My friend Viky and I decided to enjoy the cooler weather by walking on the Atlanta BeltLine. We were further entertained by meeting interesting people and trying out the interactive art installations.
I was sitting on one of these creations, furiously pedaling footholds that manipulated the arms of a huge sculpture, when a man in a chef’s uniform approached us. He obviously was amused by my athletic inability, and he and Viky bonded by sharing a running commentary on my efforts.
Finally, out of self-respect, I climbed down.
The man pointed toward buildings in the distance and introduced himself as “Tim, the chef in a restaurant over there.”
An experienced BeltLiner, he recommended his favorite paths. He knew about BeltLine vegetation, too, and he showed us a cluster of gigantic mushrooms.
“Those are the ones ancient people used as antibiotics,” he said.
“Let’s take them to a lab!” I exclaimed. “They might be a breakthrough natural remedy. Maybe somebody already tried it, but it’s worth finding out. Mushrooms would be cheaper than commercial drugs.”
Tim carefully extracted the biggest mushroom with his foot and urged us to take it with us.
“You’re Jewish, right?” he asked out of the blue.
“What?” We were stunned. “We are, and why do you ask?”
We smelled racial profiling: Viky and I are practically perfect physiognomic examples of Ashkenazim (me) and Sephardim (Viky). We waited to discover Tim’s precise prejudice.
“You know, your mushroom idea. Jews are always the smartest people around and clever about money.”
“Whoa!” we stopped him, skipping over the “smartest people around” part. “You think all Jews are rich?” We weren’t going to let him get away with that, even though Tim was delivering a compliment.
Tim laughed, not the least embarrassed or uncomfortable. “I’ve worked in restaurants all over the world, and I know about types of people.”
He tapped his head. “I’m Greek here,” he said. “My brain knows I should eat the way they do.”
Next, he patted his stomach. “I’m Indian here,” he laughed.
Then he put his hands in his pockets. “I’m Jewish here,” he said proudly. “I’m Jewish with money.”
What could we say? Nothing would make anything better, and lots of things could make things worse. Tim was late for work. He told us he’d enjoyed chatting and jogged away.
Viky and I spent the next hour recalling similar situations.
Viky remembered being at a friend’s table. Between bites, her friend’s son, who was genuinely fond of her, mentioned being “Jewed down” over something. Viky didn’t let it go.
This reminded me of an incident years ago when I was in a hardware store with my daughters. It was going out of business, and all prices were greatly reduced. I was a regular customer, and Kathleen, the cashier, knew me.
I found a few tools that didn’t have a sale-price sticker, brought them to the counter and pointed out that they weren’t marked.
Kathleen let out a sigh. “Those are half-off, but you wouldn’t believe how many people come in and try to Jew us down.”
My daughters were standing beside me. I wanted to use this moment carefully.
“When you say, ‘Jew us down,’ what do you mean?” I asked.
“You know, try to get a lower price.”
“Only Jews? Have you ever tried to get the best price on something?” I asked.
Kathleen was no fool. “Are you Jewish?” she asked.
“Yes, and I’m assuming that was an accidental insult, or do you really believe that all Jews are money-hungry and cheapskates?”
“I never thought about it,” Kathleen said. “Did I hurt your feelings? I didn’t know you’re Jewish.” She smiled weakly at my daughters, who undoubtedly were afraid that I’d start an argument but at the same time wanted to see what would happen next.
“Don’t be mad,” Kathleen said. “It’s just something everybody says.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” I said. “And you’re too smart for that.”
I paid the sale price for the tools and thanked Kathleen, and we left the store. You can believe that we had quite a discussion on our way home.