My Jewish Upbringing

“You’re just another face that I know from the TV show.  I have known you for so very long.  I feel you like a friend.”

– “Turn It On Again” by Genesis

When I was in 6th grade (1992-1993) my friend Chad Mathers was telling me about this funny TV show he had began watching called Seinfeld. He explained that the main character was Jewish. Then he said to me, “You’re Jewish, right? Your mom looks Jewish, so that means you are too.” I replied, “Yeah, I guess I’m Jewish.”

Most of my classmates knew my mom because she was a substitute teacher. And they knew by her physical traits she wasn’t just “American”. She was something ethnic. No one really knew exactly what nationality she was, though. Neither did I. Because I just never thought to question it as a kid.

In fact, I had every reason to believe I was Jewish. My mom was always using words like, “kosher”, “schnozzle”, “finagle”, and “hoopla”. (Though only those first two words are actually Jewish words.) And she always perfectly and naturally handled the family budget- she now works at a bank.

Her parents: My grandfather was 5’ 6”, dark-skinned, curly haired, and had the “schnozzle”. He never used the word “church”- instead he called it “tabernacle”.  The only kind of bread he ever had at his house was Jewish Rye.  He saved most of his money and when he rarely bought a new car, he paid for it in cash. My grandmother is 4” 8”, even darker-skinned, with long black hair. Neither of their accents helped- respectively Kenosha and Buffalo. Seemed Jewish to me.

Most Jews living in America have German last names, often including “sch”, “stein”, “berg”, and “man”. My last name, Shell, is German and was originally spelled “Schel”.

And my family has always been close. Every holiday and birthday was spent together. Meatballs were often a part of the meals. Only they weren’t Matzah balls.

My earliest memory of learning my true heritage was in 9th grade. Evidently it took that long for me to be self-aware enough to question my heritage.  It’s not that I actually thought I was Jewish before, it’s that I didn’t question it.  I just assumed.  But despite all the Jewish clues, I learned I wasn’t all that Jewish. My grandfather (Albert Metallo) was Southern-Italian and my grandmother (Lola Mendez) Central-Mexican. And on my dad’s side, German and English.

But after doing some in-depth some research, I learned there’s a good chance that too of my great-grandmothers were Jewish (Wiseman and Vite), not to mention a Green and an Ullman a little bit further back.

My mom and I in 2004

While I’m fully proud of my actual heritage, I feel more Jewish than I actually am. Thinking back on the last decade, the celebrities that people have said that I look like are all Jews: David Schwimmer, David Arquette, Paul Rudd, Zack Braff, and Ben Savage (from “Boy Meets World”). And I have played Jesus in more church skits and plays than any of my friends, because I always “looked the most Jewish.” I was the obvious choice.

And like the Genesis song “Turn It On Again” talks about, the characters I knew from the movies and TV shows (and even musicians) I watched growing up became like family to me, in a very cloudy, subconscious sort of way.  In particular, as I kid I thought I was Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) from The Wonder Years.  And in talking to my sister in preparation for this post, I learned that she always thought that too.  We never knew that we both thought that until now.

The Three Stooges. Seinfeld. Friends. Pauly Shore. Bob Saget. Ben Stein. Howie Mandel. Dustin Diamond. Adam Sandler. Andy Samberg. Bob Dylan. Billy Joel. Just a few Jewish people who have surely influenced the culture of my life in some minutely tangible way.

Several years ago I stumbled across an obscure brand of wine that evidently has become my favorite.  The name caused me to think it was German.  But once I read the label carefully, I realized it is wine mainly used for Jewish services.  It’s Manischewitz brand, one of the nation’s leading brand of kosher products.

And this year I officially stopped eating pork and shellfish. Therefore the word “kosher” means something important to me. It means “hot dog I can eat”.

Some Jews actually have no Israeli blood, but they convert to the religion of Judaism. I sort of feel like that somehow. However, the only Jews that believe Jesus is the true son of God are the Messianic Jews.  Clearly put,  I feel like a Gentile (a person is not from the lineage of the nation of Israel) who has converted to Messianic Judaism. Yes, I’m a technical Messianic Jew.

The Technicalities of Buffalo, New York and Louisville, Kentucky (and Middle Born Children)

If it were possible for a human being to have a sister city, mine would be Buffalo, New York, recently featured on The Office as the location of Jim and Pam’s wedding. To remove that city from the story of my life would totally change my existence. That’s my mom’s hometown. Her family moved to Alabama in 1973 when she was 15.

That’s the thing with Italians living in the South. They haven’t been here very long. Ask an Italian living in the South and as the story unfolds it is revealed that they moved only a generation ago from somewhere in the Northeast, or Chicago, or Ohio at worst. (Southerners are English, German, Irish, Scottish, African-American, and most recently, Mexican. Any nationality outside of those is exotic.)

As I researched Wikipedia to learn how the Midwest got its name (because I was annoyed that the Midwest is not really the Midwest but instead makes up the mid-central-northern area of our country), I learned that there a few cities that though they are literally not in the Midwest, they have the culture of a Midwestern city because of their proximity to that region. These cities are Louisville, KY; Eerie and Pittsburgh, PA; and fittingly for this writing, Buffalo, NY.

I wasn’t surprised by Louisville; I’ve been there enough to know that Southern accents are not common in that city. And Eerie and Pittsburgh are close enough to Ohio for me not to question. But Buffalo caught me off guard. What makes it Midwestern as opposed to Northern?

Buffalo is sandwiched in between two of the Great Lakes- Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. Closeness to the Great Lakes is a Midwestern trait, whereas being near the Atlantic Ocean is a Northeastern trait. And because the city is removed from the too-close-for-comfort culture of New England and the Mid-Atlantic, it has a friendly reputation, more comparable to those Nebraska corn growers.

So it is confirmed, Buffalo is a technically a Midwestern city.

Last week while writing Manspeak, Volume 12, I refreshed my memory of the fascinating world of Birth Order and how it affects our personalities. Even if a person doesn’t know much about it, he or she can easily pick up on it and relate. So after explaining the basics of how it works, I always like to ask the person what they think my birth order is. Over 80 percent of the time, people guess that I’m a middle child.

Which is a great guess. The middle child often is artistic, laid-back, and had the worst trouble deciding on their college major (which I definitely did). But I’m not a middle child. I’m the first born child. I should be more uptight, more controlling, more motivated, and more aggressive. But I’m not. I live the life of a middle child.

So why, like Buffalo acting like a Midwestern city, do I act like a middle child?

I was raised by middle born parents, who also were raised by middle born parents. And my behavior is only encouraged, being that I married a middle born (who ironically was raised by two first-borns). When I am in a situation where I need to take charge, I can and I do. But what I prefer is to just go with the flow. Not surprisingly, it’s a middle born trait to analyze their identity and purpose.

Technically, Buffalo is a Midwestern city and I am a middle born child. And somehow that makes me wonder, if a sister city could have other siblings, would Buffalo would be a middle child too?


Quad Cities Proximity Initiative: Pretending You Know Where a City Is

Most Americans don’t know the capitol of Vermont or which states border Colorado, without cheating and looking at a map. Because like taking French or Spanish in high school, if what is learned is not applied on a semi-regular basis, then that knowledge disappears. Especially when it was just rogue memorization for a test we took a long time ago.

Since we don’t really know much about American geography, we use a system that gets us by. It gives the illusion that we are experts, when really we are just BS-ing our way through the conversation. I call it the “Quad Cities Proximity Initiative”. Most states consist of a minimum of four cities that we’ve at least heard of that pretty much cover the 4 corners of the state, even if we’ve never been to that state before; here are a few examples:

Ohio (Columbus, Dayton, Cincinnati, Cleveland).
New York (New York City, Buffalo, Syracuse, Albany).
Florida (Jacksonville, Orlando, Tallahassee, Miami).
Georgia (Atlanta, Macon, Augusta, Savannah).

Here is an example of how this system works. The other day at work a guy from Indiana was trying to tell me where his hometown is. He said, “It’s about 50 miles south of Indianapolis…” Immediately I started shaking my head with an enthusiastic “oh yeah, yeah” which unabridged, it literally conveyed this message, “I am very familiar with the city you are talking about. I’ve been through there several times. Of course I know that place…” All because I have obviously heard of the state’s capitol, Indianapolis.

There are exceptions to the Quad Cities Proximity Initiative. Texas is huge and has more than 4 familiar cities; it has about 7. And there are those bite-size states like Delaware, where it doesn’t matter what city the person says, because the state only has 3 counties anyway.

When a person names a city I’ve heard of (even if I have no clue where in the state that city is) I give them confidence in me that I am following their lead in the conversation. It’s that simple. No need to stall a conversation because I can’t visualize where the city is. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Unless I’m driving there.