraid, would destroy whatever authority I had developed with the class.

The relationship between teacher and student is a tricky one. For both sides, itís based on trust, respect, admiration, and an ever-present sense of watchfulness. The better the class ó that is, the more teacher and student begin responding to one another and growing in this new relationship ó the more the situation can become intense in the best possible sense of the word. A teacher who cannot maintain the studentsí trust will end up teaching very little, if anything. And it seemed to me that a teacher who betrayed students by pretending to be something he was not would land in big trouble. The classroom experience would become tense, not intense. And in my case, the students would have no reason to believe anything I try to teach in "The Making of American Dreams" ó such as that Jewish émigré film directors from Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s essentially invented the concept of black comedy; that the image of the "Jewish mother" helped form gender roles (and stereotypes) for the rest of American culture; and that Adam Sandler is a comic genius on par with Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, and Mel Brooks. Well, they might still believe that Adam Sandler is a comic genius, but they wouldnít develop an appreciation for Danny Kaye or Mel Brooks.

Which is how I found myself standing behind my lectern babbling on about how I am Catholic, not Jewish, and slowly realizing that every face in the class ó Jewish and non-Jewish alike ó was looking at me in wide-eyed disbelief. I donít think anyone gasped with surprise, but they might as well have. Not that I would have noticed ó I was too busy trying to stop myself from talking further about Kenny Krauss (the boyfriend with the disapproving mother). After what seemed like an hour of silence that was probably only about 20 seconds, I put an end to my prattling and that hour of class: "Well, I guess that pretty much stopped the class. Now, next week I want you to have read the essays on ethnicity, whiteness, and immigration, and we will discuss how Eddie Cantorís use of blackface in Whoopee! and Roman Scandals both reinforces and interrogates the concept of race. See you all on Thursday, and donít forget we are screening Be Yourself with Fanny Brice later this evening." I purposely fussed with my papers and videos. My only regret, aside from the sheer clumsiness of my coming-out, was that I wasnít privy to the conversations in the hall minutes after class.

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Issue Date: November 7 - 14, 2002
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