Thursday, August 09, 2007

Ethnic time

One night when I worried I would show up late for a Talmud class, I joked to a friend, "I wouldn't want them to think I'm Jewish."

That quip was just a variation on a common Jewish theme. If a meeting will take place at "8:00, Jewish time," what this means is that it's scheduled for eight but will likely begin at least fifteen minutes later. Only a Yekke (an affectionately derogatory term for a German Jew) would arrive on the dot.

I assumed that this concept was uniquely Jewish. It seemed to fit my image of the absentminded Jewish thinker, best exemplified in a novelty item I once saw in a catalog, the "relative time watch," featuring a picture of Einstein surrounded by the numbers "1ish, 2ish, 3ish...." (Wait, wasn't Einstein a Yekke?!)

But then one day I was talking to a black friend and learned about a similar concept called C.P. time. "What does C.P. stand for?" I asked stupidly. Uh...colored people. I was a little taken aback. I later saw Dave Barry talk about a Cuban sense of time (because his wife and in-laws are Cuban). According to Barry:
If a WASP wedding is scheduled to start at 2 p.m. Saturday, the wedding march will start at 2 p.m. sharp, and the bride will come down the aisle at 2:03 p.m., no matter what, even if the originally scheduled groom has bailed out and the bride has to use an emergency backup groom taken right off the street.

Whereas in a typical Cuban wedding, the phrase "2 p.m." is translated as "possibly this weekend." (True fact: I once went to a wedding at a Cuban home; I arrived 20 minutes before the scheduled start, and was greeted at the door by the bride, who was still in curlers.) I believe that the Cuban community will not be affected by the Millennium Bug until the year 2004 at the earliest.
I was a little surprised by this column, since Barry usually avoids edgy, politically incorrect humor. It turns out that his wife is actually a Cuban Jew. Put together, that means she won't be experiencing the Millennium Bug until 2008.

You'd think that ethnic stereotypes would have no place in modern discourse, but many people seem more than eager to embrace stereotypes of their own group (or their spouse's). And not just positive stereotypes, like "Jews are smart," but seemingly negative ones, like having a loose sense of time. It gives minorities a warm, intimate feeling that sets them apart from their more fastidious WASP neighbors.

Of course, whether a stereotype is positive or negative depends on perspective. Republican presidential candidate Tommy Thompson got himself in a little trouble a few months ago when he characterized great business acumen as one of the "accomplishments of the Jewish religion." Jews didn't take to that remark very well, but he meant it as a compliment.

Thompson was confusing the religious tradition with the sociological reality. The Jewish religion has much to say about philanthropy and ethics, but very little about financial know-how. The stereotype of the financially astute Jew goes back to the Middle Ages, when Jews became moneylenders after the Church barred them from most other occupations.

Because this stereotype has been the source of so many slanderous beliefs, such as the claim that Jews are greedy, most Jews feel uncomfortable at any reference to a connection between Jewishness and money. But they seem not to mind other stereotypes. The expression "For every two Jews, there are three opinions" was almost certainly invented by a Jew. Then there are all the traits associated with Jewish mothers.

People say that stereotypes usually have basis in truth, but that's a dangerous observation, easy to misunderstand. Lacking a strong inside knowledge of a group's history, one can have a hard time telling truth apart from myth. A good synonym for stereotype is "caricature." Maybe that's why people are more comfortable poking fun at their own group than someone else's: the closer you are to the target, the more you understand how to attack it sensitively.

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